Timeless Leadership Lessons from a Successful Consultant and Entrepreneur

Apr 16, 2020

This blog post was originally published on LinkedIn and was adapted from the final paper for my leadership course in the Executive MBA program at The Wharton School.


Dr. Michael Sullivan is an exemplary leader who has served as a mentor throughout my 12-year career. In 2008, I started working for Freeman, Sullivan & Co., his boutique energy consulting firm with a staff of about 20 people in Downtown San Francisco. After three decades of consulting success, Dr. Sullivan sold the company in 2014 to Nexant, where we continue to work together. Throughout his career as a successful consultant and entrepreneur, Dr. Sullivan has applied several timeless leadership lessons to implement his vision and mobilize people to deliver excellent results for his company (and for hundreds of consulting clients throughout the world). This blog post summarizes those leadership lessons based on my experience and a recent interview with Dr. Sullivan.

Execute a Vision, but Respond to Market Needs

As a Vietnam War combat soldier turned Ph.D. sociologist, Dr. Sullivan was always clear and direct in communicating his vision to employees. However, he achieved sustained success by being incredibly flexible with his vision at critical moments in response to market needs (highly relevant for business leaders during the current Covid-19 crisis). “I had to get us out of the energy industry in the late 90s because the market was collapsing as a result of deregulation,” Dr. Sullivan reflected. Although he had tirelessly built the energy consulting practice for over a decade, he quickly realized that he “had to let go” of his life’s achievement.

This decision was inspired by The Museum of Flight in Seattle, where he came across a showroom of non-aviation products, including furniture and cabinets, which Boeing started to produce after World War I when the demand for aircraft dropped precipitously. “When I faced the crisis in the utility industry, I remembered the furniture in the museum and the explanation of how Boeing came to be in the furniture business. That was the ‘aha’ moment. I could take the tools we had built for the utility business and use them in the litigation market.” He subsequently excelled in the litigation consulting business and then pivoted back to energy consulting, his “first love,” once that market rebounded in the mid-2000s.

In class at Wharton, we discussed this flexibility (or lack thereof) in response to market needs as it relates to leadership. Most notably, I observed that Aon Hewitt ranked IBM and GE as the Top 2 Companies for Leaders in 2015, but those companies have performed poorly since that point. Many classmates observed that these failures were due to a slow response to rapidly evolving market needs. As Herminia Ibarra describes in Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, “The only way to think like a leader is to first act: to plunge yourself into new projects and activities, interact with very different kinds of people, and experiment with unfamiliar ways of getting things done.” Dr. Sullivan’s decades of success as a consultant and entrepreneur are living proof of this leadership principle.

Hire Smart People and Give them Leeway

As Dr. Sullivan has mentioned countless times, including in our recent interview, his primary guiding principle as a consultant and entrepreneur is, “Always hire people who are smarter and better trained that you are and give them the leeway to do what they can do best.” For Dr. Sullivan, this insight came from the classic 1984 leadership book Managing by Harold Geneen, but many of the more recent leadership papers we read in class echo this sentiment.

For example, as discussed in What Makes a Leader? by Daniel Goleman, “Effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of emotional intelligence.” Dr. Sullivan clearly demonstrated a high degree of emotional intelligence by having the self-confidence and realistic self-assessment to hire people who were smarter than him and subsequently give those talented employees significant leeway. Ineffective leaders with low emotional intelligence are typically not willing to even recognize that someone else is smarter than they are, let alone hire that person into their firm and then provide freedom to solve problems in innovative ways.

Be a Great Teacher

Dr. Sullivan’s leadership style was also inspired by the “Management by Walking Around” concept that HP popularized in the 70s. According to Dr. Sullivan, this concept is, “Essentially staying in touch with employees, watching what they are doing and the behaviors they are engaging in. Give people advice and work with them on what they are doing.” This last point is extremely important, given that many employees may not welcome management walking around if the goal is to simply monitor performance. Great leaders must teach their employees and help them solve problems, passing on important industry knowledge and professional (as well as personal) wisdom.

As Sydney Finkelstein emphasizes in The Best Leaders are Great Teachers, “The exceptional leaders I studied routinely spent time in the trenches with employees, passing on technical skills, general tactics, business principles, and life lessons.” This “Management by Walking Around” concept by checking in frequently provides opportunities for employees to raises issues, which allows leaders to dig in and help solve those problems. Importantly, business leaders can still apply this best practice in an increasingly virtual environment, though it may take a more concerted effort to engage employees on a consistent basis without the “water cooler” opportunities.

Timeless Leadership Lessons

Dr. Sullivan achieved substantial success as a consultant and entrepreneur using a leadership style that motived employees with a compelling vision, emotional intelligence and willingness to pass on key lessons from his vast experience. While his energy consulting business was fairly small and nimble, these timeless leadership lessons apply to large enterprises today. More than ever, businesses large and small require leaders that attract and retain talented, motivated and knowledgeable employees to address rapidly evolving market needs.