the ceo magazine, leadership
Chip R. Bell

A crowded Montgomery, AL city bus stopped at its usual spot and a middle-aged African-American woman boarded the bus.  As the bus pulled away, she realized every seat was taken and was prepared to take the trip on her feet.  But, something changed that stance.  Three different white men in three different locations on the bus simultaneously got up to give their seat to the woman. 

It was December 2013; exactly fifty-eight years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man boarding the city bus near the exact same bus stop.  It was a commentary on the unifying impact this “mother of civil rights” made through her non-violent act of courage.

Rosa Parks was a bridge builder.  The daughter of a teacher, she was quiet, soft spoken and sensitive.  Diplomatic by nature, she selected a simple and ordinary act as the underpinning for an important and complex cultural transformation.  When she was arrested for violating a racist law, she triggered a 381-day boycott by blacks of the city bus system.  African-Americans made up two-thirds of the riders on the bus. The Supreme Court overturned the law and a powerful bridge began to be constructed between the races.

Why must CEOs be bridge builders?  Bridge builders are needed to repair the “dark side” of organization.   Organization is the handmaiden of efficiency.  Think of a world-class pit crew.  However, as organizations grow in complexity and when accountability and rewards accrue to individuals (and individual units), a crack can occur in the foundation of collective order.  Employees start to view other units within the enterprise in negative ways—obstructionist, competitors, and selfish.  The seeds are sown for the most insidious weeds of organizational strangulation—silos.  At some point the sickness of silos overtakes the strength of their efficiency. It takes a bridge builder leader to resurrect the connectedness that is crucial to shared effectiveness.

Rosa Parks’ actions can be instructive in educating leaders how to effectively construct connections between units.  In the countless eulogies following her death, we learned that she never wavered in her commitment to being a bridge building leader.  Her courage was not the reflection of a single moment on a bus, but the soul of a person of true moral fiber.   She was focused, sensitive and humble until her death.   Bridge builders follow three key principles.

Focus on a Higher Purpose

The principle driver that fueled Rosa Parks non-violent act was her allegiance to simple purpose—fairness. Key to building bridges between units is to remind people of their collective purpose. When Ed Zander took over as CEO for Motorola their internal units were “warring tribes” fighting each other harder than they were fighting the competition. Zander refocused the company to work together toward creating “wow” products.  He also added a new company value—“I am here to win.”  The result of his bridge building leadership was a far more integrated company; the payoff included a revenue increase of 25% and net income up over 50%. 

Focus on Partnership

Great leaders know that if they take care of the relationship, results will follow.   “Successful partnerships are not built on deals and contracts,” said Marriott CEO Bill Marriott, Jr.  “They work because of the heart and soul of the relationship.”  The soft side of partnering includes keeping agreements, telling the truth, showing respect, and demonstrating a commitment to the relationship.  It includes crafting protocols that insure understanding and minimize dissension.  The hard side of great partnering requires valuing the whole as much as the sum of the parts.  It means joint accountability must be embraced not just accommodated. It entails seeking metrics that effectively gauge collective toil.

Create Settings for Interdependence

When Ron DeFeo assumed the CEO role of Terex, a large manufacturer of heavy construction equipment, the company was an amalgamation of several companies.  Realizing the route to synergy included breaking down the emotional walls that separated them, he used a company-wide meeting as a tool for bridge building.  The four hundred leaders sat as their old company in one of three sections of the ballroom.  He asked all three sections to shout their former company name at the same time.  It was obviously pure noise.  Then, he asked them to together shout the new company name—Terex.  The symbolism of clarity served as a tone-setter for joint goal setting, joint strategy discussions, and joint updates on products.

Changing silos into alliances does not occur suddenly.  The civil rights movement lasted decades.   And, it was not a smooth transformation from a compilation of well-coordinated initiatives.  It was a collection of quick wins from many isolated efforts.  Great bridge building leaders are patient.   But, like the leaders of the civil rights movement, they seize small opportunities to move toward a clear and present goal that never escapes their sights.  They know that bridge building can involve two steps forward and one step back.  Yet, like Rosa Parks, it begins with the courage and commitment to take the first step.


About the Author

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker, consultant and author of several best-selling books.  His newest book is The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service.  He can be reached at


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