Every successful executive can offer a key to leadership that he or she has learned through experience. Communication, leading by example, a positive attitude — these are among the many best practices that can work wonders.
By incorporating some of these tips from St. Louis area leaders, you can add them to your touchstone of advice and guidance from many sources to help find even keel to guide your vessel.
1. Ask yourself three questions.
Edward Jones set into motion a new corporation following a thorough self-analysis the company performed.
“When we worked on our five-year plan we did so with the guidance and assistance of two gentlemen, one being Jim Collins who wrote, ‘From Good to Great,’” says Jim Weddle, managing partner, Edward Jones. “One of the things that he suggests is that you ask yourself three questions.
“The first one is, ‘What do you do better than anybody else?’ The second is, ‘What are you most passionate about? And third is, ‘What’s your economic driver?’”
Weddle says that Edward Jones’ business model makes the firm better than anybody else in the investment process.
The firm is most passionate about helping its current and potential individual investors live a better life.
And lastly, its economic driver is its financial advisers.
“It’s not easy to get your arms around the answers to those questions,” Weddle says. “We had a lot of answers before we got it right.”
The second adviser that Edward Jones used in its planning process is Michael Porter, a world-renowned expert on strategy, who preaches that strategy is all about a sustainable difference.
“It’s about doing things differently or doing different things than your competition and making trade-offs,” Weddle says. “It’s about making decisions as to what you’re going to offer and what you’re not. Who you’re going to serve and who you’re not. How you run your business comes down to the choices that you make.”
Those two pieces of advice, the three questions and the tradeoffs, are the core of Edward Jones’ long-term plan.
2. Have a plan for delegating
Robin Sheldon, founder and president, Soft Surroundings, needed to find the missing piece of the puzzle so her company could grow. She has to accept the fact that it would be OK to delegate.
“It’s a process,” Sheldon says. “You have to put some good planning behind it. But in order to do that, you have to have the right people. You have to have a very clear understanding of what motivates each individual person. They are not the same. You can’t treat them the same.
“You have to learn each person and figure out how you’re going to make them happy in what they are doing, productive and wanting to do more.”
One of the biggest mistakes you can make in business is assuming that with a few brief words in your office, an individual can take a task and run with it.
“You can ruin a perfectly good career if you take somebody who is a super performer for you and you elevate them into a management position and don’t give them any management training,” Sheldon says. “Before you know it, you have a perfectly good person who has such good skills, but now is floundering in the job because you didn’t give him or her any management training.”
Develop a plan for the person you want to give responsibility to and then share your plan with that person. Take the time to see how the person feels about it and go over areas that you’ll need to work on with the person.
3. Empower your people
As Rudi Roeslein, founder and CEO, Roeslin & Associates, looked at his role in leading his company, he began to understand a problem he had getting people more involved in guiding the business.
So as things began to pick up, Roeslein appointed six people who had been department managers and made them directors.
“I assigned specific customers and accounts on a regional and global basis, regardless of whether they were technical or nontechnical,” Roeslein says. “I divided it among them.”
The key to making this work was that Roeslein didn’t just call them into his office, tell them about the change and then expect them to figure out how to do it on their own.
“I said, ‘I will mentor you for a period of a couple of years,’” Roeslein says. “‘I will go with you to these customers, but ultimately, I’m turning these customers over to you. I’m turning these projects over to you. Then you guys figure out how to complement each other. Figure out who is best at construction, engineering and business development. One of you is going to become the president of the company.’”
It was a bold move, but Roeslein quickly knew it was exactly what his business needed.
“We quickly became a $100 million company, which under my leadership and style, probably never would have happened,” Roeslein says. “We would have been stuck at $20 million to $25 million because that’s what I could manage and that’s what I could keep my thumb on and have enough daytime hours to manage.”
4. Manage new growth
Despite all the areas of the business Alaina Macia, president and CEO, MTM Inc., has been focused on over the years, her biggest challenge has remained managing the growth of the company.
“We are a high-growth company, but we never want to grow and sacrifice the quality to our existing customers,” Macia says. “So we make sure we isolate those clients so it’s business-as-usual for them while we’re growing, implementing and staffing for new programs.
“Like a duck, we want to appear very smooth to all our clients even if we’re working very feverishly under the water.”
Growth in your core service offerings is one thing, but growing new offerings takes a lot more focus and attention.
“It’s really about prioritizing what you believe you can be successful in and what is going to generate return on investment so you can continue to invest in your services,” she says.
When growing both your core service and a new offering you have to make sure you’re not taking your eye off of either ball.
“You have to have enough energy around the new products that you’re actually going to be successful in making it happen, but not take away so much attention from your core product that you’re diminishing the value to your clients,” Macia says.
GL Group Inc. Booksource
5. Assess your team
Leadership is a very fluid process. If you’re not at least thinking about how you interact with your team, you’re not using that team to the best of your ability. That’s what the situation was at GL Group Inc. Booksource when brothers Neil and Gary Jaffee started to move the company into digital offerings.
“You have to make changes with people who don’t listen enough or don’t lead from engagement among the staff,” says Neil Jaffee, president, GL Group Inc. Booksource. “You can either listen too much and not get the feedback and have a problem or you cannot listen enough and have great people giving you feedback, and you’re not moving things forward.”
In Gary’s case, it was the former and that needed to change. Once he made the decision that he had to replace some of his people, he had to determine what qualities and attributes the replacements would need to have.
“It’s the qualities that you are searching for that are most important,” Gary says. “Determine what those criteria are. That’s more important than having the person available that you’ve picked out.
“You’ve got to listen, you have to have this person meet other people and you have to get other people’s feedback and opinions to see if it’s really the right fit,” Neil says. “Get a lot of feedback from a lot of different people. Make sure you look at the criteria and go off the job description. Do all the things you would normally do when hiring.”
6. Communication primer
Jane Saale’s thoughts on becoming a better leader and striving for better lines of communication in Cope Plastics of which she was president, first focused on herself.
She was the leader, after all. If she did a poor job of sharing information, the company had no hope of becoming a more cohesive and more informed group.
“You have to have clear and concise directions and you have to make sure your folks know where you’re headed,” Saale says. “You have to be a good listener. You have to understand and know your audience. You have to set expectations, and they have to be clear.”
She says growth in her confidence as a communicator has been achieved through plenty of practice.
“It’s come from experience,” Saale says. “We have trade associations and I’m on several boards in the area. I’ve also gone through some leadership roles and done some speaking. The folks in my community and on the boards that I serve on, they have helped me grow as a communicator and as a leader.”
If you feel like you’re not as effective as you could be talking to your people and delivering information, find ways to practice. Learn what works and doesn’t work, and it will help you improve.
7. Unexpected leadership change
Rakesh Sachdev did not see this day coming. Sure, he and Jai Nagarkatti had talked about leadership transition and succession planning at Sigma-Aldrich Corp., but that was years down the road.
Sachdev insists the thought of being CEO of the 7,890-employee life science and technology company had not crossed his mind for even a moment.
“Obviously, this came as a surprise to all of us,” Sachdev says.
The “this” Sachdev is referring to is the unexpected death in November 2010 of Nagarkatti. He had been with Sigma-Aldrich since 1976 and had served as CEO since 2006 and chairman since 2009.
Sachdev may have had a few moments of anxiety about his sudden rise to the top at Sigma-Aldrich, but he didn’t let anyone know that.
“Just being prepared is the mark of a great leader,” Sachdev says. “I look at my own career, and I say this to a lot of the young people here, ‘You have to step out of your comfort zone if you want to do big things and great things.’ I’ve always done that. I’ve changed industries. I’ve lived in different geographies. To me, that’s very fascinating to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation and try to wrap your arms around it as quickly as possible. I think that’s helped me personally.”
By putting himself in situations where he didn’t initially know exactly what to do in every situation, Sachdev says he learned to adapt.
How to reach: Edward Jones, (314) 515-2000 or www.edwardjones.com; Soft Surroundings, (800) 240-7076 or www.softsurroundings.com; Roeslein & Associates Inc., (314) 729-0055 or www.roeslein.com; MTM Inc., (636) 561-5686 or www.mtm-inc.net; Booksource, (314) 647-0600 or www.booksource.com; Cope Plastics Inc., (800) 851-5510 or www.copeplastics.com; Sigma-Aldrich Corp., (314) 771-5765 or www.sigmaaldrich.com