Jack Ouellette shares leadership lessons from the military and American Textile

 

There’s an enormous difference between intelligence and wisdom, says Jack Ouellette, chairman of American Textile Co.

“When you’re first learning leadership skills, you can intellectualize, but over time — and unfortunately that’s what wisdom requires — you take the rough edges off of the ideas,” he says.

Ouellette, who retired from his CEO duties at American Textile in 2013 after 39 years at the company, hopes his leadership style is like a vintage wine that got better over time — becoming more mellow and self-confident.

During his time at American Textile, he increased sales from $8 million to $200 million; oversaw expansion from a 100,000-square-foot facility to four U.S. facilities and one El Salvadoran facility with a combined total of 850,000 square feet; and enhanced brand and product development.

But when Ouellette looks back to his days as an officer at West Point and in the Army, he sees a few leadership lessons that were true then, and even more so now that he’s seen them applied again and again in business. He served for nine years, achieving the rank of captain, and flew reconnaissance aircraft in Vietnam.

Ouellette shared five of these lessons during his keynote speech at the Nov. 10 Smart 50 Pittsburgh event, which recognized some of the city’s smartest CEOs and their companies.

Take care of your people and they’ll take care of you

When Ouellette was a battery commander, he participated in a live training exercise in Germany. He was supposed to lead the six howitzers in his command to a position so they could start firing.

He found a spot, had the guns set up and performed some complicated math to ensure he knew their exact location.

Then, the first sergeant, who had 30 years experience in artillery, came up to Ouellette and said, “Sir, all the guns are facing north. They are supposed to be facing south.”

Ouellette asked for help, and the first sergeant promised to take care of it.

He went to the guns, and called all six gun leaders and said, “Gentlemen, the battery commander was not happy with the way we performed this. What I want you to do is to follow me and the battery commander will get a new target. And let’s come back here like the professionals I know you are.”

Don’t think you’re the smartest guy in the room, says Ouellette. You need to create an environment of credibility and trust so your employees can let you know when something is wrong.

“Take care of your people and they will take care of you,” he says. “The best leadership examples that we’ve ever observed come from the people reporting to you, rather than the other way around.”

Jack Ouellette was only one of the executives at our Smart 50 Pittsburgh event who offered their perspective on leadership. In this short video, CEOs from some of the top companies in Pittsburgh share their thoughts on the role of a leader and how they can create a positive, productive culture.

 

You need to recognize your team for their successes and allow them to breathe in times of failure, Ouellette says.

Over controlling rarely gets the best results

When Ouellette was in flight school on his first time up in an airplane, he had trouble keeping the plane at 4,000 feet as he was ordered. He kept going above and below — porpoising — his target.

His instructor told him: It takes a light touch, several iterative corrections and patience for the corrections to take.

Ouellette has also found that to be very true with people, which is the currency of leadership.

“The best leaders are those who are outwardly focused. And by that, I mean they are not thinking about themselves all the time. They are thinking about two things: the mission and the people on the team,” he says.

People in leadership positions who make it about them all of the time are just not as effective.

“Good leaders always get the best possible result,” Ouellette says “but it’s great leaders who get the best possible result and leave nobody behind.”

You need courage to trust others in your organization, while realizing that some of them are better equipped to handle a certain situation than you, Ouellette says.

There’s a fine line between controlling and over controlling. And there can be adverse effects on your staff when you cross it.

He also recommends learning how to control yourself before you try to control others.

When good enough is good enough

When Ouellette was in U.S. Army Ranger School, he and his buddy finished the final grueling exercise.

They hopped on a truck to go back to base and were finally able to get a little bit warm. But they decided to take it one step further.

They lit a sterno can and fell asleep with it under their ponchos — burning a hole right through.

“Have you found yourself in a situation where you are searching for perfection, instead of good enough?” Ouellette says. “Patton once said, ‘A good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow.’”

In order to know when good enough is good enough and have the right perspective and mindset, he says you need to make sure you know your mission and where you fit into it.

Ask yourself: Are you demanding perfection to make the company better or just to make yourself look good? Is the return on perfection worth the additional cost to your team and the company, especially when perfection is not necessary?

Remain calm in the worst storm

Ranger school also taught Ouellette to be at his best when situations are at their worst, which he says takes practice. And that’s also true in business.

As the leader of the organization, everyone is watching you — you don’t want to disappoint them or let others control your attitude, he says.

When everything goes to pieces, try not to transfer your fears to others. Don’t make yourself the center of attention.

“When this happens, what I suggest is keeping your head when everyone around you is losing theirs,” Ouellette says. “You should marshal the power of your team when hope sometimes seems forlorn.”

Take responsibility for your actions

When Ouellette was a cadet at West Point, he learned there are four answers to any question: “yes, sir,” “no sir,” “no excuse, sir” and “sir, I do not understand.”

Ouellette believes that “no excuse” is something that needs to be applied in business.

When somebody makes a mistake, the reasons why aren’t always important. Think about when an associate makes a mistake in your organization, he says. Do you really want to go through a bunch of questions and answers about it?

Instead, own up to what you’ve done, because bad news doesn’t get better if you wait.

“Others respect you when you stand up in the storm,” Ouellette says. “Being honest builds trust with those whom you work and your self-confidence.”

He also believes that you need to be clear in letting people know where you’re going.

“Have a vision of where you want to move the company,” he says. “And if a particular tenet of that is innovative products, then it must be known.”

Then set up a process by which to review and measure your progress toward that goal.

The current CEO of American Textile is a master at this, Ouellette says, and it really gets results. It’s not mysterious, but it takes practice.

 

Ouellette’s thoughts on …

What he’s most proud of from his 39 years at American Textile➜ I’m proud of, certainly, the growth our company has had, and the idea behind that is — and I say this sincerely — it’s never one person. It’s always a team getting things done.

Retirement➜ I’m still chairman of the company, but I no longer have any operating responsibilities.

I’m on three outside boards. I have been volunteering at Duquesne University’s (John F. Donahue) Graduate School of Business. I’ve been doing a little bit of work with the Allegheny Conference (on Community Development). And I’m trying to become more expert at goofing off.

What it’s like to help other business leaders➜ It is very interesting. A majority of the issues are very similar to what I’ve experienced at American Textile, but it’s different when you’re not the one responsible for making a decision. It gives you a little bit more freedom to think.

It is not as much pressure, although the intensity of thought remains. The burden of responsibility is lifted, and that is a big burden.

The social responsibility of business➜ When we were a much smaller company, it was more difficult to get involved in the community. But as our company has grown, we’ve had those resources, and then the question is: How do you apply resources?

It’s a matter of the frame of mind that you have with your business. And if you feel that your business is part of the community, and that the community has helped you make your business better, it implies that you might want to take on some responsibility for that.

The reason I’m interested in the Allegheny Conference is they want to make Pittsburgh a better place to live and work. I think it’s an admirable goal, and one that I would love to see our company associated with.

The behavioral patterns he’s observed when mentoring today➜ There are a couple of challenges that they face. They want constant feedback on how they’re doing, and sometimes are not as process-oriented when solving problems as I feel they should be. They’ll gather facts and put all of the facts out without having the courage to say: “The answer is” or “My recommendation is.”

I’ve advised some of these companies to get more precise and more organized when they go to attack a problem.

Often a problem has several tentacles to it, and you can’t just talk about the disparate parts that form the whole problem. You need a real clear thinker.

Sometimes you can get thrown off from where you really want to go because you’re putting out fires. There’s a principle that I’ve found to be very good. You can identify your issues as:

  • Important and urgent.
  • Important, not urgent.
  • Unimportant but urgent.
  • Unimportant, not urgent.

When those unimportant urgent things pull us off track, you need people to be able to clarify where you said you wanted to go and what steps you’re taking to get there.

When incidents come up, ask yourself: Is this important and urgent, or unimportant and urgent? When you have a road map, often it makes it a little easier to make that distinction.