Scott Sumser remains himself to lead Athens Foods Inc. to success

Scott Sumser, President, Athens Foods Inc.

Scott Sumser had a moment of doubt as he prepared for his first day at work as president of Athens Foods Inc.

“There’s a sense of pride that you worked hard to get to this point,” Sumser says. “But there was also an enormous amount of anxiety. ‘Hey, can I do this? Have I bitten off more than I can chew?’”

Fortunately for Sumser, his nerves settled and his experience began to kick in.

“You have a bag of experience that you carry around with you,” Sumser says. “It really doesn’t matter what you do. You get to reach into that bag and use your learning from everything.”

Sumser decided the best course of action in leading the 200-employee fillo dough producer was to be what he was, a curious new employee.

Be a sponge

People take the transition too seriously. It’s important to show people that you have aptitude and that you’re in the role for a reason. But I think you really need to be a bit of a sponge. Use your two ears and one mouth proportionally in a new situation. Listen twice as much as you talk. Ask a lot of questions and admit when you don’t know something. You build credibility much faster than feeling like you’ve got to know everything right out of the chute. Further down your life cycle, it’s important to use leadership as a driving force. But initially, it’s better to create those relationships so that people feel like you’re willing to learn and listen rather than just come in and do.

Get to know names

It matters a lot. Everyone is going to know your name and the more you can do to learn theirs, the better impression you’re going to make. One tool I use is we have a plant of 150 to 200 people depending on the season. So I have HR take a picture of everybody who is working here. What I try to do is if I know I’m going to be in the plant, I’ll take a look at their picture. It will tell me what department they are in. It gives me one more tool to make sure I’m sending the right message that everybody, no matter what you do, matters to the success or failure of the company.

Take the stage

It’s probably good to have an all-employee meeting right out of the chute. Otherwise, depending on who you were able to tackle getting to know everybody, there’s going to be somebody who feels like they really didn’t understand who you are. It doesn’t have to be enormously formal and you can still use your one-on-one time and continual learning. But depending on the size of your organization, it’s just important for people to be able to hear you speak and find out what your background is. That kind of squelches a bit of the rumor mill. They hear it from you as far as what you are trying to do.

Proceed deliberately

Be open minded to the current way the team gets things done. Too many leaders come in and try to put their stamp on too many things. It’s best to try to learn. You may think you have a better way to do something, but it may just be your opinion instead of the best way to do it. Do keep good notes for your first 30, 60 and 90 days of all your observations. That really allows you to go back after you feel like you’ve created a good relationship with folks and remember what you saw. You think you’ll remember it at the time, but keeping good notes of what your observations were – good, bad or indifferent – really helps you refresh your memory.

Company Facts:

Athens Foods Inc.

City: Cleveland

Founded: 1958. Athens is the world’s largest producer of fillo dough and fillo products.

Sumser on first impressions: Don’t judge your team too quickly. First impressions are a great data point. But once the smoke clears and people begin to act how they normally act, you get to better understand what people bring to the table. It may align with your initial feeling or it may not.

How to reach: Athens Foods Inc., (216) 676-8500 or