Mike Dunn Featured

8:00pm EDT August 28, 2006

 “When did anybody tell you life is fair?” Those were the words left ringing in Mike Dunn’s ears in 1991 when he was fired from a previous company he had built. Six years later, though, he got a rare second chance. The company was struggling more than it was when he was booted, so he bought it back from those who had fired him. He turned it around and one year later, sold it for three times what he had paid. Today, he is CEO of PolyVision, and leads the $175 million, 1,150-employee company that make products for creative visual communication displays. <I>Smart Business<P> spoke with Dunn about how the lessons he’s learned have shaped the way he leads and manages.

Practice higher choice.
You have to be absolutely truthful. You have to live to your principles, and if you get fired, where you have to walk away from the situation, that is the best example of what you’re made of.

If you’re willing to compromise your standards to protect a job, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I refer to it as higher choice. Higher choice is never easy, but if it truly is the right thing to do, then you owe it to yourself to live to it.

Communicate your vision.
If you’re lucky enough to be a one-man band, you can go off and think about the business and create a vision that everybody else will work at implementing, but those people are rare.

Vision becomes culture. It becomes a strategy. It becomes a statement as to what you want to be. That has to come out of the leadership team, not just the CEO.

When you want the vision effectively communicated throughout the company, you have to have people that believe it, that understand it, that they themselves buy into. The more you make them a part of creating it, the greater the representation that they can offer.

Lose the ego.
Be as devoid of ego as humanly possible. I don’t think people like following people that have big egos, so trying to eliminate or minimize your own sense of being from an egotistical perspective is absolutely key.

As you do that, you begin to learn the value of the people around you — the fact that you wouldn’t be where you are if it wasn’t for those people. As you begin to learn and appreciate that, your ability to celebrate the successes of the company becomes that much easier and natural.

Make selfless decisions.
It is difficult and, in some respects, it’s what separates the gene pool of people who ultimately end up as CEOs and those who don’t. It doesn’t make people who don’t achieve the position of CEO worth any less, it’s just a different skill set, and as a CEO, it’s a desirable skill set.

I haven’t met a CEO who hasn’t learned to deal with failure. This goes hand-in-hand with having your ego in check. It goes hand-in-hand with learning the value of the people around you. As you begin to do this, and as you deal with failure, it allows you develop an enhanced appreciation.

Go beyond the typical reference checks.
Most people provide two to three references. I’ll ask for 20. Give me the name of somebody that doesn’t like you. Give me the name of someone you may have had a serious disagreement with.

Whoever this individual is and whatever job they’re being interviewed for, they’re not going to be perfect in the job. I’m not a perfect CEO. Once you can get the whole idea of eliminating the faade out of the way, we can deal with each other at a level that will be meaningful and productive.

Show employees you’re part of the team.
You can’t ask the organization to take risks unless you’re willing to take risks yourself.

It’s important that the organization see the CEO as someone not hiding behind a brick wall, not hiding behind an organization, not hiding behind processes, the corporate rule book, that he, in fact, is willing to put himself at risk in a situation in an attempt to further the organization.

That comes down to the CEO being in a position to admit that he or she is wrong. ‘We decided to try something, and I was wrong. I apologize to the organization because we have all paid the price.’

CEOs who are willing to admit they are wrong to their organizations are the greatest sign of strength and will inspire to get behind you more quickly than you standing in front of the organization and trying to inspire them with how wonderful you are.

Have a clear reason for change.
So many times, when companies have to change, managers go off-site. They come back, and there’s 25 things that are going to happen, and they just release all these things on the organization, expecting the organization to jump, act and deliver. That’s not the way it happens.

When there’s fundamental change required, it’s not just changes in processes. Many times you’re going to expect changes in behaviors as well, and people don’t change behavior very easily or without a real solid motivation and understanding.

Give them a real good reason why change is necessary. That comes down to making sure there is good reason for change in the first place.

Involve others in planning for change.
The first requirement is for the management to have an objective assessment as to the type of change that’s needed. Quantify its impact on the organization.

Try to accurately and objectively assess the stuff necessary within the organization to make it happen. Then begin to involve the organization, not just in what needs to change but why. If you do that, people get on board, and they help deliver.

The big issues around change generally deal with resistance to change or the outcome of the change not reflecting what management thought it would be. More times than not, the reason for that was poor planning on the front end.

The change may have been necessary, but the solution not well-thought-out. The people most affected were not involved early enough to help assess the reason for the change and the steps to be taken.

As a result, we sit around after the fact and wonder why things didn’t work the way we had planned. Well, poor planning and poor execution got us there.

How to reach: PolyVision Corp., www.polyvision.com