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How Scott Moorehead used his own training experience to become a better leader at Moorehead Communications Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2010

Scott Moorehead saw his future and it was freaking him out. He was only 17, but his parents were already talking about the day that he would take the reins at Moorehead Communications Inc.

“I was all kinds of scared,” Moorehead says. “I showed up to work the first day and I had no idea what to expect. It was pretty nerve-wracking to be honest.”

His parents started the cellular retail business back in the early 1990s and opened their first store in Marion, where the company’s corporate offices are today. They were sure their boy was up to the challenge of one day leading the business. They were a lot more confident than Scott, as it turned out.

“Being that young and not really understanding much about business and management and watching the company grow from afar knowing that I was going to be the heir to the throne was more pressure than I was willing to deal with at the time,” Moorehead says. “From afar, you just think, ‘I’m it. I’m the guy. Everybody is screwed if I stink at this.’ At least, that’s what you think.” Fortunately for Moorehead, his parents saw something in him that they knew would one day serve him well as president and CEO of the 830-employee company, which does business as The Cellular Connection. And so they set out to develop that potential, one day at a time.

“The big part of that was I was never given too much, too soon,” Moorehead says. “You’re unaware of it at the time, but as you look back, you kind of see what the plan was. It was always enough for me to handle. Enough to keep me challenged, but enough to handle. As I kept getting more and more responsibility and learning new aspects of the business and seeing it from different angles, I continued to succeed.”

The experience gave Moorehead a wealth of insight into what it takes to develop leaders and how to do it with the right mix of support and constructive criticism. He took over as president and CEO in November 2008, and in 2009, he led the company to $191.2 million in revenue, the company’s best year ever.

His training taught him that developing an individual to lead is about determining what drives that person to overcome challenges and fear and then presenting a path to achieve success.

Look for passion

You’ve got to find out what the person you’re training is made of. That doesn’t mean turning into a drill sergeant and torturing him or her until he or she can’t take it anymore. Rather, it’s providing opportunities to see what kind of energy the person has for getting things done in the demanding world of leadership.

“You have to make sure that they have passion for what they are doing, no matter how good you think they are,” Moorehead says. “If they don’t care and don’t believe in it, they are not going to be a leader in your company. It’s not worth your time and it’s not worth theirs.”

It’s a different ballgame when you’re actually in charge of something and you need to know whether this person you’re considering has what it takes to be a leader.

“If you feel like they’ve got the passion and they don’t have the confidence yet, you have to find out what drives them,” Moorehead says. “If you find out what drives them, then you can play to that. If you find out what drives them, it’s easy to find out how to motivate them.”

Moorehead remembers his own soul-searching exercise quite clearly.

“I started work with two guys,” Moorehead says. “They gave me a shovel, drew some lines and they told me to start digging a trench. And they left. We were supposed to be a crew and they left me with a shovel and I dug that trench. I worked for six straight hours, no breaks, no water, no lunch. I didn’t know what to do. I just worked because that’s what I had always done. They got back and I was finished with that trench.”

Maybe you don’t have a trench for your leader-in-training to dig. You may not even have a specific situation in mind to serve as a good test. But you have to give the person challenging situations to deal with and see how they react in order to test their mettle for being a leader.

Those types of challenges also provide an opportunity for people to show what they’ve got to their peers and earn the respect that they need to lead.

“Earning their respect versus demanding it,” Moorehead says. “That was the key. I never demanded their respect. I always chose to earn it. … Just working with these people day in and day out and continuing to prove every day that I was their leader.”

That’s the type of attitude you need in a leader and you need to give them opportunities to show it.

“It was absolutely every single day showing up and learning something new and talking to somebody different and taking on a new challenge,” Moorehead says.

The key is to be gradual about presenting challenges to your up-and-comers.

“As I kept getting more and more responsibility and learning new aspects of the business and seeing it from different angles, I continued to succeed,” Moorehead says. “They never let me move on to a different angle or aspect or position until I had a lot of success where I was at. It was never too much too soon. If they would have taken me from digging holes to being the CFO, it would have been a much different story.”

By taking a more gradual approach, with a few tougher character tests mixed in, you help the person gain confidence.

“You can feel yourself every passing day and every passing meeting, every time you pass somebody in the hallway and have a discussion, gaining confidence and learning more about what needs to be done,” Moorehead says, referring to the mindset of a trainee. “Then it’s getting out and reaffirming in the field the things that you have done.”

Work together

You need to find a way to work with the person you’re training and see what type of support and tutelage he or she is looking for from you to help his or her growth. So how you do know what works?

“One good way is to ask,” Moorehead says. “It’s not always management by manipulation. Sometimes management by communication works much better. You can’t ever go wrong with honesty. If I come to you as an employee and say, ‘Do you want me to check in with you every week? Or would you prefer that we meet up in the afternoons for a little while?’ I feel like they will probably tell you. Then I think it’s easy to gauge whether what you’re doing is working. Sometimes I try to gauge it on my own, but I find I get the best answers when I ask.”

Moorehead had the advantage of having a closer relationship with his boss than most since he was working for his father. But in a typical boss/employee relationship, sometimes all it takes is starting a conversation about what’s working and what’s not working.

“There’s success and failure every day, and when the failures start to become a lot more than the successes, it’s time to take a break and figure out what’s going on,” Moorehead says. “Just stay consistent with the amount of feedback. If you’re going to give somebody feedback every time you talk, make sure you give them feedback every time you talk. If you’re going to do a quarterly review, don’t start it and then stop it. Consistency is the key.”

Moorehead says one of the keys in his own development was the tone of the feedback from his father didn’t change when he made a mistake. He was given the opportunity to talk about it and work to find his own solution.

“It means giving you the chance to come up with your own plan, to talk through the fix and to accept fair criticism and then execute the next plan on your own,” Moorehead says.

“What it didn’t mean was, ‘Scott, that was a terrible idea. I’m really disappointed that you thought of it and it didn’t work out. Here’s how you’re going to go fix it. Do this.’ I would have felt dejected right out of the gate because it was my idea and I failed. Then all of a sudden you become scared to try. You’re a yes-man. ‘Yes sir, whatever you say, sir.’ I wanted a little bit of a say in what I thought went wrong and he allowed me to do that. That’s the key.”

If you’re not consistent with feedback and demonstrating a reliable attitude of, ‘Let’s work through this together,’ you create doubt.

“That’s when the doubt starts to form,” Moorehead says. “What am I doing wrong? Why has my boss changed the way they are managing me? What have I done? They would assume it’s something they did or that a decision has been made that they don’t know about. If you push too much, your employee or the person you’re grooming starts to worry that maybe they’re not making the right decisions. Whatever route you’re choosing for the person, stay consistent.”

Provide status reports

Moorehead was told that he was being groomed for the position of CEO, but that didn’t mean the job was just going to be given to him. He would have to earn it and prove he was ready for it.

That was a message his father made clear to other leaders in the company.

“Upper management was always given the right to ask a question at any time and get an answer,” Moorehead says. “If they wanted to know, ‘What’s the plan with Scott?’ Dad would tell them what the plan with Scott was. His plan was, ‘I think Scott is going to have the skill set to do this some day.’ He was clear with the fact some day it could be right. He was also clear with the fact that it was mine to screw up.

“He wasn’t going to empower the wrong person. That made people fairly comfortable. People see the transitions in families a lot and so many times you see it fail. They didn’t want the father to hand the son the keys when the son didn’t know what he was doing. He made it aware to all the top-level management that there was going to be no transition unless the time was right and the person was right.”

The fact that you’ve identified someone as having a future in your company as a leader puts a bit of pressure on you to see that it works out, even if the person you’re grooming isn’t your son.

So you need to be cautious in how you present your feedback to others on how the person you’ve selected is performing.

“Too much affirmation that this is the right person can look like you’re stretching it a little bit,” Moorehead says. “Too little may be perceived as the CEO doesn’t know if it’s the right person.”

In this type of communication, it again comes down to consistency. A little bit of structure can be helpful to you, your trainee and the people who can help you get your trainee ready.

“However you choose to do it, the amount of repetition that you’re going to use to give feedback or how you’re going to gauge how somebody is doing, stay consistent,” Moorehead says. “That’s part of what any CEO is. You have to understand where you want to go and then you have to have the people you want to take you there understand it clearly.”

But in the end, you can only do so much to help a person become a leader. It’s a lesson that doesn’t go away once you attain a leadership position.

“If you’re in a construction company, sometimes you have to pick up the hammer,” Moorehead says. “If you’re in a manufacturing company, sometimes you work the line. You have to work with your people and you have to let them have a voice. You have to show them that you have a passion for it. I don’t think anybody wants to follow a leader who doesn’t have a passion for what they are doing. At least I don’t.”

HOW TO REACH: Moorehead Communications Inc., (765) 651-2001 or www.ecellularconnection.com