Socially responsible leader Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007

Karen Cebreros sees herself as much more than a coffee developer and importer. After a trip to Peru in 1989, the founder and president of Elan Organic Coffees Inc. was inspired to help farmers save their land and improve the health of their families by teaching them how to implement healthy organic agricultural techniques. “My priorities were changing at the time,” Cebreros says. “I was 36 and had recently been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. I had a keen desire to make a lasting and meaningful difference during my lifetime.”

She’s doing that through her company, a coffee developer and importer of certified organically shade-grown coffees developed through partnerships with village co-ops in Central America, South America, Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea The company posted 2006 revenue of about $10 million.

Smart Business spoke with Cebreros about the importance of never giving up.

Q: How do you lead and manage change?

It all comes down to the people you employ. I hire for attitude and train for skills, which makes the job of leading change much easier. While change is always a challenge, with the right caliber of employee, it does not have to be an uphill battle. You can have a mediocre product, and if you have fantastic people, it will sell. Likewise, even the most excellent product will produce lukewarm results if you have an unmotivated staff.

Q: What key skills must a leader possess?

A willingness to be surrounded by people smarter than you. This includes not only employees but also business partners. Business owners tend to be headstrong and a bit stubborn. You need people on your team who will force you to listen and are not intimidated by your position.

This should go without saying, but you need to display the highest level of integrity and deal with people sharing the same value system.

The ability to get back up when you are knocked down is essential. As Winston Churchill said, ‘Never, never, never give up.’

Strong leaders must be nimble and willing to change direction when needed. They do not get attached to an outcome. When the circumstances change, you need to react accordingly.

Q: How do you make decisions?

Decisions are made by the group. We don’t hire clock-watchers — our employees are the best and brightest. This allows me the luxury of stepping in only when there is an impasse.

I set the course for the business, but the business is certainly not all about me and what I think.

Making mistakes develops judgment, so I do not beat myself up over ‘failures.’ You can make many mistakes — the key is in learning and not repeating them.

Consistency is often more important than being right. Do what you say, even if it is wrong. People must be able to rely on your word and not play guessing games.

Micromanagement does not work. Fortunately, it is not my style. For those leaders who tend to get overly involved, remember this — you are not developing the skills of your staff. Micromanagement can be a strong demotivator.

Gut feeling or instinct cannot be underestimated. I do not go through a risk/reward analysis when I make decisions. It’s simply a matter of gathering the facts and moving forward on the information known at the time. You can always change directions if needed — it’s important to at least keep moving.

HOW TO REACH: Elan Organic Coffees Inc., (619) 235-0392 or