Learning to lead Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2009

Being a leader didn’t come easy for Kurt W. Gampp. The co-founder and chief operating officer of Synergetics USA Inc. was a tradesman with no college education who made the company’s first microsurgical instruments in co-founder Gregg Scheller’s garage.

Since its humble beginnings in 1992, Synergetics has grown into a burgeoning public company, earning $50.1 million in revenue in fiscal 2008, and Gampp has learned how to be a business leader.

Scheller left the company in August, and finding a new CEO has been a whole new challenge says Gampp.

“I feel like I just got a divorce, and I’m on my first date,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Gampp about how he learned to manage with an open mind and how to empower employees to make decisions.

Q. How do you empower your employees?

I’ve always told my people the worst decision they could make is not to make a decision — and that’s a decision in itself. You can’t be afraid to make decisions. Sometimes they’re wrong, and I tell my people that that is OK. You can’t make a good decision every time.

The worst thing that can come from a bad decision is not learning from it. I always try to tell my people that. Make a decision, and we will live with it. We will correct it if we need to, and we will learn from it.

Q. How do you create a culture in which your employees aren’t afraid to make decisions?

The people I lead have been with me a long time. I’m not one to chastise people, if you will, over making a bad decision. Like I said, a bad decision gets made, it’s OK. Let’s sit down and, first of all, let’s figure out how we’re going to correct it.

Then, what did you learn, what did we learn from that? So that way, we ensure that a decision similar to that gets made correctly in the future. I’ve earned the respect of my people, and I respect them in the same way. Just that culture of mutual respect and trust that has been created here gives us some results.

Q. How do you build that trust?

I create that by being an example to them — by showing them that I do trust them and I do respect them. We come together as a team to mutually figure out problems and make decisions. And of course, being able to figure out who fits with the team.

You have to be able to staff properly and pick the people you want as part of your team, and you want to lead that fit with that culture and have the same type of morals and respect of people that you have and the rest of your people have.

Put together a team that fits together, that has like morals, interests and goals. We all work well together and know each other well. That culture comes out of that situation.

Q. How do you work together with your team?

One thing I always say to people is that you have two ears and you have one mouth. So listen twice and speak once. That is probably the biggest thing. I see so many people who just run over people. It’s talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, and they don’t listen.

You have to be knowledgeable about what you’re communicating, and you have to show an interest in people and what they are saying.

Q. How do you get employees to buy in to your vision?

As far as coming up with the vision, you’re listening. Listening to your customers, your employees, your salespeople. Listen to other people within the industry that you’re in. Once you’ve done that, come to a consensus of what all of those people are saying and align that with the organization’s mission and core competencies.

Inclusion of the people is the easiest way to get them to buy in to anything. Of course, you may have some differences there, but displaying a true confidence in that vision and having a passion for it goes a long way toward getting people to buy in to it.

Q. How do you include people in the decision-making process?

Basically, you want to give them as much information that you’re gathering about the industry as you can: what the doctors are saying, what the salesmen are saying and ask, ‘What do you think about this?’

You get some good input from those people. Everybody’s got good ideas, and everybody’s got opinions — some good, some not so good. Just basically, sit down and discuss things. I don’t do things in a vacuum. I believe in people and people’s ideas and they feel that.

Close-mindedness is a downfall for anyone who’s trying to lead people, because you need people to run a business. The people are the corporation’s greatest asset. They have ideas and opinions, and in order to lead those people, you have to consider those. And lo and behold, they come up with things that are better than I come up with anyway.

HOW TO REACH: Synergetics USA Inc., (636) 939-5100 or www.synergeticsusa.com