Thursday, July 11, 2013

Leadership Part 3: A Desire to Be Different.

Desire to be Different.

The desire to be different takes on many forms, but is in part about being noticed in a positive way. Being different for the sake of being different is not always successful.

One of the things I saw watching my father work at his white-collar job in the 50’s and 60’s was that he did several things differently than others in our neighborhood. He was always early to work—usually an hour before everyone else—getting things situated for the day, trying to do more than the next person. Likewise, he was not bristling at the end of the day to run out the door, as there was always something else to do to separate him from the pack. Dad has a tan leather briefcase he carried every day with paperwork and reading material, and often, when not traveling, would spend time at night at the kitchen table going over things and taking care of mundane items like filling out his expense report—something I am sure his colleagues did on “company time” at their desks. Dad also kept up some basic appearances: white shirt, tie, dark suit, every day—hardly the most practical things for a person working in an auto factory, but that was part of his brand and he wanted to represent himself as a professional. Every Sunday night, Dad shined his work shoes so hat he started the week out with his best foot forward. The following Sunday, the shoes and the shine kit came out.

When I began working, I did some things to be different, as well. I noticed that when I got my first job, the VP who interviewed me, a Harvard MBA, wore cuff links every day, wore starched shirts and always looked like a million bucks. Later I would learn that how you present yourself is an important door opener in the business world. If you look the part, you automatically remove some roadblocks when dealing with the leadership of most companies. Today, I know before I go to bed what I am wearing the next day based on who I am seeing, and I always have an eye for being dressed equally to or better than everyone I am meeting that day. In John Malloy’s famous book Dressing for Success, he talks about how the right combination of classic dress sets the tone when you meet someone. I read this book when I was 20 years old, and the principles are with me today.

Being different is more than how you dress. It is attitude, the ability to look at a minority point of view on an issue, listening more than talking, and not rushing to judgment when the rest of the world is doing so.

In my company, we have a group of people who clean carpets in corporate office buildings at night. Sometimes a client will call us and accuse our men of taking something the night before or turning a radio dial to a different station in someone’s cubicle. These complaints get reported to our salespeople, and they are escalated to me. I always make sure that I have the full story (yes, customers are not always right) before I judge my own people or accuse them of something. More often than not, these complaints are unfounded.

I have had the good fortune to meet with and work with many great leaders over m career. None stands out larger than Roger Milliken, who was Chairman of the Board of the Milliken Textile and Chemical Company almost until his death at age 92. Mr. Milliken, as he is known by his employees, had a building fire in 2004 that eliminated his entire US carpet production capability, reported to be at that time a $150 million-a-year business. The plant and warehouse was roughly one millions square feet, and was one of the largest employers in the town of La Grange, GA, an our or so south of Atlanta. The fire started as a result of an equipment malfunction, but by the time the first responders could arrive, the entire facility was a total loss. Within hours, Mr. Milliken was on the site himself surveying the ruins, getting an update on the safety of his employees, and having conversations with a general contractor who has built other plants for him about getting going rebuilding the factory. Twenty-four hours later, Mr. Milliken addressed the media and said the following:

  1. 1.     First and foremost, there were no injuries to any of the responders or his associates.
  2. 2.     No one would lose his job, as he need to transfer some workers overseas where other plants were, and would need to rest to work on the rebuilding efforts.
  3. 3.     He also said that in a way, the loss of the factory gave them an opportunity to rebuild a new plant far superior in technology, etc., than the old one.

It was reported that the insurance deductible against the loss was about $10 million, and here stood the chairman of the board stating all of the positives and looking toward the future with great optimism. This is how leaders lead!

Leaders are not born. Name one born leader, and I will challenge your findings. Leadership is not DNA-driven; it is environment, and is around us every day. Those that keep an open mind, look at the success traits and patterns of others, and have the influencing ability that Dale Carnegie talks about will rise to the top.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Leadership: A Different Perspective,Part 2 Challenging the Status Quo.

Challenging the status quo

Challenging the status quo is perhaps the riskier pillar to implement. This is where failure has its greatest potential. Midway through my corporate career with a large pharmaceutical company, I accepted a job transfer to a division in Stamford, CT. This division made hair care products, and in our warehouse we had 125 people employed in the process of putting together orders for customers—sometimes 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. This was 1981, and technology and industrial engineering were challenging how things had been done in the past. With the assistance of an outside consultant, we took a look at our workforce productivity and also looked at making a capital investment in new computer-aided order picking processes and ways to make this function less labor-intensive. Our analysis told us that we could eliminate 50 positions if we invested two million dollars in new technology, technology which has never been proven or used yet, but on paper the idea seemed bulletproof. We knew there were several outcomes by challenging the way things had been done for years, and some were very positive, and some potentially career-altering for me. I could have chosen to stay with the status quo, or I could have moved forward with a factory automation program that revolutionized how we ran our warehouse for decades to come. If the project succeeded, our annual savings would have been $2.5 million with a $2 million dollar initial investment, and if it did not work, we could have wasted $2 million and lost the confidence of our workforce and our management. Since I understood the technology being proposed, I did not see 100% assurance to move forward; we made the investment, and with the exception of some start-up issues, the project was a huge success, leading the way for a promotion that soon followed.

The courage to speak out

The courage to speak out is how leaders get the most recognition. Martin Luther King Jr. was known for speaking out eloquence and is an example that most of us can readily identify with. But speaking out does not always assure that tings will work out the way you had hoped, as there are consequences associated with speaking out. King was jailed; other political leaders have fallen on their own swords, as well.

In my last corporate position before starting my own business, I was the head of corporate real estate for my firm. The firm was nearing the end of a lease on our corporate headquarters, and my role was to put together a strategy for the next 20 years as to where our corporate staff would be located and what was in the best interest of the shareholders first and employees second. To accomplish this, we hired a well-known real estate consulting firm, looked at the demographics of our workforce, and looked at what functions needed to be in New York City and which ones might be suitable to locate in more urban, less expensive areas. Throughout this process, we took a blank sheet of paper approach and decided to be open to a complete relocation or just stay where we were for another 20 years. After an exhaustive one-year study, we presented our results to our senior leadership, and my immediate supervisor was irate at our findings. Our findings were that we needed to split the corporate functions and take 80% of them out of New York City, and keep 20% or fewer of the senior leadership in midtown Manhattan.

So the day finally came, and the consultants and I made our recommendation to the EVP of the company, who got very angry wit the conclusions. First, we failed to factor in that the EVP has just bought an expensive apartment on Central Park West, was friends socially with our building owner and his comrades in top management—about a dozen or so—liked walking to work on nice days down Park Avenue… All of that has not been factored in. Being a bit of a novice, I thought our responsibility was to our shareholders first, as the new lease would be approximately $1 billion, and second to our employees, who every day were trying to save the company money in their jobs—but we missed the point. The point was that a company with 50,000 people does not make a decision like this for the greater good; it was more about feeding into the needs/habits of the top dozen people. We knew some of this going in, but felt that we needed to speak out, as this was an issue the firm would have to live with for the next 20 years. In the end, I stepped down in nine months, the company proceeded with a status quo direction of keeping things as they were, just giving the landlord a new lease, and the consultant collected their fee. Three years later, the EVP was fired, and the company split up their real estate and followed the strategy that was proposed.

I learned a valuable and expensive lesson. When you are in a corporate environment, doing the right thing has consequences. Standing up for what is right has consequences. At the end of the day, everyone knew what was right and everything got righted for the company. I on the other hand, decided I was born to lead, not follow, so I started my own business. For many, following is easy; for me, it was never an option.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Leadership: A Different Perspective

Leadership: A Different Perspective
By Randall D. Weis

I can remember as a child growing up people referring to “born leaders,” usually referring to a person’s ancestry and that somehow leadership was in a person’s DNA. Often the examples of leadership that I saw were the obvious ones: a military leader, a government official, Gandhi, etc. But leaders are around us every day in every form, and most leaders go unnoticed in life, and many times those leaders evolve and were not “mode” or formed by others. They become leaders by challenging the status quo, as was the case with Martin Luther King, Jr.

In my case, I had great mentors growing up with my father and grandfather, who were known for speaking their minds and not following the status quo. Both were quick to let their opinions be known and always listened to the points of view of others, never forcing their opinions on others but letting others rethink their stated positions. Both were able to argue their points of view with their peer groups and were often seen as a voice of reason, and from that they emerged as leaders both in the family and outside the family.

I remember the first time I really had a change to be a leader, and this example has followed me throughout my career. After getting my degree in logistics, I wanted to join a professional organization of logistics graduates, and such a group existed on a national level called Delta Nu Alpha. In my Midwest community, there was no local chapter of Delta Nu Alpha, so I connected with about a dozen working logistics professionals and invited them to lunch at the cafeteria at my workplace. At that point, since I was the force behind the idea, I prepared an agenda, had some information from the headquarters of Delta Nu Alpha, and ran the meeting. The group decided that we should have a chapter, and in order to get recognized by the national organization, we needed a board of directors, etc., so we held a quick election and I was asked to be the founding president. At the time I was 23—by far, the youngest of the group—but was recognized for seeing a need, organizing others, and bringing things to a vote as to move forward or not. This was my first stage of understanding what leaders do. Today, these same simple principles have formed who I am in every day life.

My life experience as a leader has five foundational items that always reappear in matters where leadership is required. These five pillars are:

1.     The urge to explore new territory.
2.     The ability to influence.
3.     Challenge the status quo.
4.     Courage to speak out.

5.     Desire to differentiate.

The urge to explore

The urge to explore is what stops most from leading. If you don’t explore, you can’t make a mistake in life. More valuable information comes from the mistakes we make oftentimes than from the successes we have. The only people I have met in life who never make mistakes are those who never take a chance, never explore the unknown, and remain in that safe spot where they can’t be criticized. Leaders understand how failure can provide great learning, just like success does.

The ability to influence

The ability to influence, the second pillar, can come from many areas and is perhaps the pillar with the greatest mystique. Dale Carnegie wrote the bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1937 and introduced to modern management at that time some simple principles regarding how to influence people. Those principles start with the concept that you have to engage others and win their confidence (friendship) to be able to influence others. Politicians have long understood the importance of influence, as it may be the key determinant as to who gets elected in the end and who does not. The person with the greatest influence is the one who wins in an election. You cannot overlook the importance of how much engaging with others drives your ability to influence.