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.

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