Matters Column

Transitions and transformations of successful leaders

August 9, 2013
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For years, industry was successful because of the “10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration” philosophy. Hard work and a little luck launched many a career and founded many a company.

Those days gave way in the mid-1990s to organizations that were successful — sometimes more in spite of themselves than because of careful planning — mainly, because they were in the “right place at the right time.”

A “new breed” of leader is finding success within today’s fiercely competitive world. These leaders were the first to use the computer as more than an adding machine or calculator. They have experienced significant growth, both personal and corporate, during their careers, often through an immersion in “group-think” rather than an exercise of independence and free will.

A back-to-basics approach seems to be emanating from successful leaders, a return to the business fundamentals of treating employees with respect and attempting to keep them involved in management decisions, creating environments that encourage hard work, long hours and unparalleled rewards for those willing to accept the risks.

Michigan created more new manufacturing jobs than any other state during the past 12 months, a tremendous recognition since we had the dubious honor of leading our country in unemployment not long ago. A pessimist might say we had nowhere to go but up and it should not be a surprise job growth has flourished here. An optimist might say high unemployment creates a fertile employee market. A realist might recognize such economic conditions create the need for different products, processes and work force abilities. 

Business leaders must leverage a different set of skills to inspire an organization during depressed times. Companies must identify what they do well and capitalize on core values rather than trying to be a manufacturer/provider of exotic services not yet proven nor accepted.

The most successful businesses value diversity in thought, culture and upbringing. Their efforts become an increasingly powerful wave pounding their competition rather than a quiet pond content to find peace within its restrictive shores.

While pay is an important employment consideration, working conditions can be a “deal breaker” when it comes to attracting and retaining talented staff. Rumor has it that a talent gap exists within West Michigan — a gap so wide there is concern whether we will be able to find the workers needed to meet current demand.

An organization providing flexible work schedules, willing to tailor benefits, and communicating openly and honestly with employees will be more likely to hire and retain “world class” people.

Superior talent tends to attract more of the same. Alternatively, it is hard to become an employer of choice without truly recognizing that people are your most valuable resource. 

Successful CEOs expect 100 percent dedication from their reduced staffs. Employees, once asked to “do only what they were told” are now expected to contribute ideas, initiate actions, become involved in process improvements and invest “sweat equity” in exchange for a part of the business or a bonus from the profits. 

Highly effective boards will set goals and objectives (governance), then step back, allowing leadership to produce results and be held accountable for success or failure (management). 

Today’s successful CEO tends to manage through the ranks rather than from the top down, working with others rather than through them as they pull those around them up the ladder of success, rather than climbing over their backs. Exceptional CEOs are honest when unsure of an answer. They prefer to ask questions and listen to others, analyze what they hear, then move toward a lasting “collective” solution.

A successful business relationship is much like a fruitful personal one: Those involved must contribute equally in order to maintain momentum, share rewards and thrive.

Modesty and a low-key approach, combined with a sense of innovation and a “never say never” attitude, are driving today’s business. These same characteristics make for strong relationships outside of work — honesty and integrity being the key ingredients.

Successful CEOs are keeping their heads low, drawing attention to their organizations rather than to themselves. They seek growth through the successes of their people rather than through an increase in self-importance. Relationships are just as important as results, the product of an emerging work force that needs encouragement and support from those they perceive as being competent.

Working interactively with others leads to increased employee engagement and enhanced working conditions, often resulting in a more profitable organization. Telling people what to do creates organizational dependency on the knowledge and experience of those assigned leadership roles. Asking people how they would do things differently encourages their participation, making them seekers of the truth rather than simply fulfillers of another’s restrictive directives.

Our new economy ushers in a new business model and a new kind of CEO able to focus on organizational flexibility, draw the most from employees and leverage the strengths of both the individual and the corporation, creating a dynamic force within today’s global marketplace. 

While tradition is a valuable asset and history provides a great foundation, acknowledging the new breed of CEO (and the success he or she may bring by focusing diverse individual strengths towards the collective accomplishment of seemingly insurmountable goals) is what makes our future bright.

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association of Grand Rapids.                                           

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