Dear Leaders

December 11, 2006
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Leadership is not about the title, but about the vision one has, said Herman Miller President and CEO Brian Walkerwho shared his insights with a sold-out crowd at the RaleighWoodsBusinessCenter at last Tuesday's Holland Area Chamber of Commerce Lessons in Leadership luncheon.

In his roughly two years as CEO, Walker has honed his skills through coaching and review. He initially ignored the constant critique that "You think too fast; you talk too fast," until one of his coaches pointed out that he was hurting the effectiveness of others by not allowing them to communicate with him.

Now, to make himself a better listener, Walker said, he asks five questions of the people he is talking to, in order to keep him from racing ahead: Where is the business going? What is going well? If a consultant were called in, what would they be likely to improve? How can he help? What questions do they have for him? In this format, Walker said, any suggestions that he has no longer sound like a critique, but advice.

He advised the audience to "remember who you are" and not confuse the title with the person. At the onset of his tenure, people kept telling him what his predecessor, Mike Volkema, would do.

"I'm getting a lot of advice on how to be Mike," he thought to himself at the time. "I'll be a second-rate Mike; I have to figure out how to be Brian."

Part of being a leader is taking risks, Walker said. People need to remember that sometimes a risk that may jeopardize a position or title is worth taking. Leaders need to always trust their intuition, especially since they often have to make decisions without all of the facts, he said, citing Herman Miller's experience with the Aeron chair, which almost was not created because someone in the company believed that it was not what the market wanted.

"I can't imagine where Herman Miller would be today without that chair."

His last piece of advice was to "define what's important." He said that Herman Miller has defined innovation and creation as important. To keep up with those goals, Walker said the company had to learn to be more open and welcoming to people with different backgrounds to ensure the best people were there for the job.

  • Speaking of leaders, it was an exciting week for Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, as he accepted that many of his constituents now view him as less of a "dear leader" than the "Dear Leader." (If you didn't get that one, dear reader, time to brush up on geopolitical current affairs.)

In David Czurak's page 3 story this week, "Heartwell's Last Stand?," the mayor declared that he was willing to put his job on the line in the pursuit of his latest crusade, a lawsuit against the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, this fall's controversial, but successful, ballot initiative banning the most prized of sacred cows, affirmative action.

The list of Heartwell initiatives now includes smoking, adult entertainment, environmental sustainability, creative class, new economy, education and public transportation, among others. So it must have come as a bit of relief for the man who batted down close to 200 unpleasant Proposal 2 e-mails that his Wi-Fi initiative is now bearing fruit.

As is now public knowledge, the city entered into an agreement with WiMax vendor Clearwire, jettisoning the earlier wireless broadband Internet technology for a later generation. For a complete examination of the agreement, see next week's Information Technology Focus Section.

There has been ample criticism of the deal, which quite frankly, has arisen from the media's inherent skepticism of anything that excites public officials. It doesn't help that the project was trumpeted as a "creative class" initiative, designed to attract young professionals to the region.

The city has taken a bit of a detour on that, now emphasizing the benefits to public safety and municipal operations, but it's still there. The Clearwire partnership brings with it the notoriety of being "the world's first mobile WiMax city."

  • Quote of the week: 2nd Ward City Commissioner Rick Tormala¸ on a vote to retain a Washington, D.C., lobbyist at an annual cost of $80,000: "We already have the best advocates you could ask for in Vern Ehlers, Peter Hoekstra and Debbie Stabenow … $80,000 is not enough to buy you access to the corrupt legislators, and the decent ones don't care."
  • It is a distinct possibility that the head of another local legislator, State Rep. Jerry Kooiman, actually exploded upon seeing the front page of the local daily last Thursday. One of Kooiman's key concerns in recent years has been what he believes to be the proliferation of illegal immigrants moving to Michigan for free health care on the state's dime, but had only anecdotal evidence supporting that theory.

With but two weeks left in his tenure, a smoking gun: A family of Holland illegal immigrants is seeking potentially millions of dollars worth of care for their 10-year-old daughter, who is seeking a kidney transplant through DeVos Children's Hospital.

  • The Michigan Senate Committee on Government Operations has sent an update of the telecommunications franchising bill to the floor for a vote this Tuesday morning. Majority leader Ken Sikkema expects the bill to be approved, to the horror of local municipalities.

The bill resolves none of the pressing issues in the industry, from net neutrality to public access funding and contract abrogation. At worst the new law opens up the opportunity for cable companies to void their franchise agreements with municipalities and work with the state instead, removing oversight — and revenue — from local governments.

At best, it's an early Christmas gift for AT&T, which will be able to avoid negotiating with local governments in the state as it deploys a fiber optic network in competition with established cable companies over the next decade.

  • Speaking of gifts, Santa spent Friday morning with the 104 employees of D&D Building in Grand Rapids, part of the third annual "Santa Safety Days" tour. Trainers from Safety Management Group conducted safety workshops on the "sleigh" coach bus to and from Cabela's in Dundee

Santa did give the workers $100 Cabela's gift cards, but was mum on whether he'd drop $15 million in Walker's stocking.    

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