By Bob Clark
The business environment today is likely worse than many business executives have ever encountered.
Despite recent improvements in the equity markets, some loans are difficult to get for new business investment and consumers are not yet opening their wallets. As a result, it is expected that tough challenges are here to stay for some time.
In an effort to find and share ideas that will offer guidance to new executives and suggest alternatives to those more experienced, Corp! interviewed several business leaders knowledgeable about the situation in Michigan.
The question we posed: “What is the one thing you have seen from an executive leader that was the most effective and why?”
We solicited reactions from five senior leaders and entrepreneurs currently leading Michigan-based companies and one with a Michigan background. Each has a different idea about what is most important. Taken together, they provide an interesting perspective and sound insight for any executive to reflect upon.
Risk Taker or Risk Manager
Carl Erickson of Atomic Object, a contract software development company in Grand Rapids, is no stranger to challenges. After several years in academia, Erickson opened the bank account for his new company on Sept. 11, 2001.
Erickson offers two excellent observations about leading for business success:
-¢ “The popular notion of the entrepreneur as the daring risk taker is incorrect,” he says. While not claiming it as his personal insight (he heard it from CEO Fred Keller of Cascade Engineering), it is nonetheless a solid piece of advice. “The successful entrepreneur and executive is the one who is the risk manager and risk mitigator for the organization.”
-¢ Coupled with that is Erickson’s own philosophy of leading. He has “a personal sense of responsibility to the people in his company-their development and their well being.” This natural and intuitive view of servant leadership is a winning strategy for him and Atomic Object.
Stay Flexible in Your Approach
A consultant with strong Michigan ties-University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and GM all appear on her resume-Monique Honaman works at ISHR Group in Suwannee, Georgia.
She says one key attribute is flexibility in leadership approach. “One size does not fit all,” says Honaman. “Not everyone can be led the same way.” She adds one personal note: “Stay in touch with who you are. You need to leverage what comes natural for you, or it will look and feel artificial.”
Engage Others by Asking How You Are Doing
Larry Andrus, who heads Trivalent Group, an IT and telecom service provider in Grand Rapids, is adamant that any leader must “first take responsibility” for their own performance. “Some of my ideas may seem old fashioned, but you must lead by example and always strive for consistency of action.”
Andrus says he always remembers to ask one question near the end of any meeting. “What are we doing as an organization that you like, and what would you want us to do more of, or possibly differently?”
Andrus, who has been using the technique since he learned it from an effective leader while working at AT&T Capital Systems Leasing, says the question “opens the door to better ideas from employees, improved relations with suppliers, and often new business from customers.”
Build Your Team to Build the Business
Many people talk about team building, but Christine Moag, CEO of Medical Management Specialists in Kentwood, Mich., believes it is a critical element of running a business. “Empowering your team and allowing them to do the job will bring out the best in every team member,” says Moag, a 20-year veteran of the medical services field.
Moag adds that complacency is something to be avoided. “Always focus on continuing to learn,” she says. But be natural about it. “If you try to force it, it will be obvious and not believable.”
Real Goals and Good Attitudes Lead to Success
In turbulent times, the solid leader has to bring the group to setting goals, and the attitude carried into the workplace each day can make the difference. So says John Kendall, president of DK Security Services and Investigations, located in Grand Rapids.
Kendall says setting “meaningful, achievable, and measurable goals with the full participation of the team” is critical to business success. So is accountability, something that’s frequently overlooked when setting goals. “There needs to be real sanctions for missing a goal and real rewards for making a goal.”
Additionally, Kendall says it is very important for the leader to recognize that, especially in changing times, tension can exist among team members. “Leading with a positive attitude that focuses on doing what is needed for today and getting positioned for the future in a very transparent fashion” will calm the concerns of the team.
All of these leaders share a focus on action and reflection.
-¢ Moving quickly is critical to addressing the needs of customers, owners and employees.
-¢ Thinking carefully about what is being done and why is equally important to meeting the needs of the stakeholders.
The ideas suggested by all those interviewed are solid. The way each of them blends quick action and thoughtfulness is a representative
characteristic of good leaders.
Steven Spear, author of “Chasing the Rabbit,” suggests, “the challenges that lead to success are not supported by business education today. Moving quickly to identify needs, configuring solutions to these needs, and delivering those solutions are what need to be done.”
To achieve this, Spear says a leader “must have authentic discovery as a core skill. What is needed is the acquisition of new answers to new problems quickly.”
While the leaders interviewed model this behavior in different ways, all are focused on the right things-new discovery of new solutions to new problems in a fast paced world.
A Final Thought
For some time, educators have focused on separating the skills of the leader, the supervisor and the manager. This distinction seems artificial. Successful executives need to be doing all of these things at once to move their businesses to the next level.
One final observation from John Kendall makes the point. “The leader needs to set direction and bring the team to sound goals, but solid management is needed to see the process through to a winning conclusion.”