Enlightened Leadership in an Old World Industry

Last night, after a long week of toiling away launching my new blog site, Igniting Creativity in Business, my wife and I headed out for a light dinner.  It was a balmy night here along the Gulf Coast, so we headed for an outdoor restaurant that features live music.  Sitting amongst the snowbirds, we struck up a conversation with the couple sitting next to us.  Tom and his wife live on the beach here in Venice, and as we chatted the subject of what we did for a living came up.  Tom told me that he owns a manufacturing company in Cincinnati, Ohio and his company makes custom windows for commercial buildings.  He went on to tell me he has 113 employees, “Yeah, I’ve got overhead!” he added.

Jovial, as the Bearcats just defeated Syracuse in the Big East Conference basketball tournament, Tom began talking about his approach to leadership.  He told me he was thrown out of college in his freshman year and never looked back.  He was too busy having fun.  He fell into the construction trades and eventually found himself working for one of the largest commercial construction companies in the country.  In his late forties, he decided to strike out on his own.  That was thirteen short years ago.

As we talked, Tom began to share his leadership philosophy with me.  He told me he is committed to providing a minimum of 40 hours of training a year for all of his employees.  “I don’t care if it’s the guy pushing a broom in the factory, I’m determined to help him become the best at what he wants to do in life,” Tom commented.  “If my people aren’t successful, how can I be?”

To say that I was a bit taken aback would be an understatement.  “Do you realize you’re more progressive than 80% of corporate leaders?” I asked.

“I don’t know, I just run my business with common sense,” he replied.  I responded with a favorite expression of a colleague of mine, “What might be common sense isn’t always common practice.”

“Four of my biggest competitors shuttered their doors last year,” Tom added.  “They were playing with their banks’ money, but I’m playing with mine.”

We went on to talk about over-leveraging debt to equity for a while when he said, “We had a 33% drop in revenue ourselves last year, but I salt away the cash in the good years knowing we’re bound to hit a downturn now and then.  I took a $400,00 loss last year”  A downturn, I thought…in commercial construction.  That’s putting it mildly.

“You know what I did in response?  I increased my training budget by 150% and didn’t lay off a single soul.  In tough times, that’s when you need to double down on your investment in your people.”

I was flabbergasted.  I immediately told him about the recommendations that came out of a recent study by the Chartered Management Institute that made that very recommendation.  That training was even more valuable during tough times and global corporations would be well served to invest in their people during downturns, as it has been proven to accelerate growth well ahead of the competition once an economic recovery takes root.  I shared with him the research from Harvard that demonstrated a dollar invested in advertising returns a two dollar return, but every dollar invested in training delivers a forty dollar return on investment.  We went on to discuss the difference between transactional leadership and transformational leadership, which were foreign terms for him even though he was one of the most transformational leaders I’ve met in a long time.  We spoke about leading the Gen X and Gen Y crowd and he told me he consistently attends training seminars on cross-generational leadership.  “They’re my future…I have to understand how to connect and motivate them or I’m history,” he added.

As our conversation wound down, Tom left me with a comment I will never forget, “My only concern is that I’m not listening to my employees closely enough…I have a dominant personality, so I have to be careful.”

As I drove home with my wife I couldn’t stop talking about Tom’s enlightened leadership.  He wasn’t griping about the fact that he couldn’t fill jobs because people didn’t have the necessary skills.  He invests in his people even when his company, and he personally, is losing $400,000 in a single year.  Running a manufacturing business, in America, in the heart of the rust belt.  Somehow I sensed he was still smiling as he went to bed in his beach house on the Gulf.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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