The Right Approach: My Leadership Journey

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I have been in leadership positions for the majority of my 40-year career, but it has not always been a smooth and natural relationship. With the following three stories, I will attempt to share the lessons learned on my journey as a lifelong student in pursuit of the art of leadership.

Lesson One: Work Ethic

I believe the foundation of leadership is formed by a person’s work ethic; their belief in the moral benefit and importance of work and its inherent ability to strengthen character. The traits of a strong work ethic are the very same traits of a strong leader: professionalism, respectfulness, dependability, dedication, determination, accountability, and humility. A great leader embodies each of these traits and encourages others to embrace them as part of the continual development process.

I am so very lucky to have such positive role models in my parents, which is where my work ethic foundation was formed at an early age. Our family owned a PCB manufacturing shop, and before I was old enough to work there fulltime, I would spend afternoons after work taking out garbage and cleaning toilets. Remember the humility trait? Well, nothing is more humbling and character building then cleaning toilets every afternoon. Of course, working in the business would become my first full-time job after escaping high school. This is where I learned my first lesson. What I have found is that people in this position, children of the owners, have two paths they can take. The first path is where they embrace the privileged role of being the owner’s kid and all of the perks that come along with that. Or the second path, the one I chose, is to work harder than everyone else so that there was no doubt which path I had chosen. The collateral benefit from this work ethic is the respect that gets earned. I also believe that great leadership comes from having been there and done the work.

Lesson Two: A Manager is not a Leader

While researching my latest book, Notorious: Business Lessons from History’s Most Ruthless Leaders, I was struck by a quote from Sonny Barger. Sonny has been the leader of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club for the past 50 years, and Sonny said, “A great leader knows he doesn’t have all the answers.” This was a particular lesson that took me quite a few years to learn. I had been fortunate enough to have gained a significant amount of technical skill very early in my career, and this was probably part of the reason I had developed a very autocratic management style. My way, or the highway; I thought I did have all the answers.

I learned my second lesson while working in a PCB shop in the Midwest, running the mechanical processes (drilling, routing and programming). I’ll never forget my department lead—a woman named Ruby, who was a toughas-nails gal that had worked there for 25 years and happened to be one of the best drillers I had ever worked with. I don’t remember the specifics, but I had given Ruby a list of a number of jobs that needed to get done one day, and when I came back later to check on them, not a single one had been completed. When questioning Ruby, she told me some unexpected hot jobs had come into the department and she reprioritized my list.

Of course she was right, but my ego felt my authority was being questioned, and I said, “Ruby, you just need to learn to follow directions.” Ruby looked me straight in the eye and said “Steve, maybe you need to listen to us more often.” It didn’t sink in at the time, and I think my reply was, “Yeah, yeah, whatever, just follow my list.” But years later Ruby’s words would play a major role in my development. An autocratic style can work in the short-term, with direct reports, but not so much as I moved up in management and needed to get the cooperation of others outside my control. I knew I needed to make changes, but really didn’t know which ones or how. You see, I had become a good manager, but was nowhere near being a leader.

Lesson Three: My Ah-Ha Moment

Years later I was interviewing for an executive position with another PCB shop, and the CEO of the mothership would be performing the interview, as this position reported directly to him. This was an impressive businessman; he held a PhD and an MBA, and he was the leader of one of the largest multi-divisional companies in Wisconsin. As I was guided into his impressively large office for introductions, I stuck my hand out and said, “I truly appreciate this opportunity Dr. Sterner, I am…”, and he stopped me right there and said “Steve, please call me Frank. Titles don’t mean a whole lot around here, results do.” I sat down in front of his massive desk, and he said, “Why don’t we go over here and chat?” and led me over to a small, round table with two chairs, and we talked for an hour. I left that meeting reflecting on the fact that this important businessman took the time to make sure I knew he valued my time as much as his, and that at least for that hour, we were equals (even though we clearly weren’t). Frank’s values of empowerment, teamwork, and mutual respect permeated that company, and as Ruby’s words came back to me, became the beginning of my transition from manager to leader. As my fellow author and friend Warren Bennis once said, “A manager does things right, a leader does the right thing.” I recently went through a yearlong training program with the world’s foremost leadership experts, the John Maxwell Team. The lessons learned were far too many to cover in even a year’s worth of articles, but the overriding lesson I learned is that the more you learn, the more you find out how much you don’t know. The journey continues…

Steve Williams is the president of The Right Approach Consulting LLC.  To read past columns, or to contact Williams, click here.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of The PCB Magazine, click here.  


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