Leadership: The Competitive Advantage
By Mark Brock
One of the most consequential of the many business books produced each year is the 2001 best seller “Good to Great.” Based on the work of a research team led by author Jim Collins, this book examines why some companies make the leap from good to great while others languish in mediocrity. Over a five-year period, researchers reviewed 28 companies in-depth to identify the truly great ones and to document the factors that enabled them to excel.
A hallmark of the “Good to Great” project was a commitment by the researchers to move past business clichés, such as the belief that the key to success is always in the hands of leadership. Collins and his team, however, learned that some clichés are not clichés after all, but verifiable truths. That discovery was particularly evident when it came to the role of leadership.
“Early in the (research) project, I kept insisting, ‘Ignore the executives,’ but the research team kept pushing back,” Collins wrote. ‘There is something consistently unusual about them (leaders of great companies), they would say. We can’t ignore them. My response was, ‘But the comparison companies also had leaders, even some great leaders. So what’s the difference?’ Back and forth the debate raged. Finally – as should always be the case – the data won.”
Finally convinced that leadership is fundamental in transforming a company from good to great, Collins developed a leadership hierarchy, beginning with Level 1 (highly capable individual) to “Level 5 Executives.” Companies that had transformed from good companies to great companies had consistently benefited from the guidance of Level 5 Executives at key points in their histories. These executives shared many common traits, but did not display the characteristics typically associated with what society and the media consider as great leaders.
Level 5 leaders rarely spoke about themselves or bragged about their accomplishments, and were often described as “quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, or understated.” Another defining characteristic was their focus on wanting to see their companies even more successful for future generations. Despite their humility and self-effacing qualities, however, Level 5 leaders went about their jobs with stoic determination and fierce resolve to do whatever had to be done to make their companies great. These leaders were fanatically driven by an almost insatiable desire for results.
“The executives who ignited the transformation from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there,” Collins wrote. “No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said in essence, ‘Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.’”
While the expectations of Level 5 leadership can be intimidating, Collins believes that these types of leaders are prevalent in society, often associated with organizations that enjoy extraordinary results without any one individual attempting to take all of the credit for success. Unfortunately, Collins says, there is no cookbook on how to become a Level 5 leader.
Leadership in the Casual Industry
Leadership is an essential ingredient throughout the casual industry; from manufacturers to specialty retailers, you will find Level 5 leadership within many organizations. We spoke recently with executive management, business coaches and advisors to gain insights into great leadership, its benefits, and how owners and managers can enhance their leadership abilities. Following is some of what they had to say.
|Allen E. Gant, Jr.|
Allen E. Gant, Jr. – Leadership
Begins With Compassion
Allen E. Gant, Jr. certainly knows a thing or two about leadership. In 1971, he joined Glen Raven, the family-owned textiles company founded by his grandfather in 1880. Gant transitioned into the executive suite at Glen Raven in 1989 and during his tenure as chief executive led the transformation of Glen Raven from an apparel-focused textiles company to a global leader in performance fabrics, including the Sunbrella brand that is revered by consumers, manufacturers and retailers. Most recently, Gant transitioned his CEO role to Glen Raven veteran Leib Oehmig, but remains in a leadership role as chairman of the board.
The essence of great leadership, according to Gant, is to be found at an emotional level and encompasses a true caring and compassion for people.
“The secret to successful leadership is your ability to tap into the emotional energy of people by demonstrating that you truly care about them; it’s not just one thing but the many ways that you can show how you stand behind your people and respect who they are and what they bring to the table,” Gant said. “Once you harness the emotional energy of people, your associates will dedicate themselves to doing whatever is needed to make the company successful. It’s no longer a 9-5 job.”
In addition to compassion for people, great leaders have the ability to focus a company’s energy and attention on the things that truly matter, Gant said.
“A strong leader is able to separate the important from the trivial in terms of the many issues facing a business,” he said. “Where are we as a company, where do we want to go, and how are we going to get there? A great leader continually asks these questions to inspire people, helps them find the answers, and leads everyone to do things together that would be impossible working alone.”
While positions of leadership certainly come with their perks, Gant can assure you that the leadership role is challenging and comes with sacrifice.
“You have to be prepared to make the commitment to be a great leader and that commitment is not a small thing – the amount of time you devote to the business becomes irrelevant – whatever it takes,” he said.
“Being a true leader is also incredibly lonely. You have to make tough decisions in which you are the only one who can make those decisions. You have to be committed and psychologically sound enough to make decisions in the face of adversity. You cannot worry about what others think if you know it’s the right decision. Great leaders are cut from a different piece of cloth; they have great inner strength.”
For those who would aspire to become strong leaders, Gant suggests seeking out role models and studying the decisions they made, how they made them and why. It’s a quest worth the pursuit, he says.
“Leadership makes all the difference in achieving success and growing. Any business that doesn’t have good leadership in today’s environment with so much economic turmoil won’t last very long. Behind every successful company there is a true leader. Without true leadership, you cannot succeed.”
Ashwin Ramesh – Leadership
Keeps Its Eyes On The Horizon
The expectations for leadership have expanded exponentially in recent years. It’s no longer enough for great leaders to provide vision and inspiration. They are also expected to stay abreast of disruptive technology, industry trends, and new market opportunities, according to Ashwin Ramesh, CEO of Synup, a Wilmington, Delaware-based SaaS (Software as a Service) company and provider of local marketing, research, and growth solutions for small businesses.
“Being constantly on the lookout for growth opportunities and staying up to date with the tech-heavy world are two things that any leader should focus on today to stay ahead of the curve,” Ramesh said. “A deep understanding of the industry and a keen eye to follow up on coming trends are essential for any business owner to succeed as a leader. Other than this, employees also love a leader who is willing to experiment rather than stick to outdated methods in the fields of logistics, marketing, and automation.”
Not only are great leaders expected to remain adept in the face of rapid technological change, but they are also challenged by the changing nature of the workforce. As Baby Boomers age and Millennial Generation workers join and replace them, the demands on leadership are shifting. How can a leader inspire and create job satisfaction among workers who are 20 to 30 years apart?
“Employees from different generations have different expectations when it comes to work habits and their relationship with their employer,” Ramesh said. “To the Millennial, things like flexibility, loyalty, and workflow process might have entirely different definitions compared to Baby Boomers. It’s important for a leader to understand what his/her employees want and to satisfy those expectations.”
As if technology and generational changes were not enough for specialty retail leadership, many of these companies are family-owned businesses with many staff members who are also members of the family. An effective leader must find ways to treat everyone fairly so that a team spirit prevails.
“The leadership of a family-owned business needs to demarcate personal and professional relationships with employees,” Ramesh said. “In a family-owned business with several employees who are not from within the family, unbiased leadership is important since excessive nepotism might be looked down upon by other employees. Compassion, honesty, and vision are qualities that anyone from the workforce, family member or not, will look up to and respect.”
With all of the complexities of providing leadership for a specialty retail operation, Ramesh encourages owners and managers to never lose sight of the fact that retail is a people-based business, dependent on the ways in which staff members interact with each other and with their customers.
“Strong leaders constantly engage their staffs and are encouraging,” he said. “Praise from a respected leader goes a long way in what can often be stressful situations.”
David Schweig – Give Power
to Your People
David Schweig, owner of Sunnyland Patio Furniture in Dallas, has long been recognized as a leader in the casual furniture industry. Through Schweig’s vision, Sunnyland pioneered the creation of lifestyle vignettes and has connected with outside partners to create true-to-life Outdoor Rooms that transform the shopping experience for his customers. As a leader at Sunnyland for more than 40 years, Schweig’s leadership style has focused on giving his people the tools, the knowledge, and the confidence they need to make good decisions for the business.
“As a leader, you offer direction, you mentor and you give people the opportunity to make their own decisions and see the results of those decisions,” Schweig said. “Some decisions that your people make are successful and some are not, and it’s essential that people know their leaders will back them up regardless of the outcome. It all begins with helping people understand the ins and outs of the business, which makes it easier for them to follow established procedures, identify issues, and make better decisions.”
By transferring his knowledge and some of his authority, Schweig has helped to form one of the industry’s most seasoned patio store teams. More than half of the Sunnyland staff has been with the store for 10 years or more.
“A strong leader invests the time needed to help people understand all of the factors that go into growth and profitability,” he said. “When people understand how every cost factor, every decision, large and small, can affect profitability, they take greater ownership in the business and they make better decisions. A good leader gives his people the tools and the knowledge that they need (in order) to feel as if they own their jobs and they can make decisions with confidence of having your support.”
Leadership is not for everyone, and simply bestowing a leadership title on someone is no guarantee of success. There are essential attributes that someone must have to become an effective leader, Schweig said.
“Over the years I’ve had people whom we placed in leadership roles because they had all of the skills and tools necessary to be a great leader, except for one thing – the desire,” Schweig continued. “They were great at their jobs, but they weren’t able to apply those skills and experience to achieve success as a leader because being a leader wasn’t that important to them. It wasn’t their top priority. They preferred to remain a worker rather than a leader.”
Other essential qualities for a strong leader include a thick skin to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly, Schweig says.
“Strong leaders are active listeners who are willing to respect the thoughts and the ideas of others; they’re compassionate enough to listen to others, respect what they’re hearing, and gain a greater understanding of the issues based on what others are experiencing. It can take years to establish a culture of open communications, but once you do it sets the overall tone for your business and it has a positive domino effect.”
How do leaders know when they have succeeded?
“The ultimate measure of success for good leadership is creating a place where people enjoy coming to work every day, and where they make a commitment to a career, to longevity in their jobs,” Schweig said. “Every business has good days and bad, but when you create a business environment that your people enjoy, and where they are happy in their jobs, customers can sense it, and it makes a difference in your success.”
Tom Epperson – Leadership
Fulfills Essential Roles
Tom Epperson is president of InnerWill Leadership Institute, a nonprofit based in Richmond that works with businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to strengthen leadership capabilities and assist in accomplishing individual and organizational goals. Epperson, who earned a doctorate in leadership from George Washington University, identifies distinct roles for anyone who aspires to lead a specialty retail team.
“Leaders must model the behaviors they envision for their people,” he said. “If leaders want their retail teams to be service inspired, have a sense of urgency, possess a lot of care and curiosity about customers, then leaders must model those behaviors.
“Leaders must also provide constant feedback on what is going well and how to improve,” Epperson continued. “This type of interaction with employees can be difficult in a retail environment because so often jobs are transitory and there is high turnover. Yet, the more leaders can connect with people and help them feel successful in their roles, the more likely they are to stay and view their jobs not as temporary positions but as careers.”
Among the greatest benefits of strong leadership for specialty retailers is the opportunity to transform the business so that it builds relationships with customers rather than just completing sales transactions, and offers careers rather than just transitory jobs.
“Unless store managers, division managers, and executives in the retail environment lead in a way that helps people see career paths, these people are going to leave,” he said. “This is especially true for younger generations that are coming on who want to see the path ahead. The benefit from strong leadership in retail translates into a strong, consistent workforce that possesses the values of the organization.”
According to Epperson, retail owners and managers can become stronger leaders if they are willing to face up to their own strengths and weaknesses.
“The number one thing that leaders can do is to work on themselves,” he said. “The more you can do to see yourself clearly, build self-awareness, develop your own skillset, get your own feedback, and think about how your choices align with your goals, the more positive impact you will have on other people as a leader.”
There has never been a time in the history of retail when leadership was more challenging, Epperson says.
“The current retail environment is really tough,” he said. “We’re moving faster, and customers have a greater variety of choices for obtaining products. It’s a complex environment in which retail leadership must be able to change quickly while feeling comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.”
Chad Scheinerman – Be Visible,
Stay In Touch With Your People
As the CEO of Today’s Patio, Chad Scheinerman has a full slate of responsibilities in managing six locations in Arizona and one in San Diego. Despite the challenges that come with the complexities of this expansive business, Scheinerman makes it a priority to spend time on the retail floor.
“I am out on the floor every week working directly with our employees and with customers,” Scheinerman said. “If we need some umbrellas taken out or boxes unpacked, then I’ll lend a hand, whatever needs to be done. Many of the customers I work with have no idea of my role in the company, which is the way I want it. I’m a firm believer in leading by example and serving as a model for the behaviors we want to encourage in our employees.”
Today’s Patio began operation from a single location in Arizona in 1979, founded by Scheinerman’s father and a business partner. Chad led the company’s multi-store expansion beginning in 2002, incorporating many of the nation’s major casual furniture lines in each location. While many things about Today’s Patio have changed since its founding, one thing is constant – a hands-on approach by owners and managers.
“I’m not sitting behind a desk every day barking orders. That’s not leadership,” Scheinerman said. “The most important thing that leadership can do is get in touch with employees and stay in touch with reality. I have an open door, and our employees know they can come in and talk to me. By working with individual employees, I find out what’s really happening with the business and I get new ideas. I can’t do every new idea I hear, but it’s important to listen and many of these ideas do come to fruition.”
One of the greatest challenges for leadership, Scheinerman says, is setting employees up for success by placing them in positions that best match their skills and interests, and by making sure that employees have the tools they need to do the job.
“As a leader, you have to figure out what makes people tick and what they are good at,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a process of trial and error. You might have someone you think would be good in sales, but it turns out they aren’t good at closing, but they have exceptional organizational skills, so you move them to a position in merchandising or logistics or admin where they can excel.”
The only way that a leader can be successful in matching employees with the right positions is by staying visible and hands-on, by modeling desired behaviors, and by assuring that employees have the tools needed for success, Scheinerman says.
“You can’t ask someone to build a house if you don’t give them a hammer,” he said. “When you place people in the positions that best suit their passions and their skills, and give them the resources they need, they’ll enjoy coming to work and you can achieve peak performance.”
Tom Rose – Improve Your Leadership Ability One Habit at a Time
Tom Rose is a PhD psychologist with more than 25 years of experience collaborating with businesses, including facilitation of leadership programs for Fortune 100 companies. Rose, who is head of Innovation and Customer Solutions at AchieveForum based in Boston and author of “Managing at the Leading Edge,” suggests that anyone who wants to improve leadership abilities should focus on one habit at a time.
“A great starting point for improving leadership ability is to pick a leadership habit you want to improve and focus on making steady improvements in that habit,” Rose said. “Since leadership is about achieving impact with others, an effective improvement plan involves asking a trusted team member for advice on how you can increase your impact with the habit you selected.
“For example, someone in a leadership position heading a specific initiative might ask a colleague, ‘How can I do a better job of inspiring and motivating my team on this project?’
“This type of feedback works because it’s about increasing success in the future not critiquing the past,” Rose said. “Experimenting with the advice you receive in the spirit of continuous improvement creates greater leadership impact. Once leaders model the pursuit of increased leadership success, they can invite others to fulfill their accountability to do the same.”
According to Rose, the need for continual improvement in leadership within the retail industry has increased due to fundamental changes in the retail environment.
“While leadership has always been challenging, it’s become essential today in the retail world,” he said. “Like many other industries, technological advances, globalization, and a changing workforce have created greater uncertainty and turbulence in the retail space than we have ever known before.”
Business segments of all types, including the retail industry, are stepping up to these challenges with investments designed to enhance leadership abilities. True leaders who envision new opportunities welcome times of disruption and change.
“Like colleagues in other businesses, leaders in retail are turning disruptive change into opportunities and then profit,” he said. “In 2016, Training Industry magazine reported that retail organizations increased their investments in development by 32%; a larger trend line across all industries showed the greatest investments are being made in leadership development.”
The direct link between inspired leadership and organizational success is clear, Rose says.
“Effective leaders help individuals, teams, and companies sustain track records of meeting or exceeding goals,” he said. “Although there are plenty of examples of leaders who burn bridges in order to achieve a specific result, strong leaders motivate others to strive and excel over time; these leaders mobilize mission and purpose, deepen engagement, and build confidence.”
Dudley Flanders – Flexibility, Adaptability Key to Effective Leadership
When the Lloyd Flanders company launched woven wicker furniture in the early 1980s, it had the market pretty much to itself with only a handful of competitors. Fast forward to 2018, however, and the woven products segment is one of the largest and most competitive.
“The single greatest leadership challenge during my career has been adapting to all of the changes that have been taking place in the industry, including increased competition,” said Dudley Flanders, president of Lloyd Flanders. “Some of the major categories that were popular when I entered the business don’t exist anymore, while the woven products segment is the leading category today.”
Lloyd Flanders traces its roots to the early 1900s in Menominee, Michigan, where Marshall Lloyd created a unique approach to weaving furniture. In 1982, Dudley and his father, Don, purchased the company, and changed the name to Lloyd Flanders. Through strong leadership that emphasizes the ability to change with the times, the Lloyd Flanders brand is recognized as a leader in the design and durability of woven wicker furniture.
The key elements in effective leadership according to Dudley Flanders include listening to customers, exercising adaptability based on customer needs, communicating with employees on the inevitability of change, and displaying consistency in management philosophy.
“In order to be a good leader you have to be a good listener and hear what your customers, your employees, and the general public are saying,” Flanders said. “You need to be someone whom employees and customers can respect. You can’t demand to be a leader; you have to earn that right and you have to earn that respect.”
Major changes implemented by Lloyd Flanders’ leadership over the years have been customer driven, including the addition of imported products and expansion into new channels of distribution. These major changes have required leadership adept at communications to encourage employees to embrace new directions.
“One of the greatest challenges has been to communicate the changes we’ve made and getting everyone onboard,” Flanders said. “The truth of the matter is that most people don’t like change; they would rather stay with the status quo and do things the way they’ve always been doing them. Encouraging people to let go of the old and embrace the new has been a big challenge. Our communications has emphasized that the changes we’ve made are not only necessary for our survival but also inevitable.”
In the face of major changes in the business, there is also the need for consistency in fundamental values that people rely on from leadership, Flanders said.
“People cannot see you hopping from one management philosophy to another and then to another,” he said. “You should stick to the basics of providing good products to customers, standing behind those products, being fair to your employees, and being good for your community. Those are the leadership basics that are never going to change.”
Flanders has developed his own well-hewn approach to leadership that matches well with the qualities of a Level 5 leader.
“I’m not a micromanager,” he said. “I like to think of myself as a resource, and I let our employees go about their work the way they would like. If things are not going the way they should, then I want them to come to me for advice or direction. Rather than my laying out a complete course of action, I want to be there when our people need help.”
Karthik Kannan – Leadership Guides
Goal Setting and Achievement
Karthik Kannan is a professor in management at Purdue University’s School of Management, and academic director for the MBA program. Kannan also researches and teaches topics related to understanding and designing systems, products, processes and policies that tap into human instincts and biases in order to nudge behavior. In his view, business leadership plays the central role in setting objectives and helping move people toward those goals.
In some organizations, such as Apple Computers under Steve Jobs, it was Jobs who set the objectives because he understood market opportunities better than anyone else, Kannan said. In other organizations, leaders inspire collaboration.
“Organizational goals may be arrived at by a few key personnel within the organization with the leader facilitating these interactions,” he said. “The time required for goal setting depends on the environment in which the organization is functioning, its competitive position relative to its competition, and how the competition may be redefining the market. Urgency can be critical because complacency has led many companies to die. For example, Kodak invented digital photography only to let it kill its own company.”
As was the case of Steve Jobs, leaders are expected to be visionary, but visionary leadership takes different forms, Kannan said. At times it boils down to keen analytical skills that lead to insights.
“A leader should be able to abstract away and redefine the marketplace in which it operates,” he said. “In industries where there are fundamental shifts, a leader who is focused on just managing things may not be sufficient.
“Once goals are articulated, true leaders help their subordinates feel that they can be successful in working with the leadership team to meet those objectives. Strategic thinking without operational grounding tends to be superficial and unsuccessful,” Kannan continued. “A common trait seen in a true leader is the ability to empower workers; measure success at pre-determined points using pre-determined metrics; and working to unclog obstacles. Empathy is a critical building block in this equation. It’s a matter of aligning the heart and the mind.”
|Jerry and Linda Newton.|
Jerry and Linda Newton – Create
a Culture of Empowerment and Accountability
You would expect a company with the name “Leader’s Casual Furniture” to be the epitome of strong leadership, and this Largo, Florida-based company does not disappoint. Leader’s has long been recognized as an industry leader with 19 showroom locations and an expansive distribution business based in western Florida. Innovative applications of information technology, and a customer-focused culture, have long been championed by the Leader’s ownership team of Jerry and Linda Newton and their son, Tim.
“From the very beginning our ambition was to expand the business,” Jerry said. “To do that we had to provide leadership in putting the control systems in place while embedding a culture of empowerment and accountability that would allow us to grow in an organized and productive fashion.”
Jerry Newton was on a fast-track corporate career with NCR in the late 1970s, a leading computer equipment and services company, when he realized that only by moving his family to Dayton, Ohio, could his career remain on track. A move to the frigid north and away from family and friends was not an option for the Newton family.
Jerry joined a small casual furniture company in St. Petersburg in 1979, later to be renamed Leader’s, and in 1986, he and his wife, Linda, acquired controlling interest in the company and put it on a growth strategy. The Newtons applied multiple generations of the latest computer systems over the years, and provided the type of leadership that a workforce needs during times of continual growth.
“Every time we wanted to do something bigger and better we had to get our people to believe in it, and we did that by bringing them into the decision process,” Jerry said. “Installing new systems is the easy part; getting people to believe in those systems is much harder. You can tell them that the new system will make their jobs easier, more enjoyable, and more gratifying, but people have to trust you and they have to see the results for themselves.”
During times of change within the company, Jerry and Linda would often work directly within departments to identify and implement improvements.
“A good leader wants to be part of the team, and not seen just as the owner of the business,” Linda said. “I worked with our people as a team, as part of a family, and didn’t want to be seen as ‘the boss.’ It was important for me that people felt empowered and that they knew someone cared about them and wanted to make their jobs better. We’re all in this together.”
As Leader’s grew steadily, Jerry and Linda emphasized an unrelenting focus on customer satisfaction. The success of Jerry and Linda as a leadership team was based on a shared vision for the company, clear division of responsibilities, and mutual respect.
“The Leader’s culture is reflected in the motto you see on each employee’s shirt – ‘One Team, One Goal,’” Jerry said. “Everyone at Leader’s has one goal and that’s making our customers happy. You achieve that goal with leadership that empowers people, gives them the tools they need to do the job, and makes everyone accountable.”
In 2008, Jerry and Linda gradually backed off from direct involvement in running the company and their son, Tim, assumed responsibilities as managing director. Tim and his wife Ashley work together to guide the company strategically into the future while fostering the Leader’s successful culture.
“One of the best compliments that an employee can hear is when a customer asks them if they’re one of the owners,” Jerry said. “If a customer thinks one of our team members is the owner, then we’ve done our job as leaders because that customer feels the sense of ownership that we’ve worked hard to make part of our culture.”