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Are you a good manager? Would your staff agree with your answer? While some people are labeled natural-born leaders, it takes a unique set of skills to be considered a great leader.
In their CAMEX 2012 session The Art of Leadership, Sarah Funk, director of organizational effectiveness, Nebraska Book Co.; Mark Palmore, director, Connect2One; and Norman Jacobs, president, Spirit Products Ltd., offered examples of their leadership skills and how they polished them.
Funk, who previously worked for Target, was tasked with transforming that retailer from a company of managers into a company of leaders. She said leadership is about influencing thoughts and behaviors, not about tenure or level of authority. The traits Funk searched for in quality leaders are accountability, honesty, integrity, and consistency.
A corporate Christmas party provided inspiration for Jacobs to found Spirit Products Ltd. Born and raised in Boston, he helped build the backpack company Eastpak into a $70 million company. What was great about it, Jacobs recalled, was that despite it earnings, the company had only three to five managers.
Then the company was sold, and suddenly was being run by 12 to 14 managers.
“All of them were positioning themselves,” he said of watching those managers interact at the holiday party. “Eastpak had lost that entrepreneurial spirit.”
Jacobs made sure Spirit would not turn into what his former company had become.
“The culture had to be right. The office would be warm and inviting—no conference table,” he said. “There would be overstuffed couches and a coffee table, fresh coffee, sweets, and always beer in the fridge”—a perk that was never abused, he noted.
“You want to create an upbeat environment,” Palmore added, “a positive workplace.”
Jacobs credits his grandfather, an immigrant from Latvia, with providing him his salesmanship skills, his high-school football coach for showing how important it was to get everyone invested in the cause at hand, his high-school math teacher for offering the benefits of analytical analysis, and his college dean for demonstrating how to react to the unexpected.
A snowball fight in the middle of his campus was providing students an opportunity to blow off steam during finals. The dean heard a window break and rushed down. Instead of scolding or holding anyone responsible for the accident, the dean made a snowball and participated in the fun, all while leading the snowball fight away from the buildings and their windows.
“You have to step outside the box and deal with the unexpected,” Jacobs said.
Early in Spirit's history, an employee who failed to keep up with orders was tossing them in the trash and not telling anyone. It wasn’t until customers called looking for their orders that the problem was discovered.
“My wife said if I didn’t have a heart attack then, I never will,” Jacobs joked.
In response to the situation, a system was put in place to track every order from beginning to end. It allowed Jacobs to oversee the process without getting in the way. Two departments were formed: customer service and customer satisfaction. The service department helped clients prior to the order being made; once shipped, the satisfaction department took over.
“You have to learn from mistakes,” Jacobs said. “Without that bump, we would not be where we are today.”
A common theme with all three speakers was the necessity of hiring good people.
“Hire good people and get out of the way,” Jacobs said. “We trust people and they trust us.”
Getting the right person for the job isn’t always possible. Mistakes happen. If during the hiring process you’re not happy with those selected, Palmore said it’s important to start another search.
“Take the time to find good people,” he urged. “Go back to square one. It’s worth it. Be a creative interviewer. You want to surround yourself with cheerful and optimistic people. Hire people with talents you don’t have and train them well.”
If you do happen to hire someone who might not be the best fit, don’t give up on them.
“You have to allow for differences in personality,” Palmore said. “Keep malcontents close to you and try to win them over.”
Palmore points to the second-in-command as the most important person in any company.
“You have to make sure they complement your style of management, not be identical,” he said.
Once your staff is in place, and you’re pleased with how the operation is running, be sure to take care of them.
“Always try to relieve stress,” Jacobs said. “Bring in fresh bagels. Take staff out on the town. Treat people like family. Firing should be a last resort.”