The Importance of Leading by Example

Kitchen & Bath Design News annually sponsors the Industry Leadership Awards to recognize leadership excellence among kitchen and bath industry professionals. According to the criteria for entries, "the categories focus on skills in business management, marketing, the use of showrooms, industry/community service and related areas."

The Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association (DPHA) was recognized in 2003 with first-place honors for providing a unified voice to represent the opinions and ideas of decorative hardware and plumbing professionals in the kitchen and bath industry. DPHA created a community that previously did not exist and contributed significantly to the industry's increase in stature and professionalism.

DPHA's early successes are due, in large measure, to the leadership provided by Jeff Burton of The Bath and Beyond, located in San Francisco, CA. Burton understood passionately DPHA's vision and was able to convert his passion into accomplishment. Under his leadership, DPHA became the premier organization of decorative plumbing and hardware professionals in the nation and produced deliverables that for many years had only been discussed as wishful thinking.

In as much as I am following in Jeff Burton's footsteps, I write about "leadership" with some trepidation. Nonetheless, having gotten my chops in the industry by re-engineering a 75-year-old company Colonial Bronze by observing many leadership styles, and being somewhat of a student on the subject of leadership, I have some irrepressible thoughts on the topic.

Effective Leadership
There is no uniform model that enables an individual to lead a company, an organization or a nation. Leadership styles vary depending upon the personalities of individual leaders. Some leaders are not very charismatic but are nonetheless capable of leading effectively. Alternatively, having excellent communication skills doesn't automatically translate to leadership ability.

Two figures who have gained much public notoriety because of their leadership styles are my old boss, Rudolph Giuliani, and Enron's Ex-CEO, Kenneth Lay. I worked for Rudy in the early 1980s and had the opportunity to experience his style of leadership firsthand. Giuliani has come to be viewed as a tremendous leader due to his ability to rally New York City in response to an epic crisis. Ken Lay dominates headlines because he was at the helm of the largest bankruptcy in the history of the U.S. Both Giuliani's and Lay's leadership styles teach important lessons.

I frequently think about what makes for an effective leader. Inevitably, I find that leaders must have a genuine concern for the well being of those they lead. Integrity and sincerity are absolutely critical and a rock-bottom minimum. Most of us developed early the ability to spot the disingenuous and phony.

At the heart of effective leadership is the ability to communicate a vision. People are willing to follow if a leader provides a clear sense of direction. Similarly, people won't follow if there is not an understood and shared purpose or a reason to do so.

The "Vision Thing," as General Electric's highly respected CEO Jack Welch called it in his autobiography, Jack, Straight from the Gut, generated $450 billion in market capitalization during Welch's tenure as chief executive officer. But, for Welch, it was not simply about making money. He wrote, "I wanted GE to become 'the most competitive enterprise on earth.' My objective wasto build an organizationthat would be high-spirited, more adaptable, and more agile than companies one fiftieth of our sizeI wanted to create a company where people dare to try new things where people feel assured in knowing that the only limit of their creativity and drivewill be the ceiling on how far and how fast they move."

Welch became one of America's most admired CEOs by being able to visualize how his enterprise differed from everyone else's and by communicating that message throughout all levels of the organization. This ability to differentiate and communicate is critical to effective leadership. Corporate visions must be clear and continually reinforced so that they permeate the entire fabric of an organization.

Walking the Walk
I spend a significant percentage of my time focusing on my company's vision and our corporate values. Our company's vision is to produce uniquely designed, superior crafted products that enable us to create balanced partnerships between our company and the showrooms that carry our products. I know that if we can help our customers become successful, perforce we ourselves will succeed.

Showrooms are conduits to our ultimate customers, the end users. To reach these ultimate customers, we strive to become the most important supplier of our lines to showrooms that carry our products. We want to be thought of first when a showroom looks to expand its offering of cabinet and architectural hardware. We want showroom sales staffs to recommend our products first because of our quality and our ability to meet and exceed their customers' expectations. We want to create new products that enable our showroom partners to become more successful and more important to their customers.

Some so-called leaders spend most of their time focusing on a particular aspect of a business, such as the financial considerations of their enterprise. When that happens, the clarity of the vision more often than not becomes cloudy, ala Enron. Capital is the commodity upon which a business is built. It is not the sole reason for a business to exist.

Our vision is simple and easily understood and helps differentiate us from our competitors. Our company focuses on being the best at what we do living up to our corporate values. We have a seven-point company Code of Conduct establishing our values, for which I thank Art Burns and the Wiremold Corporation:

  • Respect the individual.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Be fair.
  • Try new ideas.
  • Ask why.
  • Keep your promises.
  • Do your share.

I try to communicate our vision by spending considerable time not only talking the talk, but also by walking the walk with everyone in our organization.

I can't imagine leading my company by sitting behind a desk and merely "crunching numbers." I would find it impossible to reinforce behavior that is consistent with company values if I did not spend a considerable amount of time visiting the showrooms that carry our products. When I'm not on the road, I am on the factory floor, talking and working with employees. When I see something that looks great, there are lots of pats on the back and compliments. When performance does not meet the company's standards or values, I, as a leader, need to be tough.

Outside Influences
The same holds true when showrooms look for one-sided partnerships in which our interests are considered subservient. It's important to remember that you can't succeed in the long-term with win-lose relationships or without a clear appreciation of each other's goals.

Visiting showroom partners sends a message that you care about their success and the satisfaction of their customers. I find visiting showrooms to be very helpful because it helps to keep the organization focused on why we're in business in the first place. It also serves to keep my fingers on the pulse of my industry. The people closest to the customer know best their needs and wants. Venturing regularly onto the showroom floor lets me get close to the showroom sales staff and also helps to pinpoint problems. Additionally, spending quality face time with customers and their staffs makes them realize that you are genuinely interested in their success.

But, it's not just me. The agencies that represent our products also must understand and communicate our vision. The message we try to relate over and over again is that our reputation is our most important asset, and we depend on our employees and representatives to protect and enhance that reputation.

The ability to communicate corporate values to everyone who works for you is not enough. You need to not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk. "Do as I say, not as I do" is chump change in the scheme of values. You must live those values daily. When you do, a mutual respect develops between those who fashion the vision and those who are charged with its implementation. Employees are willing to listen to corporate leaders if they trust and respect them.

This leads us back to Rudy Giuliani and Kenneth Lay. We may never know all that happened at Enron. The lesson we learned from Enron's failure and Giuliani's success is that leaders of an organization must be able to look people in the eyes and assure them that we are working for them as long as they are committed to the embodiment of the company values and mission. In light of debacles such as Enron, it's probably not a bad time to remind your staff and your customers of that commitment.

While you are at it, take a good, hard look in the mirror.

Jamie Gregg is the CEO of Colonial Bronze, a 75-year-old manufacturer of decorative accessories headquartered in Torrington, CT. Colonial Bronze is a founding member of the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association, of which Gregg serves as DPHA's 2004 president.