In a recent conversation with Mike McCarty, President & CEO of Helena Chemical Company, I asked Mike what skills leaders must possess to be effective today.
Phil: Tell me, from your perspective in developing leaders, what are the key elements, one, two, three, top one, top two, top three things that you think a leader, regardless of the industry, but a leader needs to be able to do today that may have been different five or ten years ago and may be different five years from now?
Mike: Yes, again, good question. Obviously, when you look at that of a leader, you need to be qualified to move into a position form a technical standpoint or a knowledgeable standpoint. I think the key, the higher up you move into the management role of the organization, the greater your people skills need to be. Again, I’m a little biased because as I’ve said many times, I think the agricultural industry is so relationship-oriented, but again, you cannot lose sight of the people side of the business and to be an effective leader today, you have to have superior people skills. If you could manage people…because the earlier question, you said what was the bigger challenge and I said it was people.
People drive our industry. People drive any industry in business, so I try to encourage people to…and that’s one of the questions I ask when you move into a role – how have you been at managing people? How do you communicate to people? We’re going to have a lot of people up underneath these managers that have the technical expertise, the knowledge base, to do the daily job, but when you become a senior level, whether it’s a Vice President, Division Manager or Senior Manager, it’s people skills. So that would be the number one trait. Obviously, there’s many other things that go into the qualifications to move into a job, but it’s people skills.
Phil: Well, let me take that broad based question and ask it in a more direct and more personal standpoint. You mentioned to the group earlier that you’d been with the company – I think you said – thirty-two years?
Mike: Thirty-two years.
Phil: Thirty-two years, same company, young man, started early in your career and here you are in the middle part of your career. Maybe even approaching the latter stages of your career or getting closer there, what do you going from a salesman in the business to now the CEO suite, what did you attribute, again, the top one, two, three things for you personally? What is it that you learned that brought you from where you were to where you are today?
Mike: Okay, let me sum this up and I’ll kind of worked backwards. You have to trust other people in the company and let me say what I mean by that. When you’re first promoted into a management position and you’re usually coming out of a field, you tend to be much more hands-on because that’s how you’re successful being a sales rep or a branch manager is you move into manager roles. You have many, now, different people working for you. Initially, most people take the same approach of being very hands-on because that’s the way they’ve been successful when in many times you have to back away.
You have to learn how to delegate and you have to learn how to communicate. That gets back a little bit to what I said earlier about the people skills. How do you communicate with people? How do you delegate with people and not be where, I’ve always said, where people feel that you’re looking over their shoulder. If you can do that and create that team concept and support people rather than being the doer, then it works well. I had to learn that the hard way. I mean I was very young when I got the opportunity to become President. I was forty years old.
Phil: Forty years old, wow.
Mike: I was forty years old, was offered the opportunity to be Helena, very grateful, but I was inheriting, at that time, about a billion dollar company and I was forty years old. Many people asked me, “What did you do to prepare?” Well, there was no preparation.
I told them I would do it because I had enough confidence, when you’re younger. I said, “Look, I’m going to try this and I think I can do it.” Did you have formal training? No. I told people I came out of the field. I was a salesman at heart. I loved dealing with people and I had a desire to succeed. I wanted to succeed. There were a lot of things that drive you and you just say, “Okay, I’m going to do that.” Then you learn, so I kind of learned on the job, so to speak, and I’ve been in the job now for sixteen years. So when I first took it, I said, “Well, we’ll see how long this will last,” because you don’t really know when you’re a forty year old and you take over a company. How long are you going to be able to get along with your shareholders and your stakeholders in the company, but you learn by that and I’ve learned a lot.
Now, what I want to try to do is share what I’ve learned for the generation, so the next guy that sits in my seat doesn’t have to do it the way I did it. Not saying it can’t be done, but we’re a much more complex company today. We’re not a billion dollar company anymore. We’re almost a $4 billion dollar company. We’re so much more diverse. We have so many more employees, so the transition should be different.
Phil: Well, then let me ask you one final question and this question will be on the heels of the comment you just made. You said, “I’m trying to help the next person to know how to do it a little bit differently.” For the people that may be watching and who may have the desires to grow their own career past where they are right now, maybe not to a CEO suite at some point, but to somewhere beyond where they are, what would you suggest to them that they need to do almost immediately that would move them toward whatever that goal or level in their career might be?
Mike: I think it’s making it known what you would like to do because when you have a lot of people in the company. If I know, as the CEO of Helena, people have a desire to want to do more, to move into a management role, I encourage them to tell me that. Believe or not, you remember these things. You remember these individuals because when you’re part of a mass group, there’s so many talented people. Obviously, working hard and achieving success and being one of the top people in the company, certainly, that’s an advantage, but also making it known because don’t take it for granted that people know what you want to do and I think that’s what I’ve always encouraged people.
If someone wants to have an opportunity to work in California, as an example, let us know that or if you have an opportunity to work in a certain segment a bit, let us know that or if you have a desire to be one the senior executives, let us know that. We need to know because, again, we have to identify. Again, when you have a lot of people like that, you have as many individuals as we have, it makes it more difficult. I’ve asked that and people have told me that. In my mind, I know there’s certain individuals now that have that desire to be the next Vice President or the next President of Helena and we’ll do everything we can, I’ll do everything I can to give those opportunities.
All the best,
Phillip Van Hooser
During a recent Leaders Ought To Know retreat, I had the good fortune to sit down with the President & CEO of Helena Chemical Company, Mike McCarty. We discussed a number of leadership development issues. Here are excerpts from our conversation on the importance of organizational succession planning.
Phil: Mike, you were asked a number of questions a few minutes ago, but one of the questions that intrigued me was what’s it like to be the president of a $1.3 billion multinational company, primarily, in the United States, but serving countries around the world. How do you answer a question like that?
Mike: Well, I think the question was what is my biggest challenge of running almost a $4 billion dollar corporation and the response I gave to the individual was people is probably the biggest opportunity and challenge. When you have that many folks out there, you’re going to have a tremendous amount of opportunities. You’re biggest asset in the company are people, but your biggest opportunity are also people because with people, it also leads itself to change with companies. We’re in a constant state of change in our personal live, professional lives and we need to help, I need to help, guide that and lead that, which then creates the opportunities on the people side of the business and why we need to do these things.
My job in the company is to look out at where we’re going to go in the next five or ten years. I’ve got all the confidence in the world that all our managers and all our employees are going to take care of the day-to-day business and the annual business. We’ve got to look and I’ve got to look at the management team for the future. So the challenge, again, comes back to where do we go, how do we change and how do we communicate that change.
Phil: You mentioned just a minute ago the importance of the people and also the challenge associated by people. Talk to me a little bit about succession planning within Helena Chemical. You know that most of the people that will be watching this are people who are focused in on leadership and leadership development, so on and so forth. First of all, how do you identify leaders within the organization both current and future and then how do you develop them so that you can prepare them for the challenges that are to come, as well?
Mike: That’s a good question and a timely question for us because we’re in the process right now with my executive team. We’re going through a new strategic plan for our next five years. One of the things that has surfaced and we knew this is the area succession planning and it goes back to my generation of the company when we joined the company. I jokingly say we’re a bunch of young kids. We’re a bunch of 25 year olds that joined the company. We’ve all been here a long time now and we’re starting to see the retirements take place.
This is something that Helena will experience that we’ve never really experienced before and that’s going to be more of a mass retirement staggered over the next five years. Now, that leads itself to the opportunity of who replaces everyone in the company and succession planning. I’ve asked all of them to start to identify the next generation of who has that opportunity, of who may want to move to different geographies because, again, being a nationwide company, I think that, again, is a different opportunity. The younger generation I see today is not as prone to move as what we were when I was coming up in the industry.
Well, we’ve done a relatively good job of identifying those individuals. Now, it’s going to be creating the opportunities for them and as that takes place and we’re in the process of doing that right now. One of the things I’m trying to do is get that next generation in here to the corporate office because when you move to a corporate office, it’s a different environment from when you’ve been out in the field. We’ve all experienced that, but until you’re here, you really don’t know. My wish would be that we would have a very seamless transition of individuals and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish right now where we have staggered retirements of the executive team where they don’t all go at one time.
We’re starting to lose them now and if I just look at it for the 20 or 25 people that we have in that group, I feel we’re in very, very good shape. Where we’re going to have our opportunities, it’s kind of like the domino effect. As people move up into management and then they move up into the senior roles at the field level, who takes the place at the sales rep level and our branch manager level? That means we’re going to have to do a higher level of recruiting. So we’re going to need more people. We’re going to need more of that younger generation coming in, which is contrary to what’s really going on with the business in the U.S. today when we look at unemployment. We’re going to be out there actively recruiting at universities right now to try to take care of this issue that you had talked about with succession planning.
I’ll share more from this conversation in the coming days.
Phillip Van Hooser
In my last post I asked readers to think about and respond to this question:
What are the three most important actions you have taken that have positively impacted your professional success?
You will recall that this discussion began based on an interview I conducted with Dr. Jay Akridge, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Purdue University, during a recent Leaders Ought To Know client retreat for Helena Chemical. Dr. Akridge offered the following responses (paraphrased with his permission based on the emphasis I personally drew from his comments).
PVH: Dr. Akridge, you have experienced significant successes in your chosen field at a relatively young age. What do you consider to be the three most important actions you have taken that have positively impacted your professional successes?
Dr. Akridge: First, has been my willingness to step off the proven, planned path that I was traveling. Too often, I think people may become so singularly focused on the task at hand that they may not recognize any number of other divergent paths leading to many other desirable destinations—some of which may be better or more promising than the ones we originally envisioned.
Second, I have tried to be willing to explore and/or pursue interesting opportunities as they were presented to me. When I left for college I expected to get a degree in agriculture before returning home to work in the family business. Along the way, various professors, coupled with varied experiences I was fortunate to have, led me to continue my education at Purdue, before exploring the working academic side of agriculture. I have been willing to explore various opportunities to see what each might hold. It has been a wonderful adventure.
Finally, I have realized the value of having and, when necessary actively pursuing, professional mentors that have helped me grow and progress in my career. A great number of these mentors have helped reduce my professional learning curves significantly. That has been a great professional advantage.
PVH: Okay then, one follow up question. What do you look for when attempting to identify a mentor?
Dr. Akridge: I look for three things in a potential mentor: someone whom I respect for what they have accomplished or for their values, someone who is non-judgmental and someone who is willing to invest time. It’s a rare combination, but there are individuals possessing these characteristics all around us. I have been fortunate to find such individuals at various junctures in my life and career. Their influence on my ultimate career has been significant.
Let’s take a moment to summarize. Dr. Akridge offered that the three most important actions he has taken which have ultimately supported his professional successes include:
1. Flexibility: Being willing to step off the planned path.
2. Curiosity: Being willing to explore interesting opportunities that present themselves.
3. Outreach: Being intentional in pursuing professional mentors.
So what about you? Do you agree with these three? Do you see any that are glaringly absent for you? Or do you just think Dr. Akridge is full of beans—soybeans probably, one of America’s farmers favorite cash crops?
Another question I asked Dr. Akridge during our interview was:
What are the three most beneficial habits you have developed to serve to support your continuing successes?
You will read his answer in the next post. In the meantime, I would like to know how you would answer the same question. What habits are working well for you as a successful leader? These are ideas that Leaders Ought To Know.
Phillip Van Hooser
During a recent Leaders Ought To Know client retreat for Helena Chemical Company, I interviewed the Dean of the College of Agriculture at Purdue University, Dr. Jay Akridge.
Listening to Dr. Akridge one soon discovers that he is not your typical, stuffy academic / bureaucratic administrator type. Born on a western Kentucky farm, Jay’s family owned and managed a very successful independent farm store in the small town of Fredonia, Kentucky (population 400). By the time of Jay’s arrival, Akridge Farm Supply, founded in 1933 by Jay’s grandfather, was being managed by Jay’s father. It was naturally assumed that Jay would eventually take up the reins of the family business, representing the third generation to do so.
But listening to Jay one soon discovers he is not your typical, folksy farmer / agricultural businessman type either. Upon graduating as the valedictorian from Lyon County High School, Eddyville, Kentucky (senior class population of 58), Jay accepted a full Presidential Scholarship to attend Murray State University where he studied Ag Economics and finished his undergraduate education with a 3.96 GPA. But he was far from finished. Instead of heading back to Akridge Farm Supply and a secure future, Jay headed north to West Lafayette, Indiana, to continue his education at Purdue University. In short order he had completed his Masters degree and by age 26 had earned his Doctorate from one of the most prestigious educational institutions in America’s heartland.
Purdue University and the new Dr. Akridge with made for each other. Jay took his unique combination of practical agricultural knowledge, educational intensity and intellectual curiosity and put them to work at Purdue, first as a professor, next as the Director of the Center for Food and Agricultural Business and finally, as the Dean of the College of Agriculture—all before reaching the ripe old age of 50.
I wanted to know how he did it. I always want to know the secret sauce that makes common people uncommonly successful. During the course of our interview, Leaders Ought To Know program participants heard Dr. Akridge respond to a broad range of questions, including these three:
Q1: What are the three most important actions you have taken to positively impact your professional success?
Q2: What are the three most beneficial habits you have developed to serve to support your continuing successes?
Q3: Wanting your children to be even more successful than you have been, what secrets of success do you share with them based on your own individual experiences?
Jay’s answers to each question were candid, thought provoking and to the point. In my next couple postings I will explore each question in depth, sharing Jay’s responses to each along with a few comments by me.
But, first I want to hear what you think. In advance of of Dr. Akridge’s answers, I would like to know specifically: What are the three most important actions you have taken to positively impact your professional success? Feel free to share the question with other successful people in your network. Encourage them to respond based on their own personal and professional experiences. Suggest that they connect with us here in order to engage in the collaborative process of sharing with each other and learning from one another. I look forward to the discussion.
Phillip Van Hooser