The simple yet effective approaches business leaders Bill Wagner '89 and Rick Ill '65 used to improve their teams.
I’ve met with alumni industry and community leaders in the last month from whom I’ve drawn some insights and observations. Separated by geography, industry, and objectives, these individuals remain united in mission to create value for their organizations. Given their heterogeneity, I imagined each would have a different approach toward innovation and achieving results; I was wrong.
To my surprise many credited their success to similar practical and mundane measures, like engaging with front line employees to better understand customer needs, providing space and time for employees to be creative, and surrounding themselves with diverse viewpoints. Of course many used industry specific jargon and instituted their own twist, but at the core were fundamentally simple, or dare I say common sense approaches to activating the energy of their employees and promoting organizational accountability.
Two recent conversations with alumni in the month of April underscored this point and inspired this reflection. Both are very successful business people whose approach to management epitomize this model of common sense value creation.
In early April, the Dyer Center hosted Bill Wagner ‘89 as part of our President’s Entrepreneurship Lecture Series. Bill gave a spirited and engaging talk on his career and lessons learned, but one of the most insightful moments came from his response to a question on how he created a culture of innovation. Bill riffed on many of the themes mentioned above but added he did not have a permanent desk. Rather he floats from department to department to ensure his accessibility to employees and to gain a perspective on the company not possible from the top floor of the office tower. Witnessing the talent and passion of his people and, maybe more importantly, being available to remove any road blocks that might be inhibiting them is more important to Bill than a breath taking view of the Boston Harbor.
A short time later I had lunch with alumnus Rick Ill ‘65. Rick had considerable success as CEO and Chairman of Triumph Group, a major supplier of aircraft components. Over lunch I asked Rick how he was able to create so much value for shareholders and the company. His response? “Find out the dumb stuff we were doing and tell folks to knock it off.” Similar to Bill, Rick was a fixture on the company floor and approachable to anyone in the company. His favorite example was a machinist who complained the job description was sent separately from the drawings necessitating a walk to the print room and delays in production. Rick fondly recalled at his retirement being approached by the same machinist who thanked for making his job easier.
Those of us tasked with driving innovation know it’s inextricably linked with organizational culture. Trust, employee engagement/empowerment, and diverse/divergent thinking are all perquisites to creating a workplace where employees are freed from having to do “dumb” things in order to do what matters: creating value for their customers. This is true whether the organization is a nonprofit healthcare provider, college, tech company, or industrial conglomerate. My conversations with Bill and Rick were a stark reminder of a lesson I often tell our students; sometimes it’s the simple things, not the newfangled management fads that will enable them to them to create the most value for themselves, their organizations, and their community.