Leadership Lessons From ABOY

This month’s “On Leadership” column was supposed to be No. 3 in a series of four on leading change. However, the emotional domain will have to wait in favor of some reflections on Tuesday’s Arkansas Business of the Year awards dinner.

In a year that has seen some of the toughest business challenges for decades, we can all learn something from the businesses and leaders who were nominated. The comments of those accepting awards gave us that opportunity to learn.

While praise goes to every organization and executive who was nominated, only those who won had the opportunity to speak. I heard a few themes anchored in their remarks: support of the larger community, people as a strategic asset, the power of culture and the sustaining nature of vision.

Organizations that take home the Outstanding Philanthropic Corporation Awards have demonstrated by their very nomination their dedication to the communities in which they operate.

The leaders who accepted on behalf of their organizations, Charles Nabholz for Nabholz Construction Services and Greg Davis for Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative, showed humility and grace – even a little tentativeness about recognition for what they do because it is deeply engrained in their culture. Martin Thoma, who accepted on behalf of Thoma Thoma, demonstrated a leader’s ability to challenge in his remarks, recognizing Arkansas’ business community as “a powerful force for good in our state” and inviting the business community to reap the benefits of putting “our time, talent, treasure” to work in support of charitable organizations in the state.

Each of the organizations and leaders selected emphasized the importance, quality and value of its people.

Michael Kennedy of Advanced Cabling Systems was eloquent in his description of a key strategy to “hire the best talent possible” as an expression of company vision. But he was also specific in a way that made his comments real and credible, by adding, “under the premise of we can teach people our business, but we can’t teach them hard work and good ethics.” Kennedy described hiring his staff from almost any field but technology, putting technical skill secondary to hiring those who “knew about hard work and how to take care of a customer.”

Another theme in the comments had to do with a strong and clear culture. Dhu Thompson of Delta Plastics of the South focused on people as an expression of culture, describing hiring “based on character.” Thompson summed up the culture in the company he leads with two slogans: “Do your job. Pay attention.” That cultural clarity and focus on execution won his firm the top honors among businesses with between 76 and 300 employees.

It’s not surprising that nonprofits would be the organizations with the greatest focus on vision. When times are tough, fierce dedication to a vision may be all that will get an organization through, especially one that depends on others investing in that vision.

Friendship Community Care, winner of the Nonprofit Organization of the Year, gave the microphone to one of the clients it serves, bringing home to the entire room the impact that the nonprofit has.

Kathy Manis Findley, executive director of Safe Places, accepted her Nonprofit Executive of the Year award by describing specific and evocative examples of the clients her organization serves, bringing the house to its feet for a standing recognition of her work at Safe Places.

If you read here often, you know that I have a certain disdain for platitudes about business. I regularly take copies of vision statements and corporate values off the lobby wall and into the CEO’s office. I want to see the proof statements like “Honesty in all our dealings” or “People are our most important asset” in the specifics of hiring, development and governance.

And while an acceptance speech is not the place to trot out the P&L, the evidence of specifics was reassuring that tough times produce more than mindless cost-cutting and short-term thinking.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, March 1, 2010.