Developing young leaders

Executive smarts to help you groom talent the right way

The Post team in January hosted the inaugural installment of Executive Smarts, a series of high-level panel discussions that get at the heart of some of the biggest questions facing Middle Tennessee’s business leaders. First out of the gates was an insightful discussion between Evan Owens of Centresource (pictured here), Brian Luoma of Louisiana-Pacific and Mark Cleveland of Swiftwick on how to groom young talent into future leaders. Moderated by Jill Robinson of Belmont University, the conversation also migrated into broader leadership issues. Here are some edited excerpts.


On the different ways to develop young employees with leadership potential:

Luoma: We developed a really nice set of competencies that we use when we evaluate people. We’ve built some coaching and mentoring within the company and we have a really nice internal development program that we call building leaders. The first level is called foundation for building leaders and it’s a curriculum that we developed specifically for LP. We bring in people from the supervisory level in our mills and in our offices and we put them through a program that focuses on things like communications, performance, feedback, and all the sorts of things we expect. Then we’ve got a second level of that for higher-level managers.

Owens: One of the things that I was taught early on is you can’t mass-produce leaders. If you’re a leader mentoring someone, you have to be willing to engage that person one on one for an extended period of time. Everybody wants to see the leader that they’ve produced, that they’ve matured, that they’ve grown. But nobody wants to sign up to walk through that person’s mess with them for two years while they figure out their career.

Cleveland: We’re a small company and we pride ourselves on being agile. We just get right out in the field and get in their face and coach them up. We’re reacting real time to a lot of opportunities that come our way. We’re opportunistic.

But it takes a village to raise young leaders. It took the college professor who inspired them. It took the dad who sat them down and the grandpa who took them behind the woodshed. It takes a lot of energy throughout life to create and develop a leader. And the person who is being developed has to really want to be a leader. There are so many people who get leadership roles and don’t really want them.

You have to be able to identify the talent for the right thing that you’re trying to accomplish with your business at that moment in time. And I know our business changes every six months. It feels like it’s a completely different business every year and people are running hard and keeping up.

So the pace is important and I always look for people who have been involved in team sports. Not just because it’s a team sport but also because they’ve been in a situation where they’ve given permission to someone to coach them. And I think you have to have permission from whoever it is, whatever age they are and whatever role they play. You have to have their permission to coach them.

On the challenges around developing young leaders within the organization:

Owens: All I have is young leaders. The average age of my company is, I think, 28. So the whole thing is a challenge, right? I think a couple things. One is that, as a young leader starts to rise, it’s interesting. If you haven’t coached them through that rising, shooting-star phenomenon that’s going to happen to them before it starts happening, it’s too late. They will leave you within a given few months.

And the reason is a lot of bigger companies — maybe some of you represent those companies  — like to see a shooting star and, all of a sudden, they’re interested. Or maybe some of the recruiters are in on that. You’ll wait to find that shooting star that’s finally in the paper and you begin calling him.

So one of the things we try to do hard is sit down with people we’re about to start equipping with leadership skills and I say to them, “You’re at a point in your career where, over the next couple of years, your opportunity to gain notoriety in this city is going to climb. When that happens, what are you going to do?” And I coach them through what to expect because I’ve been through it and I’ve seen the bright side and the dark side of what that can do to a person.

Luoma: I’m dealing with a real challenge in this arena right this minute. What I have done over my years of experience is developed my own little approach to how I want to lead based on what I’ve learned. And if you look at any of my people in the audience right now, you’ll see them rolling their eyes because I drive them nuts with this. But I’ve got what call Luoma’s laws of leadership and it’s five real simple items.

The first one is look them in eye and tell the truth. Everybody gets that. The second one is look them in the eye and listen. The third one is be courageous and decisive. The fourth one is be generous with your time. And the fifth one is find the pride factor, because everybody — young, old, it doesn’t matter — they all have one.

So fast-forward to the question that we’re dealing with now. I have in my organization an interesting dynamic going on with one of the managers who reports to me who’s of a similar age and style to me and his 30-something employee who is a pretty free spirit. The two of them are totally skilled and experienced and high-quality, high-potential people. But they are just flat missing each other in their ability to communicate and, I guess, to set the proper expectations for one another.

And I’m sitting there looking at that going, “How am I going to get in the middle of all that and referee this thing?” I’ve got polar opposites here in style and experience. What I realized is that I needed to go back to Luoma’s five basic laws of leadership and look them both in the eye and tell the truth. Pretty simple, but hard to do.

It’s a work in progress, but the two of them are starting to communicate at a different and more productive level now. And it didn’t have anything to do with one of them being a baby boomer and the other one being millennial or a dot-com or whatever. That’s not how you manage it. You recognize those differences are there. But I refuse to put either of them in a box and try to manage it that way.

On what to do as a young professional who loves her career but may be working for the wrong organization or the wrong leader:

Cleveland: You want them to be honest with you about your strengths and weaknesses and the experience that they’re having with you. You need to be honest with them about their strengths and weaknesses and the experience you’re having with them. If you can’t be, then you’re in the wrong spot. Period.

Owens: I would tell you one thing not to do, something that many of us in the room have probably done at some point in our careers. I call it building an army of backers. You’ll say, “You know what, I’m unhappy in my job. Are you unhappy in your job? Oh my goodness, you’re unhappy in your job, too. That boss does suck!”

And pretty soon, you go around trying to build a consortium of upset people. And that’s not the brand you want to have as a person. It’s much better to have that tough conversation one on one. And always, that’s the respectable thing. But that’s something that will let you be able to sleep at night.

And also, look out for the wolf that comes to you because they think you’re unhappy and they want you to back their viewpoint. Say to them, “I’m sorry, you need to man up and go talk to the boss.” Tell them that. That’s the kind of peer leadership that you can start to display that I guarantee your boss will see.

On one of the first things you can teach a new graduate about your business:

Cleveland: The younger generation, as they’re coming out of college, they have been in some training program and they’ve been in somebody else’s structure all this time. They’ve become good project managers in somebody else’s highly defined structure. Then they get out and they get their degree and they’re going to punch their ticket.

If they’re still students, you’ve got a chance with them. They just went through a project management process — but it was someone else’s structure. Now they’re coming into your business. They’ve got project skills, but they don’t have a lot of experience with stuff flying out of left field at them, or in changing priorities or different economic circumstances.

So to train somebody on project management skills, I think, is one of the first things you have to do to get a great leader. Because they have to see the swim lanes, they have to see the different impacts on the organization. They have to be able to see the organization as a whole. And they can do it. They’ve got the skills right now, but they’ve just have never used them that way.

On ways to get find good employees:

Owens: We pay $500 to any team member who refers someone who comes to work for us. That’s a nice little fee. So if getting your own team to create leads is something that you guys are having trouble with, put a big enough number in front of them and you will get leads.

Recently, there was a position we couldn’t fill so we raised the money to $1,000. That didn’t happen. So, we upped it to $1,500. Guess what, leads poured in. And one of them was a perfect fit and we hired her. And that $1,500 is less than I would have spent with a recruiting agency — although there are certain industries where recruiting is a perfect fit so in no way am I downing recruiting.

The other thing we use is a hiring process from a book called “Who” by G.H. Smart. If you haven’t read it, you need to. Our interview process is five interviews long, so it’s been a long time since we’ve hired the wrong person because only the right people are willing to go through that many stages of interview processes in a small company. We’ve been doing that for two and a half years now.

On how and to whom a leader can vent:

Luoma: That’s a great question. When you’re the leader, a lot of times your job is to be the receiver of venting. But who do you vent to when it’s time to do that? What I have learned is that, as I get closer to the top of my organization, it gets pretty lonely. So I have some people that are really close to me, which means they work for me indirectly or directly. Some may be outside my organization. And there are two or three of them that I’ve developed a relationship with where I can close the door. I can swear them to secrecy and I can unload on them a little bit.

And there’s no threat to them by me doing that. There’s nothing to be gained for them by breaking my confidence. And I use that a little bit. You can’t always tell them everything. I mean, if you’re upset with your boss, you’re probably not going to go rail on too long.

Otherwise, you’ve got to get outside of the organization altogether. And then you get people who will probably listen to you sympathetically, but probably won’t have a whole lot to offer you in terms of the specifics of the issue. So, it’s a tricky one. And it does feel a little lonely once in a while and sometimes you’ve got to just roll with it.