I recently was asked to speak on courageous leadership to a group of local professionals. I had to think for a minute as to what courageous leadership is and why they think I am qualified to speak on this subject. So I started by thinking back to my recent presentation at our annual shareholders’ meeting. Here are a few of the highlights:
We added 260 employees in 2012, increasing our workforce by 33 percent. Yes, that took courage.
We acquired six companies in the past nine months. Yes, that took courage.
We had an average annual growth rate of 20 percent over the past five years and increased our stock value 120 percent. You could make a case that making courageous decisions has paid off for Marco.
That being said, successful leadership is not about one person, but about building a culture of bold leaders willing to make courageous decisions. There’s nothing unique about what we do. What defines us is how we do it.
Here’s what courageous leadership means to me:
1. Hire top talent and be prepared to pay them accordingly.
Yes, that typically requires a significant investment, but in my experience, the old adage – you get what you pay for – comes into play. You can’t just say you have the best people, you have to prove it. Our customers validate our competency every day when they select Marco as their preferred solution provider. In order to effectively grow our business, we have strategically hired top performers in professional services, sales, sales management and support functions. We’re in the people acquisition business and I believe this has been a key contributor to our success.
2. Make a commitment that almost seems unattainable.
In 2004, we were a $34 million company with 198 employees and seven locations in Minnesota and Fargo, North Dakota. We were determined not to stay that way. We committed to sustainable, double-digit growth, which would require an aggressive acquisition strategy. This is something we had never done before. We did not waiver from this commitment, even in the depths of the recent recession. During this time, we’ve completed 14 acquisitions, five of which were last year. So far it has worked. Today we are a $145 million company (projected for fiscal 2013) with 650 employees and 34 locations in five states.
3. Initiate an innovative product or service strategy.
That was the case for us with our Managed Services. When we first started to offer it, it was nearly unheard of in the industry. We had to make significant investments in the upfront infrastructure and personnel prior to having a single customer. Today Managed Services represents the fastest growing, most profitable segment of our business. It challenged us to completely change our business from being product-centric to a subscriber-focused service model. These investments have paid off – we went from $2.6 million in Managed Services sales in 2009 to $16 million today. Innovation is a necessary part of having a culture of courageous leadership. Be open to looking at something differently and act without knowing the results.
4. Fail forward fast.
Failures are a part of being a high performing company. You have to be willing to take risks and encourage employees to do the same. That may mean exiting product categories that once were your core business to focus on new strategies that will create your future. Remember, Marco started as a typewriter shop. We’ve exited many product categories over the years, from office furniture to office supplies to cabling, because they no longer fit our strategy, or in some cases like typewriters, just went away. The ability to say “no” – or “no more” in this case – is essential in leadership, but we often avoid the decision. Exiting a business segment often takes as much, if not more, courage than inventing a new one.
A culture of courageous leadership is usually not defined by one bold move. It is the result of many intentional actions, some more bold than others, that kept us in the game for over 40 years. Being courageous may be uncomfortable, but the results can be very rewarding.