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Leading With Muddy Boots On

Leading With Muddy Boots On

By Bridget McCrea

How leaders can be more effective by getting their own hands dirty, accepting the realities of today’s workforce, and always striving to be the dumbest person in the room.

When David Griffith took on his first management role in the distribution sector, he called his father to fill him in on that big achievement. “He asked me to stand up, look down, and tell me what I saw,” recalls Griffith. “Black wingtips, I said. And he said:  Wrong answer! You need to be wearing muddy boots. You don’t lead from behind a desk.”

Griffith took that piece of fatherly advice very seriously, and has since been spreading the gospel of how managers and leaders need to get out from behind their desks and get their own hands dirty. “It was the best advice ever,” says Griffith, who spends most of his professional life working in distribution and is current chairman of Modern Group, Ltd., and served on the board of JJ Haines and Delaware Valley Floral Group (both “large distributors” in their respective spaces, he says).

Currently working in the nonprofit space with Episcopal Community Services in Philadelphia, Griffith is a frequent lecturer on leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s Nonprofit Leadership Program, the Wharton School, the Fox School of Business, and Rutgers School of Engineering. Most times, he says effective leadership boils down to a few simple principles:

Get out of your dress shoes and put on some muddy boots. “You don’t manage from behind a desk,” says Griffith. “You get out and you listen. You talk to customers, stakeholders, and employees, all with the understanding that the people who are closest to the work itself are the ones who know the most about it.” There’s simply no substitute for firsthand knowledge and understanding, Griffith adds.

Pay attention to the way you spend your time. Exactly how leaders allocate their time can have a significant impact on how well they lead their teams. Calling time “the only real asset that we can control,” Griffith says leaders need to look beyond the “urgent” and focus on tasks and projects that truly matter.

Address any and all elephants in the room. If it were up to Griffith, the proverbial “elephant in the room” phrase wouldn’t even apply in the typical boardroom or meeting. Instead, all attendees would feel welcome to voice their concerns and openly discuss those elephants (not keep them penned up in the corner). “We use a stuffed elephant in our own leadership development,” says Griffith, “to show the value of creating an environment where people can talk about the good news and the bad news, and where disagreements and opinions are encouraged and not swept under the rug.”

Be the dumbest person in the room. “If you hire someone who is really bright and then tell him or her what to do and how to do it, then all you’re doing is micromanaging,” Griffith warns, “and that means one of you is redundant.” In his experience, Griffith says the brighter and smarter your team members are—and the more they are empowered to make good decisions and do good work—the dumber you are going to be. And guess what? That’s a good thing. “Leadership is all about giving talent a seat at the table,” says Griffith. “My ambition is to always have a great, talented organization, and when I leave to be the dumbest person in the organization.”

View talent development as a perpetual exercise. By now we’ve all heard the news that millennial employees plan to jump ship several times throughout their careers, and that most are looking for new jobs while they are in their current positions. The best way to offset this reality is by not being afraid of employees moving on, says Griffith. “Think about recruitment, training, and retention as a perpetual flow—not as a single event,” he advises. “It’s okay if people move on because they have ambitions, and the right to realize their dreams.” In his current position, for example, Griffith has 20 masters-level college interns at any given time, and he hires two or three of them per year. “This is a very conscious way to not get caught up on the fear that someone’s going to leave,” he says.

Know your mission and spread the word about it. What is your company’s mission? What is your vision for accomplishing this mission and what does it actually look like? What are the values that are not negotiable? Does everyone know these values and their respective roles in achieving/adhering to them? “At ECS we challenge poverty. We envision a world where the path to opportunity and prosperity is available for all,” Griffith says. “Our core values are impact, dignity, justice, and community.” In other words, ECS doesn’t accept the fact that 28% of its region lives in poverty. Instead, it “envisions a world where access to prosperity is available to all,” says Griffith, whose team is currently working to learn and use a new economic mobility model that will help it drive down those poverty numbers.

Beyond the Annual Review
Ultimately, Griffith says electrical distribution’s leadership ranks can start improving their position by simply asking themselves questions like: How do we receive feedback? How do we evaluate talent? And, how do we hold people and ourselves accountable? “Unfortunately, a lot of small to midsized firms rely on annual employee reviews, which are just a waste of time,” says Griffith, who admits that leadership is both difficult and rewarding. It is about doing the right thing, he adds, and not the “popular” thing.

“Distributors should be focused on creating a corporate culture that’s based on give-and-take feedback, and where the individuals who are doing the work have a seat at the table and are able to provide input,” says Griffith. “If I were leading a distribution firm in 2017, those are the two areas where I’d put the most emphasis to achieve the biggest impact.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.


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