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LEADERSHIP: Back to Basics – Guest Post by Jared Eckler, President of Townsend Leather

Guest Blogger: Jared Eckler is the president of Townsend Leather located in upstate New York. Townsend Leather makes beautiful upholstery leather for interior designs in business and commercial aircraft, in yachts, automobiles and luxury motor coaches, and for residential, hospitality and office furniture applications. Not to be mistaken as mere distributors or marketers of leather, Townsend Leather’s employees are distinguished craftsmen and manufacturers of leather, producing all of their own leather to exact specifications.  They take great pride in their level of workmanship, quality control and customer service.

Over the course of the past 3 years the effects of the economy on business have made times challenging for many.  Many companies worldwide have had to do much more than just trim the fat; many companies have lost dear friends and valuable colleagues to layoffs in this downturn.  Experiencing it first hand as a young senior manager in a small family business, I’d like to share a bit of advice that seemed to help me and my team get through this period.

I am an avid reader of business books; I can tell you I looked long and hard for something that would have been relevant and meaningful through this time.  Only two books I found memorable in the past 3 years; Getting Naked by Patrick Lencioni and Different by Youngme Moon.  But, neither of these were helpful to me in what I was looking for.  I wanted to know, what could I say to our staff that would be meaningful, inspirational, motivating, and encouraging but also relevant?  In short, how could I lead them through a hard time?

Now I am not about to suggest this little blog is smarter or better than any business book that has come out in 3 years, far from it!  In fact, my idea and the point is so simple that if you read it without the context of the stress and frustration felt on some of the colder, darker days in the last 3 years – you may think, “Who is this knucklehead – duh?”

On those cold, dark days I saw and spoke with people who seemed to have lost their way.  These were people who loved their work, loved the products they manufactured, sold, marketed, quality engineered and controlled for customers, with whom we had personally rewarding relationships. But sales were down, and no forecast held much water.  Problems with our products were magnified and costs related to replacing and reworking had a directly negative impact on our company’s performance.  Further, as this cycle perpetuated itself – resources dwindled – people began to work from desperation and fear.  Many had hard times making decisions and not just on the big questions, but everyday production and customer questions that had been answered a million times before now were met with indecision and lack of confidence.

What was needed was some open dialogue to gain perspective on our current situation.  We needed to separate concerns and real issues with products, processes, customer expectations, and personality or communication issues internal and external from benchmarks and what was working currently versus what worked traditionally.  Once we were able to do this, we were able to zero in on an approach based upon positive outcomes.  This set a tone for our “Back to Basics” forward approach while also applying these ideas to current and past issues not yet resolved.

“Back to Basics” is just that.  It’s a reboot, not to forget the current issues or what we had learned or what scared us – but to keep in mind –what we knew already worked.  In other words, get back to talking, thinking, promoting, developing, and producing like you did before all of that.  Remember why customers originally came to you, the passion you hold for the products and services you provide to your valuable customers.  Get back the mojo, confidence, and love for what you do and know that it is infectious.  Customers want this too; they need to be reminded of it – loudly and proudly!

One side note for management; you need to be patient, present, and accessible – and you cannot just sit your team down and say, “Get back to basics”.  The reboot requires everyone to  take a leap of faith, and they will truly need to hear and know from you that you’re committed to them and their efforts for the long term.  You aren’t going to bite them next week when the sales targets are not met again, or another manufacturing issue comes up.  They need to be provided some slack; it’s safe to say that everyone gets it at this point.  They don’t need urgency anymore; that has been overdone.  They need clarity; they need safety – they need to be able to do their jobs without a gun to their heads.

I can attest to this working across our company, this little conversation and the follow up support worked in two ways – the kind that I was looking for out there in a book.  People believed in themselves and in leadership again.  I believed in it again, too.  I saw us and heard us actually changing the environment – customers wanted to be aligned with us and fall in love with us again.  Some didn’t, but this only opened our eyes to what kind of customer they actually were – they didn’t have their eye on the long term, they were working out of fear and desperation and were not willing to give up that model just yet.  We didn’t let those customers cause us to forget what was important and at the root of what we do, our company values and culture got us this far and I am proud to say that it continues to keep us going.

This is a guiding principle that I will not forget and that I highly recommend to other business- minded managers to consider.  It may sound very simple, but when you are witness to a staff that seems to have lost a lot of confidence and clarity in determining what and how to do it next, the idea of giving them more slack isn’t the natural one that comes to mind.  Again, this idea works best by restoring those confidence levels.  It goes without saying you need to have a good team to start with, and strong core values and a culture that will surely take you to the next, more fun cycle – the growth cycle!

3 Things That Helped Me Get Back-To-Basics
1) Gain perspective, to do this and avoid over thinking; separate issues from what’s working and be sure to put all issues in proper context.

2) Talk this out; be patient and committed to fixes and solutions that don’t happen overnight.

3) Layout a plan, it may not be a plan across the board; you may need to have different focuses or strategies for different customers.  But be sure this plan is proactive, well communicated (so as to not have old thoughts taking you backwards), and applied to all projects going forward.

Stick with the team and follow this approach throughout your next product cycle, discuss it together and follow it to the customer for feedback.  Revise the plan as needed, but don’t lose your identity, customers may give feedback based upon today’s project or their particular customer’s needs that day – but that does not mean that is they way forward or how they generally want to work.  Be flexible but true to you and your company’s beliefs.

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