Hands-On Leadership With Limits

If you're the CEO or general manager, do you lead the marketing charge like generals of old? If you're a sales rep or agronomist with sales responsibility, does your CEO or general manager ever leave the office? Somewhere between these two extremes lies the ideal leader, one who is hands-on as needed, but with limits, knowing when to pull back and let others lead the charge. 

Mark Faust, Echelon Management International, is a corporate strategist, Ag Professional contributor and author of Growth or Bust. He suggested that such leadership is needed at all levels of the employee chain. "An important element of any corporate strategy for growth is role clarification and focus," he explained. "About every six months, people need to ask themselves what are the top objectives they are working on? What are the top objectives of those they report to and of those who report to them?"


This holistic vision of the team ensures that everyone is accountable, not only for their own objectives, but also for supporting others in reaching their objectives. Periodically reviewing objectives and progress in reaching them for themselves and those around them encourages people to reach out for help and to offer it. In short, it encourages a sense of leadership at all levels.

This greater understanding also ties into people focusing on their greatest strengths and talents. "People tend to spend more time on the things they are best at and enjoy the most," noted Faust. "They tend to let go the things they aren't the best at doing. Strong leaders recognize their strengths and weaknesses and seek out others on their teams with the talents they don't have.

Finding the yin to their yang is how Faust puts it. He points to past clients, such as Don King, Michlig Ag, Manlius, Ill., as understanding and appreciating the need for balance within a team and within each individual's life, a balance between professional and personal. In King's case, it was recognition that while in his heart he was a salesman, as he and the company had grown, he needed people at his side who were equally adept at financial, people and process management. Allowing those individuals to lead in those areas freed up King to lead in the areas he was best at. It also freed him up to look for insights and blind spots that were inhibiting the company team from excelling, Faust noted. It was that search that caused King to bring in Echelon to help him and his management team take the business to a new level. 

Hands-On Leadership With Limits"As an independent, I looked at the sales training and classes my major competitors were offering their people and recognized we had to improve what we were doing," said King. "We had worked with Syngenta and others and brought in Echelon to make our people better, which makes our customers better, and in turn makes our bottom line better."


Though King recently sold off the agronomy side of Michlig Ag to pursue other goals, he cited the multi-year relationship with Echelon as being very successful. The effort began with in-depth interviews with customers to identify likes and dislikes about their then current relationship with Michlig Ag, as well as competitor's approaches. Echelon asked them what their greatest challenges were and what and how Michlig Ag could help them be more productive and profitable. Similar in-depth interviews of employees at various levels explored all facets of their relationship with the company and its customers, what and where the untapped potential was and what was getting in its way.

The Echelon team then met with King and his management team to review results and identify objectives and strategies. A handful of objectives bubbled up as mission critical. Here was where leadership was key.

"A key strategic objective needs the weight of the leader behind it," said Faust. "Don knew when to lend his authority and when to unleash the power of others' individual talents. After raising the bar on what the growth rate could be, Don could see what resource shortfall was constraining growth, whether it was added storage or a major investment that would require establishing new credit lines for investments several years down the road. Those are things only the CEO can do."

One strategic objective was growing sales, in particular growing sales at two locations that had consistently failed to meet goals. Working with Echelon and the local sales team, groups of 200 prospects were identified for each location. A series of strategies were put in place. Over the course of several weeks in March, each prospect received a set of postcards that identified Don with his picture and a quote focused on customer relations with a "we want to help your business grow" message. Also on the card was a picture and identity of an existing customer with a testimonial quote about Michlig Ag and how the company had helped them reach new profitability better than previous suppliers.

The last mailing indicated a Michlig Ag team would be in the area and would like to meet with the prospect. A blitzkrieg of management and salespeople from other locations worked with the two sales reps at each problem location. Identified prospects were mapped and assigned to two-person sales teams. With marketing literature in hand, they visited prospects, asked about their objectives and what Michlig could do to assist.

The results were impressive. Of the two sets of prospects, 193 were visited at one location and 195 at the second over a several week period with more than an 80 percent conversion rate. King was part of the effort, focusing on difficult prospects as identified by the local sales team. Nicknamed "King Calls," they were credited with a seven-figure increase in sales for the two locations.

"With him along, the fruit shook loose," said Faust. "There is a magic to having the leader get out and see customers."


There can also be a danger of misplaced expectations with the leader being involved in those situations. If not positioned carefully, the prospect/new customer may expect an ongoing relationship at that level. At the same time, the sales representative assigned to the account can feel less in charge or accountable. King said clear communication is required in both cases.

"We talked about our desire to work with the customer, who we were and what we could offer, what my role was in the company and what the role of the salesman with me was in terms of customer service," recalled King. "However, I assured them I was only a cell phone call away if they ever wanted to visit."

Along with cross selling between divisions and other strategies, the so-called King Calls continued after the blitzkrieg. In addition to new business, they provided King time with individual salesmen in the field. He was able to share his personal philosophy while evaluating their roles and potential.

In Michlig's case, individual strategies whether King Calls, blitzkriegs or cross selling were successful, thanks to the overall game plan, added Faust. Although there is no such thing as the "ideal" leader, he suggested there are things leaders can do to help stay on track.  He credited King here as well, committing the company and the management team to quarterly sessions with Echelon as a third-party facilitator.

"Working with a third party on a scheduled basis keeps you accountable, especially in a field like agriculture with all of its seasonal pressures," said Faust. "Don was committed to an ongoing process and to accountability. Regular reviews allow an opportunity to refine and adjust objectives. You have to balance strategic long term objectives with fires that need to be put out."