How extremes can affect your leadership

Russ Kathrein

Leadership inspiration can come in many forms. History, music, literature, or even movies. In a pivotal scene in the Star Trek movie “The Wrath of Khan,” Spock says, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” This statement makes sense in real life in so many ways. However, how often in business do we find ourselves allowing the needs of the few, who may sit at the extreme margins of our business, dictate our business decisions? Many important decisions get derailed because we have a customer or employee who we know will not like the outcome of the decision, so we refuse to go forward—when we know that in reality the decision is the best thing for the majority of our customers or employees, or for the health of the business as a whole.

I have spent much of my career working in turnaround situations with businesses and operations. Usually, the first thing I find when I get to an operation in turmoil is fear. Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, and fear of others. One of the primary weapons that people in that operation will use to fight change is to invoke those fears, and it usually involves bringing up the extremes.

In one market, it was clearly evident that we needed to change the way we were doing business. While in the long ago past the operation had been very successful our market share was dropping, and we were now unprofitable. Yet every time we met with the key players in the operation to discuss needed changes, the first objection that always came up was that this customer wouldn’t like the change, or it would adversely affect that customer. One person even went so far as to suggest that the legacy color of their trucks was the key to their success. We finally had to adopt a rule that we would look at every suggested change from an 80/20 perspective. If the change would bring a positive outcome that 80% of those affected would view as a positive (or be indifferent to it), we would enact the change. We would then work with the other 20% to either win them over to the change or allow them some flexibility with the goal being to eventually bring them fully into the fold.

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This different approach to evaluating new ideas had a huge impact on our success in changing our whole operation and the entire marketplace. Suddenly, instead of viewing changes from the prism of dealing with that one important customer who wouldn’t like the idea, we started to analyze the benefits that we would see with the majority of our customers. No longer were we holding our decisions hostage to the one employee who couldn’t keep up with technology or we knew would make things unpleasant. Instead, we were moving forward with implementing ideas that would help the company grow and bring more value to our customers.

A funny thing happened along the way. The 20% of our customers or employees who we anticipated would need special accommodations ended up being less than 5%. And as we started implementing ideas that became successful, some of those same customers and employees who were always called out as roadblocks actually started becoming the biggest cheerleaders for the changes we had enacted.

Once during a presentation to lumberyard owners and managers, I put together a list of 7 Ways to Put Money on Your Bottom Line. Almost every one of those seven were tough decisions that we had to work through this change process, but each one surprised us at how well they worked and how much less the pushback or fallout was than we had feared from our extremes. I am happy to share those 7 Ways free of charge with anyone who wants to reach out to me at russ.kathrein@icloud.com. I can almost guarantee that if you aren’t already doing some of them, you will balk at implementing them. But remember, it is the courageous who live long and prosper.

Russ Kathrein is with the LBM Division of Do it Best Corp. based in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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