Accessible leadership

Bob Harlan, retired chief executive officer for the Green Bay Packers, will forever have the legacy of being the capable leader who brought the Pack back to glory.

However, many Wisconsin business leaders have another vivid memory about Harlan. When you called the Packers switchboard and asked to speak to Harlan, the next voice you heard invariably was Harlan’s. The man answered his phone directly and did not screen his calls, even though he held one of the most high-profile business jobs in Wisconsin.

Susan Finco, president of Leonard & Finco Public Relations Inc. in Green Bay, is a member of the Packers board of directors and recalls how accessible Harlan was.

“The Green Bay Packers have a long tradition of being accessible to the public, the community and their fans. It starts right at the top. Every Packers president/CEO I’ve been fortunate enough to work with, as a board member or as a PR professional, have been very accessible and responsive. The Packers view it as the right thing to do,” Finco said.

Some southeastern Wisconsin executives are taking a page out of Harlan’s playbook by being accessible leaders. They are responsive to their stakeholders, including their employees, their customers, their vendors, their investors, the media and the community.

BizTimes reached out to several of these accessible business leaders to ask them why being so responsive to their stakeholders is such a priority. In typical form, they responded to our inquiry with some terrific enlightenment to be shared as best practices for other business executives.

Katherine Gehl
CEO of Gehl Foods Inc., Germantown
“All the (stakeholders) you mentioned are investing their resources in our companies – and their future is affected (a lot or a little) by what and how we do as a company. So as CEO, I have an accountability to them. I owe them communication and accessibility so they can make plans that work for them – for their companies or for their lives. From experience I can tell you we create a lot more possibility with customers who work more openly with us (i.e., are ‘accessible’) – rather than with customers who view us as ‘just a supplier’ and view themselves as having all the power in the relationship,” Gehl said. “Accessibility doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a one-to-one relationship with all your employees or other stakeholders. Obviously at a certain scale, this becomes impossible. In that case, accessibility can mean communication: that you have practices to make your vision and plans for the organization available to the stakeholders and practices to get their feedback. Finally, accessibility is a measure of respect. It shows you understand that we’re all in this together – and no matter the theoretical power of any individual CEO, results are driven by communities of people.”

Rich Meeusen
CEO of Badger Meter Inc., Brown Deer
“When I was young, Milwaukee had a large number of very prominent and vocal business leaders like Elmer Winter of Manpower and Jack Puelicher of M&I, to name just two of many. These CEOs of major Milwaukee corporations were well-respected, and their opinions carried a great deal of weight in the community. Unfortunately, over the past decade we have seen fewer CEOs willing to speak up on community issues, either due to pressure from their shareholders and boards or due to personal reluctance to be in the spotlight. As a result, I believe that our community has lost much of this valuable vision and leadership,” Meeusen said. “Badger Meter has a long history of involved and outspoken CEOs, and I have been proud to continue that legacy. I believe that I have a responsibility to not only support my community through my involvement in many nonprofit organizations, but also to share my vision and opinions publicly. If my involvement and leadership can improve Milwaukee in any way, it can benefit Badger Meter as a local company, our employees who live in this community and the community as a whole.”

Jeff Yabuki
CEO of Fiserv Inc., Brookfield
“I view being the CEO of a company that started in Milwaukee as an honor and privilege. The success we have had, and which we aspire to continue, is dependent on having more than our fair share of the best people,” Yabuki said. “Ensuring that we continue to drive the vibrancy of Milwaukee, in conjunction with elevating the employment brand of Fiserv, is a high priority for me and my team. To achieve this, we need the media to engage business and community leaders in ongoing productive dialogue to move Milwaukee and Wisconsin forward.”

Frank Krejci
CEO of Strattec Security Corp., Milwaukee
“For Strattec associates, having the company recognized in the community reinforces our sense of pride about the results of our daily efforts. To others outside of Strattec, our opportunity to attract good talent and new customers is enhanced if we are well-known and respected. Over the last few years, I have been amazed at the number of people who never heard of Strattec, even though our roots go back over 100 years in Milwaukee. For those who have heard of us, many cannot pronounce our name. Therefore, I have work to do when there is an opportunity to communicate,” Krejci said. “I don’t feel comfortable viewing responsiveness to the community as part of a return on investment of time calculation. Giving time and energy to nonprofits to improve the community should be done without an expectation of getting anything in return. The reality is that many volunteers often feel that they receive more than they give. The benefits come in the form of satisfaction, relationships with new and interesting people, awareness of resources and additional insights and perspectives. Returns may come in the most unexpected ways and times.”

Paul Grangaard
CEO of Allen Edmonds Corp., Port Washington
“I think the role of CEO is evolving rapidly in the age of social media and 24/7/365 e-connections. For many years, CEOs have felt responsible for the ‘tone at the top’ of the organization and have worked to communicate directly with employees beyond the chain of command strictures of previous generations. Now, the boundaries of the organization between internal and external constituencies have become dotted lines. A CEO now needs to think about the ‘tone at the top’ out in the marketplace and in the community, as well as internally,” Grangaard said. “The advantages of being ‘out there’ are improved dialog with customers and therefore improved knowledge of the marketplace and how the company’s products are being received. What once took a series of focus groups to learn is now readily available by being accessible. For me, another reason to be accessible is simply that I enjoy the interactions. Allen Edmonds is privileged to have an incredibly high-quality group of men as its customers, leaders in all walks of life. It’s inspiring to interact with them, to learn their views of our products, strengths and weaknesses and to build relationships with them.”

Michael J. Koss
CEO of Koss Corp., Milwaukee
“Mark Twain once said that ‘a lie can make it halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.’ Providing access through an open door is critical to establishing the type of rapport that contributes to accuracy. We’ve made it a policy at Koss to be as open and approachable as possible. During the last few years, we’ve paid a profound price for the engagement limitations we’ve observed at the request of law enforcement, or in cases that are working their way through court. The fact that we can’t respond to certain questions infuriates reporters. It makes it tough for them to do a thorough job. The results have not been pretty. It is the clearest example I can give you of the loss that takes place when an open door is temporarily closed,” Koss said.

Christine Specht-Palmert
President, Cousins Submarines Inc., Menomonee Falls
“For someone in a consumer facing-industry, it is extremely important to be an accessible CEO. For me, that means being available to our franchisees, employees, the media and most certainly our guests. I visit our stores as often as I can, where I meet with our franchise owners and store operators. It is one of the best things about my job because the action happens in the stores,” Specht-Palmert said. “Being accessible is the responsible way to lead a company. Employees feel more connected to the mission and our culture is stronger because of it. Those stakeholders also hold me accountable and help me perform my role better.”

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