Cornell expert talks leadership at New York Produce Show Foundation Excellence programme

Rod Hawkes

Ana Iacob Photography

Cornell University hosted a Future Leaders in Excellence day at the New York Produce Show recently where career development was high on agenda. Senior extension associate Rod Hawkes’ work focuses on food marketing and distribution industries in the US and around the world to understand economics, opportunities and trends. He took to the stage to share leadership insights, detailing how smart organisations look out for potential leaders and how ambitious individuals can aspire to blaze a trail. 

Having recently spent some time in Japan, Hawkes opened his presentation with a reminder of what constitutes a long established business.

“I met companies, family businesses that have been around for 350 years and they’ll say they are a young company, with competitors being around for 700 years.

“That’s an amazing record of perpetuating the ownership of a family business with leadership and that’s what I want to talk about,” he tells the audience, many of whom are in the early stages of their careers.

“Even though you’re in the fourth generation, the leadership skills that led to the success of the first, second and third generation were appropriate for their time, but the leadership skills that will lead the company into the sixth generation will be a different set of skills and that’s what I’m focusing on.” 

Four paradigms of leadership: #1 Great leader

What makes a great leader?

Pointing to some of the great leaders in history - Abraham Lincoln, Walt Disney, Martin Luther King, J Robert Oppenheimer and Steve Jobs - Hawkes dissects the myth of the great man’ where debate typically and historically pinpoints male leaders with little recognition to great female leaders or the role women played alongside great men of the past. 

“Leadership is like an iceberg where the great achievement is just the tip, you get that great charisma the passion for the bold decisions etc but below the surface what really makes a great leader is all these relationships that they manage - managing a group to reach success, not a great man or women, but a great team.

“You all work in organisations where you see this play out daily - you can’t expect to do much on your own, you have to rely on others and you have to develop those others if you’re in the position of leading them.”

The point is, great leadership is not about a man or a women, it’s about a great team, Hawkes stresses.

Nature versus nurture 

He explains how leadership consists of an observable set of behaviours and skills that can be learned, practised, honed over time - people can develop into leaders. 

“Someone we point to and emulate, study their career and values and how they mastered it.

“Even though many of you may be starting out in your careers, you may not be in a position in your company where you have a lot of reports or leadership opportunities but you can observe great leaders in your company and elsewhere and there’s a world outside your office that’s looking for leadership help. 

“Food banks, meals on wheels, these kinds of organisations desperately need your involvement, are directly related to what you do and are a great opportunity to develop your leadership skills. These are adaptable and adoptable skills that can be honed over time so each of us can be a leader as we progress in our careers.”

Hawkes cites Wal-Mart founder and CEO Sam Walton, who took one store in 1962 and oversaw the creation of the world’s largest company by taking risks in the retail business model, keeping prices low by reducing margins more than competitors and invested billions of dollars into logistics and people. 

“He was a charismatic person with a lot of the ‘tip of iceberg’ qualities that people admired and followed and he had basic rules about leadership that he espoused and made sure were embodied as part of the Wal-Mart organisation.

“He was famous for going into stores. He had a remarkable capacity to make people feel like they were responsible for the company's success and that's a very powerful thing.

“Walton’s leadership rules also included treating associates as partners, sharing a vision, sharing profits and sharing praise - it’s free.” 

#2 Paradigm: Command Control 

Hawkes points towards Alfred Sloan, president and CEO of General Motors between 1923 - 1956 who was ‘one of the great architects of the modern industrial organisation.’

Command control leadership is about information flowing up and orders flowing down. It assumes that the executives at the top know everything and always make the right decisions. 

“This is a kind of dangerous scenario for a growing company,” according to Hawkes. 

“Of course they (General Motors) were extremely successful in terms of marketshare but it also led to a culture that completely missed, for example the Japanese invasion of small, economy and high gas mileage cars. The whole thing here is hierarchy, control systems, bureaucracy and focus of facts, numbers and profit before people.”

#3 Empowerment 

In contrast empowerment leadership involves a flat organisation where decisions are made as low down as possible, where information is shared and accountability is encouraged across the organisation.

“Where everyone feels like they have a stake in the success of the business. A good example of that in the retail industry is Publix, an employee-owned company. There are other variations like Hy-Vee where some of the store managers are the best paid in the US because they have complete responsibility for their stores and are incentivised to manage the stores individually.”

“But the companies that are employee-owned put all the ownership, literally in the hands of the employees, they have a vested interest in the success of the company. This really flows from the top.”

He talks about Publix CEO Todd Jones who doesn’t sit ‘in the ivory tower, he puts the customers and employees first, he is humble and very approachable ‘out in the stores on a regular basis and employees see that and feel the connection’. 

Leader as learned

This model is where the leader is constantly learning and uses environmental scanning to really stay in touch, explains Hawkes. They encourage internal analysis and holistic thinking in a supportive learning environment with an appreciation for difference and embrace change. 

“They don’t want people to tell them what they want to hear, they go out there to try to a get a sense of what’s going on, on the ground. This is about about valuing, learning, teaching and adaptation. 

“Amazon is an organisation where people are empowered to develop things individually, share knowledge and are always learning.”

A quote from founder and Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, sums up the philosophy. 

“When competitors are in the shower in the morning, they’re thinking about how they’re going to get ahead of one of their top competitors. Here in the shower, we’re thinking about how we’re going to invent something on behalf of the customer.”

Leadership’s first commandment

Posing the question ‘What type of leader do you wish to be?’ to the audience, Hawkes details ‘Know Thyself’, the first commandment of leadership. 

“I encourage to seek out camera lense feedback, both invite it and return to everyone in the organisation. Camera lense feedback is very clear and very focused. It’s not to beat up each others, it’s ‘here is what I think is good about you and here’s what we could improve.’ And you get that from everyone around you; subordinates, peers, bosses, customers, suppliers and so on.

“It’s an important reality check for everyone, but especially when you are a leader because you need to have a sense of how you are perceived and from that learn what to address, things that you might not be aware of.

“The biggest dangers is ignoring feedback. The classic tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where you are surrounded by people who only tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear and that’s a dangerous situation. We’ve seen lots of companies implode thinking they know what they’re doing without realising how off base they have been.”

Management vs leadership

On the one hand good management is an absolute must for a successful business with planning, budgeting, organising, controlling, problem solving and coping with complexities all must-have attributes. 

“It’s important stuff but on the other hand leadership is setting a direction, looking further to provide vision and purpose and aligning people, projects and goals. Coaching and being approachable.”

Being a leader is being the guardian of the strategy which requires tradeoffs and keeping everyone on their goals; saying ‘we’re going to be this type of company and these are our values, this is our core and this is how we approach the world’. 

“There’s great debate between these two things and what's more important. Management is about how we can climb the ladder faster and leadership is ‘Is this the right ladder?  Management is more like engineering whereas leadership is more architecture, more visionary.”

How to develop people with a blend of both

The best blend is someone who is a leader/manager, someone who can do all of these things and that should be the goal of everyone, asserts Hawkes. But how to develop these people?

“One thing is you recruit for leadership potential but train for management skills. A lot of people in the recruiting process don’t necessarily look at what courses that person took or their job experience. They look more at what roles the person has had in leadership or leadership potential. The notion is we can teach you the management part of the business but if you have a leadership tendency, then that is someone who is attractive.

“As an organisation you should create opportunities for young potential leaders, and as young potential leaders you should seek out challenges and opportunities. Talk to your managers and ask to take on something more substantial.

“It’s so important to constantly recognise and reward people for efforts and not leaving their efforts go unnoticed or misattributing them to other people when the results are shown.”

Borrowing another quote to emphasis his point, Hawkes closes with a nod to ancient Chinese philosopher and writer, Lao Tzu, who said “Of a good leader, people say “look what s/he did. Of a great leader, people say ‘look what we did’”. 

***he Cornell University Future-Leaders-In-Produce Program was crafted specifically for produce industry executives with less than five years’ experience to fill a void of educational opportunities for this group of produce professionals.

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