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Leadership Profile: Stephen Hopkins, president of Shield Casework

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Merging exceptional design into healing environments, Shield Casework (Overland Park, KS) manufactures an innovative line of high-end modular solid surface casework, headwalls and custom architectural products.

Leading the Shield Casework team is Stephen Hopkins, who became president of the company this month, and last year was honored by Ingram's magazine as one of Kansas City's 40 leading business people under 40 years-of-age.

Hopkins shared his thoughts with me about his company and leadership:

Question: What are the most exciting parts of becoming President of Shield Casework?

  • Hopkins: For me, the unknown is what is most exciting. Shield Casework is a new business with a new product. We are introducing an entirely new standard for architectural millwork and despite our in-depth consumer insight research and validation, there is still much we don’t know. Is this a $10 million opportunity or a $100 million opportunity? We have some predictive models, but there is still a wide-open field that means we need to find our own path. Finding that path is what is exciting for me – it’s what keeps me up every night making sure we get this right.

Question: What is your favorite leadership book and why is it your favorite?

  • Hopkins: This is a question I love and hate. It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite but I’ll give you the two resources I never keep far away. The first is, Reframing Organizations, by Bolman and Deal. I was lucky enough to be taught by Professor Bolman, and it was the first leadership framework I was introduced to in my MBA studies. The book is set up as a series of chapters relating to one of four major leadership frames: structural, human resource, political and symbolic. It’s insightful, brilliant and always forces me to think in a broader perspective. The second resource I use nearly every day is the Harvard Business Review (HBR). I am an avid reader of case studies and HBR helps keep those fresh. It is highly unlikely you are the only one facing the specific challenges you are facing, and HBR is a great way to access insight and knowledge from experts and innovators.

Question: What is the best way to network with other leaders in business within the Kansas City metro?

  • Hopkins: I’m not sure this one of my strong suits. There are so many people who are comfortable in whatever room they walk into but that’s just not me. I actually started my undergraduate in the engineering school and there is still a large part of me who is deeply introverted. I enjoy networking, but it is something I have to schedule or I will avoid it. As pathetic as this is, I actually have a list of my 10 most important contacts. I essentially think of them as my personal board and I don’t go a quarter without communicating with them in some meaningful way. I also keep a longer list and I schedule time with someone on that list every week. It’s incredibly square, but it’s how I keep myself connected. Left to my own devices, I could end up stuck in my own world.

Question: What leadership skill did you learn as a teenager that you still use today?

  • Hopkins: Daniel Goleman’s concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI) is crucial for anyone working in a team. I think this is an incredibly hard skill to learn and one that I think I picked up early on. I was a complete instigator as a kid and I remember being fairly strategic about it. I always had a good sense of which person I could talk into some scheme and how to do it. Looking back on it, it’s terribly manipulative, but it gave me a needed knowledge base. Understanding how my team is feeling is incredibly valuable for success, not to mention knowing what motivates partners, vendors and clients. You could ask my team, but I think I have a good sense of when to push, when to encourage and how to “listen” between the lines for unspoken needs.

Question: What is the best way for a leader to foster results-producing brainstorms with his/her employees?

  • Hopkins: There is very little you can do five minutes before a brainstorm. The agenda or the group can be subtly changed for a bit more success and many have written about this (including me). However it is my belief that your culture is the greatest predictor of good results. How does the team react to the boss’s ideas? How do they work together and how is risk viewed in the organization? These are more deeply rooted issues but if you get this right, the brainstorming setup has very little influence on the results because you have the right people in the right situation.

Question: I want to be a leader who is remembered for……

  • Hopkins: …being incredibly successful in complex situations working with a myriad of different people. I imagine most people want to be remembered as a good communicator, caring or a great listener. I also inspire to be those things (and certainly can’t be incredibly successful without those things) but ultimately, I am driven by our success. I’m nearly a millennial, so success to me is bracketed by doing some good in the world. Driving our team, our partners and our clients to unheard-of levels of success is what drives me.

Question: If a leader can have only three leadership skills, which three should they be and why?

  • Hopkins: First, you have to be empathetic. How can you create value for your team, your partners and your clients if you don’t understand their situation? I think this is a big part of EI. Second, you must be a good communicator. It is impossible to lead if you cannot communicate your ideas. Lastly, you have to inspire a shared vision despite ambiguity. When taking on any new venture there are simply things we cannot know. As a leader you have to listen and provide a vision for the organization that is symbolically purposeful and empowering for the group.

Question: Why do some leaders fail to create an environment that produces innovation?

  • Hopkins: I think most businesses that don’t innovate lack a real desire to do so. You can’t read any business writing these days without reading about innovation but most seem to be just talking. Almost four years ago, we started the Innovation Lab at Dimensional Innovations. It was a deliberate strategy that pulled resources away from our current core business to go find the next one. Shield Casework was born out of this endeavor, but before we had a kernel of that idea developed, we recognized that we might cannibalize an existing business line. We also embraced that we would experience some short-term failure. The Innovation Lab was a risk worth taking for us and it was only through actually trying – not talking about trying, but dedicating real resources and real capital towards the effort – that innovation truly took root.

Question: Do you believe it is more difficult to be a leader in a start-up business or in an established business and why?

  • Hopkins: Yes. Each context has different challenges and is often so situationally specific that it is hard to generalize. Broadly speaking, culture is one of the hardest things to change and so startups have less history to anchor them. They are easier to shape, culturally speaking. However, taking on a startup takes a lot more leadership than management. You have less history to work with so are testing much more aggressively to see what works and what doesn’t.

Question: What was your reaction when you earned the 40 under 40 award/honor?

  • Hopkins: When I learned I was selected for Kansas City’s Forty Under 40 list I simultaneously thought “this must be a mistake” and “what took so long?.” In all seriousness, it is a great group of people and one I am obviously honored to be a part of. If you look back through the classes, it is a very impressive cohort that is going take quite a bit of work to live up to.
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