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Reaching Potential - Interview with Leadership Expert

Keith Simons
Keith Simons
Keith Simons

Seeking to understand potential in ourselves and in others often leads us to view leadership through the lens of other experts' eyes.

Below is an interview with Keith Simons, President of inspiring Excellence. Keith is a certified coach and facilitator, skilled in motivating and developing personnel while promoting the organization’s core mission and values. He has extensive experience in sales, operations and training and development in a variety of diverse organizations such as Twin Cities RISE!, Pepsi-Cola, and Frito-Lay.

Keith has a B.S. degree from the University of Minnesota. He also has an athletic background as a professional football player with the Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Cardinals and a collegiate career with the University of Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Q. Keith - You have held so many roles, Corporate, Sports, Nonprofit, Consultant and Coach. Do you notice any common threads among these in terms of how leadership plays out?

Yes I do. I have always cared about people reaching their potential in the context of team/workgroup/community. Early on in sports, I realized that what ever team I was a part of, was only going to succeed if every individual, including myself, did our best. So I had to learn how to be my best, by leading myself. Then hope that my efforts would affect those around me and inspire them to do their best.

I spent 10 years with Frito-Lay as a Distribution General Manager. Upon my first management assignment, I was taught the "command-and-control" and "carrot-and-stick" methods of management. Guess what? It didn't work for me. My results were terrible and I ended up getting reassigned to an "easier" territory.

Well, I took that time to reevaluate who I was, what I wanted to accomplish and how I was going to do it. I learned to trust myself, that who I am is good enough and that I needed to focus more on being me instead of what I thought others thought of me. I used the learning from my parents and decided to treat those on my team the way I wanted to be treated. I focused on helping those on my team become better people, and not just better employees. It took some time, but the results were dramatic. My teams were high achievers. I got reassigned back to the territory that I failed in. We won many incentive contests and were always recognized for outstanding performance.

Later in my career, I landed with Blue Rhino, Incorporated as a Distribution General Manager. Again, I supervised delivery representatives. I had a significant challenge when I took over. My budget allowed me to pay our delivery reps $13/hour when the going rate in my geography was $18.50/hour to start! I found that I could not use job and wage opportunity to recruit talent to my organization. I gave this situation considerable thought and decided that I needed a different way to recruit. You see, other companies paying a higher rate tell their reps what to do and how to do everything. There is very little autonomy.

These companies also control information which is a way to control people. This new strategy had me promote the organization from a values perspective. I wanted to tap into people who valued working in an environment of autonomy and growth with a team orientation. In recruiting, I would tell prospective delivery reps that we are a new organization to our area and that there are opportunities for career growth beyond the job I am interviewing them for. I would tell them that I will give them the tools and knowledge needed to operate their routes they way they want to, yet hold them accountable for the results. I sought out people who were comfortable trusting others which would allow them to function on a team.

As I expected the delivery reps to work together to solve problems and grow the business. In addition to these recruiting and management methods, I took the risk with Blue Rhino management to start my new hires off at a higher rate than what I was budgeted for. I paid them $15/hour which is still far away from $18.50/hour. If I found the right people, then the higher pay will be offset by the volume growth of the business. The risk was that if I didn't find the right people, then I would blow my budget and get fired. I used this strategy for 4 years at Blue Rhino before leaving to start my own consulting business. I am still in contact with many of the employees that I worked with. We all have come to recognize that time together as a special, unique and fond memory.

Q. Can you think of any times that a perspective on leadership or a leadership style failed you or a client?

Certainly. Just because I have high expectations of growth potential for those I work with, doesn't mean that they share those same expectations or that they are even willing to participate in their own personal development. I recall a time when I supervised a delivery representative for a distribution company. He had developed habits of tardiness, sloppy work and poor attendance. I tried to engage him to improve himself. I learned he was a single father struggling to raise his son and manage his own life.

I have children and I know how important it is for a boy to have a father in his life. I tried to get him to see the connections between how he is showing up at work, and how this behavior may affect his relationship with his son. And the good news was, if he changed this behavior, this would have a dramatic impact on his relationship with his son. He agreed and we agreed on a plan to change these behaviors.

Sadly to say, it was short lived. His performance waned and he ended up getting arrested for an outstanding warrant and abandoned his job. It broke my heart, but I had to terminate him. He was not able to lead himself out of these circumstances. He could have but didn't. My hope is that facing these consequences will have him reflect on how he was responsible for the outcome, and that his choices can avert these situations in the future. Unfortunately, I may never know.

Q. Did or Do you have any role models for your career – if yes – can you tell me a bit about them?

Oh yes. Of course it starts with my parents. Two things I learned from both of them; the value of hard work and treating others, as you would want them to treat you. My father owned a service station. Helping in that family business, I learned that you work until the work gets done, not when 40 hours are up. My parents divorced and I watched as my mother did everything she needed to do to make it on her own. They both had challenging lives as they grew up Black during the era of Jim Crow laws. Despite these challenges, they always treated others; White, Black or other nationalities, as friends.

While playing football at the University of Minnesota, I played for a position coach named Norm Parker. Coach Parker used to always tell me; "Simons, to be successful, you will need to overcome your coaching."

Now I didn't understand this when he first started telling this. But it eventually sank in. He was referring to my ability to take responsibility for my own growth. That I couldn't just rely on the things he would tell and show me. That I would need to take this information and figure out how to apply it to myself. I struggled with this for 2 years. Finally, by my junior season, it all clicked for me and I was able to master my position on the team.

I was recruited away from Frito-Lay by a man named Frank Karnauskas. Frank was the VP of Marketing and he hired me as his Sales Manager. I recall a sales call we went on where we were not successful in gaining a sale. I said to him, "not such a good sales call, huh?" He fired back at me; "the only bad sales call is one where you don't get information." This was a powerful lesson for me in how I look at sales.

Sales isn't about making someone buy something. Sales is an exchange of information to determine if there is a reason to work together. It's about developing relationships with potential customers to be able to ask questions to get information.

Q. If someone wanted to improve their leadership skills/ability, what would you suggest?

  • To develop leadership skills and abilities, I recommend:
  • Develop your curiosity but don't always expect answers. Questions lead you down paths. Answers are sometimes roadblocks to growth. Learn to be comfortable with questions. Read books, take courses, do retreats, take long walks.
  • Develop your emotional intelligence. Get to know who you are. Particularly those times when you feel negative, powerless and angry. There is something to learn there. it is your opportunity for growth. Always put yourself in a position to learn. Avoid assumptions.
  • Learn to balance the rational, logical and analytical thinking of the mind with the love and grace from your heart. Both are required to succeed and be happy.

Learn more about Keith at www.keithsimons.com