What We Can Learn from a Legend

I have followed John Hazen White, Jr. for several years across various media platforms. He’s a great manufacturing innovator and a forward-thinking leader. John’s approach to manufacturing integrates multiple facets of complicated situations into coherent pictures that inspire action. At least, they inspire me.

Several weeks ago, I finally had the chance to meet John at the Brookings Institution and was prepared for a major letdown. Few people with a reputation like his are better in person – John is the ultimate exception. He is colorful, engaging, and smart; combining street smarts and book learning to build and support strong organizations around the world. He is always actively listening and learning.

I participated with John at his “Future of Manufacturing” forum. John and Darrell West (of Brookings) recruited a talented group of smart policy people to discuss emerging trends, and followed that with a panel of people making sense of those trends with manufacturers. Together we tried to outline perceptions of manufacturing and the future of work. It was a terrific discussion!

Of course, John stole the show by connecting our words and concepts to real life action. John defines true success for the best manufacturers. He starts with a laser focus on the customer and their needs. Then John links that focus with a limitless dedication to his employees and their growth. Then he applies an aggressive stance toward technology helping both customers and employees reach their potential.

Few people can hit all these notes simultaneously. Most of the leaders I know lead with customers or employees and then follow with the other. Other leaders remain linked to shareholders and strict ROI analysis. These approaches miss the leveraged power of a mindset that engages on all these fronts.

John understands that leverage and demonstrated his mastery during our time together. He described himself as Taco’s best salesperson – he knows his customers. John won’t allow ROI to be used when evaluating employee development efforts because he believes it unnecessarily limits growth possibilities. He constantly engages with thought leaders across the spectrum and even sponsors academicians. John listens and learns wherever he goes — integrating that new knowledge into his understanding of the world. That ability is impressive on the internet and astounding in person.

Much of this sounds soft and fuzzy, but very few people put a hard edge on soft issues the way John does. He knows that unleashing and focusing human potential creates unbounded energy to address the toughest problems. John practices the belief that individual growth and business success reinforce each other. He actively engages people smarter than himself to create a vibrant picture of the world.

Unfortunately, very few leaders understand and live this combination. Instead they pursue actions that:

  • Rely on technology and capital to minimize human involvement;
  • Prioritize efficiency and profit over personal growth; and
  • Believe in rugged individualism at the expense of a shared ecosystem.

These approaches result in fights and limits rather than cooperation and broad accomplishment.

Successful leaders understand our interdependencies and create healthy ecosystems for everyone to thrive. They support continuous learning and growth. These leaders actively engage across organizations and disciplines to build shared knowledge and cooperative efforts to make the most of limited resources. Modern leaders believe in fueling collective success, investing themselves in their community’s success. Rising tides lift all boats and those moving the tides gain the most!

All of this is occurring in a climate where opportunities have never been greater. Accelerating change transforms markets and the way the world does business. These transformations create new growth opportunities as incumbent companies struggle to incorporate new technology without cannibalizing their traditional markets. Those leaders who create new alliances to deliver for their customers create a new future. Successful leaders aren’t afraid to combine unconventional approaches.

Understand. This isn’t an altruistic approach. The results speak for themselves. John is the third generation running a family company, with the fourth in the wings. His worldwide networks provide great connections and new learning at every turn. Oh yeah…the numbers are terrific too! The company employs 300 people that grew the company from $30 million to over $300 million with few additional people. They also attract top-notch talent and keep it – the company’s turnover rate is 0.5%.

Are you one of those leaders who creates coalitions and knows how to connect people? John Hazen White, Jr. should be your inspiration. Follow his lead to create an environment where everyone in your orbit thrives. Together we can all succeed in unprecedented ways!

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