Release Date: August 13, 2010

Bob DeKoch on focused flexibility

Insight


Bob DeKoch is president and chief operating officer of The Boldt Company, based in Appleton. He's also co-chair of New North, Inc. DeKoch, along with co-author Phil Clampitt of UW-Green Bay, recently published their second business book, Transforming Leaders into Progress Makers: Leadership for the 21st Century. Insight Editor Margaret LeBrun sat down with him to discuss communication in leadership.

I've always been interested in leadership and management, helping to build people, helping to build organizational capability, helping to grow a better way of doing things - those are the things that drive me.

Almost 20 years ago, I met Phil Clampitt, who is a partner in our book projects; he is now a Hendrickson Professor of Business at UWGB. We tried to develop this idea of a world-class communication system that would be as efficient and as good as (though more accurate than) the grapevine.

One of the things we noticed in observing organizational behaviors, relative to how people communicate, is the whole idea that people either want to express that they are very certain about what they are saying, or they are very reluctant to express that they might not understand. When you get that dynamic going on, when people have to act like they know - and they really don't know - it's just debilitating. There is one-upmanship, there's, "I've got to impress everybody in the room," or "I've got to impress my boss." People are smart and realize it right away, so the whole communication process becomes flawed. That's what motive our first book, Embracing Uncertainty - the Essence of Leadership.

None of us know everything and in the whole scheme of things, each one of us knows a very small part of what's possible to know. And if you have a workplace where you can bring together a little piece of everything that everybody knows in a way that's not presumptuous, or a way to grandstand, you might have a better answer.

Our second book, Transforming Leaders into Progress Makers; Leadership for the 21st Century, takes it a step further. It started with this premise that having an environment where you can tolerate and embrace uncertainty is important. I get concerned when I get the sense that leaders think that leadership is the end in itself. Leadership is the means to an end; it's not the end in itself.

We talk about two kinds of people: Explorers and refiners. You might associate people who are explorers with creative, artistic, idea people. Refiners can analyze an idea, categorize it and put into place processes that will keep it "under control." People who are able to make progress in leadership roles are people who can both generate great ideas and refine those great ideas and modify them.

We talk about seven thought processes critical to being a progress maker. For example, there's a focused-flexibility mindset. Often a group starts to work on an idea and someone will come up with a great additional thought, but the group is so far along that they just keep going - when the new idea could make it even better. The mental process of allowing that kind of conversation to go on, that focused-flexibility mindset, is awfully important.

I've been with Boldt for 12 years, and I was a customer before that. We try to practice this kind of responsible thinking, creative thinking. In the '70s and '80s and into the first part of the '90s, Boldt had a tremendous growth spurt; we were one of four or five go-to companies in the United States that built huge manufacturing facilities for the pulp and paper industry. Companies and suppliers to the industry could never have imagined the downturn that would have happened. We took a lot of the know-how and resources that we invested in the pulp and paper business and relearned and recommitted those to diversity into the geographic regions and other industries, including energy, health care and education.

I think we in the New North will look back five to 10 years from now and we will be extremely happy that a group of business leaders - and a growing group of advocates of the idea of a regional economy - stepped up and started improving this region by focusing on key initiatives like we have, and focusing on this core value of working together. We'll come out the other side realizing we are much stronger.