‘Not everyone’s a Michael Jordan’: Springfield businessman talks leadership

Leaders aren’t confined to the corner office.

Whatever the position and whatever the title, Tom Sothard says leaders are needed throughout companies and organizations.

“I want a leader out on the floor. I want a leader sitting in the office. I want a leader answering the telephone,” said Sothard, who retired from Konecranes in 2017 after 37 years with the company.

Konecranes is the world’s largest manufacturer and servicer of lifting equipment, manufacturing primarily chain hoists, wire rope hoists and crane components, Sothard said. The global company, with about 330 employees at its Region Americas headquarters at Springfield’s Prime Ohio Corporate Park, has been lauded for its ability to develop leaders. Sothard, whose positions with the company included global service manager and president of Region Americas, played a part in that development.

Early in his career, he helped to develop an apprenticeship program that helped to train employees and grow the business. Today, Konecranes still has an active apprenticeship program, with Springfield as its hub and additional training centers throughout the country, Sothard said.

In addition, Konecranes has been named several times as one of the best companies for leaders by Chief Executive magazine.

“It’s a company that believes in investing in its people,” said Sothard, a Pike Township resident who has lived in Clark County aside from four years at the University of Dayton and several years working in Georgia.

The cliché that the most important asset to a company is its people is often repeated and often truly believed, he said.

“The difference is: Do we act that way?” Sothard said.

A company must do more than talk the talk. Instead, it must also demonstrate that its people really are important. That, in turn, helps with turnover, productivity and profitability, he said.

Sothard called his own manner of leadership a coaching style, with a goal of getting the most out of others that they are capable of while recognizing that everyone has a different skill set.

“Not everyone’s a Michael Jordan,” he said. “Michael Jordan can’t win the game by himself.”

Anita Nirider, the manager of benefits and human resources services support for Konecrane’s Region Americas’ U.S. employees, agreed that Sothard is a coach.

“We’re a team, and he always thought of us as a team, where one person couldn’t do it without everyone else around him,” said Nirider, who has known him since 1985.

She praised his foresight and planning skills and said he was a true listener able to take in the ideas of everyone in a room. If someone had a problem, he was the first to reach out.

Nirider also called him a “servant leader” who was willing to share his experiences so others could learn.

“It was always very important to him to foster growth in others,” she said.

Mentoring, while not a formal policy during his time with Konecranes, was something Sothard tried to make part of the company DNA, he said. The questions he fielded weren’t all business, but also about items like setting priorities and achieving a work-life balance.

Successful companies, he said, look not only for skills but also for attributes – specifically, work ethic, attitude and aptitude. If employees have the first two, then aptitude can be developed, he said.

While leaders can come from all parts of an organization, not all leaders have to be vocal, Sothard said. There are also quiet leaders, who are the first to lend a hand, never complain and still produce.

“Those are the kind of people I wanted to be surrounded with,” he said.

Something else to keep in mind is that an employee may not happen to be both a leader and a manager, although successful companies need a blend of both.

“If you can get a good leader that’s a good manager, that’s optimal,” he said, but a growing business needs leaders who can cast a vision of the company’s future and keep others excited about what is in store.

Cultivating leaders has another benefit that isn’t always as obvious for organizations. Good leadership helps attract other talent.

“People may not recognize, if you treat people well, they’re going to be the biggest promoter of your company,” he said.

Sothard said it is his belief that no one worked for him, but instead he worked for them. It is a leader’s responsibility to make sure the staff has the tools, training and support they need.

“When you have great people,” he said. “you have to give them opportunity.”

Tom Sothard’s Tips to Develop Leaders Within a Company

1. You need leaders in all areas of your business, not just in upper management.

2. Make sure your leader candidates want to be a leader. Don’t assume they want the responsibility.

3. Develop a mentoring program and ensure that adequate time is allocated to develop future leaders. Utilize successful team members to assist in their development.

4. Use job rotation to ensure that future leaders are exposed to as many functions and business areas as possible. This gives them a better understanding and appreciation of the business and the challenges that employees have in their jobs. Employees develop respect for those who walked in their shoes and understand their needs.

5. Establish a development schedule for these job rotations to make sure leader candidates are trained and have exposure to the areas of business you deem important to your company’s success. Set time commitments for each assignment (in weeks, months or years) and have scheduled reviews of the employee’s development in each rotation.

6. It’s important to ensure that leader candidates have the skills and attributes that complement your business and its culture (assuming you want to maintain the culture). If not, make sure they have the attributes to make the correct change in the culture you desire.

7. Technical skills and competence are very important, but most mis-hires (terminations) are not because of poor technical skills but rather a lack of a desired attribute. Understand the attributes needed to be successful as a leader in your company and spend equal time focusing on attributes when selecting your prospective leaders.

8. Treat human resources hiring and development like a business acquisition. Proper due diligence and having a post-acquisition strategy are required to ensure successful on-boarding and long-term development of new employees (i.e. future leaders). Most business acquisitions fail due to a poor (or no) post-acquisition plan. Same for human resources!

9. If you say your employees are your best asset, do your actions day to day show it? How are you leading? Do you spend more time looking at financials or developing people? The right people give you the results you desire! People perform better for leaders that motivate and show concern for them as a human, not a number.

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