Leadership + People:
Episode 09 - John Dudash - Part 1 of 2
John Dudash, CEO of MityLite, talks about the importance of networking and both personal and professional relationships in the workplace.
- What is MityLite? [00:49]
- A brief overview of John’s career [01:45]
- What I wish I learned earlier [02:21]
- Be right 90 percent of the time [04:47]
- I got my MBA when I was 40 [05:52]
- Allow yourself to network in the right circles [07:58]
- Networking can cut out the cultural learning period [08:52]
- Not all networking created equal: learning vs. networking [09:59]
- Networking events: advice from people who’ve done it before [11:58]
- The fact of the matter is, the relationship is still hugely important [14:17]
- The reason for our company longevity and employee loyalty is genuine connection [17:17]
- The traditional school vs. what I did [19:25]
- But, the company comes first no matter how much I value our personal relationship [20:16]
- Personal and professional: parallel relationships that work together [21:59]
- Want to learn more about MityLite? [24:38]
This episode of Leadership and People
was originally released on:
October 24, 2017
Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, senior executives and entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies, and what device they wish they knew if they could do it all again.
MITYLITE CEO, JOHN DUDASH: Every CEO is challenged with and try to get different perspectives on how to approach ’em and how to overcome certain obstacles. And that type of advice you can’t get from your staff, you can’t get from strangers, you rarely get from a book. But you can get from a group of people who’ve done it before or in the throws of it. And you can give back to those people as well.
HOST – JESS LARSEN: Today on the show we’ve got John Dudash. John, thanks for making time.
GUEST – JOHN DUDASH: Thank you, Jess.
What is MityLite?
00:49 JL: John, for people who don’t know what MityLite is, can you give them an example of the kind of stuff you guys make and tell them about MityLite?
JOHN DUDASH: Sure, we’re a domestic manufacturer of tables and chairs—folding, portable chairs, banquet seating, folding tables, static tables, wood furniture for restaurants. Basically a lot of business-driven furniture for use in large meeting areas and dining spaces.
01:17 JL: Now, and if I understand, your ABS tables are kinda like the standard for spaces like that, is that right?
JOHN DUDASH: That is correct. They truly are. It was developed over 30 years ago as a lightweight, durable alternative to the wood tables of that era. And it has stood the test of time. It, still to this day, is the go-to table for large hotels, convention centers, meeting places and banquet facilities of any kind.
A Brief Overview of John’s Career
01:45 JL: And you’ve been in private equity, you’ve done other business before this. Tell us a little about some of the things you’ve done in your career.
JOHN DUDASH: Well, we’ve, for 14 years I worked with newell rubbermaid and ran a number of companies with them, came up through the ranks of sales and marketing and then into senior leadership. After about 14 or 15 years, I left and went into private equity where I ran a number of different companies for a number of firms from New York to San Francisco. I’ve been in the candle business, the lighting business, the luggage business, and now I find myself in the furniture business.
What I Wish I Learned Earlier
02:21 JL: Ok. What’s one of the things that you start with, saying, you know, looking at this career and the many success you’ve had, what’s something you wish you would’ve learned earlier?
Lesson 1: Lack of Experience Doesn’t Mean Lack of Acumen
JOHN DUDASH: Well, one of the major things that I think every young executive, as they’re coming up, has to understand is that lack of experience doesn’t mean lack of acumen. I think that young executives too often try to impose a standard on themselves that’s unrealistic for someone who hasn’t been there, done that, if you will. They see themselves as having to know everything, they make decisions in haste. They make, try to be too decisive too often because they believe that’s the expectation of them. And in many cases, it is.
Lesson 2: Slow Down
The people around them expect them to know everything and be able to do everything right out of the gate. And many times, I think the better course of action is just to slow down, ask a lot of questions, listen. Most executives who achieve that level success, whether young or old, have some degree of talent or they wouldn’t be there and probably wouldn’t been given the opportunity.
Lesson 3: Recognize When to Act, Listen, and Learn
And I think recognizing when to act and when to listen and learn is probably a great way to approach it. As I said, when I was a younger man, I think I probably erred on the side of action and while generally speaking it worked out, in hindsight, a more deliberate course of action in certain areas might’ve been more prudent.
03:58 JL: Yeah, you just saying that makes me think, you know, my mentor who I ended up running a private equity fund with, I think that I was a little bit of like a “ready, fire, aim” guy.
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah.
04:09 JL: And then we had to do all sorts of work to go clean it up, you know? And like, typically we pulled it off, but, man, how much extra work created for ourselves by, you know, doing the “measure twice, cut once”.
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah, and the thing, you know, the funny part of is, you know I say this because it, and it’s a two-edged sword, right? If you move too slowly, you’re also not doing your job. So it’s a very difficult balance. But the key, I think, is to recognize that, look, most young executives, most people who are successful achieve a level of leadership and the ability to influence others.
Be Right 90 Percent of the Time
They’re pretty good at what they do, as I said earlier. They have a degree of talent that someone saw in them that put them in that position. And you’re gonna be right more than you’re wrong. The key to a good executive is to be right more than they’re wrong. Nobody’s right all the time. But, a really good executive is right 70 percent of the time. A great one’s right 90 percent of the time! But the key is not to be right 50 percent of the time by making decisions in haste, or decisions that are ill-informed, or simply make a decision to make a decision, change something to change something because you’re the CEO, you think you have to.
That’s where the, that’s where the ball of yarn becomes unraveled. So, it, it’s not so much about, you know, deliberate action as much as it is about learning and about understanding that you’re a smart guy or girl, you know what you’re doing, you have the faith of the people who put you there. Understand and acknowledge what you don’t know, go learn it, and then act. And the stuff you do know, the reason you got there to begin with, act quickly and act decisively.
I Got My MBA When I Was 40
05:52 JL: Super solid advice. When you think about something that you realized you need to learn and you took the time to go learn it, what, what was one of these skillsets that, maybe later in your career or halfway through your career, you decided to go pay the price to learn?
JOHN DUDASH: Well, you know, it’s funny. I’ll answer that question in two ways. Ninety percent of the things I learned, I learned because I wasn’t smart enough to take the deliberate action, that I suggest as, as, as advice today. That was a, a lesson learned the hard way, not the easy way.
One of the things I did where I recognized early on is I, I ran a few divisions for Newell Rubbermaid early in my career. And then realized there was a lot I didn’t know. Just book learning stuff. So I went back and got my MBA. And that was, that was a key for me is to say, look, I could, I could try to wing this thing and maybe turn out ok, but if I really want to lead the organization to a place that, first of all, deserves to go, and that the people who work for that organization deserve from me, then I really oughta know more about these other disciplines around a well-run business that I wasn’t taught in the “climb-up-the-ladder” that I really need to learn in a more formal environment. So, I, I decided to go get a little more book learning and that was a, a…
07:12 JL: Yeah, how old were you when you decided to do that?
JOHN DUDASH: I was 40 years old when I graduated, so it was well into my career. But, but it was, it was an experience, while very difficult, I wouldn’t trade for anything. It, it allowed me to do the things I’m doing today because it, it also pointed out, it was, you know, in 3.5 years of doing it, you realize all you don’t know, you know? I suspected there was a lot I didn’t know.
It because very clear there was a lot I didn’t know once you get into these classes and you get into these professors and a peer group of, of study partners who are equally talented and you realize, yeah, there’s a lot you can learn not just in a, in this formal environment, but, you know, maybe the subliminal message is there’s a lot you can learn from a lot of different people if you allow yourself to network in the right circles.
Allow Yourself to Network in the Right Circles
07:58 JL: Yeah, well, let’s, let’s talk about that networking for a minute. What’s an example of, are there any stories you can think of where something would’ve been a lot harder if you didn’t have the connections you have?
JOHN DUDASH: Well, yeah. I, I got involved in a networking organization, Corporate Alliance here in Utah, when I first moved here. It was suggested to me as a way to not only meet people but meet other business leaders. I’ve never done that before. I’ve moved around a lot of places. I ran a business in England, I ran a business in Australia, I ran businesses in Buffalo, in Minnesota, in Pittsburg. And in each stop, it took 6-12 months, not only to learn corporate culture but to learn the people, to have opportunities to, to gauge the performance of the organization. I was involved with, with other like organizations, not only in the area but in the industry.
Networking Can Cut Out the Cultural Learning Period
And that time was cut very, very short because this was the first opportunity I had here in Utah to get with an organization, talk, like Corporate Alliance, talk to other people in that organization, meet people, understand the culture, not only of the business but of the local community because we employ over 450 people here in the local community. And it cut that learning in half. And that, that type of networking was invaluable to me. It’s the first I’d ever been involved in something like it in my career, and it’s proven invaluable here in Utah.
09:24 JL: Well, I think about, you know, also being a member of Corporate Alliance, right? And I was trying to explain it to one of my other friends, a CEO, he just got a, his company got venture-backed, and I was telling him, you really oughta come check this stuff out and he was saying like, “Isn’t that one of those things where people just walk around with business card in their hand when they shake your hand, trying to get you to buy their stuff?” [laughs]
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
09:45 JL: And I’m like, ok, not all networking is created equal…
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah.
09:48 JL: …friend, you know? That’s one of the things I appreciate about, though, is they are real people in that room who are, you know, because you’re getting a certain minimum requirement to get in the room.
Not All Networking is Created Equal: Learning vs. Networking
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah, that’s a great point. And that really is the differentiator. When I first joined Corporate Alliance, it was exactly as your friend described it. I found it to be more of a, less of a networking opportunity and a learning environment, and more of a, a way to do business. And we don’t have a product that is sold B-to-C, so I had, it had no value to me, personally. And too many people were, were busy trying to sell things instead of trying to solve problems.
Jeff Rust, who’s in charge of Corporate Alliance, is a, is smart enough to realize look, there’s a place for that, and there’s a need for that, and we’re not gonna get away from that. But there’s also a need for a group of executives who don’t come there to sell to each other, who come there to learn from each other and pick brains and enjoy recreational time together so they can interact personally as well as professionally. And that there’s real value in that.
And if you can somehow create those two dynamic environments, both, you know, both masters will be served and he’s done a really good job with it and that’s why I, myself, am a member of, of C4, and my C-level executives attend the luncheons and the activities very, very frequently, as do I.
11:15 JL: You know, it’s, it’s funny, I, going on their trips and stuff, for me, I always come away with something I didn’t expect. Like, it was something that I hadn’t necessarily gone there thinking, you know what I’m gonna, I’m gonna try and see what these guys think about such and such. But the nature of the conversations, and you’re hearing about somebody else’s problem and, and you’re weighing in on, oh, you know, I, I have a client once who had that and here’s the thing. And then they start saying, well, what’s going on for you? And, I, anyways, I feel like I come away with way more than I ever give at those things, you know?
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah, I agree. The luncheons are difficult for that in that regard only ’cause they’re shorter, but what the luncheons have done for me is facilitate the introductions. And I met a lot of people through those luncheons. And then the trips themselves, you’re right, I would agree with you wholeheartedly, you get the real content.
Networking Events: Advice from People Who’ve Done It Before
I’ve met a number of people. I’ve only been on a trip or two with the organization but the, the one that I’ve been on, I agree with you 100 percent, the people that I’ve met on those trips, the conversations we’ve had have carried over past the trip and we’re in contact today even months and years after the trips talking about business challenges and the acquisitions we go through, any number of, you know, funding opportunities, the thing that every company goes through and every CEO is challenged with and try to get different perspectives on how to approach ’em and how to overcome certain obstacles.
And that type of advice you can’t get from your staff, you can’t get from strangers, you rarely get from a book, but you can get from a group of people who’ve done it before or are in the throws of it. And you can give back to those people as well with your own experiences so it really is a very valuable interactive experience.
12:54 JL: Yeah, for sure. I think, you know, when you think about working with people in general, it is interesting, like, to me, the short-term view that, you know, you’re at some cocktail at some conference or something, and he says, he pretends he’s interested in you for about 15 seconds till he’s, while he’s evaluating whether he can sell you something…
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
13:13 JL: Right? It’s seems, like, so efficient to, like, cycle through people so quickly or, you know, just try to go for the, go for the jugular and get some sale quickly, right?
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah.
13:23 JL: I never find those are the big sales, though, you know? It seems like, in my experience, like, building a genuine relationship is the stuff that pays year after year after year, yet in, like, I don’t know, the thirst for quarterly commission checks or different things, people have been motivated so often to, you know, if I can’t some done now, you know, drop, drop relationships or just not invest to that level. But yet, it seems like at the higher levels of business, people really are much more willing to invest in each other without some immediate tit-for-tat.
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah…
13:54 JL: Do you agree?
JOHN DUDASH: I, I, you know, that’s a great question. I, I, I, I don’t know. I’ve always valued relationships. They’ve always proven to be valuable at every level, even as electronics and, and, and technology become more and more prevalent in the business world and the ability to conduct business without face-to-face meetings becomes more and more prevalent.
The Fact of The Matter is, the Relationship is Still Hugely Important
The fact of the matter is, is the relationship is still hugely important. And it is the, it can be a dealbreaker or dealmaker in, in all situations. Whether it’s, whether you’re motivated to cut those relationships short by virtue of trying to get the quick sale, the quick hit, versus developing a longer-term view of the world via relationship. I, I don’t know that.
I’ve al—I know that I’m an old guy and I have a old, old in my ways, set in my ways in many ways, but the reality is I’ve always found the relationships that I’ve gotten in business, the most beneficial ones are the ones that have also served me personally. The people who have given me the most business over time end up being friends over time.
And that, whether that’s indicative of, of the value of the relationship, both from a personal and professional standpoint, or whether it’s just a natural development of two people who hit it off, if you will. I really don’t know, but I don’t go into every business situation or every business interaction thinking, “I need to build a relationship with this person, fast or slow.” I tend to think they develop in and of themselves.
I think there are many people who are out there who frankly just want a quick relationship, not, whether I want one or not, as a salesperson or as a new business partner. I don’t know that, that I even dictate that, you know? There are people who just say, “Hey, cut to the chase, let’s get it done, let’s get it over with.” And we say yes or no and you can move on and I can move on. Then there are other people who, you know, do want that personal relationship for any number of reasons, all of which have been talked about ad nauseam.
So, I think many times it’s dictated to you as opposed to you driving it. But, I think you go in open-minded and understanding that no matter how the world has evolved up to now, the relationship is still an extremely important part of business, no matter how it’s conducted and no matter from what distance.
16:27 JL: You know, I’m interested in what this looks like inside of MityLite. You know, so often we hear that staff join a company but they leave a boss. [laughs]
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
16:37 JL: Right? [laughs] They don’t quit a company, they quit a boss.
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
16:40 JL: Right? So, I’m interested in, you know, this kind of, feels like a genuine, straightforward kind of relationships that you like to build. I’m interested in how you help instill that in your own executives or people who are, you know, whose leadership you’re trying to grow. What, what is that look like? Is it more osmosis with the culture? Do people have one-on-ones? Is there formal training? Informal mentoring?
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah, we have formal training, of course. And, and there’s, there’s always onboarding of some degree with our, not only our executive staff that are with all of our mid-level executives and, and above in terms of cultural training.
The Reason for Our Company Longevity and Employee Loyalty
But the reality is, what I’ve found is—and the reason we have the longevity we do and, and the loyalty of our people to the company and to each other—is that there’s a gen—there, there has to be a genuine connection. People have to know you care about them. You really do. I mean, you know. And, and when I say care about them, I mean it sincerely, you know?
I’m not saying I wouldn’t fire anybody, I’m not saying that everybody’s here forever, I’m not saying you could lose the company a million dollars and, and, and keep your job. But what I am saying is, is I, I’ve created a, I believe, an environment where people understand that if you are with MityLite and you give us, you know, 8 hours of your day, every day, and you truly are committed to the success of the organization as a whole, the organization will care about you as a whole.
We’ll care about your family, we’ll care about your future, we will put you through school, we will do whatever we can do to improve you as an individual and our people know that. Our people know that we care about them as individuals. And I do, and our other executives do, and I care about our executives, I think they care about me to some degree, varying degrees, ’cause people are different.
You’re right. Not everybody thrives in that environment and I’ve been criticized many times for getting too close to my direct reports and my executive staff. I know all their wives’ names, I know all their children’s names. They’ve been to my house, they know my family intimately and, and it’s the way we conduct business here. It’s, it’s an unusual environment, I’ve been told. But it’s the way I’ve run every business I’ve ever been involved in and it’s served me well over the years.
18:59 JL: Yeah, I’m interested in that comment about, you know, being criticized for being too close. It seems to me, like, when stuff gets hard, we’re naturally going to go the extra mile for our friend, so I’m interested. What, when, what do you think motivates that? Is it because they, they want to have the kind of loose affiliation, they won’t feel guilty if they need to fire someone? Or, what, where do you think your criticism like that comes from? ‘Cause it seems pretty counterintuitive, like, it doesn’t seem that helpful to me.
The Traditional School of Thought vs. What I Did
JOHN DUDASH: Well, you know, it’s, but it’s not. I mean, the traditional school of thought is, if you get too close, you can’t fire anybody. If you get too close, a failure becomes unmanageable because, oh, I can’t, I can’t tell Susie that she did a bad job because she’s got three kids to raise, or I can’t tell Dave he’s not selling enough and get rid of him and replace him because I know his wife and his children and he’s got a mortgage he has to pay.
That’s the traditional school of thought. That if, as a leader and as a, any kind of a person that manages people you have to keep that professional distance because that’s the only thing that will give you objectivity. I have found that if I communicate to my people upfront, that the No. 1 overriding objective is the success of Mity. And, the, the return to our shareholders and stakeholders.
But, The Company Comes First No Matter How Much I Value Our Personal Relationship
The reality is—and I make sure that it’s very, very clear—the reality is I, I also communicate very clearly—whether it be through insinuation or through the direct language—that the company comes first no matter how much I value our personal relationship, the CEO will act accordingly and John Dudash will act accordingly. So, as a CEO I may have to take an action toward an individual or an employee that I wouldn’t take as a friend. But that doesn’t, in my view, change our friendly relationship.
I, there’s many people who’ve left my organization, either voluntarily or involuntarily, that I’m still friends with. Many I’m not. But that’s their choice. And I’m able to make that distinction. I’ve never had a problem making a tough decision with someone who I’ve grown close with over many, many years of working with.
And some people can’t do that so they keep that professional distance and it serves them well. I, I tend to think that, I grew up playing sports, I grew up in a sports environment, it’s my mentality, and I’ve always felt like, and I’ve always have been in team sports, and I’ve always felt like a really good cohesive team chemistry, if you will, call it what you want. You have a better shot at winning than not. And, so I always try to create chemistry.
21:38 JL: Well, I mean, what it sounds like you’re saying to me, is, you know, in the, in the triage of competing priorities, like, I like you, but I also like everybody else whose paycheck depends on this organization succeeding, and, you know, between that balance beam, I can still like you, but recognize I’d be irresponsible to let you jeopardize everyone else’s livelihood. Is that…
Personal & Professional: Parallel Relationships That Work Together
JOHN DUDASH: Right, yeah! And, and I just don’t think they, unless you, like I said, many people can’t do this, but, but they’re parallel, they’re parallel relationships in my mind. The CEO of any organization has a professional relationship with his CFO or his COO or his Vice President of Sales or any other direct report he may have, he or she may have in the organization.
He also has a parallel personal relationship with those people. Sometimes you don’t like ’em. Sometimes it’s not a good relationship on a personal level but a great one professionally. Other times, it’s not a great professional, but it’s good personal. You have to act on the professional. That’s my pero—that’s my role, that’s my job, that’s what I’m paid to do. That is a dictum, you know? That is, that’s non-negotiable.
I will conduct the business of the CEO of this organization under any circumstances. The, the parallel personal relationship, good or bad, has no bearing on that decision making. As long as you can look in the mirror every day and say that’s true, that you’re not being influenced any major degree—clearly we’re human beings, everyone’s influenced—but, to not be influenced to any major degree, give preferential treatment to someone who’s, who’s, who doesn’t deserve it and not seen as such, then I believe you can close that gap of professional distance and, and, and close, even though there’s still parallel relationships, the gap between the two relationships become closer.
And, to your earlier point, I think it’s a good one, you really see the value of that if things start going south. Because, in a, in a organization where you have a ton of people all trying to get the same objective, with great deals of distance between them in terms of professional distance. And then you have competing interests to get to the same goal because it’s a challenge or there’s obstacles or the market crashes, like in 2008 or ’09, and you get a lot of finger-pointing, and you really don’t care about who keeps their job because you want to keep yours. And all of a sudden, competing interests of the personal and professional become untenable.
And, at least in the businesses I’ve run, in good and bad times, because I’ve run two startup organizations, I’m, not startup, sorry…challenged organizations, unfunded and challenged. That’s a difficult ask for people to put the time and effort in to get the job done and it becomes a lot easier if you develop those, that trust and, and that loyalty to not only the man or the woman at the head of the, at the head of the company, but also the company itself.
Want To Learn More About MityLite?
24:38 JL: That’s great. Well, I think we’re gonna cut Part I of the episode off here. For people who, who might want to learn MityLite products and, and see what you guys produce, what’s the best way for them to get in contact with somebody from your company?
JOHN DUDASH: Oh, well the MityLite.com has a, all of our products online and all the affiliated companies we work with and all of our staff contact information is there too so I’d start there. And, and then, if anybody needs to, you can call me directly.
25:05 JL: [laughs] That’s great. Ok, well please tune in next week for Part II. We’re gonna keep talking to John about people in leadership.