Leadership + People:
Episode 10 - John Dudash - Part 2 of 2
We welcome back John Dudash, CEO of MityLite, for Part II where he talks about navigating the delicate balance of personal and professional relationships
- “We’re going with their team and we’re letting go of ours.” [01:18]
- Never leave yourself with a weak link [04:55]
- Navigating the delicate balance of personal and professional relationships [06:56]
- The minute you lose sight of the end game, you’re done [08:05]
- My pyramid model: Stockholders and employees [09:00]
- The four personnel decisions I regret not seeing earlier [11:01]
- Don’t be a benevolent executive [12:46]
- “I was so stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking.” [14:17]
- Portray a genuine desire to have the best customer experience, and you’ll have a friend for life [15:42]
- Closing advice: Learn all you can, work hard, be passionate [20:10]
- Interact with others and find passion again [21:50]
This episode of Leadership and People
was originally released on:
November 14, 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: “I just try to communicate, and all my people, we teach and we try to portray a genuine desire to have the best customer experience we can give you, whatever that means to you. It, it varies buyer to buyer, person to person. And in the course of that interaction, if they believe you, if they believe you’re just not after their pocketbook and you’re trying to get your hand in their pocket, they will begin to allow to let you, to open up and allow you into their, into their persona and into their personal life a little bit.”
00:55 HOST – JESS LARSEN: This is Part II of our episode with John Dudash. If you missed Part I, please go back and hear about why he went back and did his MBA at 40 and some of the different things he’s done running businesses in different cities.
But, John, we were talking on the, on the break, just for a minute, about an individual you feel like showed you a new way of doing things that, that kind of inspired you for, for your future. Can you tell that story?
“We’re Going with Their Team and We’re Letting Go of Ours”
GUEST – JOHN DUDASH: Sure, the, it was really interesting time back early in my career, actually, with the Sanford Corporation, which was a division of Newell Rubbermaid. Sanford is most famous for their Sharpie pens. It was an exploding company. When I joined the company, there was $60 million. When I left, they were $1.2 billion. So we grew very, very fast through organic means and through acquisition. And one of the acquisitions we made was of a company called Faber Castell, which was the second largest pen company in that time. And a very, very fierce competitor of Sanford’s to the point where we had friendly relations at the individual level but very unfriendly relations at the corporate level. And we acquired them. It was a very competitive situation. It’d be like the Yankees acquiring the Red Sox or something of that degree and it was a, it was an interesting time.
And I was part of sales leadership and we had seven of us on the sales leadership team and, and my mentor—in fact, the godfather of my son—was running the sales organization at that time. And he literally was tasked with the merging the two sales organizations and it was a totally redundant sales organization. For every person we had in that organization, they had a similar, equally trained person, all with the same relationships, all with the same customer base. It was literally a mirror organization of one another. The only that differentiated the two was the prod—other than the products—was the personalities and talent of the people.
And we were the acquiring organization. I made the assumption, being a young sales guy, that we would fire all their people and keep all of our people. I mean, we were the bigger company, we were growing faster, we were literally dominating them in the marketplace and he pulled me aside after he had fired every one of the Sanford guys and kept every one of the Faber guys, except for myself, and said, “We’re gonna go with their team and we’re gonna let go of our team.” And I remember asking him, “Why in the world would you do that?” And he said, “They’re better than we are.” He said, “In this one area, that group of sales leaderships, sales leaders—regional managers, vice presidents—are better and we’re gonna keep the better group. Companies get better when you pick the better talent. Just because you won the war, doesn’t mean you have the best soldiers. You may have a better general. You may have more soldiers. You may have had bigger weapons. But, the soldiers themselves, man-for-man, doesn’t, winning and losing doesn’t dictate who had the better man.”
And, in this particular case, he was right. The people we kept all went on to brilliant careers with our organization and then outside the organization. Every one of them really did excel and it was, it was an eye-opener for me in that, you realize that you don’t, you don’t let emotional criteria dictate professional judgment. The reality is, he weighed all of the people in this opportunity to strengthen our business. He had some very good friends who’d been with the company a long time who didn’t make the cut and yet the company was better and the performance over the next five years that we all worked together proved he was right.
Never Leave Yourself With A Weak Link
And it, it made me learn that in any situation where you have an opportunity to improve your organization, whether one of your best friends quits the organization—they get a bigger, better job somewhere and they leave—and they’re a key in the organization, go find somebody better. They’re out there.
Always have the opportunity to strengthen your organization, whether it’s through acquisition, whether it’s through hiring and firing. Never leave yourself with a weak link and, for any reason, but certainly not for emotional ones. And it was a, it was an eye-opener for me as a young guy and I’ve, I’ve always lived that throughout my career when I’ve had very, very key people and people close to me leave the organization. I’ve always viewed it as an opportunity because there’s somebody out there who’s better. And I, it’s my job to go find them.
Just like everybody, I think, on my staff can take my job someday. There’s nobody who works in, in the executive staff of Mity who couldn’t be CEO. They all won’t, but one of them will with any luck of all and with, hopefully, what, with the, the training and the opportunities I provide them, one of them will emerge as the next CEO of Mity and that’s also part of my job. And that’s, you know, that’s really important.
06:14 JL: Well, you know, this show is about the intersection of people and leadership, right? You think about somebody setting an example like that, specifically in the way they’re leading people, right? Why do you think not everyone has that level of, like, professional will and personal humility like that? Sounds like he just has, like, a, a commitment, like, a deep commitment to, like, deep self-honesty compared to, he would like keep his friends, but when he’s really honest with himself, the other guys are the right guys. And just that, like, discipline to do what he thinks the right thing to do for the company is, rather than maybe what he feels like doing of keeping his buddies around. Why do you think not everybody makes that, makes the right choice there?
Navigating the Delicate Balance of Personal and Professional Relationships
JOHN DUDASH: Well, as we talked about in the last segment, I think it’s harder to maintain that parallel relationship distance. I mean, it’s, I think most people find it hard not to intersect personally and professionally, if they allow themselves to. And so they become biased, they become unwilling. Not unable, because certainly, they’re able. But they become unwilling to do the right thing for fear of, of an emotional reason…criteria, yeah, the emotional cost to yourself, even, you know? I couldn’t sleep at night if I let Dave go, you know? I just couldn’t do it.
I’ve heard, in my career, I have heard more executives say, “As long as I’m with so-and-so, as long as I’m with this company, you will never get fired because I love y—”, I mean, the insinuation is, right? That you’re my boy, you’re my guy, you’re the, you’re the gal that got me here and I’ll always have your back. Well, that’s just not right. I mean, that’s not what they pay you to do, that’s not, the world changes. That may be right in the moment, but it certainly may not be right a week from now.
The Minute You Lose Sight of the End Game, You’re Done
Circumstances change, industries change, markets change, and [laughs] and objectives change and strategies change. And certain, you know, the old Jim Collins book, you know? I mean, there’s certain people that belong on the bus today may not belong on the bus tomorrow regardless of the amount of seats the bus has. So, it, a, a good introspective executive has to understand their own motivation for doing anything with their eye on the end game and why they’re here and why they’re in the role they’re in.
The minute you lose sight of that, you’re done. You’re dead in the water. And it doesn’t come easy. I think people, to your original question, don’t do it because it’s hard. It’s hard, if you allow yourself to get too close, it’s then hard to make the tough calls. If you stay far and far away, you, you’re too distant from the, from the actual performance of your people to know who is good and who is bad.
My Pyramid Model: Stockholders and Employees
So, having that balance and creating that culture is not an easy. I don’t mean to imply that it is. But, it’s part of the parcel of being the CEO and running a large organization and managing a lot of people. And if you start from the place of, let’s do what’s best for the people, you know? I have two, I have two real roles in the organization. If you wanna create a pyramid model, at the very top of that pyramid is “Return From My Stockholders” and “Care Of My People”.
I want to give them a place that they can be employed at for 50 years. I want to give their families a place to come to work too when they graduate col—when their kids graduate college. And I want to give my, my stockholders and shareholders and stakeholders all that they imagine they would get when they put me in this role. So, if those two things are satisfied, if I can keep the health and welfare of this business as strong as I can make it, and, and give my, my, my stockholders the return that they expect, well, then I think I’ve done a pretty good job.
10:05 JL: You know, though, I can see why you look up to that guy and why it had such an impact on you because I think that type of intellectual honesty and, like, the guts to do what we think we should instead of what we feel like doing, that’s a natural magnet for other people. It makes us want to be like someone like that, it makes me want to be friends with someone like that…
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
10:24 JL: Right? And, I just think, like, for me, there’s absolutely been those times where I, I kept staff way past when we knew they weren’t working for the business.
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah.
10:35 JL: And I think that I could rationalize that I care too much about them, whatever. But when I’m really honest with myself, I think I just didn’t have the guts to do what I thought I should when I thought I should do it, so I came up with all sorts of justifications. And yet, when I look at the people who are willing to do the hard, right thing instead of the easy, wrong thing, those are the people I want to do business with, those are the people I want to spend time with, you know?
The Four Personnel Decisions I Regret Not Seeing Earlier
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah, you know, you make a good point. And I think it’s, you know, it’s funny you say that. I’ve made probably four decisions in my life, personnel decisions. I’ve made a ton of decisions in my life I regret but [laughs] personnel decisions at, at the high levels that I think that, that I regret. And the funny part of this story is that everybody knew it but me. I thought, and this wasn’t a case of not having the guts, this wasn’t a case of, of, of wanting to be liked. This was a case, all these cases were guys that were relatively productive, who were beloved in the organization, who everybody said had value, but I knew strategically they didn’t fit and they didn’t belong and they weren’t performing to the level that our organization was growing. The organization was growing past their skill set. And nothing was gonna make it catch up.
And every single time, like I said, four times, I know exactly which people these were. Every single time, I thought I was being the benevolent leader. I thought I was being the guy that everyone would respect for keeping on a contributing member of the team even though we’re having to pull ’em along, even though they can’t catch up, they’re still part of that, they belong on the bus. And every single time, I fire ’em. And every single time, the people I respected most in the organization came up to me and said, “What took you so long? You’re smarter than that. That, we didn’t, we couldn’t figure out what the heck you were thinking.” And I’ll never forget it because there’s no such thing as a benevolent leader. There’s only good, smart leaders, you know?
Don’t Be a Benevolent Executive
Benevolence is, in and of itself, a counterproductive trade. That doesn’t mean you can’t be kind, doesn’t mean you can’t be generous, doesn’t mean you can’t reward where reward is earned. But benevolence for benevolence’ sake never prospers an organization. It only drags down your top performers. And I should’ve been given more time, effort, and care to the guys that were dragging that guy along instead of protecting the guy for all the wrong reasons.
And I’ve, I’ve never done in my career. It wasn’t ’cause I was afraid to do it. (I ended up doing it anyway.) It wasn’t because I wanted to be well-liked. It was because I though culturally, it was the right thing to do. Benevolence was the thing doing. That’s the right word. It wasn’t kindness in this case. I, I let them go very kindly. We took good care of ’em. But the reality is, it, it hurt the organization, everyone around knew it but me. And you allow yourselves, you allow yourself, you allow yourself to rationalize, to your point, it was the right word and it’s exactly the right picture you painted.
If you allow yourself to rationalize failure, it won’t change and all you do is lose. You lose in terms of your respect through the rest of the organization and the organization lose because you tax other high performers.
14:11 JL: I’m just sitting here on the other side of your desk laughing, right?
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
14:14 JL: Because, I, like…
JOHN DUDASH: Are you laughing with me or at me? [laughs]
“I Was So Stupid. I Don’t Know What I Was Thinking”
14:17 JL: No, I’m feeling like you’re, like, telling me one of my stories, almost word-to-word, in completely different situation. We, you know when I was running that investment fund in Canada, we had hired this $300,000/year guy from one of the big banks and he was just gonna take us to the next level and he was just sucking wind the whole time, right?
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
14:34 JL: And when we finally let him go, my in-house counsel was just like, “What took you so long?”
JOHN DUDASH: Exactly! Isn’t it funny? That was the, that’s the big epiphany, right? Is it, you think you’re being perceived as, as, as, because of your action, as one way, and it’s, it’s so far the other direction. And then you look, and these people are smart people who, and you’d think you’re pretty smart [laughs] and then you look at this guy, like you said, and, and, you know? And you just, and it hits you, right? Like a thunderbolt. Your chin hits your chest and you go, “God, this is, I was so stupid. I [laughs] don’t know what I was thinking.”
15:11 JL: No kidding. Well, let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about, you know, the intellectual honesty to not rationalize and to make the right hard, right decision vs. the easy, wrong decision. You talked about becoming friends with some of your clients who bought a lot from, or, just anybody in the business community, who, who’s somebody else that you feel like lives that or, or that you respect, you know? Some, one of your friends that you do business with.
JOHN DUDASH: Oh, well we have a number. I’d rather not name names to…
15:40 JL: Sure, sure. No, just…
JOHN DUDASH: But…
15:41 JL: This is the client or this is the colleague.
Portray a Genuine Desire to Have the Best Customer Experience, and You’ll Have a Friend for Life
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah, yeah. The, the, it usually starts from a position of, of, of acquisition, of, of a customer. I mean, you, you’re, you’re with them in meetings, you get to interact with them. If, if, if, it could be some huge cathartic event where you’ve had a big problem, a shipping delivery’s gone wrong or a huge opportunity you helped the customer with, and that usually speeds the relationship process pretty quickly, but if it’s a normal interactive thing, I just try to communicate that and all my people, we teach and we try to portray a genuine desire to have the best customer experience we can give you whatever that means to you. It varies buyer to buyer, person to person.
And in the course of that interaction, if they believe you, if they believe you’re just not after their pocketbook and you’re trying to get your hand in their pocket, they will begin to allow, to open up and allow you into their, into their persona and into their personal life a little bit and you get to understand them. And then if you, if you hit it off, like I say, if your two personalities jive, then, it, it’s easy to stay friends.
I’ve had at least five clients in the seven years I’ve run MityLite, fly to Salt Lake—people like to ski—and stay at my house with their families and go skiing. It’s not an invitation I give across the board, but, we have a number of our clients who we’ve invited to the house and my wife knows them, I know their wives and we have a good time together.
17:22 JL: But, but I just think about, you describing that, I mean, it sounds like the reverse “Godfather”, right?
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
17:27 JL: “It’s not business, it’s personal,” k? You think about what that, the value of your company to invest at that personal level in them. Like, they probably would’ve been a client whether you let them stay at your house or not, k? Right?
JOHN DUDASH: Oh, for sure.
17:40 JL: But when you think…
JOHN DUDASH: We have pretty good products.
17:42 JL: K.
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
17:43 JL: But when you think about the long-term value of, whether it’s a service provider, could be your outside lawyers, could be a client, right? You think about that, that willingness on your part to go that extra mile, what a benefit to your organization it is because you secure that relationship, which secures everybody else’s salary around here.
18:02 JOHN DUDASH: Yeah, and that, yeah, and we don’t do it for that reason. But, you know, I would never bring anybody into my personal life that I didn’t value the personal relationship. The, the relationship with the customer is, is, a, identical to the relationship I have with my direct staff, meaning I have illusions that if we drop the ball on a customer, they’re gonna not buy from us anymore. But I remain friends with them. I also have no expectation that they’re gonna buy from us just because we have this personal relationship. I’ve simply been fortunate enough in my life to meet some really special people through business that I found I wanted to spend time with, as did my wife, and as did our families and they apparently share that, that feeling in, and it’s worked out well.
I, I’m not so naive to think that it doesn’t carry over into the business relationship and that it does help Mity in some degree, but that certainly not what drives the motivation from it.
19:00 JL: So I totally follow you on that. And I guess where I’m going with this is, it does take some level of personal vulnerability or personal risk to go first, you know what I mean?
JOHN DUDASH: Well…that’s true.
19:11 JL: Right? It, to, to, when you’re, when, when you are moving those relationships to deeper levels, the, like, whoever goes first, like there is…
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
19:21 JL: There’s that opportunity to be rejected and a lot of us get really concerned about our image and our own self worth or something and, and are not willing to put ourselves out there and to care about staff to this level or care about clients to that level because we don’t want to risk being rejected.
JOHN DUDASH: Yeah, I guess that’s…
19:40 JL: But, but, it sets the example for everybody else if you as the leader are willing to do that, it seems like it would set an an example for the rest of the, the rest of the company of, it’s ok to care even if it doesn’t get returned or something.
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
Closing Advice: Learn All You Can, Work Hard, Be Passionate
20:10 JL: Ok. Let, let’s, let’s end it with this. Going back to maybe the most valuable piece of advice you think you can give our listeners and other people who are trying to grow a business and lead people and, and build relationships outside of the business. When it comes to leadership and people, what do you think would be, if you could only give one piece of closing advice here, what do you think it would be?
JOHN DUDASH: Wow, I, I wish I was that smart that I could have a piece of advice that would be that meaningful. But I’ve found that if you, learn what there is to learn in whatever your chosen field, learn all you can. Work hard. I mean, there’s nothing better than hard work. And then lastly, be passionate.
Passion is different than hard work. Passion comes from the core of you. You have to be passionate about the success you want, the success for your people, and genuinely care about the end game. And the end game has many definitions. It’s not just financial, it’s not just your own career, it’s not just your people’s welfare. It’s all of that. There’s a ball somewhere where all that’s in that you should be striving to grab and if you can passionately and intelligently and doggedly chase that ball, I think you win.
Interact with Others and Find Passion Again
21:50 JL: As, as an example, do you have any thoughts about people who would want to up their game on any of those levels of, like, and if you like you need to get more passion, or you feel like you need to get lear—more learning. My recommendation is…?
JOHN DUDASH: Well, first of all, of course, education. Formal is, is the easier, but, yeah, I would, I would argue, you know, interact. The networking opportunities that are out there in many, many ways are, are, are the key to this because if you find yourself getting bogged down, or you find yourself losing direction, you find yourself losing your passion, go associate with others who have it. It’s contagious. That’s why a great leader always is passionate about some sort of end game or some sort of result. Usually, it’s someone with a, a vision or a strategy, I think.
One of the things that we have at Mity that’s, that’s quite attractive is that we have a very clear, strong vision and strategy for where we want to go. And people will embrace that and if you somehow lost it in, in whatever line of work or wherever path you’re on, find other people who, who have it, see how they approach things, and then ask yourself, “Can I, can I reinvigorate my own passion in my current situation, or maybe I gotta find a different situation. But, but interact with people who do it. It’s contagious. It’s, and it’s so positive in your personal and professional life.
Nothing, in my view, is better for your personal or passionate [professional] life, whether it’s your interpersonal relationships, your job, your faith, anything, than passion.
23:28 JL: I love it. We’re gonna close there ’cause that’s a great place to close. I know we ended last episode with this but, in case somebody missed it. If people do want to find out more about what this MityLite culture actually produces as a product, what’s…
JOHN DUDASH: [laughs]
23:41 JL: What’s the best way to connect with you guys and, and see the products you’re making?
JOHN DUDASH: MityLite.com. M-I-T-Y-L-I-T-E dot com. Great place to start all the information you ever need about our people or our products is, is there. And I hope we can help you.
23:57 JL: Love it. Thanks for making time.
JOHN DUDASH: Thank you, Jess.