Leadership + People: Episode 44 - Ryan Moss - Part 2 of 2

Ryan Moss, the CEO of Little Giant Ladders, explains how he came through the ranks at his company and why it’s given him the experience to relate to his customers and his sales team on a deeper, more effective level. Starting from the concrete floors up, he says, it’s so important to truly listen to everyone – that the principle shouldn’t just be something we say.

Show Notes

  • Discovering the “why” at Little Giant Ladders [02:45]
  • The constant core value reinforcement: Preventing injuries, saving lives [04:39]
  • A Way of Life: Everything we do speaks to preventing injuries and saving lives, it’s not just a tagline on the end of a marketing piece. [08:39]
  • Positivity and negativity are both infectious, so celebrate victories [09:25]
  • Every voice is meant to be heard; listening to customers and potential customers, identifying their needs and filling them [12:22]
  • Bigger isn’t always better; growing out of a mid-level sized company [18:14]
  • You’re in corporate manufacturing? Go back and spend a week in their shoes [19:41]

Show Audio


Ryan Moss Episode 44-20

This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: July 24th, 2018

Show Transcript

[BEGINS] 00:00

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 advice they wish they knew if they could do it all again.

HOST – JESS LARSEN: Today on the show is part two of our interview with Ryan Moss.

GUEST – RYAN MOSS: I think there’s ways – we do other things. We have a monthly meeting with the entire company and we share success stories. So, we have, you know, success stories from Comcast and Brighthouse and some of the cable companies, where they have shared back to us they’ve had a 35% reduction in their injuries on ladders since using our product.

00:49 JL: So, Ryan, I feel like that part one was an amazing marketing instruction on — I know you were covering different aspects but, I think the thing that I liked the most about hearing about some of those failures, some of the wins and losses — but, when you talked about this idea of why you do what you do as a differentiator. I mean the business literature is full of books like “Differentiate or Die” by Jack Trout, or “Different” by Youngme Moon, or you know the Harvard marketing professor, just “The 80/20 Principle” by Richard Kotch. You know, “The Blue Ocean Strategy.” I mean, it doesn’t end of people saying differentiation is an extreme business benefit and yet so many of us, we end up differentiating ways that we think are different, but for people outside of our industry, they kind of lump us together. You know, if you ask somebody at American Airlines what differentiates them from United or Delta, they probably have, “Oh, we’re not even the same!” You know they list all these reasons that they’re different but, when my wife’s buying an airline ticket, you know, if there’s $50 difference in price, she’s going for the cheaper one, right?

RYAN MOSS: I agree.

02:04 JL: So, I think the one thing I got the most out of part one of the interview was when you talked about this reason why that the first one you picked didn’t last because you didn’t feel it. Can you talk about this idea of, you know, for those of us, you know the show is about leadership and people. For those of us in leadership who need to get the rest of our people to feel the why of why we are doing it different and it’s obviously something that the folks leading the charge need to have some passion about. Can you talk about maybe some advice for the rest of us who want to get our organizations feeling the why instead of just knowing what the boss picked? 02:42

Advice: How to Feel “The Why” & Catching its Bug

RYAN MOSS: Sure. I think first of all, one of the successes that we had wasn’t just ultimately my decision–that there was a team of people around me learning this process of discovering our why. And, it sounds so simple once you’ve done it, but anybody that I’ve talked to, there’s been numerous people that have talked to me that have said, “How did you get to your why?” and “We want to do our why.” Once you have it, it sounds like, “Oh that’s beautiful, that’s simple, let’s do it.” But anybody that’s attempted it will tell you that it is incredibly difficult. But I think the success that we had wasn’t me just trying to stand up and say to our employees, “Oh hey, by the way, we’re going to prevent injuries and save lives and here’s why.” But, we allowed a good group to help discover that and when we did that collectively, it was all of us collectively feeling it at the same time when we got to it. And I think it was also part of the failure process in trying to get to it that we thought it was going to be easier to get to what we wanted it — ultimately wanted — and realized how incredibly hard it was and yet, it was the pain of going through the steps. The pain of stumbling. The pain of thinking we’re done and we’re not even close, and starting over, that when we got there, we did it collectively. It wasn’t just me mandating, “Oh hey, here’s the latest you know buzz words for the week and here’s another program that’s going to last.”

When you come through our facilities on the walls of our conference room it says, “Preventing Injuries, Saving Lives.” You walk through manufacturing, “Preventing Injuries, Saving Lives.” You see that on email signatures, you see that everywhere in our facility, in our literature. We’re constantly reminding ourselves. We have a meeting every Tuesday morning at 9:00 where we have all the department heads come together and it’s a communication meeting. At the end of that meeting each week, a different person is assigned 1) to cover goals for their department, and the other would be to discuss our core values. We have five core values and one of those is “Preventing Injuries and Saving Lives,” and our why. Oftentimes, they will get up and share a prospective on that to the group that most of us have never thought about. And so, it’s being constantly reinforced but not by me, by those in the company.

05:43 JL: Yeah. So, let’s talk about where, you know, the rubber meets the road and some of the harder decisions get made. What about the staff member that is getting their job done, but they really aren’t necessarily — they haven’t caught the bug and it looks like they might not catch the bug for why our organization is doing what we’re doing. You know, they’re — it’s not a blatant, “We need to let this person go.” But, there is this, you know, a definite lack of buy in to why we say our organization exists. How do you navigate those kind of decisions as a leader?

RYAN MOSS: Well, it sounds like it’s their turn to do the presentation next week. Preventing injuries and saving lives. We often find that those things that we study and ponder on our own really, especially if you’re going to share it to a group, we learn more than the group does by far. And that would actually be one way that we would, you know, maybe potentially start to address that is, have that person make a presentation to the group on that particular item or, you know in this case, the why.

I think there’s ways, we do other things, we have a monthly meeting with the entire company and we share success stories. So, we have, you know, success stories from Comcast and Brighthouse, and some of the cable companies where they’ve shared back to us they’ve had a 35% reduction in their injuries on ladders since using our product, and we share those stories. We also created a national ladder safety month. I went back to Washington D.C. and garnered support from OSHA and NIOSH and the National Safety Council – all the safety groups – and they gave full support, and Little Giant was at the helm of leading that. Now the American Ladder Institute is really the governing body for that, but the idea and the premise of that came from Little Giant and it started here. So, we have our employees participate in that. We actually do ladder training for our own employees although very, very few of them ever built climb ladders. Most of them just build ladders or sell ladders or talk to customers who buy them, but yet, we do ladder safety training and also product education so that they understand what those leading causes of ladder accidents are and how they can protect themselves and their own families. For us, it’s more of a way of life. Our actions — everything we do really speaks to this preventing injuries and saving lives, and it’s not just a fancy tagline on the end of a marketing piece.

Recognizing the Small Victories & Celebrating Them

08:49 JL: Yeah, so let’s take someone else who, they’ve got whatever their why is, it’s different than yours, but they want to have it really become more of something that people feel in the office instead of just the poster in the hallway. What are kind of the go-to tactics or what is some of the philosophies or principles that you would recommend to a leader like that who wants it to get past the feel good feeling and really have the people we work with really strive for leadership in this area?

RYAN MOSS: Well, the advice that I would give, and it probably just ties in a little bit on what I just said is that for them as a company to recognize the small victories and to celebrate those publicly, whether it’s an individual that did something or the whole company, or a division and celebrate those publicly and really show that this is not something that just hangs on the wall but it’s something that we’re watching, that we’re participating in, and we’re excited when we see movement. Because that’s infectious. Negativity is also and so, anything that you can do to begin to get more and more of the group on that side by celebrating those victories, celebrating the successes is, in my mind, the very best way to win more and more people over to that way of thinking.

10:24 JL: Yeah, you know, I loved your example of going and getting success stories from the clients and having that tangible real human lives factor that you’ve impacted rather than the hypotheticals, right? How long ago did you guys start doing that?

RYAN MOSS: Well, as part of this whole effort when we were discovering our why, I mentioned that we had had terrible failures on innovation — not that the products weren’t innovative. Not that they didn’t, you know weren’t really cool and fantastic, but we had realized that we had failed to listen to the customer and so, in conjunction with this is we went, and this is how we even discovered these statistics, but it was all through listening to the customer and we vowed that we would never make anything again without listening — basically identifying a need and then filling a need.

And so, as we listen to hundreds, if not thousands, of safety professionals around the country, we invited hundreds of them to our facilities, and then also went out to theirs and just listened. And they shared stories and shared just gut-wrenching experiences they’ve had where best friends or somebody they had worked with for years was killed in a ladder accident or permanently disabled. And so, as a part of, we talked about, a little bit about those five core values that we have. One of those is we feel your pain. Now that’s internally to our own employees but also, the pain of those who are out in the world, who are our potential customers and that, at the bottom of that core value is that every voice is meant to be heard. So, we listen to everyone and that has really been a turning point for us and just listening — seriously listening — not trying to jump in and say, “Yeah, but we have this and yeah, we have that.” Many times we’ll go on a sales call and all we want to do is learn and we’ll come back later with maybe something that might be of a benefit to that company, but we want to learn what are your pain points and then try to discover how we could possibly help to alleviate those. But, the key for us is, and I guess in answer to your question, it’s now been about seven or eight years where we have really focused on listening.   So, that’s really been a part of our success there.

13:23 JL: You know, those are cliches for a reason because not many of us follow them, which is why we have to keep getting reminded of it. Right? And there’s probably no sales manager in America who wouldn’t spout off, “Oh, we need to listen to the client.” I can tell just the way you talk about it though that you guys are living it to a deeper degree. That it’s not just something you say. When you do have a sales team who needs to grow at that skillset, what does that look like for you of helping people, you know, build the listening muscles instead of the talking muscles?

Sales Training: Listening to a Deeper Degree

RYAN MOSS: You know that is a really great question because we recently had an experience here within the walls of our own company, within the last couple of weeks, where a big potential customer came into our company and started to talk about things that was important to them, and we had a newer salesman almost diminish kind of what they wanted and said, “But here’s what we want.” And I cringe because first of all, no one in the world cares what Little Giant wants and I can promise you that. Everyone cares about themselves. We are innately selfish. Whether we say on the outside or not, “Oh, I’m here for you.” Everyone is still always thinking about, in the back of their mind, “What’s in it for me?” That old radio station “WIFM”. And so, we struggle with that from time to time when we have new people.

You know and you mentioned that you feel like me saying well I feel like you guys are actually doing it, not just saying it. First of all, I lead by example. I’ve crisscrossed this country and I personally have spoken to thousands of safety professionals — probably less speaking to them and more listening to them — but, interacted with them and I think part of that has to start by example. When people come in, we find out what we can do for them, we listen to them. But we have, you know, we’re all human and we’ll often fall back into, you know, especially a sales person who has part of their compensation paid on commission. They’re going to try and cut to the chase, right? I feel like, we do as an organization, that cutting to the chase is probably actually going to cut their commission because if they will listen and identify the problem and then provide the solution, which we have lots of them, their commission could be ongoing for years and years and years because we are one of the few companies that really focus on solving the actual problem and not just trying to sell a product. So, we have to continually remind and teach and instruct. I have this written here on my to-do list next week to do a little bit more sales training and it’s actually not on selling, it’s on listening. So, we take time to focus on that and remind people, role play that that we’re there to listen and understand what it is that they’re suffering, what they’re pain points are, and then we come back with how we might be able to help. I say “might” because not in every case can we.

16:56 JL: Yeah. Well, you know, it relates to one of the other subjects I wanted to bring up, which is, you know you think about this from literally sweeping the floors in manufacturing to CEO of the company and you’ve been CEO for 11 years, is that right?

RYAN MOSS: That’s correct.

17:16 JL: When you think about, you know, from a small business becoming a big business, or more of a selling ladders at the farmers market to selling millions of dollars of it with the Home Depots of the world. What advice would you have for leaders who, they’re at that more mid-level of the business and they really want to get to that next higher level? Or, what do you feel like you couldn’t have learned to be at the level you’ve gotten to, as a size of company, as a size of revenue? What’s something you couldn’t have learned other than doing it yourself?

RYAN MOSS: Boy, that’s a really good question. I will say that the first part of your question on, you know, someone that’s maybe in that mid-level and wants to go to the next level — First of all, contemplate why you want to do that because bigger isn’t always better. Your problems are compounded and yes, the upside can be compounded, but so can the downside when you have times in history like 2008 where you have a major shake-up in the industry. But that also can help maybe depending on if you’re diversified enough, help with weathering those types of storms, but bigger isn’t always better.

I, in a lot of ways, do feel like I have somewhat of an unfair advantage for the fact that I came all the way up through the ranks and so I do understand a lot of parts of the business that perhaps, if I was just brought in as the CEO, I would never understand and that is I know what it’s like to stand on a concrete floor for ten hours a day and punch rung. Or, to buff the ends of tube or channel, or to assemble ladders. I know the things that can be done to improve productivity and morale, and then also just having an understanding through the business.

Spend a Week in their Shoes

RYAN MOSS: So, my advice to somebody that maybe doesn’t have that same path, where mine was kind of, I wouldn’t say forced that way, but it just happened that way, and so I happened to learn everything all the way through, is go back and spend — if you’re in a company that does manufacturing and you’re in leadership — go spend a week in their shoes. Put on your jeans and your grubby shirt and go back and work a week side by side with those people who are in manufacturing. Or, pick up the phone for a week alongside the customer service agents and listen to the calls that they have. My office is right outside our customer experience center and the reason being is, I have an open-door policy and my door is open 99% of the time and I can hear the conversations that are going on in that customer experience bay. And, oftentimes, and I don’t have to very often, I will walk out and say “Hey, it sounds like you really got a tough one there, why don’t we do this to make them happy?” Or, is there something that you’re lacking and you’re not sure on a policy or how to handle this and so, trying to get in those shoes.

I will go to some of the shows from time to time and those, if you’ve ever done them before, are not fun. You’re on your feet in a huge convention show or hall and having people walk by and you stand there day after day and engage people and those are not fun. But, it’s a great way to communicate with the customer and also know what your salesman are dealing with and be able to connect with them. At as many levels as possible, truly understand what it is that the people in your company are doing and I can promise that most people will change many of the things that they’re requiring people to do or they would find ways that they will be able to help their employees be more successful.

21:35 JL: I love it. I think that’s a great place to end. I think there’s probably a lot of us who can stand to get better at that. Well, thanks so much for spending time with us here today.

RYAN MOSS: You bet. It’s been my pleasure and I appreciate the opportunity to share a few things about Little Giant. I’m just incredibly grateful to represent an incredible group of people. I do want to put a plug in for them because, really, I have the opportunity to represent an amazing group of people that make things happen and often, I get credit for things that they do and that’s really the wrong way. If I come in to this building on a Saturday, all it is you know, is brick and mortar, concrete floors in the back and carpet at the front, and computers and machines. But there is no company until Monday when the people come in and that’s when the spirit and the life of the company is real. You take them out of the equation and we have nothing, and so I’m thrilled to represent them and they deserve all the credit that is to be had.

22:52 JL: Love it. Ok, thanks again.

RYAN MOSS: Alright. Thank you.

22:57 Music Begins. 23:00

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[ENDS] 23:50