Despite a 41-year career in industry, including 34 years at General Mills – 15 of them as vice president of manufacturing – John Russett readily admits he wasn’t a perfect leader. As he recounted his career during a morning keynote address at the Corridor Business Journal’s Manufacturing Conference Sept. 30 at The Hotel at Kirkwood, […]
- Unparalleled business coverage of the Iowa City / Cedar Rapids corridor.
- Immediate access to subscriber-only content on our website.
- 52 issues per year delivered digitally, in print or both.
- Support locally owned and operated journalism.
Despite a 41-year career in industry, including 34 years at General Mills – 15 of them as vice president of manufacturing – John Russett readily admits he wasn’t a perfect leader.
As he recounted his career during a morning keynote address at the Corridor Business Journal’s Manufacturing Conference Sept. 30 at The Hotel at Kirkwood, Mr. Russett said one of the key lessons he learned when he was first named a General Mills plant manager was to recognize the expertise of those surrounding him.
“The most important thing I learned in the early going was, those folks didn’t care if I knew anything or not,” he said. “In fact, they’d rather I didn’t know anything. They were so tired of someone who had a four-year degree in grain science coming in and wanting to change the world. When I walked in, I literally knew nothing. I could correctly identify corn. So I was dependent on the rest of the people in that plant teaching me. And I learned that they want to teach, they want to coach, they want to be valued and respected for what they know. And I watched, in contrast with people who came in (professing to) know everything.
“So that was an early lesson I took everywhere I went for the last 34 years,” he added. “There are plenty of places I go where I’m the least of the experts in the room. As leaders, depending on where you’re at in your career, I would encourage you to understand the experts in the room and let them teach you some things. Then you can go about changing the world as you find it.”
Mr. Russett told the crowd of about 150 manufacturing industry leaders that in his experience, being the leader of choice is a critical factor in becoming an employer of choice in a market of flexible working arrangements, accelerating technological development and decreasing worker allegiance.
“I like what I see here about improving development and retention,” he said. “All those things bundled together are going to create your environment. I understand there are tremendous challenges right now. There’s no place I go right now where the first topic on the company’s agenda is where to find labor – the next generation. How you hire and develop (workers) is very important for the culture, and when people argue you can’t retain (employees) today because of all these challenges, I’d argue just the opposite. Think about how you can be intentional with your leadership. It has to do with people knowing you care, connecting with people and having a transparent relationship. That gives you the opportunity to develop and grow within your organization. It’s really the importance of building a team and understanding your influence as a leader.”
Mr. Russett recounted hearing from a leader in the most challenging situations – Major Gen. Stephen Goldfein, who commanded the 1st Fighter Wing in Operation Infinite Justice, the first active-duty response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack attacks. Mr. Goldfein described that day as both the best and worst day of his life, Mr. Russett said – the worst because of the day’s events, the best because of his operation’s response to those events.
“It doesn’t have the same impact when I tell the story,” Mr. Russett said, “but in the room when a wing commander is responsible for providing our East Coast protection through the air – to go through that, you realize the decision-making and the command power. I would argue we all have that kind of power. When we’re faced with a mission and need to make a decision, make it and move swiftly and decisively. That elevates everything else we do.”
In response to a question from the audience regarding advice he would give an earlier version of himself, Mr. Russett stressed the importance of accountability for decisions.
“As I progressed, I didn’t realize how important it was to providing clarity around a vision and clarity around the strategies, and then following up with them,” he said. “Give yourself license as a leader. Don’t be shy about declaring what’s needed, as long as you’re there to support the team in getting that done. You can’t dance around the issue – what does the business need? Then let’s talk about how we hold each other accountable. And once you get declarative, be intentional because you’re going to have to back it up, and people are watching every day to see if you’re actually going to act on your beliefs.”