A couple of weeks prior to my interview with Mark, I walked by his office and noticed that his door was open. I took this opportunity to stop in and explain my project. He smiled as he stopped typing, looked up from his computer and said, “Hi Courtney! How can I help you?” He was all ears when I mentioned the word, leadership. Although he is a busy guy, he was very kind and asked that I put something on his calendar and noted that if I couldn’t find a time that works in the next couple weeks to let him know, and he will move some meetings around.
Luckily, I found an open slot. I used the two-week gap to compile a list of questions I knew I wanted to ask, also knowing that his answers would open the door to more questions.
The day of, Mark excitedly motioned for me to come into his office after finishing up a prior appointment.
Both were left smiling and laughing. I had previously found that he likes to leave every meeting on a good note. I noticed that his blinds were closed as he asked me to take a seat in his infamous green plaid guest chairs. He used them as an icebreaker, joking that while they look silly and outdated, everyone has asked him if they could have them when he retires. Mark sits behind a large mahogany desk with two computer monitors and mounds of papers and books. There are also two bookshelves lined with books.
I asked him what his favorite book is, and he said, The Goal, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, estimating that he has given 50 copies to his employees. Then, he opened his desk drawer to reveal hundreds of articles and papers on managing people, a collection of things he has benefited from over the years. He noted that it is helpful to have reference material like this as a leader explaining that everyone is different, and a good leader will tailor themselves to an individual.
Next, Mark continued our discussion by giving me a little background on his career progression. Conclusively, he worked his way from the bottom up, sticking to just a couple of companies. He stressed the importance of faithfulness to the same company. Stay if there is something worth staying for but leave if there is no path forward. So, Mark stayed mostly. I was relieved to hear we have the same thought process on this matter. I have been with the same company since graduation, worked my way from technician to Quality Engineer to Project Manager, so I continue to see firsthand the value of working your way up, especially if you want to be a leader.
Mark, is currently the Vice President of Research and Development (R&D). He has several directors under him that specialize in New Product Development (NPD), a position he formerly held. The NPD group specializes in the scale-up of pharmaceutical products that meet and exceed all quality, regulatory and safety aspects. Since I am a Project Manager for NPD, this was easily understood. Mark and I have crossed paths a few times due to our positions. Seeing him converse, challenge and even inspire others during more harsh meetings is one of the reasons I knew I wanted to interview Mark. I have been on the receiving end of his kind comments. One time, I was presenting a project to the Executive Leadership Team (ELT), and I was getting a lot of questions. Mark sensed that I was becoming discouraged, so instead of asking me a question, he stated, “I just want to note that all things aside, Courtney has acquired this project 3 weeks ago. It is very impressive how quickly she has learned the technical details and is now presenting it.” I smiled and just said thank you. After the meeting, I thanked him more appropriately. He said, “I’ve been there too. We could not let you think negatively about the project, we need you to stay positive.” This is just one example of Mark’s path-goal supportive leadership style.
An example of his participative leadership style is his interactions with all his employees. Although Mark is a Vice President, he doesn’t dismiss the relationships with his technicians. In fact, his first meeting that day was at 6:30 AM with the technicians, casually in the breakroom. Mark stated that he does this periodically as a chance to get to know his employees. Technicians are the foundation of his group. Their feedback is extremely important. Mark is a participative leader in that he consults with his followers and seeks their ideas and opinions. I can recall being a technician and thinking highly of the few leaders who would reach out to me and seek my opinions much like Mark does.
While Mark’s job description as a Vice President includes budgeting, assessment of business opportunities and development of a business plan, he mentions that “facilitator” should be included. Again, he stressed the importance of being fully involved and referred to the bottom-up theory when it comes to managing people. A strong foundation makes a strong organization. Not only does he meet with his technicians regularly, he observes their work. He questions them and is sure to challenge them. Challenging them is vital to their growth while promoting a strong work ethic he stated. However, he said to be wary of the fine line between doing this and micromanaging. Micromanagement is something I need to improve upon. There are two types of managers: the type that manages until the person is trusted and the type that trusts until the person shows they need to be managed. I tend to be the latter, which enables me to micromanage. Mark trusts first. A leadership style I aim to acquire.
Although Mark and I are different in management style, I was pleased to find that Mark’s work ethic is like mine. Our work ethics were formed through hard work and discipline starting at the early age of 16. He started out as a janitor for Hardees while I started bussing tables at Diamond Mineral Springs. Of all the positions Mark has held, his janitorial job sticks out as a learning experience. After learning the importance of discipline and cleanliness, his location won a housekeeping award. In fact, he was so good at his janitorial job that they didn’t want to promote him to “burger flipper.” He realized then that you can’t hold people back. Mark stated that “you may be holding back greater potential in another area.” To this day because of his experience at Hardees, Mark tries to promote employees to positions where they can succeed. This is authentic leadership. Authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with both their hearts and heads. Mark used his life experiences to become an authentic leader.
Mark knew he wanted to be a leader, but he never thought he would become a Vice President of a pharmaceutical company. He knew he wanted to go into the sciences and he also knew he wanted to make decent money. Because of this, he thought he had to choose pre-med, pre-vet or pre-dental. Mark decided to go into dentistry because it seemed like dentists were off one day a week. Again, I was floored at how much he and I had in common. I was pre-dental at Saint Joseph’s College because I excelled in sciences and wanted to make a great living for myself. Mark attended The University of Missouri to get a background in chemistry before he could continue to the University of Missouri-Kansas City for dentistry. Two years into the program he realized he probably wouldn’t be a dentist, and a long-term job in chemistry wasn’t alluring. I had my ah-hah moment during my senior year interning for a dental practice. The dentists were not passionate about what they were doing, and I could see why. Since I knew I wanted to be a passionate leader, that was my indication to change paths. I didn’t apply for dental school, and after graduation on the referral of a friend, I applied to Covidien. Mark’s advice came from a friend as well when he transferred to the chemical engineering program, a good mix of science and engineering that would eventually lead him to St. Louis.
After college, he accepted a job in Kansas City as a hazardous waste inspector. He learned a lot about environmental regulations. A few years in, he began getting calls from headhunters asking him to move south, so in 1982, he moved to Louisiana and took a job as an Environmental Engineer. He learned about air and water regulations and eventually was responsible for teaching new regulations to company management. Mark was also responsible for putting together an organizational plan for the Environmental Department, which resulted in the need to hire more people. When Mark was asked to be the supervisor of the new employees, he declined. He didn’t see himself as a manager and wanted to remain as an individual contributor. Eventually, Mark was forced into the position and became comfortable managing others. He stated that good mentoring (and his article collection) was the reason he was able to succeed.
When it comes to mentoring, Mark says that “the only good mentor is making sure that you have one.” I disagree. You can’t have just anyone be your mentor. There must be a relevance for the benefit to be mutual and a relationship to blossom. Mark explained that during his undergrad studies, he didn’t have a mentor. He often wandered and experimented on his own, so having just someone to “bounce things off” would have been helpful. As a result, he makes sure his NPD team knows he is just a phone call away to “bounce” ideas off him (yet another life lesson that makes Mark an authentic leader).
With this answer, I realize that it has been thirty minutes and no phone calls. Mark has nearly 50 people in his organization, so this is odd. I asked him how frequent the calls are, and he said, “usually people just swing by and talk to me, just like you did when you asked me if you could interview me. The door must always be open.” I asked, “how do you get anything done?” Mark just laughed and explained it is difficult, but he likes people and knows that availability and openness are key when being a leader. Managers manage tasks and people, but a leader will look for opportunities to be involved with people. He goes on to say, “but in all seriousness, if I must focus on something or a deadline is approaching, I will crack my door.” That tells his people that they can knock, but only if it’s an urgent matter. Finally, the phone rings, but I notice that it doesn’t distract him. He doesn’t even look to see who it is. His focus is on me. I tell him that it is okay to get it if he needs to, and he says, “our conversation is just as important.” I took his concept and decided I wanted to run with it. All too often someone will be talking to me at my desk when my phone rings, and I say that I need to get it. I say that I will get back to the person standing in my cube, but now I am left wondering how they might feel about this.
Next, Mark ties into my wonderment by describing an experience he had early in his career. One of his former supervisors would set up one on one’s in his office, and Mark would be required to walk across the plant to attend. Usually, the phone would ring at least once during the one on one. Each time, the supervisor would answer the phone. If the conversation took too long, Mark would excuse himself to a nearby break room to catch up on some work. He didn’t want to listen to the business of others and he also didn’t want to waste his own time. At the end of the year, Mark was astonished when he received a below average raise on his performance review. When he inquired about it, his boss explained that Mark was spending too much time in the break room. A difficult lesson to learn, but it was an experience that helped shape Mark into the leader he is today.
Mark finished by describing the rest of his career path. In 1992, he moved to Saint Louis to be an Environmental Manager for Mallinckrodt where eventually he was promoted to the Director of the Health, Safety, and Environmental Department. Several years later, Mark transitioned out of the environmental world when he was asked to be a team lead for Project Voice. His success during the project opened the door into a manufacturing management role, and eventually, he was asked to be the Director of the NPD group. All in all, Mark didn’t foresee himself managing and leading others. Thus, he certainly didn’t see himself becoming a Vice President, but he says he is content where he is.
Each day, we make decisions. Some of them are good and some of them are bad, but they continue to shape us into who we really are. Mark doesn’t have any major regrets about the decisions he has made or the career path he has chosen. When I said that I dwell on some of the decisions I have made, he simply said, “don’t.” We all make mistakes and there are several different ways to get to where you want to be. I stated I wanted to become a leader, and he said then you will be, just be true to yourself in the process. Thus, my discussion with Mark further solidified the importance of being an authentic leader and using life experiences to become one, something I am striving to get better at each day. Among these points and many others, Mark taught me that giving full attention to an employee or mentee is a must, even if an important phone call is missed.