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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Follow Your Passions at 200MPH

by Shel Horowitz

April's gathering at Delaney House was probably the first time that a champion racing car driver spoke to the Family Business Center. But that racer is also the highly successful entrepreneur who dropped out of college to race, returned to his 4th generation family after a 20-year racing career—and grew the Jiffy flour mill in Chelsea, Michigan (near Ann Arbor) from 225 employees and annual sales of $60 to $70 million to outselling such giants as Pillsbury and Duncan Hines, and claiming 57% market share.

For Howdy Holmes, the intense racing world where every second counts is an excellent training ground for the more laid back world of business; it requires a keen sense of timing, risk assessment, skills at forging joint ventures with sponsors, crew members, and others, and many other relevant skills. "Where I was coming from, doing risk analysis at 200 mph, you execute and you find out pretty quickly whether you made a good decision. I was like the AS-400 to their abacus."

However, this impetuous instant decision-maker had to learn some hard lessons about the culture of his business. Entering this tightly controlled "stoic sole proprietorship" in 1987, with no fax machine, a telephone switchboard that closed an hour and half for lunch every day, and a punchcard-based dinosaur IBM System/32 computer system, he encountered resistance when he pushed too hard.

"Unfortunately, there were people with different points of view. I had several strikes against me. You can put people into categories like accountant, sales; people didn't see 'race car driver' as intellectual capital. But anything you do that's different is taken personally. And when it becomes personal, it's over. The book on me is that I didn't think things through.

"It took me a while to realize I had to reinvent myself from within. The only way you're gong to change thing is from the inside." So Holmes spent a decade doing focus groups and therapy of various kinds (easy to tap into in the college community of Ann Arbor).

And with that perspective, coming at the idea of modernizing the business from a place of high personal integrity, communication was opened and change started to happen.

Holmes led a role play of introducing ourselves without the first person: no "I", "my", "mine"—then commented, "When you've got to think about what you say before you say it, what a concept that is! We love to talk about ourselves. It's like a competition, 'my kid's in 47 activities, how many is yours in?' We can go a lot farther if we say what we mean and mean what we say."

Just as he had to go through is own personal transformation before becoming an effective leader, Holmes sees business success as requiring several evolutions. He focused his talk on three in particular: organizational infrastructure, decision-making, and leadership for change.

Organizational Infrastructure

Sole proprietorship, the first stage, is "all about control; no decision is made without the proprietor. But my father worked 60-70 hours a week. You're doing four or five different jobs, and you reach a critical mass where you're affected. At that point, you have to delegate, give up control—it's like ripping your heart out, it ought to be spelled 'S-O-U-L proprietor.'"

Stage 2, hierarchy, is "about power and authority, mostly about the misuse. How we communicate gets very tangled" in people's perceptions of their own and others' relative importance.

Finally, the most successful businesses reach the third stage: "Interdependence, a circle. No matter what your task or title, you can see everybody in the company. There's no need to hide, no fear, and it's based on trust and respect.

Decision-Making

Stage 1, "telling: 'Here's the problem, here's my solution.'"

Stage 2, "selling: A little more sophisticated. 'Here's the problem, my solution, why I chose this solution.'"

Stage 3, "testing: A little bit more open. 'Here's why I chose, I'm open to suggestions and would reverse my decision if a better solution is found.'"

Stage 4, "consulting: 'Here's the problem. The decision is not made. I don't know the solution, I am seeking your input and ideas. Here are the options so far—are there others?' It's the early stages of interdependency."

And finally, Stage 5, "collaborating: 'Here's the problem. No decision has been made. I have not researched any solutions. We need to work together to determine the best solution."

Holmes sees a "significant difference" in the corporate climate between stages One and Five, but also recognizes the substantial barriers in moving through. "Ego, power, authority, and the lust for that position make it hard. If you're already perceived as telling, usually a very serious event has to take place, something pretty disastrous. Until they realize what they're doing to those around us, we never think about it."

Absent such a cataclysm, "it would take years to move from telling to collaborating. And it has to be a group effort. Especially in hierarchy organizations, people are afraid to make a suggestion. They don't want to appear stupid. If a VP or president says something, even if someone has a better idea, is anybody really going to suggest" alternatives?

"We judge ourselves by our intentions. But we judge others by their behavior. It's what I call the reality gap. To be collaborative, you've got to give up being 'the man.'

"Ask someone else in a different discipline what they think, before you make up your mind. If we don't invite input from other people, we don't expand our horizons. When we invite other people, they do it for us.

Leadership for Change

"Leadership is a condition of servitude. If you're president of a company, you should be working in the company. A CEO should be working on the company. The chair of the board, with the company. There are significant differences.

Change "has got to start from the top. Nothing's going to change unless you demonstrate that change. People will follow what leaders do. 'Do as I say, don't do as I do' doesn't work.

"Corporations can and should have a redemptive purpose. Reaching your potential is more important than meeting your goals. Being faithful to beliefs, passionate and totally committed, is more important than being successful. Leaders are meant to be resources. If you're the leader, say, 'my door is always open, come to me when you need help to do your job. Don't just tell me what you think I want to hear.

"In our company, I ask people to set goals [for] volunteerism, family, personal growth, and task-related. I want them to know that I'm interested in the whole person. I want that whole person to come to work. If you're a comedian, I want you-the-comedian there all day long. When you're happiest, when you're best, don't leave your personality in the car. If you're hard to be around, frail, don't like to talk—we'll find a way to get you into the soft skills and develop you.

"You want your employees to know you believe in them. You set goals that you want to attain. If a guy wants to lose 45 pounds, that's a lot of weight. It's February, and he said he'd lose 45 pounds by December 1. I said, 'if you could lose 10 pounds by March, 20 pounds by June, 30 by September, you might have a chance. If you don't measure until the 45 pounds is completed, you'll never have a chance.

" We worry too much about stuff that doesn't really matter. What's really important is not setting goals but your potential. If I can do 10 pushups and I set a goal of 25, by the time I can do 25, I could do 50. My potential has increased.

"Change happens when you're willing to get uncomfortable, vulnerable. I'm getting so into change." Every tiny positive change "is significant, because you can incorporate that behavior. Little, little steps. So here's something to try. Tomorrow, when you get up, do something different. If you shower first, go make coffee, use a different bathroom. You're going to start noticing things around you. I guarantee that you don't know you've passed three pictures, two tables. But when you change, you notice everything. And it stimulates you to think, because it makes you uncomfortable. And only when we're uncomfortable can we learn new things.

"Hiring is the most important thing you can do. We do all sorts of psychological testing. You spend hundreds of thousands on an employee, why not spend 15 or 20 grand to sort them out before you take them on board? If someone says, 'the personal stuff is not your concern,' I say, 'you don't understand the way we operate.' We never ask candidates about tasks. I want to know their character, their conscience, whether they're courageous. I want to be able to predict what he or she's going to do when I'm not looking."

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