CEO Panel: The path to leadership and lessons learned along the way

At our recent Talent Summit, the CEOs of HBM’s portfolio companies participated in a panel to discuss their unique professional journeys. Many factors have shaped their paths to success, and the panel was an interactive way to learn more about each CEO’s background, leadership style and management approach.

The panel was asked a wide variety of questions, with responses ranging from compelling to comical, and today we’re sharing the highlights with you. Panel participants included: Bill Ayers, President & CEO of Mississippi Lime, Eric Van Rens, President & CEO of Schafer Industries and Daniel Wright, President & CEO of Aerofil.

On your leadership journey, what has shaped you the most? Do you have a formative experience?

Bill Ayers: I started my career in sales and marketing, which offered me the opportunity to test my capabilities in front of customers. I had some humbling experiences early on, and I learned a lot, particularly about my weaknesses, through that process. There’s that quote that says, “You learn as much from failure as success,” but I actually disagree with that. If you succeed right out of the gate, you only know one path to success. But if you experience failures, you’re forced to get creative, to solve problems, and through that you learn that there are various ways to succeed. You learn more from failures.

Daniel Wright: In my first job out of business school, I had the opportunity to begin working directly with high-level executives. This was really the first time I had interfaced with leadership at this level, and I felt pretty intimidated by that. Luckily a mentor of mine took notice and told me, “These people wake up every day and put their pants on the same way as you – one leg at a time.” That was really what I needed to hear. We were all working together to solve the same problems, and it made all the difference in giving me the confidence to approach people at all levels of the organization to say what needed to be said.

Was there a key individual that shaped your leadership style?

Eric Van Rens: You take something from every person that manages you throughout your career. I’ve tried to identify what I’ve admired about managers of mine and pull that out in my own experiences leading and managing others. But from an early age my two grandfathers – one was a farmer and one was a plumber – really shaped me. Both were very hardworking – I think their influence pushed me towards a mechanical inclination – and they both really led by example.

Is there a specific experience that set you on the path you’re now on in your leadership?

Bill Ayers: I don’t know that there is one specific experience, but I will say that I’ve been driven by a curiosity to always figure out how we could do something better. Whether it was an opportunity or a business challenge, I’ve always believed that with hard work, we could do it better. And through those situations where you’re solving problems and creating solutions, you learn so much.

Daniel Wright: For my own career path and in watching others’, I’ve noticed that relocation opportunities seem to bear a lot of fruit. There are always reasons not to take a risk but being open to change and receptive to these opportunities when they arise can put you on a new trajectory.

Eric Van Rens: I don’t have a single a-ha moment. Over time, through different organizations and in different roles, you see and learn a lot. Being open to a variety of opportunities – I’ve worked in operations, sales, the supply chain – and taking something from each experience will make you a better leader.

What motivates you as a leader?

Eric Van Rens: The desire to see my organization develop and grow. I want to make improvements so that we’re not just competing but winning.

Bill Ayers: The people. I have the opportunity to interact with this amazing team and to learn from them. We’re educating each other and that creates an environment that allows our business to evolve and to grow.

Daniel Wright: The journey with the team. Nothing is harder than growing your business. It’s easy to say “we want to grow” but it’s really hard to do. So, building a team and working together on the challenge is so motivating. It’s fun to deal with challenges and successes together.

The values that you hold as leaders have a heavy impact on the culture of your company. What values do you hold near and dear?

Daniel Wright: Openness. Everyone has difference experiences and perspectives, and that brings balance to the table when we’re working together.

Eric Van Rens: Doing things the right way. Putting our people first. Operating with integrity. Maintaining disciplined processes. Remaining focused on safety. If you do things the right way, a lot of the other pieces fall into place.

Bill Ayers: Trust. For me, it starts and ends with trust. When you trust someone, it makes everything easier. It creates a freedom around the business to rely on others to get jobs done the right way, with integrity.

What applicable advice do you have for aspiring leaders?

Bill Ayers: If you ever find yourself saying, “That’s good enough” it should be the trigger for you to know it’s probably not good enough. Don’t settle. Strive to always do better. And don’t take things too seriously. The atmosphere you create as a leader sets the tone for the business. Being human, being approachable, being friendly across all levels of the organization creates a positive, collaborative working environment.

Eric Van Rens: There is more talent to be developed within your organization than you realize. Give people stretch opportunities and the bandwidth to fail, and you might be surprised to see new skill sets and capabilities emerge from those individuals.

Daniel Wright: Be willing to take a risk. I’m afraid of being afraid to take risks. By diving in and making mistakes, that’s how you grow. That’s how you learn. Oh, and always make your boss look good. Their success is your success.

A big “Thank you!” to Bill, Eric and Daniel for sharing their experiences and advice with us!