The College of Idaho on Business

Scott Johnson: Little Caldwell’s big lessons for business

SCOTT JOHNSON, director of The College of Idaho’s Business and Accounting DepartmentNovember 19, 2013 

Johnson, Scott

Scott Johnson

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

Caldwell is a small corner of the world. But there are some big lessons to be learned from people here if we take opportunities to hear their amazing stories. I recently enjoyed enlightening conversations with three of our most engaged local business leaders.

The first lesson: Local business is a misnomer for these leaders. Their roots are local, but their reach extends far beyond the Treasure Valley. One leader coordinates all transactions for a customer segment throughout Idaho. Another leader oversees production quality control in China and Thailand. Another leader directs company operations on six continents (all but Antarctica).

Amid these leaders’ frenzied global activity, Caldwell remains home for various reasons, including family, appreciation of what the area offers, and a firm commitment to improving our community. Staying grounded through this local perspective gives them (and us) a sense of clarity about their “keys to success” — behavior guided by values and experiences. During our conversations, they expressed these lessons in different ways but with shared meaning:

Loyalty: Building lasting relationships with people outside their companies, and treating employees like family, generates commitment. It is not uncommon for these leaders’ employees to be with them for decades, even spanning generations. Giving employees opportunities to “have skin in the game” means the organization’s success is their success.

Consistency: Creating value in terms of quality and dependability that meets customers’ needs sets these companies apart and keeps customers satisfied. One leader mentioned a customer trying a lower-priced competitor, but returning when they realized that quality outweighed price.

Integrity: Acting based on accepted principles. This goes beyond consistency (as one could be consistently unprincipled). As one leader notes, “Everything I say, I do,” and “Know when to say no.” In practical terms, this means under-promise, over-perform. This is not just a feel-good concept; another leader finds a real payback from integrity through enhanced reputation and trust.

Trust: This is the overarching lesson from all of these leaders, to keep long-term relationships based on confidence and promises, and to establish new relationships by reducing any risk involved. Trustworthiness is confirmed by studies to be a combined perception of loyalty, consistency and integrity. Throughout their entire careers, these local business leaders have practiced trust-building components that academic researchers have only recently determined to be true.

Big lessons, indeed. Still, this could be just a case of big fish splashing loudly in a small pond — making noise, but not a lasting impact — without the crucial element of humility.

These humble leaders don’t call attention to themselves. To a person, they are happy in the back of the room (and don’t believe they necessarily have anything special to share with others). But consider such lessons as: “Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’ ” And, “If you’re talking more than your customers, you’re talking too much.”

Self-proclamations of humility would be disingenuous. These humble leaders don’t like to hear their own voices. Their actions demonstrate big lessons of loyalty, consistency, integrity, trust and humility. They also ensure these lessons are sustainable, through extensive involvement in and support for youth development activities that influence future generations of humble leaders.

In our small pond of Caldwell, still waters not only run deep — they exert a tremendous current far below the surface.

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sajohnson@collegeofidaho.edu, 459-5219

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