Cindi Bigelow ’86 MBA is the third-generation president and CEO of Bigelow Tea, which was founded by her grandmother in 1945. Still 100% family owned, the company is the national market leader in specialty teas, boasting more than 150 flavors. She recently sat down with Dean Francesca Cornelli for a conversation about leadership philosophies and the wisdom of knowing what you don’t know. Below is an edited excerpt from that discussion.

How do you communicate your leadership philosophy to your senior leadership team?

It is important that when we talk about any project or plan and how successful it was or wasn’t, we need to also examine the process and what were the people development opportunities along the way. Is there additional coaching needed? Did we remove the necessary hurdles as leaders?

I also continually share with my team that they “do not have the luxury of a bad day.” In reality, if they have one, think about how many other people will now be impacted negatively. Sure, bad days will happen, but as a leader you need to figure out a more productive way to address them. And if you are unable to productively handle, be honest about it. Let your team know you could have done a better job. We are all real people, and sharing that you could have done better, and that you are apologizing, is very powerful.

Those simple things make a difference throughout the whole organization. As I work hard to be a role model to my team, they do the same for their teams. Does it always work? No, but I understand it takes constant massaging on my part. It is something I always have to work on!

What do you wish you had known when you were starting out in your career?

That’s difficult because when you’re young, it’s hard to hear advice that truly can resonate as much as it probably should. You don’t have the years of experience to understand what the advice truly means.

As the years went by, I started doing a better job of truly listening to people around me. I realized I didn’t have to have all the answers, but I did need to find them. That came by seeking advice and observing and listening at a deeper level. I also had to own up to my mistakes and make sure I really learned from them. If I had known all this during my early years, it would have been very helpful.

What advice would you give to recent Kellogg graduates?

Ask more questions. And when you think you’ve asked enough, ask some more. I think people come in wanting to have the answer, but by asking questions, you actually can help steer a group to better solutions.

Kellogg graduates are exceedingly smart, but learning the art of asking valuable and probing questions is invaluable. Plus there is the added benefit of the fact that people like to work with those that want to hear what they have to say . . . it’s a win-win.
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