What makes a leader?
When Andrew Silvernail, CEO of IDEX and No. 4 on Forbes’ 2012 list of the most powerful CEOs 40 and under, thinks of a strong leader, he thinks of a dairy farmer in Maine.
“Erleen Clement, my best friend’s mother, taught me some unbelievable life lessons about high expectations, unconditional love and what it really means to be a leader,” Silvernail said. “You don’t think of a woman who is a homemaker on a cow farm in Maine as being a prototypical leader, but she was one of the first to believe in me.”
More than twenty years later, Silvernail still applies her lessons — and those from the many other mentors he’s had along the way — to be the best leader he can. Silvernail recently spoke to the Evanston Executive MBA students in a special Executive Speaker Series event and shared some of his thoughts on how to be a leader.
Silvernail recalled his high school football days. His dream was to be a quarterback, but he didn’t have the “arm for it, the legs for it [or] capacity to be good at it.” His coach forced him to face the reality that he would never be a great quarterback — but that didn’t mean he couldn’t succeed as a linebacker.
“Figure out where you fit,” Silvernail said. “Understand what you’re good at and where you truly differentiate.”
This same wisdom later encouraged him to leave investment management for a leadership position at a manufacturing firm, despite a pay cut. He realized that while he might not be able to compete in bond trading or management consulting, he was good at leading teams and people.
“Values are a compass,” Silvernail said. “If you get them right, they’ll point you in a specific direction. They give you the power to say a powerful ‘yes,’ and just as important, the power to say ‘no’.”
If values give direction, culture sets the tone.
When he first was given the title of CEO, Silvernail immediately got to work restructuring and reframing the corporate culture. Culture, he stated, is what people do every day. It is how they embrace every stakeholder, including their coworkers. Silvernail emphasized that a culture should be something people “actively opt into or out of because they fully understand they want and have the capacity to be part of that unique environment.”
Silvernail had some closing advice. In a previous job, he and his boss had a very difficult relationship that ultimately forced the Board to choose between the two leaders. It was a painful experience to be passed over for someone he believed was a poor leader. It became a hidden blessing, however, because he left a culture that was a poor fit and ultimately joined IDEX Corporation.
“I have learned over time that there a few things that will ultimately determine your long-term career success and happiness,” Silvernail said. “First, you must differentiate yourself. You need to find your niche where you have a competitive advantage. Second, understand your values and never be afraid to live them fully. Finally, work within a culture and with people that fit who you are as a person.
“It was when I joined IDEX that all of these came together for me. When I went to IDEX, it was for the right reasons: doing what I am passionate about — leading people — at a company I love.”