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Exectives Share Their Many Paths to Leadership posted by: Cindy Hodnett
Leadership has many representative faces in the furniture industry, and five of them took the stage at the annual Furniture Today Leadership Conference to discuss their own journeys to the highest role at their companies while also offering thoughts on best practices for identifying and supporting their eventual successors.
Lorri Kelley of BDI, Karel Czanderna of Flexsteel, Cary Benson of Palliser, Caroline Hipple of Norwalk and Kim Knopf of Innovative Mattress Solutions shared insights from their careers in a panel discussion moderated by Jen Hall of Jena Hall Designs during one of the opening day sessions. The group agreed that mentorship, networking and embracing difficult challenges were a few of the commonalities that played a role in their growth.
Kelley said that two mentors encouraged her to continually stretch outside of her comfort zone. “The most helpful tips I was given were to work hard because nothing comes easy, to be prepared because spectacular results always follow unspectacular hours of preparation and to never stop learning,” Kelley said. “Additionally, they told me to be courageous and determined, never letting my detractors see me crack and to make time to build relationships and nurture them, including becoming a mentor myself.”
Kelley said that she is working with her BDI team on implementing three areas of mentorship throughout the company including career progression mentoring that prepares employees for future roles, on-board mentoring for new employees and reverse mentoring, a twist on the usual mentoring definition.
“We use our younger talent to instruct those of us who are not so young anymore in areas that might be outside of our usual focus,” Kelley said.
Czanderna, CEO of the publicly held Flexsteel, said that she encourages and has benefitted from both mentors and sponsors.
“Mentors help with advice and information and help you make connection,” she said. “A sponsor is a senior leader that believes in you and will go out on a limb for you. They will give you honest and critical feedback and function as high-acting support.”
Czanderna encourages her leadership team to identify protégés within the company and to support their career growth as well. “A protégé is a high-potential employee who delivers extraordinary results, a member of your A-team,” she said. “We are reinventing Flexsteel now for our next pathway with these things in mind.”
Benson reiterated the importance of building relationship and investing time for networking. He added that companies must always be looking at building the next team of leaders.
“We just completed a two-day board meeting talking about succession planning,” Benson said. “It’s something we take very seriously, including work on a performance management program.”
Hipple noted that while many individuals want “leadership fast,” it is imperative to gain skills in numerous areas before ascending to the top role. She encourages future leaders to take roles in different parts of a company, adding that developing effective communication skills is critical. “It is important to teach managers the skills they need to have conversations that help retention”
Knopf, who started a company at age 23, said that she recruits outside of the industry to find the right candidate for a position, adding that “you can’t execute a business plan if you don’t have the right people” she said that employee retention is an ongoing challenge for many companies.
“If you want to retain people over time, you have to look at life balance,” Knopf said. “You also have to give people the opportunity to win without setting them up for failure. And in retail, it is very important to onboard employees correctly. We talk about retention and recruiting, but this is another crucial area.”
Hipple said that as a former “accidental retailer at 21 who was running a company at 51,” she thinks it is an exciting time to be recruiting, retaining and developing talent in the furniture industry.
“Our industry is very good at hands-on training and offering opportunities to rise to the top,” Hipple said.
And when asked by Hall what they would have told their younger selves as a mentor; the panel offered insightful advice to current and future leaders.
“I would tell myself to be more patient and less critical on myself,” Kelley said. “I missed out on enjoying a lot of the ride.”
Czanderna said, “Listen 20 times more than you talk.”
Benson said he would stress the importance of preparation. “I didn’t learn the value of that until much later in my career,” he said.
Both Hipple and Knopf stressed the importance of stretching boundaries. “Be confident in taking the hardest job in your skill set,” Hipple said. “Ask questions and listen.”
Knopf agreed. “Do the more uncomfortable things you are comfortable with and quicker,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to fail.”
This article has been reprinted with permission from Furniture/Today, December 12, 2016.
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Jana Platina Phipps

Home Couture Collective
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