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Survey finds leadership is key to worker's achievements

Erik Gershwind, president and CEO of MSC Industrial

Erik Gershwind, president and CEO of MSC Industrial Supply Co., at the company's customer support center in Melville Sept. 19, 2016. Credit: Barry Sloan

Leadership is about what workers can achieve, not what the boss can accomplish.

“Leadership is creating environments that influence others to achieve group goals,” said Dan Ritchie, regional director of performance consulting at Dale Carnegie Training of Long Island in Hauppauge.

“Leadership is about getting the best out of people,” said Erik Gershwind, president and chief executive of MSC Industrial Direct Co., a supplier of industrial tools and supplies, one of Long Island’s largest public companies and one of Long Island’s Top Workplaces in a survey of local employees. “It is about getting people to do things they never thought possible.”

The survey, done by Exton, Pennsylvania, research firm Energage, compared the responses of workers at 116 participating companies and selected 74 as Top Workplaces, where employee engagement is high.

The survey shows leadership is key to Long Island workers in evaluating their own companies. Confidence in the company leadership was strongly correlated with surveys where employees were engaged with their work. And some of the other factors of engagement — such as effectiveness of company management, and feelings of connection to the workplace — are strongly influenced by company leaders.

Speaking broadly, few employees in the United States believe the heads of their companies demonstrate effective leadership skills, according to Gallup’s State of the American Workforce report released last year. It found that just 22 percent of employees “strongly agree” their organization’s leadership has a clear direction for the company; 15 percent “strongly agree” the leadership of the company makes them enthusiastic about the future and 13 percent of the employees “strongly agree” the leadership of their organization communicates effectively with rest of the organization.

The stakes for strong corporate leadership are high because of the changing workplace. Baby Boomer retirements are creating the need for many replacements, and executives have to find ways to attract and maintain the more restless millennials, those roughly 18 to 36 year old, who are the largest age group in the workplace.

“There is an aging workforce, and [there is] the need to create a new generation of leaders that organizations can hold onto and grow talents more strategically than in the past,” said Pat Malone, executive director of corporate and professional education at Stony Brook University.

Effective leaders share certain characteristics, Ritchie said. They are self-directed and have a vision for the company, have good communication and people skills and clear performance objectives, and believe in accountability, especially for themselves.

Michael Vittorio, president and chief executive of First of Long Island Corp., the parent of First National Bank of Long Island and one of Long Island’s Top Workplaces, said it is important for a company not only to have a vision but to inspire employees to share in it.

Along those lines, the bank hosts town hall meetings twice a year off premises to speak with employees about the company’s goals and challenges and to get feedback.

“You want to inspire people to take on the vision that you’re trying to create,” Vittorio said, “and to have them do it because they want to based on the culture you created, not because you are the boss and you tell them to.”

Inspiring employees to buy into the vision entails effective communication skills.

“Don’t live in an ivy tower,” Vittorio said. “Walk among your employees; get out and visit.”

He and senior management meet small groups of employees “all the time” over breakfast and coffee. And on Saturdays during a cool-down after a run, he checks in with five branch managers by phone to see what is on their minds. It takes him about 10 weeks to make the rounds of all 52 branches.

“You are hearing firsthand the challenges,” he said. “That communicates that you care.”

Showing employees that you care is paramount, said John Callahan, 56, president of another Top Workplace, Riverhead Building Supply. Callahan started at the company shelving hardware.

”We value our people, we really do,” he said. “We recognize that our people are in front of our customers every day. I am supportive. I try to make them as successful as they can be.”

He said the company also communicates an appreciation for its employees by attempting to fill positions from within the company first.

“We believe in promoting from within,” he said. “I am evidence of that.”

Vittorio, who began his career at First National Bank as a teller, said his humble beginning at the company helps him to identify with the challenges some of his employees may be facing, including economic ones.

“I think it is different when you work your way up from an entry-level position and you have an understanding of what people are going through,” he said.

As a result, some employees who earn under a certain amount of money are reimbursed their health insurance deductible, he said.

He also said his bank is the only one on Long Island that still offers both a 401(k) and an active defined-benefit pension, which a company pays to retirees based on years of service.

“That is part of our culture and part of our approach to our employees where we are truly trying to take care of our employees.”

To make sure that knowledge of Riverhead Building Supply’s performance objectives runs throughout the company, Callahan and his staff share them with employees, beginning with their orientation.

“Be honest,” he said they are told. “Take care of our customers and each other, and enjoy what you do.”

Accountability is a crucial ingredient for earning the respect and confidence of employees, Vittorio said.

“If you want to be a good leader, you have to lead by example, “ he said. “And probably the most important attribute of a leader is you have to be sincere. There has to be a strong sense of integrity.”

Mentoring, both executives said, helped shaped their leadership styles.

Callahan said an early mentor of his “challenged me at every step of the way and made me see that this could be more than just a job,” he said. “It was a career about helping people.”

He said the brothers who own Riverhead Building Supply, Edgar and Russell Goodale, also have been great mentors.

“They led by example,” he said. “They worked harder than anybody else.”

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