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Gary Nelson on Leadership

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Gary Nelson on leadership: Servant attitude, self-awareness, Golden Rule

Posted on July 12, 2017 at 5:06 AM

Gary W. Nelson stands on the manufacturing floor of his company, Sturges Electronics in Dryden. Nelson says American manufacturers compete best with differentiated products that are in a niche and have differentiated capabilities. Avoid products that are "high volume, low mix, commodity, cheap." Instead, aim for low volume, high mix. (Stan Linhorst)

By Stan Linhorst

Sturges Electronics, of Dryden, was founded in 1978. The company makes cable and wire harnesses, supplying factories that serve defense, medical, and energy industries. The founder was ready to retire and announced early in 2016 that Sturges would close at the end of the year.

That's when Gary W. Nelson stepped in. He has had a long career leading manufacturers, including Buckbee-Mears in Cortland and Applied Concepts in Tully.

Nelson was CEO and had become a significant shareholder at Applied Concepts. Sturges was a supplier. Nelson visited Sturges, expecting he might buy some of the equipment. Instead, he saw an opportunity and persuaded the retiring owner to sell the factory to him.

Nelson's purchase, finalized in July 2016, kept a Central New York factory from closing, saving 15 jobs, and putting in place a plan to expand.

Tell me about growing up and early leadership roles.

When I was a kid, we moved back and forth a few times between Maryland and Cortland. I largely grew up here.

My father passed away when I was young, and my mother (Mary Lou Gutchess) moved from Maryland permanently up here. I went eighth through twelfth in Homer and graduated from Homer High School in 1980.

Early leadership roles? I wasn't captain of a team or anything like that.

When I was 15, I bought a car and some other pretty expensive things, and I decided that I needed to work full time. So, I started washing dishes at Howard Johnson's.

I had to quit lacrosse. I had to quit playing sports. I had to be to work by 4 o'clock every day, and I worked weekends.

Within a year, I was running the kitchen in the evenings, kind of had charge of the whole place.

I ended up hiring some of my friends. They were washing dishes. If they weren't exactly on the ball, I was: We're friends and stuff, but I need dishes - 200 people in the dining room.

In a way, I guess I did have a leadership role. I had a lot of responsibility in that job all the way through high school. I didn't leave there until after I left for SUNY Geneseo.

What did the experience of being in charge each night teach you?

I learned the feeling and sense of responsibility and accountability.

There was nobody else. When there are 200 people coming in the door and you have 10 waitresses throwing their tickets up, there's no not getting it done. You either throw your hands up, saying you can't do it, and you ask 200 people to leave. Or you just figure it out - it doesn't matter how crazy it is, and it was crazy at times.

What advice would you give somebody new to a leadership role or aspiring to take on leadership responsibilities?

Management and running the business itself can be complicated. There are a lot of components, and if you don't know what you are doing and you screw it up, things can go wrong.

Leadership, on the other end, is about as simple as it gets.

There are all kinds of books out there, and I've read books on leadership. I got my MBA, and I had to read all this stuff on leadership.

I thought some of the stuff was crazy. It was too complicated. I don't think it's that complicated.

It's the basic: Treat people the way you'd want to be treated. Recognize people. Interact with people.

It sounds like The Golden Rule.


A lot of managers can create a separation between management and the hourly workers. I've never allowed myself to do that. Step right out in the middle of people. Treat the guy running the machine the same way you'd treat the vice president of sales.

Talk to them. Ask about their family. Really care. They'll recognize that. There's a difference between a genuine conversation with somebody.

So, I think treating people the way you'd want to be treated - it's the Golden Rule. It's simple. It's amazing how complicated people can make it.

Treat people with respect.

In your Conversations, you've asked about mentors. I've had a lot of mentors that taught me how to manage. I had some very intelligent people with a lot of business experience, an MBA Harvard or Stanford pedigree that taught me a lot about management, a lot about running business, a lot of technical stuff.

But I can't recall one mentor that taught me about leadership, except what not to do.

That's how I learned.

I'd sit in a room with high-level people, dressed probably in thousand to two-thousand-dollars-worth of clothes, and talking to the average Joe sitting around the table like there's an enormous chasm. You can feel and sense the condescension.

I watched people get to a position above me. I'd watch them talk about themselves and interact with people in a way that made themselves above everyone.

I thought: I don't like the way that makes me feel. I'm sure others don't either.

People are not walking out of the room thinking: We're going to do whatever it takes to make it happen for this guy. Definitely not. They might be doing just the opposite, and nobody's going to know it.

Then I watched that person fail.

And then I watched another one come along and do some similar stuff. And I watched the person fail.

So, I started pulling together a learning: Hey, the way I feel about how I would do it, might be better than what I've witnessed.

I've always enjoyed developing relationships with people. That's one of the most important things in leadership.

I know that I can trust every one of the people to watch out for this place. That's how I treat them. When you treat people that way, that's the way they respond.

Summarize the management-leadership differences.

Management is purely IQ. Leadership is EQ.

EQ is emotional quotient.

There is data to support that high IQ and low EQ rarely results in a successful outcome. High EQ, even with a low IQ, results in a much better outcome.

Obviously, high EQ and high IQ is a win-win. But EQ is valued much more over IQ in terms of getting results.

I believe that to my core, because I've witnessed it.

It's amazing what you can do with people who just have drive.

Something like EQ means you have the ability to communicate - easily - with another person.

You can have all the IQ in the world around table, but if people aren't talking to each other, nothing happens. It's one of the things that drives me crazy about politics. All the suits and all the education and all the money and yet none of these people can even talk to each other.

So, EQ is more important than IQ.

Yes. One of the fundamental EQ principles is self-awareness. Understand how your actions impact the other person. Don't be thinking about what you're getting out of the conversation. Think about how what you're saying is impacting the other person.

I could be in a room with some folks here and their perception of me is such that if my voice starts getting a little elevated and they may start thinking: He's not happy. Or he's panicking. Or whatever.

I need to be able to read that and calm folks down or have a sense of what their perspective is before I even start talking, so I make sure that I'm making them comfortable.

And I've met so many people that walk in a room and they can't get the focus off themselves. And I've never seen a good result from that. Ever.

So, yeah, it's the Golden Rule and it's understanding how your actions impact others and getting out and connecting with people.

Anyone in our company knows they can walk in my office and tell me whatever. One guy came in - he's a fisherman - and he sold me eight walleyes. One guy comes in and he has his granddaughters with him going to a tournament selling a bunch of raffle tickets.

Little things like that. You never want to be aloof.

One of the first things I did when I got here is I brought a gas grill down, a Bluetooth speaker, brought the food, people brought dishes to pass, and we stopped at noon, and cooked and ate and sat around the table and BS-ed. Asking people questions about themselves.

The result? I think these people would do anything for this business.

I wouldn't dilute my advice with a lot of other stuff. It's so simple.

You've been describing leadership. What are the qualities of good leadership?

One of the things that comes to mind: A servant attitude.

I think that comes along with self-awareness and the Golden Rule.

Some people walk into a room and expect that they are being served by the people around the table. Whereas a leader walks into a room and will view it this way: I'm here to serve you. I'm the guy that can break down barriers. I'm the guy that can buy something that you need.

So, when I walk into the room it's: You have a job to do and I want to make you feel like you have everything you need to do your job, so what can I do for you?

It's an attitude. If you walk in the room and this guy's expecting us to kiss the ring, you're not going to get the buy-in. You're not going to get loyalty.

But if you walk into the room and the leader is looking you in the eye and saying: Hey, what can I do for you? Oh, you have an issue at home? What are you doing here? Get out of here.

Sure, you have to know people aren't abusing you as well. The solution to that is starting with the right attitude - the servant leadership, engaging, and connecting. Then you have trust.

What are the attributes of poor leadership?

Being self-absorbed. Being quick to judge. A good leader doesn't punish mistakes.

Aren't mistakes bad?

No. Mistakes are good. They show that someone is attempting to move something forward. If you're moving something forward, it's not going to be without mistakes.

I stress, there is a difference between taking excessive risk that results in a mistake and not being attentive and not doing the proper preliminary steps. That's an unacceptable mistake.

But a mistake, when you are doing your best, if you punish that, you won't move forward.

Learn from it. Make sure that in the future now we know if we don't do this, a costly mistake can happen.

That's another reason to connect with people. When you've connected, you can tell when they are truly recognizing and can learn from their mistake.

If the leader is aloof and set apart, you can't tell. Then you get the feedback and you say: Oh my god. Who made the mistake? Who did this? You'll scream and yell.

What good is that going to do?

When you punish mistakes, you just ensure that people won't take a risk.

In our company, I'm turning it from slowly ramping down to close to taking back off again. I've got to count on every one of the people in this company. If I teach them to shiver in their shoes over a mistake, it's counter-productive.

Accountability over a mistake that doesn't cost you anything should be the same as a mistake that's very costly. Yeah, it didn't cost us, it didn't hurt us. Yeah, but the next one might.

Mistakes that don't cost anything but are careless need to be followed up on just as well as a careless that costs a lot. And vice versa.

One of things I've always told my employees: If there is a quality problem or a mistake, the first thing I'm going to do is insert myself in the situation to ask: What could I have done? Would I have made this same mistake given the same information? If I would have made the same mistake, we need to improve the process. We're not punishing the person.

I think I got that when I went into production at Buckbee-Mears. I learned roles and jobs on the ground floor. When you do that, you realize, holy cow, there's a lot of pressure to not screw up and I don't know if I have all the information to keep from screwing up.

It comes back to a philosophy. Some managers or leaders have a philosophy that the default position of people is laziness, carelessness, apathy.

I disagree. I feel like if you're a poor leader, then yeah, that's the kind of people you're going to have. If you're a good leader you'll have the opposite.

It's about how you treat people.

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