All successful companies need superior leadership, but leaders of export-focused companies must also double-up on some key characteristics to succeed in the global marketplace. Resilience, flexibility, emotional intelligence (EQ) and the ability to respond to changing business environments are traits these leaders should have in abundance.
Amanda McNaughton, deputy director for the regional office of the Prairies and Northwest Territories for Global Affairs Canada, has seen hundreds of business leaders in action during her career facilitating export opportunities for Canadian companies.
Self-awareness is critical, says McNaughton. “You have to know that you’ve got the resources that you need in terms of human capital, financial capital and time to dedicate to it. Without the ability to recognize that you’ve got those in place, or are able to find the people to have in place, it’s not going to work.”
McNaughton says leaders need to know their own limitations. “You may have invented a wonderful product, but are you a salesman?” she asks. “I often recall a highly-innovative medical device company that was led by the inventor for years. He understood the product inside and out, but was truly a scientist and he simply could not make a sale. Eventually, the board of directors imposed a change. He maintained the title of president, but they brought in a salesman. Suddenly, they were making sales.”
She says clarity of vision is also important: where do you want to be?
Tony Gareri, CEO of Vaughan, Ontario-based Roma Moulding, agrees. The company manufactures and sells Made-in-Italy picture frames and exports 70 per cent of its output.
Like many other companies, the business, founded by Tony’s father John Gareri and his business partner Nino Talotta, was forced to take a long, hard look at itself when the markets crashed in 2008. Tony took over the company and pressed the restart button. Tony Gareri’s title – CEO, or Chief of WOW – is an indication of how his leadership changed the corporate culture from one of “working so hard it hurt” to “being happy.” His fundamental belief is that to provide exceptional service, employees have to be happy themselves. Like the old adage, you can’t have one without the other.
“Building a culture around a value system, around a clearly defined vision and mission, having everybody go in the right direction for the right reasons, in my opinion is a game changer,” says Tony Gareri, adding that it is critical to intentionally build the company’s culture by investing in talent. “I don’t care how great your product is. Instead, I ask, ‘How great are your people?’
“We are committed to quality service – we call it ‘wow service,’” he says. “You can’t copy how we make people feel. I think for us it’s been a huge differentiator: we invest a tremendous amount of money in service.”
Global growth requires finding the right people to execute the company’s strategy and that is the responsibility of the leader, says Gareri. In addition to its Canadian head office, Roma owns three distribution centres in the U.S. and has partnerships with manufacturing facilities in Italy where the mouldings are made.
“All of that could not happen if we had not been very diligent in securing the right leaders for those markets. I think that’s first and foremost, or else everything is just more like a wish,” he says.
Norman Leach, president of Norman Leach & Associates, an Alberta-based company, has facilitated entry into international markets for more than 200 companies and non-profit organizations. Leach, a recipient of the Alberta division of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters’ Lifetime Achievement Award for leadership in exporting, says understanding cultural differences in the country where you want to do business is key.
Leach recalls organizing a lunch for clients to meet and get to know a group of business people in Mexico. The lunch was long – four hours – and his group came out complaining that it was a waste of time, no business had been discussed. Leach was quick to set them straight. “You have been doing business for four hours,” he told them, reminding the group that until people get to know you they will not talk about product or price. “North Americans often want to get to the deal before building the relationship. It takes a lot of patience, nothing happens as quickly as you think it’s going to happen,” he says.
We asked interviewees for this article to share a final thought on leadership. This is what they had to say.
Amanda McNaughton: “Know what you don’t know. If you haven’t exported before, you’re probably going to want to bring someone in who has or find someone within your company who has, or at least find someone who will devote the time to it. Running the export side of the business on a split screen, where attention is divided between the focus on current day-to-day activities and adding exporting into an already packed schedule, is not going to work.”
Tony Gareri: “Look at your company’s culture. I think every business has a culture. Now, whether leaders work on it or not is a different story. Definitely, for all leaders out there, invest in building an intentional culture, a culture that you’ve co-created, that your teams can live in and really flourish. Be obsessed about the people on your team. Find only the best, develop them, invest in them and ensure they flourish. Without great people, nothing is possible.”
Norman Leach: “Be aware. Follow international news, find out what your competitors are doing, what their leadership doing, what the governments are doing in places where you do business or intend to do business. What do events like the attempted coup in Turkey mean for your business? Leaders of export-focused companies need competitive intelligence and they also need heightened international awareness.”