When a Leader’s Values Work Well Together
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Jim Tompkins, the CEO and founder of Tompkins International, a leader in the field of supply chain consulting and implementation. He provided some practical insights around values in leadership.
Jim founded the company in the early ‘70s after receiving his PhD in engineering, and suddenly found himself drafted into the army. As he needed to make some money (because he was now married and had no money), he negotiated a skills trade with the army in exchange for allowing him to start a private consulting practice 4 days per month.
This was the start of his company that still exists today.
In 1975 Jim left the army and moved to Raleigh, NC to become a professor at NC State – but kept his private consulting business going. Only a few years later, Jim’s company had three full-time employees. One day his wife made the observation that his part-time business income was 10X larger than his full-time teaching income. This is when Jim quit teaching to manage the consulting business full-time.
Since then, Jim has become an international authority on supply chain strategy and operations, and built a company with dozens of experienced consultants, many who have been with him for decades.
So what are the values that Jim relied on to build this consulting business?
Jim says the values that have driven him since the start were already there as a kid. They include:
- Being goal-oriented, and making a plan to achieve those goals.
- Being a good person.
- Treating others with fairness.
- Embracing the belief “it’s okay to fail”, as long as you learn from it.
This last value is very important to Jim, as he believes a business moves forward faster if there are more failures. For example, in our interview he highlighted the launch of a set of new businesses where Jim feels they’re not failing enough. He openly stated, “We’ve only experienced about 15 mistakes in the first 3-months. If we really want to succeed, we need to make about 150 mistakes.”
Here Jim likes to quote the popular saying, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” This is logical given that failure means you’re taking action, which supports Jim’s #1 value of being goal-oriented.
There’s another value that’s also very important to Jim:
This can be seen in Jim’s leadership approach when working with his team. When asked about a particular problem, Jim’s leadership response is to ask the question:
“What do think the client would feel best about?”
Over time, Jim finds that others will simply ask this question themselves and be able to resolve most issues on their own. As Jim states: “This is when a true leader stands out and says ‘what do we need to do to make this right?’ Where is the accountability? And what could I have done differently?”
Such thinking is what has developed other leaders at Tompkins International.
Impact of Values
Jim can quickly highlight the impact these values have had on the business. He references two key performance indicators:
- Repeat Business. By living these values, Jim claims that 93% of their business comes from past clients.
- Employee Retention. Jim points to over 30 employees that have worked at the company for more than 25 years, which he adds, “is unheard of in the consulting industry.” One of the many benefits of this fact is having a team where “you work alike, think alike, and everyone knows what is expected.”
These values also provide leaders the ability to think more strategically about decisions. Instead of focusing on what decision to make, Jim likes to ask the question:
“Is this the right time to make a decision?”
He also considers an important distinction on who should make a decision, when he asks this leadership question:
“Do I need to let the organization (others) figure it out, or do I need to figure it out?”
Lastly, Jim believes the following statement is a real game-changer:
“Today is the slowest day of the rest of your life.”
This question encourages a leader to carefully consider their decisions, because everything will only go faster as they move forward. It also means decisions rarely need to be made, as Jim says “in the next 10 minutes or even the next 10 days.”
If this seems a bit at odds with the top value of being goal-oriented, Jim explains, “Sometimes, problems and solutions need to cook for a bit, and need to percolate for awhile. Of course, doing nothing for the next 2 years is not an option. You need to pick your places where you’re convinced you can move forward.”
Bottom line: Jim has found a unique approach of being patiently diligent, yet remaining goal-oriented; and being okay making mistakes, while focusing on what clients feel best about. It’s not just the individual values that matter; it’s how they work together.
Would Jim’s approach work for you in your business?
This post is part of a new interview series with business owners on Values in Leadership.