Book Smart, Street Smart


This week’s post was written by Doug Post.

We’ve seen it in the movies. The green lieutenant, fresh out of West Point, struggles leading his platoon until an old, crusty sergeant takes him under his wing and teaches him the ropes of the real world. The lieutenant is “book smart;” the sergeant “street smart.” By the end of the movie, the sergeant proudly watches a capable, confident lieutenant lead by practically applying his West Point lessons on the battlefield.

Interstates leaders must also be “book smart” and “street smart.” At the end of the day, the result of our work is a successfully running industrial plant. The result of our leadership is a company that is built-to-last in a tough, unforgiving marketplace.

Street-smart leaders know how businesses and people work. They know how to implement initiatives and run the business in a way that is practical and motivates people. They understand what it takes to meet client needs profitably this month and this year, are aware of market forces and competitors that affect operations, and adjust accordingly. They get things done with and for others.

My favorite example is our response to a Central Soya extraction explosion in the 1990s. Darrell Ramhorst and Larry Den Herder didn’t know how they could best help this key client, but that didn’t keep them from trusting their guts and getting on a plane that very day to go figure out what they could do to make a difference at the plant site. Over the next weeks and months they became an instrumental part of the client’s recovery team.

Other street-smart examples of Interstates leadership include: LPG kicking off its industrial growth by focusing on small, “dirty” jobs no one else wanted, and Larry Den Herder willing us to proposal “wins” by digging in and figuring out how to get clients to award us projects. Imagine the negotiating, the scrappy tenacity, the hustle, and the awareness of client budgets behind accomplishing these wins.

Book-smart leaders are intelligent, continuous learners who comfortably deal with concepts and complexity. They shun easy answers and seek simplicity on the other side of complexity. For example, they see quality issues as more than a quick fix via a QC checklist and a training class. While these tactical steps may be necessary, book-smart leaders also examine hiring practices and organizational culture as potentially more fundamental causes of the problem. In other words, they think broadly and seek to understand the underlying system.

Their system-thinking skills mean they see similarities between diverse areas of thought and practice, and they can apply them to Interstates. Peter Drucker is a unique example of this quality, spending years mastering Japanese painting so that he could improve his creative thinking and expertise as a management guru.

To lead at Interstates, we ask that you be a practical, lifelong learner. Pursue two avenues. First, find your “sergeant,” whether this means working for a few months on a job site, getting involved in a startup, or asking an experienced, savvy leader to mentor you. Second, network and read widely so that you are broadening our people’s views and creating growth opportunities. Interact with others in our core business sectors – and outside of it. Read new and old books by a diverse set of authors so that your thought isn’t limited to our time, our practices, and your worldview.

Continue leading the Interstates Way!
Doug Post