Editor’s note: The Syracuse (NY) Post Standard featured an interview of Michael Stumo on leadership.
Michael Stumo grew up on a family farm in Iowa. His first job after college was running a hog-buying station, where he lived in a trailer in a pasture. Inspired by a friend, he started studying for the LSAT (law school admission test). The University of Iowa gave him a full-ride scholarship to law school. In 1994, he earned his law degree and worked at law firms, first in Hartford, Conn., and next in Omaha, Neb. For two years between those stops, he used a grant from Ralph Nader to work on family farm and antitrust issues.
[Stan Linhorst | July 2, 2019 | The Syracuse Post Standard]
In 2006, he was a co-founder of the Coalition for a Prosperous America. He now lives in Massachusetts and serves as CEO of the CPA.
Stumo gave an overview of American trade issues back to Alexander Hamilton, explained the opportunities and pitfalls of President Trump’s tariff and trade positions, and answered questions from CNY manufacturers facing international competition.
Early in his career, he learned a leader builds relationships by not forcing personal rigidity on others. The product of leadership is high-volume, high-accuracy decision-making, which requires careful listening.
Give me a brief history and the elevator speech for the CPA.
About a dozen of us working on agricultural price and antitrust issues became concerned about the problems of international trade and agriculture. The promised export opportunities were not materializing to offset all of the market share given up to imports, often subsidized.
We thought this was a bigger issue than family farmers and ranchers could tackle. So we looked for friends and found people in manufacturing and in organized labor and industrial unions. They saw the same trends of not getting so much on the export side as was promised. But a flood of imports was eroding our market share, profit margins, and preventing wage increases as well as other capital expenditures for improvements.
In 2006, at a three-day symposium in Colorado, we decided it'd be good to work together because one sector alone couldn't handle this economy-wide issue. We set aside the fact that we had extremely diverse ideologies from strong Republicans to strong Democrats and everything between. That didn't matter because this is an American issue.
Today, CPA is the only multi-sector organization representing only domestic producers. So we're not conflicted by multinational interests, which are not necessarily the same interests as those of our country. We see ourselves helping turn the U.S. toward a competitiveness strategy that wins the global competition for good jobs and industries as opposed to being OK with offshoring and low Wal-Mart prices.
Were you in leadership roles growing up?
I wasn’t in any significant leadership role. I was an officer in the Future Farmers of America in high school (Northwood-Kensett in Iowa, Class of 1986). I was an officer in the 4H club.
I grew up on an Iowa farm, diversified with hogs, dairy, hay, soybeans, corn. I raised hogs as my business as a teenager and a little bit beyond to save money and buy a motorcycle and a car and put myself through college.
My dad and my grandfather were in the National Farmers Organization, which tried to get farmers to sell collectively so they could demand higher prices. I got interested in making a difference early on.
After college, my first job was for the NFO. I was thrown in to run a hog-buying station in central Iowa. Out of 120-some buying stations the NFO had at the time, it was almost dead. I had to figure out how to get people interested in selling collectively to packinghouses. Within two years, it was the number three in volume in the country. That took bringing people around that didn't necessarily want to work with anyone else to sell their products.
That's a good turnaround story. How did you do it?
Well, I got in my 1982 baby blue Plymouth Horizon and drove down gravel roads and visited farms and convinced them that if I could come close on price, we could have an upward impact on the whole market. Some farmers had negative memories of some conflict days, 20 years earlier, where the NFO did milk-dumping actions. I had to overcome that.
I learned you had to meet people where they are. Some people had different goals with how they sold their livestock and how they saw agriculture going. Some just wanted the highest buck that day. Some wanted to help the entire industry, and some wanted to be able to get the right quality hogs to the right kind of packing plant to meet the differential quality demanded by different packing plants.
And some just liked having a relationship. I guess most humans do. You had to meet people where they are and bring them together and not just force your own rigidity on them. That doesn't work.
That sounds like a lesson in how to lead. Give me four or so more tips for effective leadership.
Well, you want to hire quality. It's better to go for the A or B-plus students. You're never going to go wrong hiring quality even if you have to pay more.
Number two – and I’m not sure these are really in order – is being a mentor and understanding the array of qualities that different people have. You can’t expect a fish to be a dog or a dog to be a fish. You want to help a dog be the best dog it can be, and a fish be the best fish it can be. You want people in the right place.
Number three, I've learned to sit back and listen a lot more to see where people are coming from and what ideas they have. At some point, you have to make a decision. But merely imposing my decision or my thinking on others doesn't take advantage of the great ideas you can get with collaborative input. Ultimately, you have to decide, but first you have to listen.
I guess number four, when you’re coalition building, like I am, or reaching out to customers, you need to understand ahead of time whether and how you're a fit and learn from them and make sure that it's a good sound fit as opposed to trying to force something that isn't going to work.
You helped found a movement and you build coalitions. What advice would you give to do that?
For me, one member of the team had a good phrase: We don't have to get married. We just need to work on projects and issues where we agree and the rest of it we don't need to pay attention to.
We have a diverse group – Republicans and Democrats, people who like Trump or they like Bernie Sanders, farmers and manufacturers and unions.
We want people to understand that our members’ diverse ideology is a major strength because we can advocate to both Republicans and Democrats. We maximize that. Areas where we disagree are not within our scope. What's within our scope are areas where we agree. We don't pay attention to all those other areas of disagreement. That's made us stronger.
Do you think that can apply within a business?
I would think so. If you have good products, you want to have improvements and you want to have good relationships.
You have relationships based on one human to another – whether they might go Republican or Democrat. People are too much surprised these days that there are really good, caring, loving Democrats, and there are really good, loving, caring Republicans. We all have our quirks.
We mostly can overlook the quirks and focus on a relationship.
When you think of good leadership or a leader you admire, what qualities do you see?
I see a gut ability to look at the world around them and see the real shape of the world rather than try to twist what they see into a world that really isn't. Good leaders don’t have some fantasy, unreal view of the world. They see the dynamics and the relationships clearly.
I think they have an ability to inherently achieve respect, not only on the front end of engagement, but the middle and the end.
They have real gravitas, not necessarily charisma. There's gravitas and an immediate trust that is apparent early, middle, and late. You don't have to question whether they know what they're talking about or whether they are making things up or sound off key. They listen with interest.
Good leaders have a real aversion to claiming credit. Instead, they identify with the team effort, move the team effort forward, and deflect praise in favor of the team. That's key.
No one is smart in every area. But you need to be able to listen, to take diverse facts, diverse input, and make high-volume, high-accuracy decisions. Ultimately, that is what a leader does – high-volume, high-accuracy decision-making is really the product output of a leader.
High-volume, high-accuracy doesn't mean you never make mistakes.
What should a leader do when a mistake has been made?
It's about incremental improvement, I think.
So, if you as a leader make a mistake, you figure out the mistake. If it’s something that's done, it's in the rear-view mirror. You learn from it for the next similar decision. If it's something that's ongoing, an ongoing project that you sunk money into, you're going to have to figure out how to cut your losses and get out of it as cheaply as possible.
As far as someone you're supervising, you talk about the mistake in a way that doesn't trigger or generate insecurity. It’s more tutorial, mentoring, and figuring out how to do better.
I suppose at some point, if there's an inability to learn, an accumulation of similar mistakes without learning, then the person would have to find something else to do.
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