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Roots and Routes: The evolution of leaders


November 12, 2010
By Paul Hogendoorn


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All leaders have roots, and the same is true with company leaders. They came from somewhere and advanced through the organization before they were eventually given the opportunity to lead. Their roots, and the route they took, have a big impact on their leadership style.

From my observation, most company leaders started in one of three areas in the company: engineering, accounting or marketing. These are their "roots." Often, though, they start in one area and migrate to another before ascending to the top spot. This is their "route."

In my own career as a company leader, I have closely followed the career paths of many role models, trying to learn good leadership habits and hoping to avoid bad ones. As I have written before, I believe the essential role of the leader pertains to two fundamental things: the vision and the values of the company. Recently, however, I have noticed a certain pattern – an alignment so to speak – in the leaders I have considered as my "good" role models and in the types of companies they lead. Their roots, and their routes, line up well with their company types. 

The leaders in growth-focused companies tend to come through marketing; leaders of startup or technology companies come from engineering; and leaders of bottom line focused companies usually come from accounting. This is not always the case, but it is the prevailing one in the successful companies that I have followed as models over my career.

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Startup companies are usually founded by someone who believes they have a better idea about a product, or how to make a product. That company’s first leader is usually the person with the initial idea, and their roots are usually in engineering or technology development. After the startup company experiences some initial successes validating its technology or product offering, it starts to aim at loftier company growth goals. When this happens, the leadership needs to transition from someone with a focus on engineering to someone with a focus on marketing. In many cases, the leader makes the transition to a marketing focus by delegating the engineering and technology development to someone else in the growing organization.

Bottom line focused companies – those operating in mature marketplaces, where top line growth is not as important as profitability and sustainability – are most often led by someone with accounting roots. When head office is looking for a responsible person to oversee their operations, they are usually looking for a person that sees things the way they see them and can report to them in their terms.

When a successful family-owned business transitions from the founding generation to the next, its leadership often transitions from engineering roots to accounting roots at the same time. This is because the second generation is frequently groomed to take over the business by getting a "better business education" than the founding generation believed they had (which was learning the basics the hard way). This can inadvertently change the focus from growth (marketing) or development (engineering) to simply maintaining or growing the bottom line.  

Growth-focused companies need solid leadership and skills in the accounting and engineering departments, but they have to be deployed effectively and intentionally in the pursuit of the overall goal – growth. The accounting and engineering leadership can be delegated to capable people, but the person in the ultimate leadership position has to keep his or her focus on growth, and that requires marketing.

Marketing is more than brand or brochures, advertising or websites. It means knowing your current and future market opportunities, and your key differentiating advantages, and then building your company in that pursuit. It also means knowing how your company is perceived in the marketplace, and how you want to be perceived, and then working to close the gap. Every part of the company that touches either the product or the customer involves marketing. It is nearly impossible to grow a company without that innate understanding, which is why the leader’s "route" to the top should have gone through marketing.

This is not to say that leaders don’t evolve as they grow, or can’t change their roles along the way. Two of my best role models were engineers when they started their businesses, but their passion for designing the business grew to eclipse their passion for designing the product, and they migrated into marketing, delegating the engineering to others. One of my role models started out as a successful accountant, but then after discovering he had a true entrepreneur’s heart, he purchased and built two successful businesses by focusing on the marketing, delegating the accounting to others.

When you look at a leader you admire, be sure to look at their "roots" and their "routes," too. There is much to be learned from where they started, and how they got there.


Paul Hogendoorn is president of OES, Inc. of London, Ont., and past chair of the London Region Manufacturing Council. He can be reached at phogendoorn@oes-inc.com.