When someone works with a transformational leader, he or she might assume a few things about the history and development of that person’s leadership style. But there’s always a chance one doesn’t know the whole story.
That was the case for me when I learned that Gray Stone Advisors’ principal, Jim Lara, hasn’t always been the calm, cool and collected coach that he’s become. Turns out, he’s learned a lot of lessons along the way.
That’s why I asked that Jim let me interview him on the topic, so we can share with others some of the things he learned “the hard way.”And the results, as I hope you’ll see, are remarkably candid, instructive and strategically on target for a 21st century aviation executive of Jim’s caliber.
Here’s Jim’s transformational leadership story
Jill Henning: Jim, it really surprised me when you confessed that you were once a “command-and-control” manager. What do you think caused you to be this way?
Jim Lara: My dad was a career military officer and part of the Quartermaster Corps in the US Army. He was one tough cookie. “Command and control” was definitely in his DNA, so it’s safe to say that I either inherited it or learned it from him.
In my school years, I was a top performer and made top grades. I always tried to pull people behind me, saying “C’mon, c’mon.
Driven would be a good word to describe it.
I was probably considered to be “overbearing” because my standards of excellence weren’t shared by many other people. But that attitude really turned people off and got in the way of making real progress.
JH: Where do you think that drive came from?
JL: One of the best things I ever did was write my “Life Plan” when I was 19 years old. Back then, I didn’t know what it was called, but what I essentially did was what we now call a “gap analysis.”
This plan kept me laser-focused. It helped me know where I was and what I was planning to do.
Every six months, I went through a brutally honest self-assessment. It kept me learning and maturing. But I only shared my plan with my mentors—the ones above me. Consequently I didn’t build relationships with my peers very well. That was a real oversight. As I have grown to understand, relationships are everything!
So I did this gap analysis exercise every six months until I was about mid-career. Then I tapered off a bit and, now, I only do it once a year or so. To this day, I retreat for two or three days to take stock of where I am personally and professionally, then plan about two to three years out.Knowing my goals gives me the opportunity to not waste any focal energy or time.
I recommend this planning technique to anyone wanting to document his or her passions and life pursuits, but to use it (like anything)in moderation.
JH: Before we get to your leadership style,please give us a glimpse into your education and early work history.
JL: Being an overachiever, I’ve always had a job. Even during undergrad school. While attending college, I was contracted as an IBM Operating Systems software programmer.
After college, I stayed in the IT world and continued to work with large-scale mainframe business systems. I became a fully certified Operating Systems Software Architect and Engineer, as well as a Business Systems Programmer and Business Systems Designer and Senior Analyst while working at Levi’s.
That chapter in my career taught me more about how to ‘THINK’ than anything else in life!
Then, Levi’s had a different plan for me. They sent me back to grad school in Industrial Engineering. Regretfully, I didn’t finish my masters degree because I had an opportunity to go out into the field and become an assistant plant manager. Because of my life plan, I thought this would be a great step. The title and compensation were very attractive to me. But in the long run, I see how that was a mistake. I should have finished grad school.
JH: So Levi’s was where your command-and-control style first became evident?
Yes. My first leadership role was at Levi’s, as an assistant plant manager at a sewing plant. It was made up of around 400 operators.
My first lesson, and I think this applies to every leader,was Know your people, professionally and personally.
True, sincere and appropriately focused empathy is essential if you are going to be a leader.
Here’s how I learned this lesson the hard way: I showed up for my first day on the job in a suit and tie with a briefcase and asked to see my new office. My general manager looked me up and down and thought, “Who’s this kid?”
At the time, I was oblivious. I walked into the office and it was covered in dust and dirt. You could tell no one had been in there in a longtime. I spent the first three days in my new office cleaning up. At the end of the third day, my GM came in and said, “Kid, meet your shop steward.”
She was areal tough gal and she handed me my first union grievance. The grievance complained that nobody knew me, and I didn’t know them, that I was out of touch.
I was crestfallen. I asked my manager, “How did this happen?”
“I guess you didn’t read the tea leaves.” he barked. “Want to know why that office of yours was so dirty?”
“Because nobody was ever in the office?” I speculated.
“That’s right,” he replied. “Nobody was in there because they were out on the shop floor where they’re supposed to be.”
Getting knocked down like that began to teach me the basics of leadership.
JH: What were some of the outcomes of your change in leadership style?
JL: High-performing people accept and respect guidance; they do not respond well to dictates. I’ve gotten away from telling people what to do. Now I offer them the leeway to explore. I try to give them latitude,which may contribute to a stumble! As long as the misstep isn’t lethal, it becomes a developmental experience.
When I was a young manager, I would try to blunt every mistake, control every situation. I thought that I knew best about how everything should come out. Back then, I simply didn’t know any better.
By figuratively getting your nose broken several times, as I have on many occasions, one tends to learn.
It’s so important to remember that in today’s highly competitive world, the corporate hierarchy doesn’t appoint organizational leaders. Followership has to be earned by leadership. In other words,people choose their leaders.
JH: What are some other ways you’ve changed as a leader?
JL: It’s important to make commitments for performance and meet them, but mandating unrealistic deliverables for yourself or someone else is a “lose-lose.”
Early on in my career, I would rationalize late deliveries by saying to myself and everyone else: “Everyone sees we’re busy. We’ll get it done as soon as possible.” That’s when I learned that saying “as soon as possible” to someone expecting results means “never.”
Your credibility quickly goes to zero unless you stick to the committed date. In the business world, particularly in the case of a publicly traded company, if you miss an earnings forecast by a modest amount, the equities market will punish you severely.
On the other hand, they will reward you, very marginally,for success because they expect you to perform as you promised them you would in your “forward guidance” statement.
When you under-perform, even in the slightest way, the markets will hammer your stock price. You simply cannot miss. But, by the same token, you cannot set unrealistic deadlines for your people or yourself.
To be very clear, you must have the courage to be realistic.
JH: If you were so keyed-up as a young person,how have you become so calm these days?
JL: I used to be apprehensive about bad outcomes and the impact of failure. Then I realized, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I could get fired. Okay. Fine. But am I still breathing? Is the world still spinning? After failing a few times, I learned and got back up. As long as I was still breathing, I knew tomorrow was waiting for me. That can be a very calming realization.
JH: What drives you these days—what’s your passion?
JL: The most important thing to me now is how I can help develop others, who I can help grow, who I can influence. My activities here at Gray Stone Advisors are so rewarding because I have the opportunity to work with outstanding professionals who are great contributors to our industry, who want to grow and develop.
We can help them define their way forward, bringing clarity to their path that will actualize their future successes. They still need to do the work. My role is to help them define their path, develop their skills and acquire the resources they need. And that’s really fun!
That’s why I love what I’m doing. I love the interaction with our clients. By the way, we choose our clients very carefully, working only with those who want to go to the next level. If we can’t truly add value,we won’t take the engagement. It’s all about what you can do to help people succeed. Seeing someone blossom is my payday.
JH: This has been a very enlightening conversation, Jim. Thank you for your candor, for letting us get to know you better and for sharing your wisdom.
JL: My pleasure.