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Convention Speech • James H. Devlin

Prepared for James H. Devlin, President, Tidi Products Inc.,
Delivered at World Dental Trade Conference, Chicago

Good morning. It's always great to see so many familiar faces and old friends at this convention. To me, such conventions are important if only to demonstrate how many people a company can operate without.

Conventions are important in other ways, too. For example, I don't know how many of you know this, but Chicago didn't get the name "windy city" because of the breeze blowing off Lake Michigan.

That title came from the 1893 Chicago World Exposition. So many public speakers and politicians showed up to that convention, that a New York Times editor called Chicago "the windy city" -- referring not to the lake winds, but the bags of wind giving speeches.

I guess Chicago as a convention town should have more appropriately been called "The long-winded city."
I mention that, not to prepare you for a long speech... for I intend to stick to my allotted eight minutes--give or take 10 or 15 minutes.

I mention the windy city because we're talking today about transformational leadership which, to me, essentially means harnessing the winds of change.

But personally, I've got to say that I think tacking on the word "transformational" to "leadership" is redundant.

"Transformational" -- according to my handy Funk and Wagnel Dictionary, means "in a period of transition."

What business have you ever seen that wasn't in a period of transition?

Leadership, in fact, means the act of initiating change. If you're not transforming your organization, you're not a leader. You're an administrator, a caretaker.

Of course, caretakers sometimes end up in leadership positions...and they have done for the perception of genuine leadership what Little Shop of Horrors did for the image of dentists.

The task of genuine business leaders has always been to lead -- to take people from where they are to where they've never been before.

That's transformational. And that hasn't changed.

What has changed, of course, is the pace of change itself. Ever since the invention of the computer, the pace of change has increased exponentially virtually every year.

The knowledge accumulation and instant retrieval characteristics of ever-advancing cyber technologies literally has put a world of knowledge at everyone's finger tips.

The think tank people estimated that human knowledge is now doubling every ten to 15 years. Think what that means.

Humanity has gained as much new understanding about our physical world in the past 15 years as all of the inventors and scientists did in the previous five hundred thousand years.

And we will double what we now know in less than ten years next time round.

That's because knowledge builds on knowledge.

The more we learn, the faster the learning curve. It just keeps building on itself in ever-tightening spirals like a technological whirlwind.

Now, the significance of that becomes clear when we realize that the application of knowledge is what creates greater productivity, and makes possible more innovative products and services.

The computer has upped productivity everywhere -- putting a squeeze on profit margins for all of us.
The computer has leveled the competitive landscape -- allowing anyone with a dollar-two-ninety-eight in his or her pocket to enter almost any business.

And computers have added a global dimension to even the most local of businesses.

Anyone with access to "the net" -- which is just about everyone - - can chat and do business with anyone on this planet, in real time.

And moving even faster than this innovation hurricane are customer expectations --

Dealers, dentists, HMOs, the public... everyone expects us to offer up new products and ideas, faster and at lower prices than yesterday.

It's like a dealer I called last week who said:
" What do you mean you've got nothing new to offer me? It's been a whole three weeks since your last visit."

There are a half dozen books on business out right now with "virtual corporation" as their themes.
Like virtual reality, the virtual corporation is one that is whatever the customers, shareholders, and general public wants it to be at any given moment, and in any milieu.

Agility... robustness... nimbleness... total flexibility...that's really what all this talk about transformational leadership is all about.

It's all about leading in the age of agility.

Now, one of the interesting things about this age of agility is that we all get caught up in it.

To me, one of the greatest wonders is how little time it takes before any new wonder no longer seems wonderful, or even interesting.

As a culture, we've become change junkies.

I realized that when I saw a TV ad last week that asked someone why he bought a product. His eyes glazed over and he said, "Why, because it's new."

You can, of course, try to ignore the age of agility and hope it will go away. You can look back to the good old days -- way back when the magazines in the dentist's waiting room were new.

Or worse, you can scale down your operations in response. Cut back, cut down, cut out of markets, as so many are doing right now.

You can be like the farmer who had two wind mills, but tore one of them down because he didn't think there would be enough wind for both.

Yet to me, this is an era of growth. Opportunities are literally blowing in the wind right now.

As leaders, the implication is that we've got to look further ahead than ever before because we're going to arrive at the future sooner.

We've got to overcome what I call "second-grader" thinking.

Ask a class of second graders to choose between eternal life and recess on a sunny day and you can bet eternal life doesn't stand a chance.

Ask most managers to choose between fat quarterly returns or long-term investment in the company's future, and long-term investment doesn't stand a chance.

That's what all the business gurus mean when they say that "transformational leadership means having a vision."

That's hardly profound. A gum-chewing hockey player by the name of Wayne Gretzky understood that years ago when he said the secret to his success was, and I quote: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been."

Yet that, in itself, creates a leadership dilemma.

It's hard to tell people that you need to change everything today because of problems that are sure to come up a few years down the road.

When times are good, it's hard to convince anyone that there are potential holes in our structure that could eventually sink us.

When Jack Welch began the massive reorganization of General Electric, for example, it was a record profit year, with no crushing problems and, in fact, with so much cash and marketable securities that he could have paid off all of GE's debts with money to spare.

Welch, however, looked further ahead at his product mix, and at the rising competition. In Welch's words.

It was hard to convince anyone, but I knew we were sitting in the most comfortable deck chair on the Titanic."

I know exactly what Jack meant, for a year ago I looked at my company's long term plans and realized that while we looked good at the moment, we were not positioned correctly for the future.

So, in the last few months, for example, we re-engineered ourselves.

We've gone from manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer to a manufacturer only, selling exclusively through dealers.

In the process, we've sold one segment of our business and purchased two others to reposition ourselves to where we need to be a few years from now.

Now the experts say that when a dramatic change like that occurs, you're supposed to change hats, and immediately become a transformational leader.

I don't think it works that way. If you haven't been a transformational leader right along, no one is going to follow you through a period of dramatic, and personally threatening, changes.

If you haven't already fostered a receptivity to change of all kinds in your organization before you stir things up, you're sunk.

It's impossible to initiate dynamic change into a rigid culture with highly-structured, inhibited people.

So how do you create a culture that is receptive to change?

By giving every employee the power, authority, and opportunity to be transformational leaders in their own right.

At Tidi, for example, I'm proud of the fact that we're on the leading edge of new technologies in order to achieve higher quality in our commodity-based processes, and be the low cost producer.

We were the first to do outbound telemarketing. We were ahead of the industry in installing EDI -- Electronic Data Interchange--- which lets dealers make orders directly out of our stock.

Tidi wasn't first because the CEO is all that creative. My kids tell me that I'm about as creative as a Xerox machine.

No, Tidi has been an innovator because we give our people the opportunity to see their ideas through to reality.

That means not micro-managing... not telling people what to do even when you think you could do it better. And, yes, it means accepting mistakes as an essential part of the learning process.

There's an apocryphal story about one of Jack Welch's junior executives who took a risk that didn't work out, and it cost G.E. over a million dollars.

The young man came in to tender his resignation.

Jack said, "What do you mean you're quitting? You can't quit. I just spent a million dollars on your education."

As another innovator named Ross Perot always says -- "It's all right to spill the milk, as long as you don't kill the cow."

Perhaps most important in fostering a culture receptive to change, you've got to develop trust.

That's not just my humble opinion. In a survey last year by the Journal of Business Strategy, more than 15,000 executives were asked what are the most important qualities needed to be a business leader in this era of rapid change.

Some 85 percent put "ethics, honesty, and integrity" as their top priorities.

Trust is essential. I remember Norm on the sit-com Cheers once said, "Once the trust goes out of a relationship, it's no fun lying to them anymore."

Trust in your sincerity, and your genuine concern for them, is the most important factor to creating a genuinely dynamic, innovative team.

You have to prove that trust every day.

An example. I'm proud of the fact that when we sold off Veratex, every employee either went on to the new management team as part of the deal, found a place in our organization, took fully-funded early retirement, or was helped in finding a job in another organization.

No one was swept aside or overlooked in the entire transition. That fact will get around my organization by word of mouth. And it will do more to create a confident and, therefore, risk-taking attitude, than endless transformational staff meetings.

Transformational leadership is getting talented and intelligent people to trust you...to work with you.
I think it was Dwight D. Eisenhower who said it best -- Ike said, and I quote: "I'd rather have one person working with me than one hundred working for me."

If we can get our people to work with us, rather than for us -- we'll have transformational cultures that are receptive to almost any kind of change.

Now, I can see my eight minutes is almost up -- give or take ten minutes -- so I'll wrap it up by leaving you with something to think about.

When I first started as a supervisor, I remember my CEO saying, "I'm too busy, I can't concern myself with individuals."

I remember thinking: "That's remarkable. Even God hasn't reached that stage yet."

Well, to operate any business today is to think about individuals. That's because instead of fast-paced enabling technologies reducing the value of the individual, replacing him and her with R2D2 and 3CPOs, it has enabled individuals, greatly expanded each person's reach and power.

Virtually every employee is now no more than a few key strokes away from a world of new ideas. That's true even if you don't supply him or her with a computer --- there's one at home, and surfing the net for ideas is now recreation.

So each employee is now a knowledge worker, a potential agent of significant change.

For those who can lead, and not just manage, that means expanding your reach... your opportunity for adaptation and innovation... your company's agility...expanding your possibilities by as many employees as you can inspire to work with you, not for you.

For transformational leaders, these are exciting times.

Thank you.

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