The Changing Faces of Business Leadership

Unprecedented change is sweeping the C-suites of Kansas City business. Fortunately, business can count on some true thought leaders to drive the region forward.

By Dennis Boone

It’s happening right in front of our eyes, with announcements dribbling in every day about a key retirement, a new succession plan, a change in duties in C-suites all across the Kansas City region.

"Business is pretty simple. It’s all about people. Align yourself with people who share your values and vision and then show them how much you care." — Jeff Oddo, City Wide Maintenance

But to fully appreciate the magnitude of the leadership quake rocking this marketplace, grab a copy of the November 2016 edition of Ingram’s, and the one from September 2017. Those were the first two installments of the Ingram’s 250 (or click through this site), to our first assessments of the most influential business executives in the region. 

Within this report, you’ll see the demographic wave we’ve been warned about for more than a decade. As a cohort, the Baby Boomers—heretofore the largest generation in U.S. history—have passed the one-third mark in reaching official retirement age. Not all of those eligible to retire have done so yet; a great many have, and we’re seeing more of that than ever.

This year alone, a pair of the Kemper brothers, Jonathan and David, leading the banks in Kansas City and St. Louis, have moved into retirement, as have luminaries like Pat McCown of McCownGordon Construction, Rand O’Donnell at Children’s Mercy and Karen Daniel at Black & Veatch. Last year, retirement called to Greg Graves at Burns & McDonnell and Joe Ratterman of BATS (aka cboe). Already announced for year-end 2018 are Steve Dunn, chairman at JE Dunn Construction, and David Gaboury at Terracon.

These are not just high-profile names torn from the business headlines; they were key leaders who drove business growth broadly, out of a profound commitment to making life better for everyone in the region. A few of those names, by virtue of their extraordinary commitment to philanthropy and civic issues, earn recognition again this year, but they are being joined in waves by other business leaders hanging it up—and many more are about to follow over the next half-decade.

So the makeup of this prestigious field has changed significantly in just 24 months, with nearly one-third of the inaugural class rotating out because of retirements, movements out of market or, in a couple of cases, self-inflicted career wounds. Even death has already started to alter the contours of this lineup.

Gone are some of the most iconic business names in business here over the past half century or more, from companies like Cerner Corp., Polsinelli, YRC Worldwide, Russell Stover, and from major medical centers, law firms, auto makers, universities and public-sector offices. Also rotating out are the leaders of some enterprises that, for a time, had taken on elevated importance on the business scene, then receded in prominence.

The good news for Kansas City is that in virtually all cases, the new leadership and those still in place are just as committed to success here, just as passionate about improving the overall quality of life, and just as determined to see that their workers aren’t left out.

You’ll see that in some of the commentary from i250 honorees quoted in this edition. But many of them shared thoughts that went well beyond the confines of a printed page’s profile dimension. Those thoughts are worth passing along, for they speak to the promise and potential of this region’s business leadership.

Take Jeff Oddo, of City Wide Maintenance. Reflecting on one of the most potentially revealing questions this year—your biggest setback, and how you overcame it—he offers a model for the way business should respond to inflection points. In his case, it involved a senior executive stealing from the family-owned company. 

“I was put in a situation where I needed to fire my own boss at the time,” Oddo remembers. “After he was dismissed, I was promoted from a very young sales person to the GM. Unfortunately, most of our office quit because I was a terrible leader and a mediocre manager at best. Thank God, two people in my office believed in me. They helped me rebuild that division to the point we grew 600 percent in six years after taking over.”

 It was devastating, he said, for a team to quit on him like that, “especially when I didn’t know where I was going in my life yet. But I got through it with the support of family, a lot of perseverance, hard work, and a desire to learn and be great. I was able to overcome a very painful, time-consuming, and costly setback. The good news is, I’m much better today knowing just how terrible I was back then.”

You simply can’t buy that kind of self-awareness. 

Over at the global digital marketing giant VML, president and CEO Jon Cook offers similarly inspiring guidance.

“Although I am proud to have been a part of lots of big wins throughout my career, I have also definitely been a part of some tough losses—be it on an important pitch or with a client who went another direction,” Cook says. “Those situations are never easy and I almost always take it personally, as I know virtually everyone at VML does. But shame on us if we don’t learn from each of those experiences and take those opportunities to make ourselves and our offering stronger. I love the line in Batman Begins — something like ‘we fall so we can learn how to get up.’ I believe that to my core.”

And after getting up, it falls on the leadership to inspire others to rise.

 “My most effective tool for motivating and engaging employees is encouraging VMLers to bring their whole selves to work,” Cook says. “I am passionate about creat-ing an environment that encourages diversity of thought, opinion and expression. And I believe that we achieve it by creating and cultivating dialogue and opportunity.”

Every cultural resonance, custom, tradition or special VML-based activity, group or club, Cook says, “was started because someone came to VML with a passion and an interest and felt comfortable enough to introduce it to the rest of us.”

Over and over, members of this year’s Ingram’s 250 demonstrate how collaboration and trust—yes, along with metrics and accountability measures—are changing the nature of workplaces to make them more focused, more efficient and more productive.

“I believe any owner can delegate almost anything in a business—except vision, culture, and your people,” Oddo said. “If I focus on these things, I am pretty confident most everything else will fall into place.”

 The key, he suggests, is not to complicate things by over-thinking what leadership really means.

“Business is pretty simple,” he says. “It’s all about people. Align yourself with people who share your values and vision and then show them how much you care. Once you do that, your job is to help them accomplish all that you can. In return, you’ll build an amazing organization.”