TEDx Talk

In this leadership talk featured at TEDxAbbotsford, I share from my experiences as a CEO of a third-generation family business, about how you don’t need to spend all your time preparing to make an impact. You might already be ready. If the opportunity presents itself, you just might be ready to change your world. And the rest? You can pick it up on the fly.

Not able to watch the video? Scroll down for the full transcript:

LEADING HOCKEY STICK GROWTH AS A HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUT
TRAVIS KLASSEN
TEDxABBOTSFORD

Transcript of Video:

Nearly five years ago I became CEO of a fifty year old company and since my team and I took over we’ve grown by nearly five times revenue. I’m here to share with you what it was like for me to lead hockey stick growth as a highschool dropout.

If you’re not familiar with business growth charts, this is what is called the hockey stick growth chart. It features a period of decline followed by exponential growth.

My grandfather started our company in 1963, and for 50 years he and my forefathers worked 16 hour days, and produced just enough to survive as a company.

I was thirty years old when I became CEO of the company to which this extraordinary growth curve belongs. 

If you were to pick the obvious choice for leading a business with 50 years of history, high school dropout should not be on the top of your list. But that was my resume. Had I graduated, the caption under my yearbook photo would not have read most likely to succeed in business.

Though I went straight to work for our family’s trucking company, I had no intention of making a career out of it. In fact, at the time, I knew very little about what our company actually did, beyond the most obvious operational details. What I did know was that you worked as hard as you could and as much as you could. And it usually came at the expense of family. Working hard was just what we did.

After awhile, and after five more cousins joined the family company full time, it became apparent to me that we couldn’t sustain all of these new employees without expansion. There wasn’t room enough for all of us to make a career in the small, agricultural-supporting business… if we didn’t grow quickly, we’d probably fail. Or at the very least, some of us would need to seek employment opportunities elsewhere.

I had no MBA, no professional degree. I didn’t even have a high school diploma. But I knew I loved the family business. So I approached my family and said, “ I want to change how we do things.” And to my incredible surprise, my father and two uncles, who were ‘leading’ the company at the time, said, “Yes.”

What do you do when you are given an opportunity to enact real change with something you really care about.  Will you take the leap and rise to the challenge, or will you play it safe and go with the flow? This talk is for those individuals who want to rise to the challenge and, also for those who need a little push or inspiration.

The moment you say yes, the moment you rise to that challenge, your first words, and I guarantee you this, will be:

“Oh shit!” I was learning the business, but at that moment, I was not fully prepared to lead…though I did know which immediate problems needed to be addressed.

A couple years prior to taking the lead of the company, as a junior manager, I called our first official business meeting. It was our first in 47 years. The first thing I called out, was there was no defined leadership structure. No one was really leading. In fact, my dad and two uncles each held the title of “Co-president.” The second thing I identified was that the company was in three years of decline. We needed to return to sustainability or there wouldn’t be a future for all of us.

So here I am, a high school dropout equipped with nothing more than a basic accounting course I took in the 11th grade and a very intrinsic belief that we could either grow fast or die slowly. So I had very good motivation to make it work.

Learning on the fly, I put together an executive team, formalized our corporate structure and identified three strategic actions: we needed to drive Change, Face Our Fears and learn to Believe in Ourselves.

The first important initiative was to drive change in the organization, starting with the leadership.

To take over the leadership, all we had to do was convince the people in power that it was time for them to let go and let us take the reins.  I didn’t do this alone. I surrounded myself with the next generation of leaders in my family, and together we addressed the problem.

We acknowledged the contribution of the preceding generation while simultaneously making a pitch for their trust with the future of our company. It was time to make their ceiling our floor.

The transition was hard. People don’t like to let go of leadership when it’s what they’ve done their entire lives. So we created a corporate phrase: honoring the past, embracing the future. We knew that in order to change the culture, we had to create a transition point for people to see a new way of doing things, from a new set of leaders. Yes, we took over leadership, but for three years, we gave veto power to the preceding leaders in case they didn’t like what we were doing.

I am pleased to report that they never did need to exercise this veto…and it has now expired.

So now we have control of the company. The buck stops here. Being in charge brought a whole different dynamic. Within a couple of months of stepping into our new roles, my team and I conducted our first ever Employee Engagement Survey. The results were terrible. The reviews were harsh and hurtful.

This is the moment you really question yourself and your decision to lead. Did you make the right decision? Or did you make a mistake? In order to address change in a culture, you have to acknowledge what hasn’t been working. And as a leader, you have to own that, even when you weren’t responsible for it.

And as we reviewed the highlights of our engagement survey, we identified one critical factor. People didn’t feel appreciated.

And our employees were right. We had to institute real mechanisms of relationship between managers and employees. We had to say thank you, and show appreciation, not just once a year, but regularly. It was a little awkward at first. I remember covering the role of dispatcher around the time that we began to address the culture of the company. I took the two way mic and gave the driver his order information and directions, and then added, somewhat tentatively, “so…thanks a lot…Uh, I really appreciate…you.” After a few uncomfortable seconds of dead air, the radio cracked to life and the driver answered back “Uh..thanks?…..”

As we learned to express appreciation, morale dramatically improved. And when people like where they work, guess what. They work smarter and with more efficiency. They invest in their roles with passion and vitality. Leaders are developed. And the best part, appreciation is free. It does not subtract from the bottom line.

Remember, the catalyst for our transition into management was three years of decline within the company. Our first instinct was to do what we’d always done. In the past, when we faced a challenging situation in the business, our parents would simply work harder…put in longer hours. The idea was that any problem could be solved by simply outrunning and out working it. As a kid, I would get to see my dad on Sunday’s because throughout the rest of the week he would go to work before I got up and come home late into the night.

The day after I became CEO I adjusted my schedule and started my workday at 3 AM instead of my usual start time three hours later at six. It was like some kind of inherited instinctive reaction to the weight of my new responsibilities. But working 16 hour days is not a sustainable solution. It took some pretty serious signs of burnout about two and a half years later before I began to value rest and really start to learn the work smarter/not harder concept for myself.

In order to drive the growth we so desperately needed, we’d need to change this story. This family of workaholics would need to learn to work smarter. If you’re already putting in 16 hour days, what more can you give? We had to move from a poverty mentality to an attitude of abundance.

So I called a leadership summit of all the ranking family members in the company, and we openly addressed what it was like to rarely see our fathers for the majority of our young lives. Did we want to give this same legacy to our kids? Did we want to continue to burn out or did we want to seek a new way of doing things.

We gave every family member an opportunity to speak. Together, we built consensus around the idea of working smarter so that we could see our children, and show them they were valuable. In a family business where family had always come second, we stood up to the status quo and said no. No more 16 hour days, no more missed school plays and basketball games. This meant I had to lead by example. I rearranged my schedule so I could be home for breakfast with my kids and see them off to school.

Our story had to change. It was time to take those family values off the wall and live them out where it really mattered.

Leading this transition and turnaround has been one of the hardest and also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been a part of in my life. Creating change and leading growth in something you care about is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting but it’s also worth it.  But to change our story we had to face our fears.

Underlying and unidentified in our family culture was a fear of change, a fear of failure..and a fear that change could cause failure. Our fears are always facing us; it takes courage to lift our heads, open our eyes and face them right back. For me, that meant taking a group of people from a place of never enough and leading them to an understanding of abundance, opportunity. The more we believed we had abundance, the more abundance we had.

We needed to rewrite the half-century old tale of fear and lack and replace it with a story of faith, family & future. A critical moment came when we had to raise prices on our product by 15%. We were already underpriced but our predecessors were concerned, convinced rather, that if we did raise prices, we’d lose customers. Yet, within 30 days of raising prices, we didn’t lose a single customer. And we had instantly become more profitable and more competitive.

What I didn’t expect was the necessity to face fear in my own life. Every day I doubted myself. As a high school drop out, it was easy to assume people were doubting my leadership, even though we had grown dramatically year over year.

The contention that comes with being a catalyst for change would often overwhelm me and the feeling that I simply couldn’t do this anymore would take over. There would be days I’d feel compelled to get in my car and just drive into the sunset. Twice, I gave in.  The first time I made it about an hour down the highway before I got some clarity and turned the car around. The second time I made it all the way to a hotel in a nearby city, preparing to sit down and write my resignation. In that particular case, phone calls from my wife and my brother kept me grounded and brought me home, still employed.

But the value of not running was that I was learning to trust my own leadership. The more I led from a place of servanthood and trust with my employees, with my management team, the more we grew. I had to learn to trust that even though I was a high school drop out, I was exactly where I needed to be.

This Tedx conference is about trailblazing. So as we all sit listening to these fabulous conversations, we wrestle with how we can blaze a trail ourselves. We’re wrestling with our potential for success. But we can’t realize that unless we take the risk to believe in ourselves. We can’t know the journey unless we take the first step. And now I stand here with the realization that I was born for this. Believing in myself and helping our management team find this same confidence was and is crucial to our success.

It can be perceived as offensive to challenge the way things have always been done. Even though our efforts were always for the good of the company and thus the family, we’d often be characterized by our own family as rebellious/disrespectful. Our confidence and unwavering belief in ourselves, our team and our mission was often misunderstood.

Every single day we had to fight against the way things were and do so with grace right in front of the people who originally designed the way things were.

In the traditional sense, I wasn’t equipped to lead. Hockey stick growth as a high school dropout? Come on. Maybe in a movie. I wasn’t prepared for this…an opportunity presented itself, and I took a risk…and my family, my team, and my company took a risk with me.

So we’ve got a fifty-year, third-generation family business that’s acting more like startup, growing at 20% plus for the last five years in a row, led by an inexperienced, uneducated CEO and executive team that been trained on the job and on the fly. What would have happened if I’d simply fit myself into the status quo? What would have happened if I’d believed that I wasn’t qualified to lead? Had I waited to become better prepared, more experienced or better educated, I highly doubt there would have been an opportunity at all. There was an opportunity and a somewhat urgent timeline in which action needed to be taken. We had two options: to grow or to die.

But I chose to take the risk. And the most important thing I can give to you is a reminder to remember why you take the risk. Remember your why? For me, it was creating a valuable life with my family.

I challenged myself to remember why I did what I did. I had to define my meaning of success. Yes, I wanted to be successful, but success meant time with the most important people in my life. I wanted to have breakfast with my children, have meaningful experiences with the love of my life.

It’s been a wild ride. Just last week, it was announced that our company made the Profit500 list of fastest growing companies in Canada. We may have experienced “hockey stick growth” but let me assure you: I’m not an all star CEO. I just saw an opportunity, worked with the resources, with the team I had in front of me and took a risk. I chose to lead. I chose to embrace change. And I chose to believe in myself.

Just remember. Don’t spend all your time preparing. You might already be ready. When the opportunity presents itself, you just might be ready to change your world. And the rest? You can pick it up on the fly.