Leaders exist within every level of a business, whether it is an hourly employee, shift leader, a general manager or the head of the company. What’s more, everyone has the opportunity to lead in some way each day, either at work, at home or in the community. Yet despite how important strong leadership skills are, there is no set path someone can take to become a leader. Effective leadership comes from a mix of education, practical experience, and trial and error.
True leaders are constantly striving to expand and refine their skill sets and they know leadership does not come from a one-off workshop. Whether employees are tapping into their corporate resources or charting their own course for development, there are several steps they can take to ensure their roles as leaders within their companies and the industry and among their employees.
Jim Goetz, president of Goetz Companies and a former NATSO chairman, said, “Good leadership starts with a good vision. What does your organization stand for? How do you want to stand out?”
Goetz said he has found that successful leaders are open to and tap into the expertise of others. “You can seek out the good leaders through different associations, like NATSO, where you can involve yourself with the association or a committee that has a strong leader. You can also look within your community, your local church or synagogue. There are strong leaders in any organization,” he said.
Not only can volunteering within a professional association or the community provide aspiring leaders the opportunity to learn from others, it can also give them the chance to demonstrate and perfect their existing leadership skills, which can be particularly useful if they have not yet been able to demonstrate them professionally.
Herb Hargraves, director of fuel and retail sales for Cash Magic, has spent the last 15 years in leadership roles. “When I discovered I wanted to be a leader, I tried to identify people I wanted to be like,” he said. “I tried to act like a sponge around them. Everything they did that I liked, I tried to use that in a leadership role.”
Hargraves started with Cash Magic as the regional manager of North Louisiana for three properties and was later promoted to vice president of fuel and retail sales at the corporate office.
Because the path to leadership often starts with identifying and grasping onto the key traits of others, Darren Schulte, vice president of membership for NATSO, suggests people surround themselves with those who can help them grow. “You look at what other people do well and you like. Take the good and bad from every person and use that to define which type of leader you are and what you aspire to be.”
While operators can learn leadership from watching those around them, it can also be helpful to develop a more formal relationship with someone who is willing to mentor them and provide long-term career wisdom.
Goetz was able to learn from his father, who he said is a good leader. “We had similar characteristics, but to get out of the shadow of leadership and to grow personally, I had to look outside of the business,” he said.
Goetz turned to the local Chamber of Commerce and found a mentor who was serving on the board. “He was somebody I wanted to spend as much time with as I could to observe how he made decisions, how he did his due diligence and asked questions and how he handled himself,” he said, adding that he found a similar relationship at his local church. “If you get involved in committees, you can watch leaders in action and see people under fire. It is one thing to talk about being a good leader and it is another thing to watch someone in real-life circumstances.”
Schulte said in many cases, mentors develop naturally. “It is someone you meet who you have a con nection to. They may have the same or different skill sets,” he said. “I believe mentors should have some sort of knowledge about you. It is important they understand you.”
Hargraves recommends people be blunt when they ask someone to mentor them. “Don’t be afraid to ask them because you’re probably going to flatter them,” he said. “You can say, ‘I like how you are with people or how you are with business. Would you mind having a 15-to 30-minute conversation with me once a month?’”
Dan Alsaker, president of the Broadway Group, mentors a group of 60 students at a local university. “It reminds me of how old I really am and how young I would like to be and it keeps me someplace in between,” he said.
Alsaker said he meets quarterly with the group of students. “I tell these young aspiring leaders that the best thing they can do is listen to what the people are saying and what is going on around them,” he said. “I also tell them when they make decisions, to communicate well and not leave any ambiguous information.”
Not only does Alsaker share information as a mentor, he seeks out information by participating in various peer groups. “We never quit learning. If we think we know it all, we’ve reached a plateau and need some self inspection,” he said, adding that he has belonged to the same group for the past 15 years. “It is a group of about 60 people and we meet quarterly.”
Tristen Griffith, president of Sacramento 49er in Sacramento, California, joined Vistage, a business networking organization that connects her with other professionals. She meets with the group once a month and with the group’s chair once a month for a two hour one-to-one session. “He is my mentor and a coach to work with me personally,” Griffith said.
The confidential organization groups professionals by the size and income level of their companies, and it connects people from different industries. During the monthly meetings, attendees either listen to speakers or process issues.
“It has been phenomenal for me because it is a network where you can discuss anything. If you have employee or vendor issues or you’re dealing with a buyout, inevitably someone in your group has dealt with this and they can share what they have learned and who you can use or shouldn’t use,” Griffith said, adding that she always recommends the group to her friends in leadership positions.
Griffith also recommended Vistage to her general manager, Martha Leon, who attends a group geared to her level.
In developing leadership skills, Leon also turns to leadership books that have helped her grow her skills, and she recommends them to her staff. One of her favorites is the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey.
Companies don’t have to have vast resources available to invest in their leaders. “There are a lot of tools available for not that much money,” Hargraves said. “When I was the regional manager for North Louisiana, I sent my managers to a couple $199 courses for some developmental leadership courses.”
Hargraves said he recommends training sessions through Dale Carnegie Training.
One of Hargraves’ previous employers, U.S. Cellular, invested in leadership training workshops for him. “That is where I got the basic building blocks to get me where I am today,” he said, adding that the company was progressive. “You spoke a certain language and you modeled certain behaviors because you were in a dynamic organization.”
Schulte said, “Executive sessions or leadership classes can be important once you find out what your skill sets are and where you need to improve.”
Lisa Beach, retail operations manager for Stamart Travel Centers, said she has attended management courses and several sessions at The NATSO Show that have inspired her to try different approaches.
“I believe over the years there have been many different ways that have helped me and I believe it is always changing too, so you have to have your ears and eyes always open and be willing to always try new techniques,” Beach said, adding that she has learned a fair amount from trial and error. “You have to be willing to make a mistake and learn from it so the next time you can do better.”
Schulte and Hargraves both said leaders have to realize they don’t need to apply every leadership trait or tactic they discover.
“I think some people fail because they go to a workshop and try to apply everything they learn. You have to pace yourself over time,” Hargraves said, adding that sometimes he takes only one or two things away from a workshop. “I’m still on an upward climb where I try different things that are outside of my current realm and if it works I keep doing it.”
Goetz told Stop Watch that while there are positive things about being a leader, leadership comes with a great deal of responsibility as well. “You should shoulder most of the blame and take very little of the credit,” he said, adding that being a leader can be challenging. “People don’t look to leaders unless there is trouble or they start to lack their own vision or confidence. It is at those times that you can’t question yourself and you have to rise above it.”
Alsaker said, “Confidence is the key, important word for leadership. Once you have confidence in your own ability, you can give other people confidence.”
Overall, Hargraves said that serving as a leader allows him to be a part of something bigger than himself. “Singly I can complete this one task, but if I’m a leader of a group I can complete multiple tasks at the same time,” he said.
Learn and Grow as a Leader in the Future Leaders Program
NATSO has created a group dedicated solely to those who are looking to develop as successful leaders within their operations and within NATSO. The Future Leaders Program provides networking opportunities and education to anyone interested in pursuing more opportunities, regardless of their age or current position.
“You don’t have to be a 20-something or 30-something. You can be a 50-something and be ready to take more of a leadership role in the industry,” said Corey Berkstresser, general manager of Lee Hi Travel Plaza and co-chair of the Future Leaders Steering Council.
The group gives members a forum to discuss their questions and connects them with their peers. “I’ve met a lot more people because of the group, and I’ve gotten more engaged,” Berkstresser said.
Examples of future leaders include those who are in the process of taking over their family’s business, are general managers serving as the right-hand for an industry veteran or are new to the industry altogether.
Those interested in joining the group can email Darren Schulte, NATSO’s vice president of membership, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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