Leading with higher purpose: United Stationers' Dick Gochnauer

Nature of Business Radio

Leading with higher purpose: United Stationers' Dick Gochnauer

Nature of Business radio, created and hosted by Chrissy Coughlin, is a weekly show on business and environment.

This week on Nature of Business, I spoke with Dick Gochnauer, former CEO of United Stationers, Inc -- the first conversation of my four-part series "Leading with Higher Ambition." This series builds upon my February conversation with Michael Beer, author of Higher Ambition: How Great Leaders Create Economic and Social Value.

Dick led the charge at United Stationers from 2002 until 2011 and we discussed his tenure -- where he succeeded in drastically turning the company around, both financially and culturally, by teaching his employees to fall back in love with their base business by creating a culture of empowerment and purpose.

When Dick came on board as CEO, United Stationers was in trouble in the economic sense as well as in terms of morale, so he spent four months talking to people and asking as many questions as possible. He found that while employees had strong values, they weren't walking the walk. He endeavored to create a high-performance organization that could not be replicated. He set the tone early on and essentially turned the company around. Here are some of seemingly easy fixes that may seem obvious in hindsight, but are still surprisingly counter-intuitive to many CEOs.

Indoor parking spots -- United Stationers had a few heated indoor parking spots. In Chicago in the winter you can imagine the benefit of snagging one of them. The CEO, naturally, gets a coveted spot.  Dick decided to park outside with everyone else.

Shared offices -- Senior managers had previously had their own offices at United Stationers. Dick learned that most employees really disliked sharing offices, so he implemented a shift so that senior management doubled up and lower managers could have their own space.

Created teams -- He worked with outside organizations to build internal teams, essentially eliminating a culture where everyone had the answer and nobody listened to each other.

Brought in new talent -- United Stationers had gotten into the habit of hiring B and C-level managers. So the first two years, every final management candidate had to pass through Dick's office. As a result, his employees started sending him A players.

Why is it really so challenging for CEOs to lead with purpose? For CEOs from public companies, for instance, there are certainly the financial pressures from Wall Street that permeate their psyches. But as you hear from Dick, through doing well by doing good, companies can still reach financial targets while having a whole lot better team of employees, customers, suppliers and communities to boot.

As Dick puts it, "Early on, I came away with the sense that you could do well by your financial requirements by doing good -- companies that actually understood that they had a role to play in social responsibility and that it should be at an equal setting to your financial responsibilities.  By doing both, you could do more of both ... and if you lead in such a way, the people who are most excited about it are the younger managers. They are the most excited, inspired, engaged, energized -- and you can then give great responsibility over to these younger managers."

What makes a leader lead with higher ambition?

It varies greatly, as we will hear in the series. In Dick's case, it started with faith and family. He also worked with non-profits and was part of companies where he watched leaders who got this concept. He states,  "There is true joy in giving back. You learn the power of purpose ... doing something that is beyond yourself."

George Papoulias edited this podcast.



Business leader standing on a mountain photo via Shutterstock.