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Leadership in Practice: A Conversation with Tom Schlafly, President, St. Louis Brewery & Taproom; Partner, Thompson Coburn LLP
Q: Tell me about the different hats you wear and how you see yourself as a leader.
A: I have more experience sitting on both not-for-profit and some for-profit boards than in an actual managerial or administrative position. Law firms are really confederations, and, at the brewery, it is actually Dan Kopman, the chief operating officer, who runs it. In my board experience, I think there is a real talent in being able to reach a collective decision that is better than what any single individual brings to the table. There is an art in coming to the table and being willing to listen and change your mind if you hear superior arguments. It’s important not simply to see yourself as an advocate for a particular position and to ask sincere questions in order to formulate positions better.. The art of chairing a meeting is making sure everybody gets heard; you don’t want to ram things through, but you also don’t want to get side tracked.
Q: How would you characterize your leadership style then on these boards?
A: I try to listen to everyone’s positions. If you have two people who are disagreeing about something serious, but the disagreement isn’t pertinent to the issue they are voting on, you can try to persuade them to move beyond that; not dismissing their concerns, but saying we don’t need to resolve that in order to resolve the issue at hand. Part of it is in stating a disagreement in a way that people on both sides of the issue will be comfortable with the way you have characterized it. If you hear different sides speaking to one another you can say “now in order so I understand it, is it correct that this particular issue is where the disagreement is and this is where you think one thing and where you think another?” If you can get two people to agree on your phrasing of the issue, that is often major progress.
Q: It sounds like the role of the leader on a board is to facilitate communication?
A: That is a good part of it. One of the things that we learned at Leadership St. Louis is to get other opinions out before you disclose your own. If you say, “Well, this is what I think we want to do; does anybody disagree,” you are going to stifle the comment. If I am going to say something, I’ll say, “Well, here is what my opinion is, but let’s try to understand our areas of disagreement and what we need to accomplish.” Part of it is prioritizing and sense of perspective. If you can get people to share the perspective, that is important.
Q: Who have been your mentors over the years?
A: My father, Daniel Schlafly, has always been a great role model to me. I learned a lot from him. Chris Peper, who is the founder of Peper Martin and was in my father’s class in high school is part of a vanishing generation. He talked about a community of scholars in a law firm; in his case it was absolutely true. I also learned a lot on the public library board from Arnold Grobman. I was the president, and it was in my first year or two on the board. He had just retired as chancellor of UMSL, and he set a very good example. He was very patient with me, and I learned some of his skills of listening to different arguments, his sense of what was important, and the fact that you don’t necessarily have to jump into every conversation whether you agree or not. He was very patient with this young pup who came on the board and knew everything.
Q: Have there been any critical experiences that shaped your approach and your view of leadership on boards?
A: I have served on the board of some mutual funds in New York. To go from the position of a lawyer to a board member is an interesting change in perspective. As a lawyer, you tend to look at the trees and not the forest. You often will focus on the particular legal issues and can get preoccupied with single issues. On a board overseeing a big family of mutual funds, you have to take a much more global perspective. It is hard for a lawyer not to be hands on. It is the same approach I have with the brewery; I realized there are 150 paychecks and I can’t do any one of those jobs. So, I have to be comfortable with not knowing what is going on but trusting the people who are doing the jobs.
Q: What was Dan Kopman’s and your vision for The Saint Louis Brewery?
A: His father, Charles, and I were law partners. I went to a continuing legal education program at Oxford in 1983 and I came back and was telling Charles that I had some good beer there. No one was brewing that kind of beer here. His son, Dan, was working for a British brewery at the time and was going around the country selling Young’s. He was the one who first opened my eyes to the idea of microbreweries in other cities and convinced me one would work here. There was just a natural division of labor because Dan knew the brewing side of things, and as a lawyer, I was the logical one to tackle the legislative side. I looked through the Missouri microbrewery law and figured out the changes we wanted to make. I had the conversations with the legislators who helped introduced the bill and get it through for us.
We started the corporation about 20 years ago in 1989. Then, we bought the building where the Tap Room is in 1991 and opened for business in December 1991. It was 1993 was when we got the law changed and started selling draft beer to other accounts. In 2001, we bought the building where Bottleworks is and opened it in 2003 with a bottling line.
Q: Thinking out the next 5 years, what sort of impact do you want to have either with your legal practice, with the brewery, or just with your charitable service?
A: The single biggest change I would like to see would be with the renovation of the Central Library. If all goes well we will have the renovated library open in 2012, which is the 100th anniversary when the central library first opened. I think that would be important not just on its own but also a big catalyst to downtown development. I have seen what central libraries have done in other cities, and I think in St. Louis it could have a similar impact.
Q: Is there anything else on leadership that you would like to add?
A: Listening is an important component. I think it better to lead by example and persuasion than by decree.
Imagine this scenario: your company is acquired by another firm, triggering changes in the retention agreements for all of your C-level executives, allowing them to leave en masse. And they do. This situation is what Kellwood Company, the apparel designer and manufacturer, faced in 2008. While losing the majority of senior leadership would have sent many other companies into a panic, the situation did not bring Kellwood to its knees, according to Scott Mannis, Senior Vice President of Human Resources. Instead, Scott and the new owners consulted the succession plans the company had in place to identify who would ascend into the vacated roles, and where they would have to go outside for talent. The transition to the new leadership team, while not entirely trouble-free, avoided a lot of the turmoil such changes create because the company had been actively preparing the new leaders for the roles for the last several years.
While your organization likely will not face such a major leadership disruption, you should always be preparing for the unexpected. Any key leadership vacancy can have an impact on your business; being prepared for such an event can minimize the negative impact. Below are some tips to help you plan for leadership succession.
Identify critical roles first: Many succession planning efforts start with looking at who would be good candidates for succession. A better way to start is to identify the roles critical to the business. Starting with critical roles allows you to find your succession gaps and focus your attention on filling those holes.
Look for depth: In mid-sized to larger organizations, having only one person on a succession plan for a role can create a false sense of security that there is adequate coverage. To add depth, look for individuals who might be able to fill the role in 1-2 years or 3-5 years as a back up anyone who is ready today.
Engage the individuals: Don’t just assume that because someone is on a succession plan they will be ready to fill the role when you need them. They need to be actively engaged in their own development so they will be prepared when they are needed.
Revisit often: A succession plan is a living document. Pull it out regularly (at least twice a year) to make sure the succession lists are still valid. Are the judgments you made last year about a succession candidate’s readiness still accurate? Has someone else risen in the organization and should be considered for succession? How have those on the list been developing?
Leadership succession planning is one of those topics like insurance: you can’t start working on it when you suddenly need it. Start planning today for what may come.