Vollrath CEO Likens Leadership to a Contact Sport

During his two days mentoring and mingling with FEDA’s Young Industry Leaders(YIL), Vollrath CEO and President Paul Bartelt shared several nuggets and sayings about leadership. But the one that was repeated most often was “Leadership is a contact sport.”

“If you are not always interacting, talking, building relationships, and communicating, you’re not going to get there,” the 54-year-old told the group of a dozen emerging leaders representing a range of FEDA distributor members.

Vollrath, a manufacturer of countertop equipment, serving systems, induction cookers and warmers, and components, hosted the group last week at its headquarters in Sheboygan, Wis., as part of FEDA’s series of YIL retreats. Attendees prepared for the program by reading “The Leadership Challenge,” a book written by James Kouzes and Barry Posner that Bartelt counts among his favorite deep dives into leadership development. The book puts forth that there are five principles that effective leaders universally follow:

  • They challenge the process
  • They inspire a shared vision
  • They enable others to act
  • They set an example
  • They encourage the heart

Rather than simply lecturing those ideals to the YIL members, Bartelt framed them using real-world examples and asked the group to share their own experiences. At one point, attendees were split into two groups and asked to list the qualities they felt made for successful and ineffective leaders. Good leaders, the group said, were approachable, good communicators, understood how to delegate responsibility, encouraged collaboration, were trustworthy, led by example, and allows subordinates to make and learn from mistakes. Poor leaders, conversely, had big egos, were unavailable, held grudges, lacked strategy, made things personal, wanted to control everything, and failed to listen to ideas or concerns.

Understanding those traits and where improvement is needed is critical to developing into a good leader. And good leadership, Bartelt said, matters. Most distributors sell the same or similar items in the foodservice equipment and supplies industry, so they must go beyond their product catalog to stand out. As a result, competitive businesses often excel in two areas: strategy and human capital – both areas that leaders can cultivate.

Leadership is simultaneously the most important and most difficult thing to get right, Bartelt noted. The group discussed several practices and methods good leaders can follow, but one of the most important was the willingness to let employees attempt new ideas and fail without intervening too much. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” Bartelt said. “Once you leave school, how we learn is by trying things and making mistakes.”

YIL members will have another opportunity to learn from a leading mind in the FE&S industry next month when they visit Heritage Parts in Fort Wayne, Ind. Those interesting in signing up for future YIL retreats or other events may do so by joining FEDA YIL. More information is available here.