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Reece: ‘Having big shoes to fill is not always a bad thing’

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 11:44 a.m. CDT

I can think of only one other column that I have shared with you, out of the 160 or so I’ve written over the past 6½ years, that I have shared with you that has been more difficult to write other than this one, because this is my very last one.

Someone asked me once about how I liked being the president of the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce. I responded I am just a temporary caretaker and have always felt, since presented with the opportunity, that I am only here to nurture and grow the organization, hopefully leaving it in a better position than when found for the next person. I believe I have done that.

That, and most important, I always have had the most fantastic staff surrounding me. A thorn amongst many roses I am. I cannot thank each and every one of them, current and former, enough.

So, when is following a legend such as former chamber president Bob Blazier a good thing? People said when I took this position, “Wow, you have really big shoes to fill.” Having big shoes to fill is not always a bad thing for a leader. The challenge is not to walk in those footsteps but to create a new path forward. That was my focus and my goal.

I offer to my successor one of those famous sayings in sports: “You don’t want to be the guy who follows a legend. You want to be the guy who follows the guy whom follows the legend.” So, to whoever is next up, you’re welcome.

Also I would advise that a leader’s first responsibility is not to his predecessor, it is to the organization. I don’t know where I found this, but here’s three points for anyone facing this type of challenge. 

• Affirm the organization’s purpose. The new leader must address what the organization does and pay tribute to it. A leader taking over a successful enterprise must talk about why what it does matters and how it matters. The leader must communicate their understanding of it to people who know it better than they do. Not easy, but the leader must make a best effort.

• Recognize the team. Leaders accomplish little by themselves. The previous leader’s legacy is built upon the good people they developed and who repaid that opportunity with outstanding service. Savvy newcomers always make a point of reassuring such employees their contributions are important and must continue to be.

• It’s about the future. One of the smartest things Jack Welch ever said, and he said it often, was that his successor was not to be like him. Jeff Immelt is nothing like Welch, other than successful, anymore than Welch was like Reg Jones, who preceded him. Every leader will face his own challenges because an organization must succeed in a dynamic environment where circumstance, situations and systems change. A leader’s commitment is to help the organization succeed in the new environment, not the one in the history books.

I’d like to add a fourth point.

• Commit to victory. Nobody sets out for failure, but how committed are we to seeing through to a victorious ending? In the book “Race for Relevance” by Mary Byers and Harrison Coerver, the authors wrote about how in 1519, Spanish Conquistador Hernado Cortez landed on the shores of Mexico with the goal of seizing the treasures of the Aztecs. Before leading his men into battle, he instructed them to burn 11 of the ships on which they had arrived. After that, defeat was not an option. There was only one course. If they were going to survive, they would have to be committed to victory.

Finally, what if you put what has been accomplished into a box to be given to someone else? What would you want the recipient to think when they opened it up? Would you want it to be something that needs to be greatly improved on? No, you would want them to open the box, look in, smile and say, “Wow. That’s great work.”

We have done great work together, accomplished a lot and have had much success. I will always look back at my time here with great affection. I truly have enjoyed (almost) every day. I cannot think of a better gig. Except running my business, Heartland Cabinet, since 1999. Yes, here’s the one shameless self-promotion I’ve allowed myself in the past 6½ years. 

So, thank you to those who gave me the opportunity to be the caretaker for this period of time, the fantastic members of the Crystal Lake Chamber and to all those who grind it out each and every day making our community a truly special place to live, work and play.

• Gary Reece is leaving his post as president of the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce to focus on his business, Heartland Cabinet.

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