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C. William Pollard
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Leadership Is a Quest, Not Just an Adventure

By C. William Pollard
Author of Serving Two Masters?

CBN.comEvery summer I set a goal to swim across the lake by our summer home in Wisconsin. It usually takes me about an hour and I always have a family member or a friend in a boat alongside me just in
case I might not be able to make it. It’s an adventure. But if I set out to
do this without the backup of a boat, it would be a quest. In seeking
the goal, I would know from the outset I had no alternative but to accomplish it.

Looking Ahead
Leaders provide the direction and inspiration for setting goals and are
responsible for implementing the strategies to reach them. At times
the task may seem overwhelming and the risks of failure great. That’s
how it was when we decided to convert our company from a corporation
to a partnership and make two significant acquisitions, all within
a three-month period. We had set a goal in 1985 of doubling our size by 1990. We knew as we moved into 1986 that the growth of our core business was slowing and that there was an opportunity to expand new services to the residential market. Expansion would require cash and our legal and tax structure was not as efficient in generating free cash flow as it
could be.

If we were to convert to partnership form and increase our free
cash flow, it had to be completed before December 31 to gain certain
tax advantages. It meant that our company, which was generating approximately $1 billion in revenue, had to be liquidated as a corporation
and reestablished as a partnership. We had to secure a review of
our plan of reorganization by the Securities and Exchange Commission
and get approval of the plan by shareholder vote. We were doing
something innovative and new and it all had to occur during the
Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

At the same time, we were also presented with the opportunity to
acquire Terminix. This acquisition would provide a major new thrust
in the consumer services market. It was the first big acquisition for
ServiceMaster and it meant we would have to borrow over $165 million.
This, too, had to be accomplished by the end of the year.

No sooner had we decided to move forward on both fronts then
we got the chance to acquire a company that would give us the capability
to provide food management services to educational institutions.
This acquisition also had to be wrapped up before year end.

Two sets of law firms had to be managed. Many accounting and
tax issues had to be resolved. We had to develop new banking relationships
to secure the funding for these acquisitions. Some of our institutional
investors were not in favor of the move to partnership form
and began selling their stock. The price of our shares began to drop
just as we started sending out the proxy for shareholder approval.

Leadership is a quest, not just an adventure
This added to the task of communicating confidence and calm in uncertain
waters. In addition to all this, we still had a business to run
and another year of growth in earnings to close.

Looking Back
During these stressful months, I felt the weight of leadership as a
quest. It was a time of sink or swim. Looking back on what we accomplished,
there are some important leadership lessons we should
remember as a board and as a senior management team:

  • Think big, expand your horizon, and risk letting your cup be
    overflowing.
  • Be prepared to sell what you believe. Good ideas don’t sell
    themselves; they can only be implemented if others buy into
    their value.
  • Identify capable, committed, and competent team members
    and delegate responsibility to them.
  • Don’t tolerate mediocrity or bad apples.
  • If the decision is right for the whole, don’t be afraid to risk
    yourself.
  • Don’t doubt in the dark what you saw in the light.

Trust God and give him the credit
What sustains a leader during stressful times? For me, it is my
trust and confidence in the God I love. I realize not everyone in the
senior management team or on our board would acknowledge that
there can be a divine presence in the workplace, but I felt it, and for
me it played a role in accomplishing the task. I experienced the reality
of the biblical truths I seek to live by:

Trust God from the bottom of your heart. Don’t try to figure
out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything
you do. Everywhere you go he is the one who will keep you on
track. Don’t assume you know it all. (Proverbs 3:5–6)

Open up before God. Keep nothing back. He will do whatever
needs to be done. He will validate your life in the clear
light of day. (Psalm 37:5–6)

Points to Ponder

  • Leaders provide the direction and inspiration for setting goals
    and are responsible for implementing the strategies to reach
    them.
  • Be prepared to sell what you believe. Good ideas don’t sell
    themselves; they can only be implemented if others buy into
    their value.
  • Don’t doubt in the dark what you saw in the light.

Questions:

  • What are the lessons you have learned through the stress or
    risk of leading?
  • What standards or criteria do you use to identify loyal and capable
    team members?
  • What sustains you during stressful times?


This essay is an excerpt from Serving Two Masters? Reflections on God and Profit by C. William Pollard, bestselling author of the Soul of the Firm and former chairman and CEO of ServiceMaster.

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