College of Business: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Leadership Lived and Learned


4/28/2011

by Cathy Lockman

In his more than 20 years at Caterpillar, Brad Halverson has taken on many roles—accountant, strategy and planning consultant, controller in Europe, senior business manager, corporate controller, and, his current position, vice president of finance services. Throughout that career, he’s adopted a philosophy reflected in a statement issued by Caterpillar corporate in 1959, years before he was even born: “Make your association with the company a life-satisfying experience.”

It’s a philosophy that Halverson says continues to have relevance more than 50 years later, and one that he encourages others to follow in their career decision-making. As he told students during his recent presentation at the Department of Accountancy’s Lyceum series, “In the accounting field, you’ll make a good living, so as you make career judgments, think less about money and more about what you will most enjoy doing and what the long-term prospects are within a company. Also, make sure you have a balance in your life. This is how you’ll arrive at a decision that is right for you.”

Halverson, who earned both his bachelor’s degree in accounting and his MBA degree from ILLINOIS, also advised the students to look beyond their own abilities in seeking success. “Being smart won’t get you the best positions in a company, embracing leadership roles will,” he told them.

To Halverson, embracing leadership means taking personal ownership, being dedicated to the success of the enterprise, showing initiative, and driving change. “It’s also important to remember that as part of a team you can drive a higher level of success than you can as an individual. Any six of us in a room will come up with a better solution than just one person in a room, and that includes even the smartest person.”

He cautioned students not to try to outshine their team by focusing on personal achievement. “Be supportive of your team. Don’t surprise them, go around them, or try to make yourself look smarter by going right to management with an idea or concern. You might get a few kudos from the boss, but your team won’t have any desire to work with you.”

As you gain a position of leadership on a team, the commitment you make to developing trust will be directly tied to your success as a leader, says Halverson. “You will make mistakes as a leader, but if you are willing to genuinely care for the team and be transparent with people, you will gain their trust.” He believes that when assuming a leadership role, it’s vital to meet with each team member so that you can find out firsthand what they feel are the strengths and weaknesses of the unit and the organization. “What’s important to them might be completely different than what’s important to you,” he says, which makes it all that much more necessary to know where you’re starting from as a team.

In addition, it’s important to have career discussions with everyone on your team. Halverson suggests asking individual team members what their personal career goals are and how and when they see themselves achieving them. “Then provide an assessment of whether they have the potential to meet their goals and, if so, what you will do to help them get there and what they will need to do to get there as well. As a leader you have to always be asking yourself: ‘What can I do to help my team members achieve their objectives?’”

Halverson says that it’s easy to have these discussions when you have assembled a team whose members all have the same values as the organization and who are capable of delivering on the team’s goals. However, leaders often avoid having the tough career discussions when they are most needed. “What do companies do with people who don’t fit or are hard to work with?” he asks. “They usually ignore them and give their work to the people who can deliver. This isn’t right for the team, and ultimately you have to make decisions based on a genuine caring for the entire team. Leaders must have the courage to make these hard decisions and take action.”

They must also be ready to establish big goals. “In order to set bold goals, you have to be a leader who has a very different mindset and creativity level and be willing to put up with those who call you an idiot or roll their eyes. But if you want to drive big change and big improvement, you have to set an unrealistic goal. It’s the only way to get beyond just incremental improvement.”

Beyond the team development and goal-setting responsibilities, it’s vital, Halverson says, for leaders to focus on more than their team. “You can never understand the business if you’re always behind a desk,” he advises. “I spend 30 percent of my time visiting customers and suppliers and understanding our business. It’s so important to engage yourself in the business you’re a part of.”

While corporate leadership roles for the ILLINOIS students attending the Lyceum may still be many years away, Halvorson encouraged them that the right mindset will set them on the leadership path.

“You must take your time to do your best work. The most important career decision you can make is to do your current job well, whatever it is. This is how people will develop confidence in you and how you’ll be positioned to have the right experiences for the next step in your career. You’re the individuals who will make the choices, take the actions, and pursue the beliefs that will set the agenda for the future of your company.”

UIUC College of Business