As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Ric Phillips.
Ric Phillips is currently the President and Chief Executive Officer of Elkay Manufacturing Company, a large, privately-held Chicago-area company. Elkay is a leading manufacturer of world-class stainless steel and quartz sinks, in addition to drinking fountains, Smartwell Water Delivery Systems and the award-winning ezH20 bottle-filling stations. Elkay is also a global designer and producer of commercial kitchen equipment and interiors for the foodservice, hospitality, education, and retail market segments. Ric’s Board experience includes serving on the Follett Corporation Board of Directors, Chicagoland Habitat for Humanity Board of Directors, and Indiana University Business School Dean’s Council. He holds a Master’s degree in Management (with distinction) from Northwestern University Kellogg Graduate School of Management and a Bachelor of Science degree in Finance (with distinction) from Indiana University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
When I was growing up, my family relocated often so I became accustomed to being in new and different environments where I could learn. I later realized that a career in business would provide me the same opportunity for continued learning and growth, and that’s what ultimately led me to pursue this path. Early on in my career, I worked in management consulting and saw from working in different companies that what really excited me in business was the opportunity to lead a team to success. From then on, it felt natural for me to be a leader and work toward senior leadership roles.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Four months after I joined the company, Elkay celebrated its centennial anniversary. There are not many people who can say they’ve had the opportunity to lead a business that has thrived for over 10 decades! During my first few months as CEO, I was part of many celebrations of this this great achievement with our people and industry partners. It was an amazing way to start my journey with Elkay!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I started my journey with Elkay at the end of 2019, I spent the first few months visiting the company’s sites, customers, and suppliers. Then the COVID-19 pandemic begun, and everything went virtual. Since I was accustomed to in-person interactions, adjusting to leading a large company I had recently joined in a completely remote way was a challenge, and I saw that I needed to leverage technology in a new way to connect. It took a while for me to find a rhythm for leading through Zoom meetings, learning how best to communicate across the organization through videos, and understanding other forms of digital communication that were critical to Elkay’s continued success at that time. Thanks to Elkay’s people, however, I was able to find my way, and eventually developed the skills it takes to lead from afar. This is also when I experienced Elkay’s value of “Our Strength is in Our People,” for the very first time. I couldn’t have done it without them!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I once worked extensively with a senior colleague in consulting who eventually transitioned to a CEO role with one of our clients. We stayed in touch, and years later he trusted me enough to hire me into a President role that I believed was a stretch for me at the time. His trust and confidence in me, along with his patient coaching and advice, showed me that I was capable of more than I thought I was and inspired me to continue seeking more senior opportunities. His support during that time changed the course of my career, and now as an established executive I aim to pay his kindness forward by encouraging others I see potential in to take their step into leadership.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
We all learn more when we have the chance to interact and work with people who have different backgrounds and experiences than our own. In business seeking out diverse input is crucial because businesses today need to attract and serve an increasingly diverse global population that includes both prospective customers and employees. Drawing your ideas from a diverse pool of talent ensures you consider a wider perspective that addresses the wants and needs of this more diverse constituencies you serve. When an organization is led and influenced by a diverse team, the company can solve problems more creatively and create solutions and experiences that benefit the business and its customers, while attracting the best and brightest employees. Executive leaders serve as role models for the entire organization, so when this team is openly inclusive, drawing input from a diverse pool of influencers and subject-matter-experts, they demonstrate to employees and customers alike in a very tangible way that diversity and inclusion are important and valued.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
To achieve an inclusive, representative, and equitable society, leaders in every sector need to adopt a humble, listening stance, to learn how underrepresented constituents feel, and to understand the struggles they face. Armed with greater insight, we are in a better position to effect change in the areas where we have the ability to make a measurable difference. As business leaders, this naturally leads to making changes within our own business and being vocal and visible about DEI-related issues within our community, demonstrating our commitment through both words and actions. I would also add that ‘that which gets measured gets changed.’ To ensure the success of DEI initiatives, success metrics need to be established and reported on a quarterly basis. For example, if you are looking to increase diverse hiring within your organization, start by measuring how many diverse candidates are being recruited and presented to hiring managers, and how many diverse hires are actually being made. It’s important to measure your existing talent diversity, identify where there are gaps and put a strategy in place to reduce those gaps. At Elkay, the leadership team and I have taken an honest look at where there might be systemic equity issues that are within our power to address. What’s important is looking at our gaps honestly and taking progressive, proactive steps to reduce them wherever they exist.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Being the top executive means that you are essentially the face of your organization. While other leaders may share similar daily tasks to you, this aspect of the role differentiates it as CEOs represent the organization both internally and externally. As CEO, it is also your job to manage the company’s senior leaders and interaction with the Board. Building and maintaining these relationships is crucial to your organization’s continued growth and success, which makes me feel that it is one of the most important jobs a CEO can have.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think the biggest myth about being a CEO is that you need to be an expert in all functions or areas of your business. This isn’t possible and is why teamwork is so important. As CEO your duty is not to be all knowing, but to recognize your business’s strengths and gaps, and empower your people to support the efforts that need to be taken to address both. Once you understand and embrace this, you have the opportunity to inspire others to be the best versions of themselves that they can be, and there’s nothing better than being a leader that can do that well.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The most striking difference is how much time I spend meeting with colleagues one-on-one, and how important that time is to making business decisions. Elkay is grounded in our values, one of which is “Knowledge Empowers.” Throughout my time as CEO so far, I’ve experienced this value ring true as spending more time with my colleagues has empowered me take more initiative in setting up one-on-one meetings and ultimately make more informed decisions. Even though I didn’t anticipate it being a large part of the job, it’s one I’ve enjoyed adopting and has made me a better leader.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe everyone should aspire to be the best leader they can be, but I do think there are some specific traits that increase someone’s likelihood of being a great leader. A desire to keep learning and being a good listener are at the top of my list when evaluating someone’s leadership capabilities. Without those traits, you can’t grow with your organization or lead with the people who make up your organization in mind. Being decisive and team oriented is also essential to becoming a successful leader. As CEO your organization looks to you as a role model and being confident in your decisions and encouraging teamwork are both traits that I look for in those aspiring to become an executive.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Advice I’ve often given to those looking to improve their organization’s work culture is to be transparent with your people and not tolerate behavior that is inconsistent with the work culture that you desire. Rumors can be incredibly harmful to an organization, so by being transparent with your employees, you build trust so that rumors no longer have the same effect. You also need to ensure that behaviors that go against your desired work culture are not tolerated or else you risk losing the trust you worked hard to build among your employees by being transparent. I also think it’s important as a leader to be personally optimistic about your organization’s future, as this will help keep your people feeling engaged in their work and empowered to see it through.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have had a long-standing interest in creating a world where everyone experiences a safe and secure place to call home. Coming from a place of safety and stability we all have a chance to create better lives for our families and greater futures in which our children can thrive and grow. With that vision as my north star, I have served on the board of Chicagoland Habitat for Humanity for many years. I have been blessed to play an active role in helping the organization make affordable housing a reality in our region, providing decent places to live for midwestern families. I like to think that partnering with other leaders to advance the mission of this amazing organization has made the world a better place.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You’re always “on”
Before becoming a CEO, I wish someone had prepared me for always needing to be “on.” Your attitude, actions, and behaviors are always being watched internally and externally, and they have the power to set a positive or negative tone for your people and customers.
2. Build a strong leadership team
Having strong relationships with your team is critical to a leadership teams’ success. You must always work toward investing in them and building trust to accomplish business goals.
3. Give space to let other leaders grow
Sometimes the best thing you can do to help the organization is to give leaders the resources, coaching, and inspiration they need, then get out of their way. They must lead on their own to grow!
4. Be transparent to inspire others
CEOs are inherently role models, so you must be transparent, collaborative, and bold if that is what you want your organization to reflect.
5. Aim high for yourself and others
It’s important for up and coming leaders to remember that they need to aim high and work to stretch the thinking of the organization. People are not inspired by mediocre goals, so you must encourage them to aspire to more than they may even believe is possible at the time. Optimism is powerful!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe we each have our own sphere of influence in which to make a positive difference in the world. Within my own sphere of influence, I hope to inspire people to pause and let kindness and care for others drive their words and actions. If more people would adopt this approach to daily living the world would be a much better place where people exhibit greater empathy, generosity of spirit, and the rewarding feeling of sowing seeds of good within the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One simple saying I have always liked is “Something Amazing is About to Happen.” I like the hope and optimism this conveys. I think if we approach our careers and our lives with this kind of mindset, that amazing things really are possible.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
One of the authors and speakers I have followed is Matthew Kelly. He writes about spirituality, relationships, and becoming the best version of ourselves. I find that inspiring and would enjoy spending time with him.