By: David Pohlman on February 12th, 2017
How A BMX Bike Helped Shape My Leadership Style
I was just a 14-year-old boy. It was another warm Dublin, California summer day and my hands were getting black with grease in the bike shop where I worked. I raced BMX bikes and the shop owner had asked my parents if it would be okay to offer me a job, since I spent more time in his shop than home or school. Having had a successful business career in corporate America before opening Dublin Cyclery, Chuck Tyler saw something in me I did not yet see in myself. As a teenager, I simply saw the short-term benefits, like earning movie ticket money, but the lessons I learned from him about leadership were invaluable and endure to this day.
My Early Years at the Bike Shop with Chuck Tyler
I worked in the service side of Chuck’s business repairing and refurbishing used bikes. Spending countless hours repairing my own BMX bike had given me some pretty rough, but good hands-on training. While I did a decent job, Chuck sent me to get my technical certification at Schwinn School, just like he did with the full-time techs. Looking back, his willingness to invest in this young, pimple-faced teen was remarkable.
His vision of investing in his employees to create the best customer experience didn’t stop on the service side. Chuck also gave me the opportunity to work on the sales side of the house. He trained me on things like conducting a needs assessment and selling benefits rather than features. I knew that when talking to a customer about the awesome new aluminum-framed bikes, I shouldn’t just tell them they were aluminum rather than steel. I described how the aluminum frame helped absorb road vibration (benefit), which allowed the biker to ride longer with less fatigue (“the grabber” as Chuck would say).
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was living in the business world and being treated like an adult. That respect and investment was pretty special.
The Real World
In the meantime, my dad was an executive at Hormel and our family ended end up moving several times as he moved up the corporate ladder. Fortunately, each time we moved I was able to use the skills I had learned from Chuck to get good part-time jobs at other bike shops—even moving into management myself at a young age. However, I also began to increasingly appreciate Chuck’s leadership style. I no longer felt special. I felt like ‘just’ another employee at these other bike shops. These leaders lacked Chuck’s investment mentality, and the work environments were missing the culture he’d created.
I had a successful run at owning, and eventually selling, my own mobile DJ service in high school and college. But, my first “real” job with my degree in hand was with Business Credit Leasing (BCL). Here again, I was fortunate to be hired in sales by Mark Watkins, another great leader, who believed in investing in his employees. I’d been chasing this element in an employer since my Dublin Cyclery days.
Great Leaders Create Loyalty
Even in the interview, I began to see Mark believed in me. He communicated clearly with me that he wanted me to join his team and would help me reach my full potential, but that he also had high expectations for me. Mark had a way of creating great loyalty in his employees. I remember on my first day, he not only sent me a gift basket, but a gift basket also showed up for my then new fiancée, Susan.
Much like Chuck, Mark invested in training and development of his employees. Early on, he arranged for me to be mentored by two of his best sales people. Mark always worked hard and led by example. I learned to view 8 to 5 as precious time reserved for customer contact. He’d say, “Selling’s not an 8 to 5 job, which is why planes fly at night and cars have headlights.” Almost anytime Mark and I would meet to prepare on accounts, it was at his house on a Saturday. If you needed time with Mark during the week, it was best to schedule breakfast meetings at 6:30 a.m. not 8:00 a.m. This level of commitment to me and to the company motivated me to work really hard to try and never let Mark down.
Loyalty, Investment in Employees, and Commitment to a Great Customer Experience
The act of leadership is evolutionary. You learn as you go and incorporate pieces from each great leader in your career to form values and create a distinct style. I was lucky enough to be exposed to great leadership early in my career with Chuck Tyler—someone who set the bar high for me. From my bike shop experience all the way to BCL, I found a consistent set of common denominators I believe drive positive and effective leadership. These early experiences guide my leadership approach today: loyalty, investment in employees and commitment to a great customer experience. In fact, it was the clear belief in the importance of these components and the values associated with them that originally attracted me to the leadership of Tony Golobic at GreatAmerica. There is no leader that cares more about the pursuit of excellence on behalf of the customer, than Tony.
I think maybe my father, the most influential leader in my life, said it best, “David, if you’re absolutely committed to helping others be successful, you’ll never have to worry about your own success.”
David Pohlman is executive vice president and COO of GreatAmerica Financial Corp. and a member of the GreatAmerica Office of the President, which makes strategic, financial and operational decisions that set the direction of the company. In his role as COO, he is responsible for the sales, marketing, operations and strategic planning for all business units within GreatAmerica.