Advice for students who want to “lead from within”

Gerard P. Kilcommins, vice president of Worldwide Vascular Operations, Medtronic, spoke on “Leading from Within” at the November Weidman Center Leadership Lecture.  He holds responsibility for manufacturing operations and supply chain at nine global locations spanning Ireland, Italy, the US and Mexico. There are approximately 9,000 talented employees within his operations network.

He gave students three basic steps to being good leaders.

“There are countless books about leadership out there…these are my top three principles that I tend to operate by on a day to day basis,” Kilcommins said. 

Plan then do

A good leader uses strategy and can execute—that means figuring out what must be done strategically and then making it happen.

“Planning flawlessly is not possible, but executing flawlessly is,” Kilcommins said. “The really strong leaders are the ones that can figure a way out when the unexpected happens, when things don’t go to plan. [They] find a way through or around it and deliver on the expected outcome.”

He used the Apollo 13 space mission as an example. NASA painstakingly planned for the mission, yet complications and issues still arose. Despite those complications, their team embraced the “failure is not an option” mentality, and got the crew home.

Be present

A good leader is present and leads by example.

“This isn’t just about showing up. It is about being conscious and aware of your presence—how you walk and how you behave,” he said.

Kilcommins shared a story about an interview he had early in his career. The interviewer asked him to check for a package he was expecting; this took Kilcommins by surprise, but he quickly checked for the delivery truck. He came back to the office, reported that the truck hadn’t arrived, and proceeded with the interview.

“About halfway through the interview, [the interviewer] said, ‘I wasn’t expecting a delivery. I was testing you to see how fast you walk. The reason we’re still talking is because you passed that test,’” Kilcommins said. 

That one act was an unexpected milestone in Kilcommins’s career. He got the job, which set him up for subsequent jobs. He said that you are constantly monitored, even when you don’t know it, so you must lead by example.

“It’s not just about managing up—impressing the people above you. It’s how you interact with people at all levels. When you are a leader people take their cues from you…be aware of the huge impact you have on others,” Kilcommins said.

“Wrapped up in all of this is the importance of showing people that you simply calling someone by their name, you’re delivering a very positive message...don’t underestimate the importance of human interaction, behaviors and relationships.”

Pick wisely

A good leader surrounds himself with the right people.

“The right people are your most important asset. You know the expression ‘chose your words wisely’? Well conversely, chose your teams wisely and surround yourself with the right kind of people,” Kilcommins advised.

As an example, he shared an experience where he was asked to take over a plant in the United States. The company had developed a new product that treated a serious disease in a way that was much less invasive than any alternatives, but the manufacturing process was unstable. Kilcommins was tasked with stabilizing the process and getting the product back on the market.

When he first arrived, he toured the manufacturing plant. When he reached the end, he met Mike, who was sitting next to a box labeled “Scrap” with hundreds of thousands of dollars of product inside. When asked about the scrap, Mike gave an apathetic answer.

This encounter disturbed Kilcommins because Mike was the chief engineer at the plant. He made the difficult, but ultimately correct decision to replace a subpar employee with someone who was right for the job.

After that episode, Kilcommins, with the help of about 200 plant employees, was able to stabilize the process, get the product on the market, and hire and train his successor.

 “Surround yourself with the right people, hold them accountable, show them you care and the results will follow,” he said.

Kilcommins explained the importance of everyday leadership and how it can be as small as “taking ownership” or responsibility, even when no one is looking. This shows great character.

He advised students to keep working at it. “Are great leaders born or made? I firmly believe it is the latter. Leadership development is a process of learning and growth…and application.”

Kilcommins ended with an explanation of Medtronic and how it has helped people around the world by providing affordable medical products. He said his success as an employee and a boss is linked to his heartfelt connection to his work. Kilmcommins encouraged students to find a similar connection to their own work.

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