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Tips From The Top: Conversation With Doug DeVos, President of Amway & Steve Van Andel, Chairman of Amway

I spoke to Doug DeVos, President of Amway, and Steve Van Andel, Chairman of Amway, about their best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Steve: Perhaps, it would be surprising for some to learn that my support of entrepreneurship extends beyond my role at Amway. I’ve been lucky enough to serve two terms as chairman of the United States Chamber of Commerce and have served on the board of directors for many years. The opportunity through the U.S. Chamber and other international roles has been tremendously rewarding for me personally and has helped to reaffirm many of my personal beliefs about the importance of free enterprise and partnership. I find that engaging in meaningful work outside of your main role is helpful for the individual and the organization, and it has helped me greatly to satisfy my general curiosity about global business and the work being done to advance it.

Doug: For me, it’s my love of community. It has truly been an honor to live in the same community my entire life and watch that area grow by leaps and bounds, reach its goals, and then set new – even higher – goals. The West Michigan community routinely finds itself on lists of the top places to learn, live and retire. It is a special place that exemplifies what people can do together when they set their minds to it. I’m blessed to call it home.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Doug: I fail every day; there’s no getting around it. Failure is a badge of honor for me personally and, I hope, for our company. If we’re not failing, we’re not trying. My mentality about risk was formed at an early age – directly through the work of my Dad, Amway co-founder Rich DeVos. Dad was a serial entrepreneur and saw the world in a way where failure was often the pathway to success. Learning from those failures and evolving is the key component. That perspective was crystalized for me once I had the opportunity to take on a leadership role at Amway. Playing it safe wasn’t an option. I specifically recall a time in Europe shortly after I had been appointed to lead operations there. We had so much data – or at least at the time it seemed like a lot – that I had paralysis by over analysis. It didn’t take long for a seasoned leader of the affiliate to call me on it. “Make a decision, any decision,” he said. “We’ll be ok and we’ll evolve as we learn more.” That has stuck with me.

Steve: I think Doug is exactly right. For me, part of each day, each month, each year is setting a goal and then doing everything I can to accomplish it. My Dad, Amway co-founder Jay Van Andel, use to tell a story about a mountain climb. It’s a tremendous accomplishment and one that you’re worked hard over a long period of time to complete. But when you’re on the mountain top, what you’ll often see in the distance is another mountain with an even higher peak. That is the next goal and now is the time to pursue it with the same tenacity that you had for the last mountain. That perspective has served me and many others well.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Steve: I find that listening is so very important. As a leader, it may seem easy to develop ideas on your own, share them with others and focus on influencing others to make those things happen. That is rarely the best way. Understanding, listening, discussing, sharing conflicting points of view – that’s how real ideas are made, tested and perfected. I find that the best results come when people come together without a preconceived notion – but instead via a respectful approach of sharing. I’d encourage all leaders to really test themselves in this area and see how they can make it a bigger part of their skill set.

Doug: I think that, to be a leader, you need to become comfortable as the individual who accepts the blame and shares in the success. I think that leaders need to have the confidence to reflect the effort and intelligence of an entire team, yet be humble enough to know that they’re not the expert in most things. Those are certain traits that are helpful, as are the important traits that Steve shared. Just as important, is a desire to be there and to work at it. If you’re not getting better, you’re falling behind and that’s not good for you or the team you’re leading.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Doug: Tackle the big fish first, be purposeful when dividing your time between your inbox and your outbox, and be principled in your work.

1. Tackle the big fish first. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has something on their to-do list that they’re not thrilled to do. I try to do that first. It offers a sense of accomplishment (and maybe a sense of relief) and frees your mind so that you can be your most productive self.

2. Inbox v. outbox. This differs for each person, but I believe that every individual has a desired amount of time that they’d like to spend on their own agenda (outbox) as opposed to responding to others who are seeking their advice, approval, thoughts, etc. (inbox). For me, it is 65/35. It is really easy to get sucked into the inbox – responding to others. If that is you, figure out a way to set aside some time for you to drive things forward. On the flip side, if you’re only driving your agenda, there are going to be problems. Make sure you have a target in mind and then develop strategies in an effort to hit that goal. If you fail, try something else. I believe Donald Rumsfeld coined the inbox v. outbox philosophy and I’ve adapted it over the years to fit my management style.

3. Be principled in your work. You are going to face difficult decisions. It comes with the job. But if you have a foundation to build upon – universal truths that guide your team, your business, your life – it suddenly becomes manageable. That has been the key to decision making in my career. When difficult decisions arise, I go back to the basics, to the foundation, to the core. It has rarely steered me wrong.

Steve: That’s a great list. I would add taking a little extra time in every interaction, be transparent and available, and do what you say you’re going to do. They all touch on a similar theme that I think is important. Being present and personable helps others to know that they’re important and their opinions are valued.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Steve: I recall a trip with my Dad to China when I was a teenager. Amway was thriving at that point, but far from a global business. I remember him wanting to go to the villages on a few occasions, away from the typical tourist sites. I eventually asked him why and his response has stuck with me. He wanted to observe the way people interacted, how they went about their daily lives. What he saw confirmed his beliefs – we’re much more alike than we are different. We have common goals, similar fears and our motivators are similar. If you ground yourself and your decisions in that fact, it helps in all situations. It’s a lesson that has served me well.

Doug: Similarly, my Dad had a significant impact on me. He always encouraged us to be curious, to explore things from various perspectives and then to form our own opinions that we would continue to test and sharpen. I still do that to this day. When I see an article from someone with a differing viewpoint or a discussion that may not align with my own personal beliefs, I often times feel pulled to it. In fact, I find those experiences to be the most helpful to me. While I might not agree with the perspective shared, I always have a better understanding of where people are coming from and what drives them. I think that level of mutual respect is so important in today’s world. Being courteous and inquisitive doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in agreement. Rather, it reflects your comfort and confidence in yourself and your perspective to consistency challenge it in meaningful ways.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Doug: Do something. Do it now – because now is the only time that we have. It is so easy to say that you’ll volunteer more when you have more time, that you’ll make that donation when conditions improve. You always think there will be a “better time,” but in reality, the best time is right now. So I urge each and every one to find some place where they can make a positive impact and figure out a way you can work it into your life.

Steve: Doug is right, we all have skills to offer. I think it is all about finding a personal passion and making it a routine. There is no one way or one thing – so many people, groups and platforms need assistance.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Steve: I have a love of horses that dates back several decades. Training a horse is about patience, teaching and learning, and eventually heading in the same direction in unison. It is actually very similar to leadership. A leader who works with his or her team is much more likely to succeed than someone who forces an agenda or approach. There is also a stewardship aspect to working with horses – or any animal – that I think carries great lessons for people. You have a responsibility to care for these animals, to ensure their health and well-being, and you also have to earn their trust in order to have the most enjoyable and productive partnership.

Doug: For me, sailing has been a life-long passion. I enjoy so many things about it, but see numerous parallels to leadership in that you’re working with a team in an ever-changing environment against competitors who have similar goals or opportunities. When sailing, every person has to know their job and do it to the best of their ability in order to succeed. Not only that, but even more important is that you must have the confidence in your teammates that they’ll do their jobs and, in partnership, you can have a great shot at accomplishing your goal.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Doug: Whether natural or not, I think there is a leader in all of us. Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean being in charge or calling the shots. A leader is a person who puts in the effort, makes sure others have their voices heard as well, and inspires accomplishment through their words or actions. Shifting the mindset of leadership from hierarchical to attitude and approach is crucial, I believe, for people, groups and companies to accomplish great things.

Steve: I believe that leaders come from many different background and skillsets. A key is to understand what you do well, where you can use help and how you can regularly connect with those voices who are most trusted. Building a strong team that partners with you in shared objectives pays dividends in so many ways. It’s been a focus for me throughout my career – hiring good people and then working to ensure they’re unencumbered in their pursuit of their goals.  

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