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What it Takes to Lead

by Lori Armstrong Halber and Rick Grimaldi
Leaders are found everywhere – the coach, the orchestra conductor, the theatre director, the business person, the military general, the school teacher. Sometimes a leader is not even someone with a title but rather someone who emerges from the pack to make their mark in whatever endeavor they undertake; someone with the courage to have an idea and advance despite long odds; knowing that failure is a real possibility but advancing nonetheless. The most effective leaders inspire and motivate people to follow their visions willingly and eagerly, not out of fear. A leader steps up in times of crisis, and is able to think and act creatively in difficult situations.

Michael Pearson, CEO of Union Packaging, who was honored on December 12, 2015, with the Fisher & Phillips Business Leadership in Diversity Award during the annual Pennsylvania Society gathering in NYC, encompasses many if not all of the attributes that are commonly used to describe a great leader. We sat down with him recently to discuss his life as an entrepreneur, businessman and civic leader and how his company serves as a model of success.

What inspired you to found union packaging?
While working in the packaging industry at Westvaco’s Consumer Packaging Division (now West Rock). I became interested in filling the gaping void of minority-owned packaging companies as well as creating job opportunities in metro- Philadelphia. With these ideas in mind, I did my due diligence to determine the viability of establishing a packaging company. When I found that this idea was worthwhile and could be developed, I returned home from New York City and created Providence Packaging Group in 1997. That is the parent company of Union Packaging.

What was your vision?
Union Packaging is a maker of FDA compliant earth-friendly folding cartons. We are committed to helping our customers, team members, suppliers, and the community achieve their goals. Ultimately this should culminated into “Autonomy”. Autonomy means my actions must create self-governance of Union Packaging's strategic direction, which creates a fiscally independent workforce through employment with sustainable wages. We do this in accordance to some key values that hopefully will never change. 1) We are fiscally moderate; 2) we always operate with a forward looking vision to determine what is next for our market; 3) we operate with an experimental mindset as we look to continuously improve. That is we are not afraid to push the edge of the markets even if it results in the occasional failure, while always exceeding quality and service expectations; 4) we train and re-train which allows us to reduce costs and re-invest in our team; 5) we live diversity, inclusion and community stewardship; 6) we value sustainability and believe that business can succeed while sustaining natural resources; 7) we live by consensus and make decisions with all of our stakeholders (community, customer, employee, shareholder and supplier) in mind; 8) we are committed to first rate compensation and free flow of communication; 9) we create a safe place to work; and 10) we empower everyone to add value to both internal and external customer relationships.

Where do you think you developed your leadership skills?
The following institutions contributed greatly to the development of my leadership skills- participation in high school and college athletics, my tenure as a combat military officer, the process of starting and operating a business. Leadership positions in non-profits have further expanded my leadership experience. The drive with which I run Union Packaging is the same drive that I bring in the service of non-profits.

I want to serve the underrepresented in our society in both my personal and professional life, to ensure that these populations are recognized. Professionally I employ talent from non-traditional sources and dedicated hundreds of hours to organizations that work to better the situations of underserved populations.

Can leadership be learned?
The armed services, institutions of higher learning, and businesses know that leadership can be learned and spend time and effort to convert unseasoned raw talent into seasoned leaders. Then other organization come to mine those fertile grounds to populate their organization with talent that others have developed.

Why is diversity so fundamentally important to the success of not only businesses but our economy?
Diversity and inclusion is not a system based on quotas or a socialist plot to advantage certain groups while adding little to no value to the bottom-line. Progressive companies realize that D& I promotes innovation, opens new channels from which to procure, and drives competition. It also allows a company to take advantage of new opportunities for expansion with the emergence of new consumer needs based upon shifting demographic realities such as the browning of America.

Inclusion encourages the growth of diverse businesses which higher people in their communities. In areas like Philadelphia with high degrees of poverty this benefit everyone in the areas ---less crime and more tax revenue.

Do you seek leaders when you hire?
We seek leaders but we also hire people that have the potential to be leaders. That potential is demonstrated by the professional demeanor and their approach to learning.

Describe your leadership style
My goal is to be a transformational leader but the reality is often far less grandiose and is a combination of many styles. If I am doing it right I use high levels of communication to meet goals. I motivate folks that work at Union Packaging and improve productivity and efficiency through communication. This style of leadership requires the involvement of every member of the company so that I can focus on the big picture. You hirer good people and delegate. However, I don’t want to be a hands-off leader that fails to provide regular feedback to those folks I have empowered.

Rick Grimaldi and Lori Armstrong Halber are partners in the law firm of Fisher & Phillips LLP, exclusively representing management in all aspects of workplace law and government relations. Follow them on twitter @LoriRickHRLaw. Listen to Rick on Talk Radio 1210.

Published (and copyrighted) in Philly Biz, Volume 1, Issue 2 (January, 2016).
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