"What kind of leader will you be? The time to learn this about yourself is now, not when you become a leader in business."
Alex Gregory, president of YKK Corp. of America, asked that question of senior management students in the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia recently as he shared lessons of leadership he learned in 40 years with the company. During his presentation, Gregory encouraged students to begin practicing leadership in their lives now, to discover what leading styles suit them and to gain experience in making ethical decisions.
"We are inviting leaders like Alex Gregory into our classrooms so that our students can relate to them as real people," said Rose Procter, director for the BB&T Center for Ethical Business Leadership, part of the Mike Cottrell College of Business. "We want them to see how much accountability and responsibility these leaders have; these people are making many ethical decisions every day. We chose Alex Gregory because he is an example of how to do things right. So many textbooks and case studies focus on leaders who made ethical mistakes, but we want our students to have exposure to the positive side of ethics."
In 2004, Gregory received the Gov. George Busbee Award in recognition of his leadership in building a relationship between Georgia and Japan, and was also named as the first non-Japanese group officer for YKK Corp. that same year. YKK USA makes a wide range of zippers, hook and loop and plastic parts and has corporate headquarters in Marietta, Ga.
Gregory told several stories about his time with YKK, weaving leadership and ethics together to help students understand the types of decisions they will be making in the future as business leaders. He also presented a case study focused on the closing of a YKK manufacturing plant in Macon in 2004. He explained the situation to the class, and Procter asked student teams to choose from four options of handling the closure if they were in charge. After several days of discussion, the teams will present their choices and learn about the consequences behind each choice, including the reasoning for the choice that Gregory and his team made.
"A large part of leadership is being willing to take action, but also knowing when and how to take action," Gregory said. "It's also very important to know exactly whom you are leading."
Gregory also gave some general business advice to the students, such as encouraging them to take a bad job with a good company instead of a good job with a bad company. The job is temporary, but the company will follow you for life, he said.
"I believe the students really connected with Alex," Procter said. "They saw how ethics and leadership meet outside of a textbook. Many years from now, they probably won't remember exactly what we covered in chapter four during this course, but they will remember Alex and the lessons he left with them. That is our goal, to take them beyond the classroom whenever possible to connect what they are learning with the real world."