Lessons in Leadership: How Empathy, Humility, and Respect Drive the Success of this 3-time CEO

07/21/2017 01:49 pm ET

Gerald R. (Jerry) Mattys is currently Chief Executive Officer - Tactile Medical (Nasdaq:TCMD), which is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Tactile Medical is a leader in developing therapies for the treatment of lymphedema and chronic venous insufficiency, serving tens of thousands of patients throughout the U.S. Their mission is to help people with chronic disease live better and care for themselves at home. Visit www.tactilemedical.com for more information.

Before becoming CEO of Tactile Medical in January, 2005, Mr. Mattys held two other CEO roles - Medisyn Technologies, Inc. (2002-2004) and Timm Medical Technologies, Inc. (2000-2002). He currently serves on the board of Tactile Medical and the American Venous Forum Foundation. Mr. Mattys recently sat down with Huffington Post contributor Craig Dowden (Ph.D.) to discuss his lessons in leadership.

CRAIG: What did you learn about leadership growing up?

JERRY: My parents had a big influence on how I developed my leadership style. My dad was very focused on the importance of a strong work ethic and instilled that in me at an early age.

My mother taught me the importance of being humble. Her favorite expression was, “Don’t toot your own horn. If you’re good, someone will tell you. You don’t need to tell them.”

I think finding the delicate balance between confidence and humility is one of the bigger challenges in leadership today.

CRAIG: What steps have you taken to try to strike that balance?

JERRY: It centers on a couple of things. First, respect other opinions and do not step on someone who has a different view than yours. This is important because it instills confidence in your team. If you don’t agree, then you should respectfully ask the person to explain why they think that way and learn where they are coming from first.

Related to this, if you make a decision or give your input too early, this can silence contrarian perspectives. You have to listen more than you talk.

Also, it’s important to make things about your team. It is not about what I did, it is about what we did. It is often difficult for leaders who have been successful to leave their egos at the door and embrace this ‘we’ philosophy. However, when it happens, you get great results.

CRAIG: What’s an important leadership lesson you learned?

JERRY: It came early in my career when I was delivering an employee appraisal. When I asked about the review, the employee responded, “Everything you just told me was a surprise.” I realized I had never given any of that feedback before and wasn’t honest about their performance, until the annual review.

This taught me that I wasn’t listening well because I didn’t pick up on the cues that employees needed feedback.

CRAIG: What do you think gets in the way of executives sharing feedback on a more regular basis?

JERRY: Time. That was the most surprising part to me about being a CEO was the number of demands on your time. You really do have to make a conscious effort to spend time with your team, both collectively and individually. If you don’t, those feedback opportunities rarely occur.

CRAIG: You have been a CEO for multiple organizations. Have the roles or demands of being a CEO changed overtime?

JERRY: One thing that comes to mind is the selection of and upkeep of your team is more important in a rapidly growing company like ours. The demands on your management team in a high growth environment are much more stressful.

CRAIG: How do you support your management team through that?

JERRY: It is important to identify where they need help and then provide it. Knowing when to make additions to the management team and then allocating resources and splitting up the responsibilities accordingly is a big challenge for a rapid growth CEO.

One of my favorite activities is our quarterly business review. We bring in our sales managers and meet with the senior management team for a day to talk through what is going on in the field. The next day, the sales and marketing teams get together and talk through how to solve some of those challenges. That is what I think allows us to continue to grow at our current pace because we address problems in the trenches right away.

CRAIG: How do you select talent who will be a great fit for your company?

JERRY: There are two main practices that have helped us. First, we ask our current employees to recommend potential recruits; top talent who they know and trust. Most, if not the overwhelming majority of our employees started with us through this referral system. One advantage of this approach is that these new employees get up to speed faster because they do not hesitate to ask questions to the person or people they already know.

Second, none of our managers can decide on a prospective employee by themselves. Every person we bring in has to go through multiple interviews with different people to get a better view of their fit for both the job as well as for our culture, with the latter being most important

As a testament to their effectiveness, we have been recognized as being one of the best places to work in the state of Minnesota for the past 8 years.

CRAIG: What are your core values?

JERRY: We want to be known for helping people suffering from chronic diseases to live better and care for themselves at home. First and foremost, empathy is very important to us. We look for people who want to help.

Our core values center on respect and integrity. The market that we are in does not have the best reputation. There has been fraud and abuse in our industry and we do not tolerate any shortcuts. We have let top performers go because they took a shortcut. We have a culture of high compliance and high service to these patients. That’s our primary responsibility.

CRAIG: Why have you made empathy such an important part of your organizational DNA?

JERRY: Early on we noticed our salespeople who previously had a solid track record in traditional medtech sales were not doing well in our company. As we looked more closely at this, we found that they were more transactional than solutions-focused. We now use a series of tests that allow us to look for both sales acumen as well as empathy. The people that are most successful for us are not only sales people, but they’re also empathetic to the patient’s problem.

CRAIG: If you could go back in time and give yourself advice at the beginning of your career, what would it be?

JERRY: It would be to spend more time with my mentors. I think it is key to anyone who wants to end up in this seat. Spend time with people who have more knowledge and experience so they can guide and support you in terms of where you want to go. Although I found great mentors, I did not lean on them enough.

CRAIG: What prevented you from doing that?

JERRY: Early in my career it was a lack of maturity and arrogance. Learning that you don’t know it all comes with time.

CRAIG: Any other advice to readers who have aspirations for the Corner Office?

JERRY: As I look back over my career, one pattern that repeats itself is what I would call taking visible risks. This helped me assume responsibility and volunteer for assignments that no one else wanted to pick up because they were afraid. By being visible and taking on that challenge, you get the opportunity to do and contribute more. Volunteering to solve a problem or to lead a group to solve that problem will do more to advance your career than anything else.

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