It’s About Strategic Positioning, Not Strategic Perfection: An Interview with Doug Stark

I asked a former work colleague and friend, Sandi Schmiesing, if, in her current organization, she knew of a bold leader based on our Aveus definition: someone who thinks and acts beyond the existing organizational limits, is imaginative, and is willing to take risks to get rewarding results.  Her eyes lit up, and she said, “Yes, I do!”  That is how I came to meet and interview Doug Stark, the President and CEO of two entities within the Farm Credit system:  Farm Credit Services of America and Frontier Farm Credit.Doug Stark

Unlike many of the bold leaders we have met through this process who have changed companies several times, Doug has stayed, and he has grown and developed his bold leadership skills inside one organization for 37 years.  He describes a “great career” that, looking forward, is full of opportunities to think beyond today’s limits, be imaginative, and experience the thrill of not knowing everything.  He describes his own and his team’s willingness to take managed risks, learn and move forward.

“I embrace ambiguity,” Doug says.  “We never know what the final answer is, but we have to make decisions and move.  As I tell my team, ‘We can’t wait to pull out of the driveway until all the lights are green.’”  He admits that for some folks who would like to nail everything down, this creates unease and tension.  This is something a bold leader needs to pull people through.  A bold leader’s orientation is to “get out there – face the uncertainty.”

“I like to say it’s about strategic positioning, not strategic perfection,” Doug added. “It is about moving forward, being directionally correct, and then learning and adapting as you go.”

And it’s not just learning by doing.  Doug went on, “Bold leaders are always learning!  Yes, by doing, but I also like to read, watch others, listen to speakers on a variety of topics, and learn by connecting experiences.  Learning and growing as a leader is never ending.”  Doug was pointing out another version of strategic positioning versus strategic perfection.  Bold leaders continually push themselves, learn and prepare for the next opportunity, and are comfortable with (and excited about) the prospect of never running out of things to learn.  Doug’s focus is on forward personal and team development.

When I asked Doug if he thought of himself as “bold,” he said he was flattered that Sandi had referred him, but no, he doesn’t really think of himself in those terms – although he does relate to the specific definition we provided.  He went on to say, “When I read the definition, for me, it is just a way of being.  That’s how I am.  When I think back, all I ever wanted to do was be ordinary:  have a loving wife, raise well-adjusted kids, and make a difference.  I’ve been blessed in so many regards.  Now as I look back, thinking about this conversation, it’s in those ‘ordinary’ things where you find the extraordinary.”

The fit between personal values and organizational values led us on another path and is a key to why Doug has been able to be a bold leader inside one organization for so long.

“We have a really engaging culture – one that is really aligned with my own value set of integrity, humility, and compassion.  For our new hires, I teach an orientation centered on our culture and values. Most are blown away that the CEO takes 3 hours to work with them every month.”  But, it is that important.

Doug continued, “As a cooperative, we are here to serve.  Our customers have a high degree of integrity. There is so much synergy between customer, company and our employee values.”

And values are tested every day. “Leadership is a 24-hour-a-day job.  You need to live your values, be consistent at any point in time, and over time.”

The culture wasn’t always as Doug described.  He explained, “When I first started, it was very autocratic, very top down.  We drove a change.”  Being part of the team driving this culture change is one of the key reasons Doug stays and continues to be excited about his work, his team and the future.  Building the culture you want and need is a final example of Doug’s term: “strategic positioning, not strategic perfection.”

“I’m always challenging the status quo.  I really do believe you’re either going forward or backward.  It’s not just always raising the bar.  But, as you accomplish something, you push your thinking to another level.  To do that I’m always challenging myself, my approach.  I step back and look at my own actions and assumptions. You have to change your approach to change an outcome.”

That last thought is where I’ll end this post.  It’s a bold leader who says, means and acts on a commitment to change themselves to change the outcome.

We all learn and change through our lifetimes, some more deliberately than others.  What are personal changes you have elected to make to improve the outcomes you achieve?

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.