Positive & Negative Stress Always Come Together: An Interview with Dale Klapmeier & Pat Waddick

Positive is good. Negative is bad. Right? For example, positive stress in an organization typically helps drive towards a desired outcome. The challenge is to harness the positive to your advantage. Let’s contrast. CirrusPrez_280Negative stress typically drives an organization away from or stands in the way of a desired outcome. The challenge is to overcome it. I regularly meet many organizations in ‘negative stress’ situations: regulatory change, economic or environmental challenges, cost pressures to name a few. In my quest to meet more “bold leaders in organizations under positive stress” I wanted to talk with Dale Klapmeier, CEO, and Pat Waddick, President and COO of Cirrus Aircraft because I believed they and their company would prove a great example of a positive stress situation. I was right. Sort of.

Sexy, elite business: They build (way-too-cool) personal aircraft and are in the midst of developing a personal jet – so exciting (I’ve seen it in development) and seven years in the making – that over 500 customers have reserved positions for the right to purchase one as they start coming off the line more than a year from now. Positive stress created by their own inventiveness.

In a “passion” industry: Movie superstars, Nascar drivers, music legends, sport heroes…these are their customers along with plenty of highly successful folks without the everyday name recognition…people that just love to fly. There are no casual customers in the private pilot community. Lots of positive stress there, driven by high expectations and lots of opinions about what you do and how to be better.

China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (CAIGA) ownership: The People’s Republic of China flag hangs proudly in their lobby along with the flags of Minnesota and the United States of America. CAIGA’s investment represents confidence and growth aspirations in Cirrus’ potential to scale and serve the rapidly emerging market in China as well as the United States and other geographies. The positive stress of a fairly new, expectant owner.

Headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota: Wait, what? Isn’t that the coldest place on earth? One of the most remote? An expensive labor market? Well, no not really, but not what one naturally thinks of as a hub of aviation creativity. Yet, that is exactly what Duluth is becoming in significant part due to Cirrus’ commitment to the community and industry. More positive stress – again self-generated by a high-profile business in a community still recovering from a long decline in the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s.

Why then with all these positive stressors do I say “sort of?”

Because from the opening sentences of our conversation this became abundantly clear: positive and negative always come together. They are polarities and to talk about one without the other has little meaning. And they are both important to advancing a business. Dale and Pat had great examples of the negative stresses that catalyzed their commitment and creativity, generating the positive energy to figure out how to get beyond whatever the challenge was – and they have some doozies. A few examples:

  • They started as a ‘kit’ company. That is a company that sold the parts (in a kit) to enthusiasts that wanted to build their own planes. But they couldn’t sell enough kits to put food on the table.What they had was great technology, so the question they faced was whether they were really ready to dive in deeper and begin building the planes themselves?
  • In 2001 Cirrus sold 58% of the company for $100 million to Crescent Capital, the US arm of the First Islamic Investment Bank of Bahrain (now called Arcapita.) Think about this: about 3 weeks BEFORE 9-11, an airplane company sells majority interest to an Arab investor. AFTER 9-11, the question immediately became how to live through the complete misunderstanding that your investors might want to turn your product (airplanes) into bombs. Before 9-11, what a crazy thought. After 9-11, not so much.
  • Then the recession starting in 2008 that hit the aircraft industry particularly hard, was not kind to Cirrus. Laying off and furloughing hundreds of workers, Cirrus fought to avoid bankruptcy and eventually found a new, promising owner in CAIGA in 2011.

Along the way in our conversation, both Dale and Pat threw out a variety of comments that characterized their philosophy of using the bumps – in some cases mountains in front of them – as energizers for finding creative solutions. So, while they today have many positive stressors, what they talked most about were the negative events that force you to be at your best, to face the real and significant possibility of complete failure, to trust your team and rely on them to push and demand more. Here are a few of the lessons I heard from Dale and Pat that may help you tackle negative or create positive stress.

“Have fun, make money and change the world.” Pat mentioned this early mantra that still resonates today. Through all the ups and downs and sometimes 360 degree rotations, the company and its bold leaders were focused was on doing what they loved. They also needed to make money and had/have the audacity to know they can change the world! Their path to success has been to stay tightly focused on building amazing aircraft that are unique in the marketplace and that, in turn, their customers love. If it is not fun and something you love being passionate about, then it will be neither rewarding nor sustainable.

“You have to learn to balance instinct with wisdom.” Both Dale and Pat candidly shared that as you start out you rely on instinct to run and grow your business. That and adrenaline can carry you for a while. Over time, you gain wisdom from lessons (some painful!) learned. Wisdom is invaluable. It can also make you cautious or risk adverse. As with positive and negative stress, too much of either instinct or wisdom creates headaches. Balance is the key.

“There never is just one Superman.” This is a favorite idea from this conversation. This sentiment is the epitome of knowing, understanding and leveraging the strengths of your team. One person alone cannot overcome the negative stressors and one person alone cannot create or capitalize on positive stress for an organization. How many supermen are in your organization?

How have you have capitalized on positive and/or negative stress to advance your organization? I am always interested in more bold leader stories!

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.