Leaders and Entrepreneurs - Elizabeth Plunkett Buttimer, President of Bowden Manufacturing
An Interview by Marie J. Kane

Bowden Manufacturing is a family run business over 50 years old who manufacture men's and women's clothing.

MJK: As the person whose job it is to carry the legacy forward, what's your dream for the company? What would you like to have happen on your watch?

EPB: I would like to see the company make whatever evolution it takes to survive and succeed. That could be moving into a different product line, it could be emphasizing one of our talents over another. I would like to groom the company to use the talents that are most appropriate for the time in which we find ourselves. We are in a very competitive industry.

MJK: Do you want to grow your company or is that less important than other things to you?

EPB: I think in one way or another a company has to grow or it dies. Growth doesn't necessarily mean more people or more sales, it could be a growth spiritually even, which is kind of a strong word to use, but a company I think has a spirit; it certainly has an esprit de corps. I'd like to see economic growth of course. So, I would really like to see us evolve along the lines we need to evolve, which is I think the goal of any company in any setting. It's a very dynamic environment and to adapt and change is the order of the day.

MJK: Do you think it is different for women as a leader than it is for a man?

EPB: I think it's different for any individual as a leader than it is for any other individual and all the things that shape an individual certainly create that difference. And, differing genders have different perspectives, so in that regard I think it is different for a woman as a leader than it is for a man. I think we face many of the same challenges, but we see it differently. Seeing something differently and having a different perspective changes the way you approach a problem or the way you create a solution or the way you deal with other people. It affects management style and the way in which you lead.

MJK: Specifically how do you think women are different than men?

EPB: I think our focus is different and often times we may have a different approach to communication. I think that's the biggest difference. A woman might approach it in some cases more directly and in some more obliquely than a man. We may approach a situation with more bravado or less bravado. I think those communication styles are basically the differences between men and women. Certainly we all have competing interests or responsibilities and often times, as a woman family demands tend to take a different precedence, not that men are not responsible in regards to family situations.

MJK: Would you say it's harder in some situations for a woman to juggle the responsibilities she has because they include, in a lot of cases, major family emphases.

EPB: I think often times women have things that tug at their heart strings a great deal while they are performing in a business environment. I think it makes us perhaps stronger in certain aspects as a leader, but it also can be a distraction.

MJK: When you think of yourself as a leader, what traits of yourself or aspects of anyone do you think are important to be a really good leader?

EPB: Passion would be probably be the first thing, a passion for people, a passion for your product or service, a passion for the outcome that you have. Second to passion would probably be a strong work ethic. I think a leader has to be very determined because there are many things along the way that would take you away from the focus or deter you from achieving. Probably the third would be a good sense of humor, because taking oneself too seriously or one's challenges too seriously can ultimately undermine the process.

MJK: What else do you think it takes to be a really effective leader?

EPB: Having an appreciation for the efforts of others because no one achieves greatness without a lot of people participating in that process. So it's in effect a shared greatness, rather than that of an individual. Next to that I would say a sense of myth and a sense of reality. You have to have the dream and the vision, but you have to have the feeling of the practical nuts and bolts, the numbers, and the other things that make the picture work. So you have to have both myth and reality, a kind of elixir of both.

MJK: Is there anything else you think is important to being a good leader?

EPB: Being a good communicator.

MJK: Tell me a little more about that.

EPB: Not only communicating a vision, not only communicating a way to achieve that vision, but to encourage, inspire, and enlist others your communication skills are very important to influencing others.

MJK: Is there anything else you think is important to being a really good leader, the kind of leader you want to be personally?

EPB: I think having a strong faith is important because I think one has to have a faith in one's self obviously, but to have faith in something beyond one's self is also very important. A sense or a feeling of the infinite as it relates to the world in which we are I think can give us all perspective. We get so caught up in the every day and in the pressures of the day that having faith in oneself, faith in others, and faith in something beyond ourselves is very important. Decisiveness is very important as well. I think part of what a leader does is look ahead and see what is in the forward vision and how do we approach that, how do we get there? I think there's not a lot of room for being wishy-washy. Moving ahead with confidence into uncharted waters requires decisiveness. Kennedy's putting a man on the moon vision was very decisive and certainly an act of leadership that challenged our nation and really the world.

MJK: If you were to think of the biggest challenge you've had as a leader and what's gotten you through that or is getting you through that, what would that be?

EPB: The biggest challenge really has been people's approach to change and fighting resistance to change. Change is inevitable and it's with us every day. We have it served up to us in a million different ways and dealing with resistance to change has certainly been the greatest challenge I have faced or will face ongoing. Change has to be our friend because you can't fight against it. There is no reason to kick against change because it will still be there. We have to embrace change one way or another. At the same time, too many changes too fast can be very difficult for a business environment, so within a company it is important to approach change from a positive perspective and realize the power that lies within change.

MJK: What gets you personally as a leader through dealing with change and resistance to change? What is it that you do as a leader that allows you to tap the power in change instead of being overwhelmed by the change or by the resistance of people to change?

EPB: I think to harness change positively first one has to overcome any fear of change. If we have fear in regards to change we give it the power, we don't work with its power. So overcoming fear first of all and then approaching it from a positive direction.

MJK: How do you overcome your own fear of change?

EPB: Like the Eveready Bunny, it's all wound up inside one's self. You have energy & determination and you call on the wellspring of determination that lies within & use that energy to work with change. It's hard sometimes.

MJK: As a leader how do you help your people overcome their fear of change?

EPB: Here again we are going back to communication and communication styles. Communicating what happens if we don't change, what happens if we do change, and why do we want to change. Giving some of the rationale for change can often times take some of the fear out of it. The ownership of that change by many people helps its acceptance as well so as the leader you must create that ownership.

MJK: What puts a smile on your face after a long day thinking about something you've done as a leader that really mattered and made a difference?

EPB: Being a part of a family business family is woven into the business. During my tenure with the company we went through not only the loss of my mother but also my brother and my father. I can recall speaking to my father on the way back from my brother's funeral, his death was very unexpected, and telling him that we needed to have a meeting the next day with the employees and Papa said it was too soon. I said "but Papa we have people hurting." We had a meeting with everybody in the company there. I think bridging those kinds of transitions, especially when it was such a difficult life event for me personally, was important in the role of service to the business. I believe leadership is a service role and I think if one is to be a leader, one must be a servant.

MJK: What does it mean to you to be a servant as a leader?

EPB: It means trying to get beyond one's self and look at the greater good of the whole. It means putting oneself into the process rather than being very distant. It means being very much involved, in effect putting your essence into the process.

MJK: I think that would be both frightening and exhilarating.

EPB: It is. It certainly is. I have no need for sky diving or bungee jumping.

MJK: What would you say to a daughter if she asked you what she needs to do to grow up into a good leader?

EPB: I would say first that you need to concentrate on your character. Who we are has a lot to do with what we become, how we apply ourselves, and how we conduct ourselves. I would tell her that it is very important that she learn herself very well, that is who she is inside. I would suggest biographies of leaders who she respects and leaders who she does not respect because I think we can learn from the lives and experiences of others vicariously through reading. To see their process of leadership, whether they are in the field of battle, or heads of state, or leaders in science or arts or industry, you can discover what created the good leaders. She would find such traits as integrity, determination, willingness to work and fortitude. The library is full of volumes of these people and to have the chance to learn from their successes and their mistakes is a wealth of opportunity.

MJK: Is there anything else you would tell her?

EPB: She would need to have a perspective of others, so know yourself and know others. Understand their motivations, understand their perspectives, and understand their intentions. Many times understanding an intention or motivation is very important in making the correct decision.

MJK: What would you tell her about being a woman and being a leader?

EPB: Use all the resources God has given you. Realize that to erase one's femininity is to erase one's viewpoint and perspective. Approach leadership from its whole perspective. Don't just use a part of your talents or abilities. Use your intuition, use your nurturing, use the feminine side as an asset to your leadership, rather than hold it aside as a potential deterrent to leadership. I think the most important thing is using that intuition wisely. I think I use that tremendously myself in terms of getting the feel of the people that I associate with in listening to the messages that are nonverbal that occur within business. Know that one has to be observant and recognize that there are feelings that are being given off that are just as real and important as verbal communication or written communication. Nonverbal communication tells us a great deal and I think that's as much a part of intuition and reading people as anything else. Listen to those nonverbal messages and listen to the message of your heart. Your heart can be both your enemy and your ally.

MJK: How can your heart be your enemy?

EPB: Something that can make a woman vulnerable in business is relying on your heart when you should rely on your head. I think knowing when to use which attribute more appropriately, your head or your heart, is very important. Sometimes you have to listen to others if they tell you, "You're being too much head driven or heart driven." You also have to discipline yourself.

MJK: In what way would you discipline yourself?

EPB: Ask yourself "is this a business decision? Am I approaching it from a business perspective or is this from an emotional perspective? Those self check moments are very important.

MJK: Do you make a distinction Elizabeth between intuition that is gut feel or a sense of something versus emotion or feeling?

EPB: I think they are two different things.

MJK: If I understood you correctly, intuition would be something that would be desirable probably all of the time, coupled with your intellect.

EPB: Yes, it's just another sense.

MJK: Are you suggesting that emotion would be something you would want to govern or balance appropriately.

EPB: Yes, you're right. Put a governor on it. Emotion is where passion comes from. If you didn't have emotion you couldn't have the passion that makes you get up and want to do what you want to do everyday. That comes from emotion, that comes from the fire if you will. But letting emotion have free rein is not a good idea. Letting the analytical side control completely is not good either. I think a wonderful balance is what we all need to aim for.

MJK: If you were talking to a young woman in her twenties just starting out, what advice would you give her?

EPB: Always be ready to push the envelope. Push your boundaries for yourself in what you can be and what you can become. Be willing to learn and grow every day. Be yourself, but be the best self you can be. Know what you do best, know your attributes and build on them. Move from your point of strength. Try to always deal from the strength you have within and not from a sense of weakness. Despite what goes on positively or negatively that could impact your performance be able to find that quiet spot within you that lets you perform at peak performance under high pressure.

MJK: Is there anything I haven't asked you about being a leader or advice to prospective leaders that you would like to add?

EPB: Being able to accept that no one is perfect. I think so many of us who wish to achieve may have a tendency toward being a perfectionist. Give yourself permission not to be perfect, but to always strive to be. I would also reiterate that you have to have a strong sense of purpose in your life. My sense of purpose is using my resources and abilities to the highest possible good for the people concerned. Even if I don't achieve that, having that as a goal motivates me. I think you'd find that people in leadership roles are motivated by a sense of purpose.

MJK: Thank you Elizabeth. I hope that sharing your insights about leadership has given you an opportunity to serve your purpose.

N.B. This article was originally published in Competitive Edge Magazine.

Marie J. Kane has been an executive coach and corporate consultant for 20 years. She specializes in innovative approaches to executive development with a special emphasis on individual and group virtual coaching. She is the author of a comprehensive team assessment and development process, creator of "The Leader's Way" executive development program and a co-creator of an integrated strategic and operational planning process as well as offering state-of-the-art employee selection and development systems integrated with performance management and organizational culture. Marie may be reached at Marie@executiveevolution.com , and visit www.executiveevolution.com for additional information.

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Copyright 2002 by Marie J. Kane. All rights reserved.

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