Interviewed by Kevin O’Neill
Q&A with Nicholas Pinchuk
Leading an organization that has been in business for 100 years through a global pandemic is no small feat, but it’s one that Nick Pinchuk approaches with a strong sense of belief and pride.
Nick has been president and CEO of Snap-on since 2007, and he has been chairman of the board since 2009. He has served in numerous other leadership positions within the company since 2002, giving him plenty of experience with guiding the organization through crises. From the 2008 financial crisis to Superstorm Sandy and more, he’s helped further Snap-on’s legacy as one of the leading designers, manufacturers, and marketers of high-end tools, undercar equipment, vehicle diagnostics, and software — no matter the state of the world.
Kevin O’Neill, managing partner and co-founder of Acertitude, met with Nick to discuss the lessons he’s learned leading an organization with so much history. As you lead your organization through the ongoing crisis and beyond, keep his advice in mind.
Leading through uncertainty
Kevin: How have you approached leading Snap-on through the COVID-19 pandemic?
Nick: We have seen situations like this one play out before, but we are resilient. No matter the crisis, we make it through to the other side stronger and more capable. The biggest difference between leading through this particular challenge and something like Superstorm Sandy, for instance, is that the current pandemic is much broader in scope.
Snap-on has facilities and franchises in a staggering number of jurisdictions, and almost all of them have been impacted. Every day, we have to think about what restrictions the governors and mayors in those areas will implement or lift to ensure we can safely and properly carry on supporting professionals in critical and essential industries such as the military, food distribution, and ambulance services.
Now is the time when a CEO’s role is most important. It’s a period of considerable tumult. When the organization is working well in a normal environment, the only decisions I make are those that cannot be decided by the facts. If there’s a clear quantitative answer, the choice can be — and should be — made elsewhere. The CEO’s principal role is to exercise judgment under uncertainty. During times of great turbulence, such as the current period, pervasive uncertainty makes the CEO’s judgment paramount.
At all times, but especially in deep difficulty in high-stakes situations, people look to the CEO. You must act and speak with confidence and conviction. If your people don’t see you as practicing your beliefs, neither will they.
In addition to “walking the talk,” you must also “talk the walk.” You must continue to express confidence in your way forward. This is essential in a crisis — when the proverbial debris hits the fan, your team looks to you with great attention. You must convince your people that what they’re doing is critical, and your confidence must never waver.
Inspiring a team
Kevin: There’s a lot of fear in the market. How do you keep morale up and motivate your team to get the job done?
Nick: The CEO’s No. 1 job is to create belief. To be successful, your people must believe in who they are as a company and where they are going as a team. This is particularly true during uncertain times, when fear can quickly take over. Fear is the reason killer, the parent of both paralysis and precipitous action. Instead of letting fear be the guide, leaders must choose fortitude, thoughtful action, and faith. When you model these values, your team will be comforted and confident — even in the most threatening of situations.
That attitude is how Snap-on has thrived over the past 100 years, through crises such as the Great Depression and World War II. Through it all, our people have embraced that sense of belief and used it to do great work. Hopefully, we’ll do just that for another century.
When most leaders think about motivating talent, they focus on enlisting the best people or helping the poor performers improve. The more difficult and more important action is attending to those in the middle of these two extremes. A strategy is nothing without broad execution, and companies depend on these everyday people to get things done.
To help motivate these workers, you must speak about their unique opportunities to contribute. When doing this, remember to appeal to each person individually, recognizing inherent differences, strengths, and situations while altering your messaging accordingly. Personal relevance resonates with everyone, but it’s particularly important with the great middle.
People choose to work at your organization for a variety of reasons, and a one-size-fits-all annual performance review benefits no one (except HR). At Snap-on, we try to give performance feedback every day, encouraging our supervisors to tell people when they like something — and when they don’t. Constant, constructive, and tailored feedback motivates team members to do better in real time and helps develop great working relationships.
Modeling after a nation
Kevin: What is the biggest driver of your success as a leader and builder of such a well-regarded brand as Snap-on?
Nick: Over the years, I’ve taken lessons from America. This nation is defined by a belief in common values — like the ideas that make up the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — which bring us together and tells us who we are.
Translating this to business, a company or team is defined by a similar belief. You have to highlight who you are and ground that identity in a higher mission. At Snap-on, we are the people of work. Our higher purpose is to provide working men and women with the outward sign of the pride and dignity they hold in their professions, marking them as special and unique. We enable the makers and fixers to create the very society we hold so dear.
We believe that what we do makes a real difference. Snap-on is not just a brand; it’s a special mark of personal distinction! I’ve had parents send me pictures of newborns grasping Snap-on tools, hoping to define their child’s destiny. I’ve had families ask for a mini Snap-on toolbox in which to place a loved one’s ashes. These are deeply emotional connections that go well beyond any simple brand relationship.
I maintain the reason for such powerful belief is that we at Snap-on see ourselves as the bringers of prosperity, the bearers of pride, the deliverers of dreams, and the shapers of lives. All of us know it’s true, and so do working men and women across the world. This belief imbues the organization and energizes our stakeholders — the customers, employees, franchisees, investors, communities, and retirees — while sustaining loyalty and pride that will be there for years to come.
Creating lasting success
Kevin: You’ve been a successful player in the game for a long time. What advice would you give other CEOs?
Nick: As I’ve said, relevance is everything. CEOs need to convince their people that they’re spending their lives meaningfully. Enlisting your team in that conviction is key.
Beyond that, I try to live by a few important ideas, and they have worked for me: Be gentle of speech, even with those who deserve sternness; look to others’ welfare before your own; and never surrender your judgment completely, even to those you respect and love. Give them a try. I think you will find that the people you lead will highly value these behaviors.
Always remember that a good leader gathers people of integrity and capability. Above all else, hire people who always ask why. We believe curiosity is the key to long-term success, enabling an individual to adapt to evolving challenges. The curious are ascendant; they are the people who will do great work and author your success.
Keep in mind that the road to tomorrow goes right through today. In some ways, leadership is a struggle between today and tomorrow. CEOs can be easily seduced by a focus on tomorrow, but it’s important to remember that what happens today is just as — if not more — important. You cannot dismiss the needs of the now in favor of the possibilities of the future without significant and thoughtful consideration. Leaders must find ways to balance tomorrow with today.
Finally, it’s always imperative to celebrate and value your team. From the offices to the labs, the docks, the fields, and the factories. One of the disadvantages of saying your people are important is that, on occasion, you have to act like it. For example, if your factory is operating during a pandemic, are the leaders able to work from home? If you’re in a recession, can you sacrifice your people to reduce costs temporarily?
Consistently find ways to demonstrate that your team is critically important and irreplaceable. These behaviors lead back to belief. When you walk the talk, talk the walk, truly value your team, and radiate confidence and conviction, people will believe in both you and the organization — and will be relentless in driving forward to success.
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