Top Executives on How They Define Success and What Makes a Great Leader
Strategy & Leadership
Follow the Leader
The Roman poet Virgil once said, “Fortune sides with him who dares.” Indeed, an appetite for innovation is a vital aspect of success, but it’s not the total picture. Success means different things to different people and is dependent on experience and circumstance. Here, Chattanooga’s top business leaders share how they define true success and what exemplary leadership looks like to them.
Q: Looking back over your career, how do you define success?
Mitch Patel, President & CEO, Vision Hospitality Group
“Success” is not an easy thing to define. Similar to how people grow and mature, the definition of success can change as well. I have defined success in different ways over my career. Ultimately, success is about accomplishments: What have I been able to get done, what has the impact been from those actions, who have I affected and how? Twenty years ago, my focus may have been on building a business, but now it is more about helping others, helping this community, and how I can leverage my past accomplishments to help others achieve their own success.
Felicia Jackson, Inventor & CEO, CPR Wrap
The only way I believe it’s possible to achieve success is in your own specific way. In various stages of your life cycle, your definition of success can and will change. Sometimes it’s about executing your goals of building a business to pass down to your children for generational wealth. Or maybe it’s about attaining the financial freedom of building a multi-million-dollar business. At the very beginning of my career, I always aligned financial gain with success because my main purpose was taking care of my family. But today, success for me means making a difference in this world as a social-impact company and being able to have a balanced family and work life while keeping my sanity. Success is living your life on your own terms and making life decisions as you see fit.
Scott Rowe, CEO, Encompass Health
Success for me is defined by the positive impact our organization has on so many lives. It starts with building a cohesive team that stays together and works together to always put our patients first. While we objectively measure our success through the percentage of patients who return home and the progress they make in regaining their independence, I am reminded that those numbers represent individual lives that we have touched. Developing and being a part of a team that treasures this more than anything is success to me.
James McKissic, President, ArtsBuild
I define success as being in a position to mentor and uplift others. That also includes being open and sharing my social and professional networks. I’ve had some great mentors in my life, so it’s important for me to give back by mentoring and opening doors for the next generation of leaders in our community. I always work to create a culture grounded in collaboration and consensus. Each day, I learn so much from the people I work with. An open, collaborative environment helps create success.
Q: What type of company culture fosters success?
Tracy Wood, President & CEO, Hospice of Chattanooga
A big part of successful company culture is regular, clear, and concise communication. Creating a collaborative environment allows input from everyone in the company. At Alleo Health Services, my door is always open. We also believe that celebration is an important part of a company’s day-to-day. Our teams always strive to ensure each patient and their families experience the very best care. We love to recognize our associates. There is always a reason to celebrate our successes, whether they are big or small.
Bill Crawford, President & CEO, Lawson Electric
I think for people to be successful, they must feel secure. We pay a fair wage, but we also incentivize well. This motivates most and fosters success for the individual and company. However, money is not always the best motivator. We have to be sensitive to what drives people. If it’s words of affirmation, we need to affirm them. If it’s recognition, then we need to try to recognize them publicly. In short, the company culture needs to be dynamic enough to foster success among the individuals of the company but rigid enough for the company to maintain its identity.
Rick McKenney, President & CEO, Unum
Long-term success is rooted in company culture. We’ve learned inclusive cultures that are receptive to novel ideas and new ways of thinking are more likely to succeed. At Unum, we work to foster an inclusive culture by valuing the diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and ideas of our people. This means all our employees have the tools to grow and reach their full potential, and no one feels limited or excluded from the opportunity to contribute and learn. We’re finding new and innovative ways to reach customers and make more meaningful relationships by taking this approach.
Todd Fletcher, President, Life Care Centers of America
I love the topic of culture and what it means for a company. We spend so much of our time working that I believe it is critical for companies to create positive, winning cultures. I am confident that when a company truly cares for and about their employees, has a trusted and proven product, and works hard to stay current and innovative, success will follow.
Q: What is the smallest change an executive can make that can have the largest positive impact?
Julie Taylor, Chief Development Officer & President, Erlanger Health System
Agility. If this year has taught us anything, it should be about leaning into ambiguity and not being afraid to pivot, shoot, miss, and do it over and over again until we get it right. So much of what we have accomplished in the last year was because we were forced to change course and take risks. And because we were moving so quickly amidst an incredible amount of uncertainty, we learned to give ourselves permission to be okay with accepting 90% instead of holding out for 100%, 100% of the time. If we really want to innovate and grow, we need to practice being nimble, so that when those opportunities come along, we will be ready to take that shot.
Bobby Joe Adamson, CEO &
Chief Manager, Adamson Developers
Honesty in leadership makes a big impact. Company leaders who are willing to tell staff the truth and who nip everything in the bud that doesn’t work make the most positive impact on their team. Another small change includes being open-minded. Praising your staff when they have done a good job and rewarding them for their excellence can also have a big impact.
Managing Partner, HHM
We believe in collaboration and free-flowing communication at HHM. When you walk the halls of the office, there are no closed doors. No one is asking, “May I say who is calling?” There is synergetic activity where we have removed barriers that limit co-worker interaction. Simple changes to create a more open workspace with access to all peers can have an immediate improvement on productivity, morale, training, and mentoring.
Q: What would you like to have known early on in your professional life?
I wish I had known to challenge myself to always pursue the goals I had that I knew would help strengthen me in the long run. Challenges not only help you grow in skill and knowledge, but they also help you develop a stronger belief in your own capacity. Where there’s security, there’s nothing forcing you to rise to the occasion of maximizing your potential.
Beverly Coulter, Board Chairman, Friends of the Zoo
One of the things I wish I had known early in my professional career was to not take myself so seriously. I have learned that it’s okay to disagree with others when things aren’t going well in the workplace. At the end of the day, it’s just a job. Being judgmental of someone who doesn’t agree with you never pays off.
Rusty Gray, Managing Shareholder, Baker Donelson
Professional careers involve so many moving parts, especially in the early days. So much of success as a professional, however, simply entails focusing on doing a good job of taking care of people and solving their problems. That goes for internal co-workers and external clients. It would have helped me early in my career to simplify things by always returning to the key goals of providing good service and solving problems. Get your co-workers and clients to the finish line with their problems and provide caring service in the process.
Derek Bullard, President & CEO, Siskin Children’s Institute
Early in my career, I obsessed over details and managing every project, contract, and opportunity at the micro level. When my organization was small and we had early wins, I attributed this success to my hard work and obsession over every detail. However, as my company became larger, this approach hindered our growth and eventually caused me to lose staff. After lamenting the loss of a key employee early in my career to a competitor, a mentor gave me sound advice that I use to this day: “Focus on the ongoing development and skills of your employees, delegate effectively, and allow your staff the latitude to take calculated risks.” This approach empowers employees by showing you trust them and helps create resiliency in the organization.
Charles Lathram, CEO, Galen Medical Group
Don’t expect everyone to feel the same way you do, and don’t get disappointed when you realize they don’t feel the same way you do. Meet your employees and co-workers where they are, not where you want them to be. I have a philosophy that I have called the 10-80-10 Principle. It notes that 10% of your employees are happy regardless of the circumstances, and 10% of your employees are generally not going to be happy regardless of your attempts. The 80% in the middle are the ones you have an opportunity to positively impact, and they should be your focus.
Q: What qualities make for a great leader?
Rebecca Ashford, President, Chattanooga State Community College
Great leaders have a high degree of integrity. Without integrity, they cannot earn the trust of those in their span of care or in the communities they serve. Great leaders are optimistic about the future and convey that optimism throughout their organizations. I also believe that great leaders show authentic vulnerability. Being authentically vulnerable helps build trust, as people know that you are a real person who has emotions, hopes, and fears.
Being down-to-earth and approachable helps someone to be a great leader. You should also act as customer service for your own team as well as externally for your customers. That is probably why we were given two ears and one set of lips, as I like to say. A lot of problems are solved by listening and deducing the main cause of the issue rather than not listening and jumping to conclusions prematurely.
Terry Hart, President & CEO, Chattanooga Airport
My response to this is fairly simple. I have always practiced the thought that no one in an organization is better than anyone else. Each person has a certain task to do. Treat individuals the way you would like to be treated. Always remember where you started. I have always found that the skill of listening is the best gift given to us. You can learn so much more by speaking less often and taking the time to listen to others.
Steven Angle, Chancellor, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
The ability to articulate a common goal that connects the organization’s activities to doing good for others. It cannot just be a job or teaching one more course. It is about changing the world. UTC educates students who will be prepared to change the world – the future of our society is our students, and they are looking to us to help prepare them to take on the challenges facing our world. I work in higher education so I can be part of the team that touches the future every day.
Eric Fuller, President & CEO, U.S. Xpress
A great leader has a clear point of view and the ability to articulate complicated concepts. This requires listening to and engaging with your teams, then finding ways to implement ideas. It also means creating a workplace culture that’s open and collaborative and where folks want to bring their full selves each day. Align yourself with people of differing perspectives, both personally and professionally.
Patti Steele, President & CEO, First Volunteer Bank
Many qualities come together to create great leadership, the foremost being earning trust, owning one’s mistakes, and being honest, even when it hurts. One must develop the ability to make decisions quickly while remaining focused on the end result. Great leaders practice kindness in both communication and interaction. Lastly, great leaders are aggressively humble – remembering their roots. Each of these qualities combine to solidify trust. Trustworthiness unlocks the door to integrity and is always the most important quality for any leader, at any level.
Q: What does servant leadership mean to you?
Miller Welborn, Chairman of the Board, SmartBank
Servant leadership is exhibited when a person becomes willing to put themselves last in line for the good of the whole and doesn’t care about being recognized for accomplishing the task at hand. It is also demonstrated by caring more about others and less about the outcome. That’s not to say that outcome isn’t important, because in business, it is! But the priority is the people. Personally, I view servant leadership through the lens of my Christian faith, which informs not only my worldview but also my business and personal life. So, for me, seeking to emulate the character of Christ is the premise from which I endeavor to be a servant leader.
Vincent Phipps, Founder & Owner, Communication VIP
Stay kind and professional. Since we now have four to five generations all in the same workspace, our views on ethics, spirituality, success, family, and loyalty are progressively changing. As a servant leader, we must all be willing to respect our customers, team members, and potential clients to give our best service, with an attitude of professional positivity. One of the best ways to serve others is to learn from others.
Elaine Swafford, CEO, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy/Montessori Elementary at Highland Park
Servant leaders leave behind personal glory and are willing to care for people more than for the position they hold. The true servant leader is also keenly aware of the needs and strengths of others and listens to their desires. They remove obstacles, provide resources, and step in the trenches to help motivate the team. For me personally, I try to live life purposefully and serve those who are underserved and marginalized and give a voice to those who need my leadership to assist. At the end of the day, leaving a legacy through purpose and love of people is the epitome of servant leadership.
Jay Dale, Market President, First Horizon Bank
Servant leadership always begins with being a good listener and taking time to hear people before speaking. It means being aware of situations and people. It means practicing accountability in our daily lives, whether it’s in business or at home. Finally, servant leadership means being able to build and communicate a vision for a team. As our workforce changes generationally, it’s especially important to understand the needs of employees and to meet them in ways that encourage their growth, which in turn encourages commitment to our common goals. There’s a business saying that you can learn a lot about someone from how they treat a server at a restaurant. There’s a lot of truth to that. There’s no job too small when it comes to making sure our team succeeds and associates know they are valued.