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Retired billion-dollar CEO: Push candor over comfort with your team

Although many styles of leadership can be effective, a 50-year Cintas Corp. executive, in looking back at what worked for him, relies on three C's: consistency, candor and communicate.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 11:30 a.m. May 6, 2022
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Courtesy. Michael Benson talks with Rob Kohlhepp at a NextGen Speaker Series event held in April.
Courtesy. Michael Benson talks with Rob Kohlhepp at a NextGen Speaker Series event held in April.
  • Leadership
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Bob Kohlhepp prided himself on being an honest and fair leader throughout the 50 years he spent rising up the ranks of uniform giant Cintas Corp. But there were more than a few times he had to, with straightforward respect, dress down some employees.

Like the time the company had reached maximum capacity at is plant in Houston. Kohlhepp asked the plant manager where he thought a new facility should go. The plant manager balked at even having a second site in town, reasoning a second site would split the $20 million business the original plant was doing in half — and cost some control.

The CEO of Cincinnati-based Cintas from 1995 to 2003, Kohlhepp recounts the story with this manager in his 2021 book, “Build a Better Organization: How Effective Leadership and Strong Culture Can Create a High Performance Organization.”

Upon hearing the manager’s frustration back then, Kohlhepp, in what became a hallmark of his leadership at Cintas, pointed to the company’s principal objective: “We will exceed our customer’s expectations to maximize the long-term value of Cintas for its shareholders and working partners.” That phrase formed the basis of he company’s values-based book, “The Spirit as the Difference.”

After chatting about the value of the second plant for customers, Kohlhepp then pulled out the principal objective of and asked the manager to read it. “Do you see your name in there anywhere?” I asked him, Kohlhepp writes in his book.

After 30 seconds of “dead silence,” the manager, Kohlhepp writes, said no, he didn’t see his own name in the principal objective.

Kohlhepp told the manager: “We’re not making these decisions based on what’s best for you or what’s best for me or even what’s best for (then-CEO) Dick Farmer. We’re making these decisions based on what’s best for all of our customers, all of our shareholders and all of our employees, which is what this principal objective says.”

In addition to the book, Kohlhepp, a part-time Naples resident, was the latest speaker for the NextGen Speaker Series event, held April 19 in Naples. (Naples boutique financial services firm Benson Blackburn is the series’ founding sponsor. Visionary sponsors for the NextGen Speaker Series include Arthrex; Green Line Benefits; Meristem Family Wealth; Dentons; John R. Wood; PNC Bank; Lurie; Elite Jets; Marsh McLennan; Pure Insurance; and Sunshine Ace Hardware. The media partners are e’Bella and the Business Observer. The academic partner is FGCU.)

Kohlhepp’s straight-shooter leadership style obviously paid off. The company grew from a $1.6 million business when he started in 1967 to a $5 billion juggernaut when he retired, as chairman, in 2016. He was CEO for eight years, from 1995 to 2003, when annual revenue surged from some $800 million to surpassing $3 billion. Financial accomplishments aside, in his book and presentation, a Q&A with Benson Blackburn CEO Michael Benson, Kohlhepp credits the Spirit book that defined the Cintas Way as a bedrock achievement.

“Some people read the book and thought, ‘I really like this company, I want to be part of it,’ while others read the book and thought, ‘man you guys are a bunch of weirdoes,’” Kohlhepp says. And for those who (thought) we didn’t want them to work for us because they weren’t going to be a culture fit.”


Paint a picture

Noting he’s worked with and for both good and bad leaders, Kohlhepp developed a nine-point list of the characteristics of great leaders over his Cintas career. The list includes:

Bob Kohlhepp
Bob Kohlhepp

They are visionaries: This is what the business will look like in five years. In his talk and book, he equates being a visionary to a puzzle box – the picture is the vision. “Imagine how much more difficult it is to work on a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box,” he says. “The leader’s job is to paint the picture on the box.”

They are motivators: Kohlhepp’s model for being a motivating leader is to be tough but empathetic, and to take the blame when things go wrong while handing out credit when things go right. Those actions, he says, motivate people through doing and showing.

They attract followers: The first step here is to explain the vision with clarity – so “people know what’s in it for them,” he says. “What will they get out of working extra hard?” Kohlhepp asks. “It can’t be only that the company will be more successful.”

They are good communicators: Kohlhepp calls this absolutely crucial. “You don’t talk to people at the board meeting like you talk to people on the plant floor,” he says. “But you need to know how to talk to both of them.”

They earn trust and respect: The key to this characteristic is living by a do-what-you-say-you-will-do ethos. A good-sized piece of humility, helps, too. “Earning trust and respect requires that you be willing to do anything you ask others to do,” he writes. “Said in reverse: never ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.”


Can do

They are flexible: The best leaders, writes Kohlhepp, have a “willingness to listen, to hear all ideas.” And “they know that the only way to find great new ideas is to ask for them and then listen. Leaders want to hear what everyone has to say, not just a small group.”

In the presentation, Kohlhepp talked about not only being flexible to new ideas from new sources, but to remember a company’s level of innovation is based on how many things it’s willing to try. “Thomas Edison invented the light bulb on his 676th try. If we cut him off at No. 500, we’d be out here with candles and flames,” he quipped.

They exude enthusiasm and confidence: “Good leaders have a can-do attitude and positive energy,” Kohlhepp writes. “They rarely have a bad day or display a bad outlook.” Another key? Good leaders, says Kohlhepp, feel positive about their own abilities and those around them — they don’t start something with a can’t do outlook.

They set high expectations and standards: Kohlhepp considers feedback used to drive and motivate employees to meet and surpass big goals a foundation of his success. He also says providing direct and honest feedback is one of the toughest things most managers and leaders face in their careers. Tough — but essential.

“You have to tell people what a good job looks like. And then you have to give them constant feedback about how they are doing,” he says. “Feedback is absolutely essential. It has to be immediate. You shouldn’t wait until next week to tell someone they did a good job. You should tell them right now. And if someone isn’t doing something right you should tell them right now, too. And you never criticize the individual. You criticize the behavior.”

They have honesty and integrity: Great leaders, says Kohlhepp, “are committed to making the right decision whether it’s the popular one or not.”

“True leaders never mislead anyone or lie to them,” Kohlhepp writes. “You’ve heard that honesty is the best policy — well, I say honesty is the only policy.”


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