Dan Florness on leadership: Lessons learned over two decades
Updated September 6, 2023
By Blue Print Editorial Team
By Blue Print Editorial Team
Dan Florness recently celebrated 25 years with Fastenal and has served as our president and CEO since 2016. In this role, he helps lead a team of more than 20,000 employees spread across 25 countries. We sat down with Dan to discuss what he’s learned about leadership over the years, including the importance of listening to others, owning mistakes, and sharing success.
Q: In your opinion, what is the essential role of a leader?
You need to inspire, and you also need to listen. One without the other isn’t very effective. You might be asking the team to go somewhere, and either you’re conveying it poorly or there’s a lot more angst about the direction than you realize. If you aren’t listening, you become tone deaf. That said, the primary role is to inspire. If you’re really endeavoring to hire talented people – and that’s what everybody wants – let talented people be talented, but inspire them so you can pursue a common goal within your organization.
Q: What can a leader do to inspire others?
A big part of it is sharing success. If something goes wrong, don’t point fingers. Just say, “Okay, that didn’t work, let’s do this instead” – learn from it and move on. On the other hand, when you have success, shower that on the folks who really made it happen. For example, what we did in 2020, being able to roll out a mobility program to our local teams in the middle of the pandemic, was pretty impressive. I remember back in the fall of 2019, the I.T. team was really struggling to get the system to synchronize. The people working on that project put in a lot of time and experienced a lot of anxiety trying to figure that out – and ultimately they did, which made the 2020 rollout possible. Give them the credit. Recognize that. Thank them and keep reminding them year after year what it turned into.
Q: What's one characteristic you believe every leader should possess?
I’ll list a few, then focus on one. First, a leader has to have integrity. Speaking for myself, if I feel the person is dishonest, no matter how talented they are, I want nothing to do with them – life is too short for that. You also have to be able to nurture talent and challenge people to use their gifts. It’s important to have a passion for innovation, a willingness to embrace change. That said, if I had to boil it down to one thing, it’s this: You have to be willing and able to make decisions, especially the uncomfortable ones. If you’re not doing that, you’re not really leading; you’re cheerleading. That’s definitely part of the role, but you have to be able to make decisions in the interest of the team.
Q: What are some unique challenges leaders face in today's world?
With the explosion of technology and media, there are a lot of distractions out there that can cause division as opposed to unity. Probably the best way to approach it, or at least the way I’ve tried to approach it, is to emphasize the common purpose of the team. During this eight-hour chunk of time we come together every day, let’s just focus on our customers and each other (the Blue Team), and we will find success together. That doesn’t mean shutting out different opinions. In fact, it often means challenging each other and having open and frank discussions – but always with respect for one another, and always within the context of a common goal.
Q: What's a mistake you see leaders make frequently?
A lot of people take themselves way too seriously. One thing I’ve always liked about Fastenal is that we challenge people to make decisions. And when you make decisions, invariably some are going to be wrong – that’s a great humbling experience. If you want to prevent arrogance in an organization, challenge everybody to make decisions. Then challenge everybody, especially leadership, to fix what they break and to own up to it. Over the past six years in this role, I’ve made a bunch of mistakes – everybody does. Recognize it. Own it. Take responsibility for fixing it, and never point the finger at somebody else.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who's looking to become a better leader?
Learn every day. Talk with people every day, including folks outside your immediate circle. Read every day. Enjoy reading and go beyond the newsfeeds and social media you find on your phone. Go read a book that was written hundreds of years ago – it will give you a different perspective, and you will learn something new.
Hear more from Dan
Listen as Dan Florness kicks off our podcast mini-series. He introduces Fastenal’s unique position in the market and explains why the Blue Team is much more than just nuts and bolts.
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