An executive with a varied career imparts his management wisdom to others, with an emphasis on trust in the team.
When it comes to analyzing leadership lessons Dean Akers has learned in his 50-year business career, it pays to mostly skip the winding and diverse résumé and go straight to the stories.
That’s because an hour, even over Zoom, with Akers is akin to a rapid-fire standup comedy bit, where the punch lines come fast and furious. (The cheat sheet on Akers’ career: he led the turnaround of a chain of tire stores, Airdrome Tire Co., in his 30s, sold it when he was 40 and it was the largest commercial tire company in Florida; he took over a pair of floundering construction firms and turned the operations into a $36 million business in his 40s; and he ran Tampa-based Ideal Image in the mid-2000s, growing it into a $70 million business that was acquired for $175 million. Now 70-years-old, he works with companies, young entrepreneurs, businesses and military veterans with one main theme: turning someone’s passion into a profitable enterprise.)
Leadership highlights of the recent call I had with Akers include:
‘When people get excited about winning, you can do anything.’ Dean Akers.
• Win the day: When Akers was a teenager in Lakeland, his dad helped him get a job on a crew helping make concrete beams used in bridges. (Akers says his dad got him the job to “bust his ass.”) The workers included a group of inmates from a nearby prison on a work release program. Akers saw the inmates one day huddled up, “screaming and hollering” and having a good time. Turns out they were playing a game pitching pennies.
That gave Akers an idea. He set up bets, usually over a quarter, to see which crews could complete their work faster: Akers and his buddies or the inmates. Akers and his team often won. But so too did the owner of the company, who, having no idea about the wagers, told Akers’ dad that production was up 20% at the plant and he had no idea why. Hearing that cemented for Akers the belief that “everyone loves to win.” It’s a lesson that’s stuck with him throughout his business career. “When people get excited about winning,” he says, “you can do anything.”
• Be quiet: Akers, through his consulting company Adjunct CEO, has worked with dozens of executives and he says he sees a common problem: too much talking. “You have to do more listening vs. talking,” he says. “A leader has to ask open-ended questions and when you get the answer, you need to shut up.”
• Calling card: At each stop in Akers’ career he had business cards made up for every employee, including janitors, administrative assistants and anyone else who clocked in for the business. He would hand-deliver the box of business cards or write a message with them. “You represent us,” he told the employees. “I want you to know how important you are to our brand.”
“A leader has to ask open-ended questions and when you get the answer, you need to shut up.” Dean Akers
Akers once ran into an employee from one of his companies, some 15 years after she received business card from him, a box of 500. She remembered the moment with pride. “She said ‘that meant so much to me,’” Akers says.
Open book: At both the tire company and the construction firm, Akers held quarterly meetings with the entire staff to go over the financials of the business. He rented a ballroom at a Holiday Inn and made an event out of it, where employees brought spouses. Askers says he heard criticism from some other business owners, who thought divulging that much information could be a problem later, for competitive and other reasons. His response? Akers wanted the entire company to see visual confirmation of the success they helped generate. That was more important to him than the competitive worries.
Being open about a company’s financials accomplished something else, Akers says: confidence. “Employees know you trust them.”
Akers mostly spends his time now in four areas: he has a podcast, Selling and Leadership Ninja; he works with young people on an ad hoc basis to help them find their career passion; he consults with businesses on leadership and turnaround issues; and he volunteers with officers and personnel based at U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa who are leaving the military to enter the workforce.
On that last one, Akers has worked with Green Berets, Navy Seals and highly-decorated leaders going through a unique career transition. “It’s been a passion of mine,” he says, “to help them find the next chapter in their life.”