Posted by Caveo Learning ● June 27, 2019

Learning from the Bottom Up: A Business Leader's Perspective

CooleyM05_10 010For nine years, Mike Cooley was the CEO of The Quinlan Companies, a document management and silver reclamation company. His path to the top leadership position was not a typical one that included finishing high school, going to college and working up through the ranks. Growing up, Mike came from a broken home and bounced around a lot. Unstable and unsafe situations caused him to leave home at age 15 and learn how to survive on his own. Once at Quinlan Companies, he learned the company from the bottom up, with duties including making training decisions and initiating cross-training programs in order to improve efficiencies. He is currently the Senior VP of Operations at Ciox Health.

As you progressed through various promotions without formal training programs, how did you learn what you needed?

I learned from two main places to get what I needed to succeed. They say surround yourself with people smarter than you, and that is what I did. I worked with a team of experts in their fields, and I learned from them. It was really just-in-time training, and I spent time learning their position and roles.

I also learned from senior leadership, they became my unsuspecting mentors. I learned how I lead today from them. I asked questions, watched how they did it. I learned leadership from those around me, both what not to do and what to do. My style evolved from learning from the best and worst of others. I became a sponge absorbing from my staff and from company leadership. I asked questions of senior leadership such as, “What are you looking for in this role for me to be successful?” And that is what I did as I moved to the next level.

How did you leverage training as you accepted more responsibilities in your career?

As a young manager my company was faced with the challenge of a downturn in the financial services business. As a result we had several cuts so we put in place a very deliberate cross-training program. I managed a group of desktop publishers, editors, graphic artist and production department. We had layoffs and had to reduce the size of the team, because our business was down and we had less to do. We cross trained, and instead of having separate roles for desktop publishers and graphic artists, we combined those and trained the desktop publishers to also do graphics. They had some basic skills, but we ramped up those skills. We also cross trained editors. We used peer mentoring to accomplish a lot of the cross training.

As a result of a successful cross-training program we were able to produce more than the previous team with a third of the staff. Because the smaller team was now trained in new areas, they were more excited about their jobs and it helped them to diversify their careers. It was not easy to cross train and still maintain the quality, but we had some strong supervisors and they were able to accomplish it. We were able to get more work done for less money.

What advice would you give training professionals as they support the business and stay alive in a downturned market?

Watch for where efficiencies can be made. Is the training staff the right number? Are the work teams the right number? Be open to cross training staff where and when it is applicable. It is not always the right solution, but if it is possible, it can help a company to be more equipped to weather the storm in hard times. Employees who go through this will be in a good place for future leadership positions when the economy comes back. They will have more management experience and exposure.

One of your values as a leader is “doing the right thing for the customer, for the vendor, and for the employees.” How can that be spread through the organization? 

Leaders must try to instill that across the company. Leaders need to demonstrate it to their teams. Managers need to demonstrate it for their direct reports as part of the company values. It needs to be part of the new hire training program. It is not easy, and it will take some time if that is not in place today. But the goal is to move toward making it a sustainable part of the culture.  

What do you see as the keys to success?

Wherever you work and whatever your position is, you will be successful if you:

Deliver the highest quality in the fastest time at the lowest possible cost and always provide outstanding service.

For each job these factors are important. Quality, quantity, and cost management may conflict. For example, in order to deliver the highest quality you may need more time and it will cost more. If time is a factor it may cost more and the quality may not be as high. Training can play a role in helping managers to determine the priority of the three. However, outstanding service should never be compromised. This sounds simple but must be communicated at all levels of the organization.

What motivated you to write a book?

I had a lot of challenges growing up, including violence, substance abuse, and living on the street. After all that I endured growing up, I was blessed with a beautiful family, a fantastic career, great people around me and just an awesome life. When my daughter was born I started writing a journal of my life to give to her when she was an adult. Others read the journal, including my wife, who felt this could be used to reach, help and inspire others. So thanks to the help of many people, my journal became Rock Bottom—From The Streets To Success.

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Topics: Interviews with Learning Leaders