Inside Track: Price wants leaders to get clear about vision

Former engineer finds teaching and elevating people to the next ’level’ are personally satisfying.
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Rodger Price said he believes listening is one of the greatest traits of strong leaders. Courtesy Leading by Design

Born and raised in Lansing, Rodger Price said West Michigan is geographically close by, but culturally it’s worlds apart. As a leadership coach and former engineer, he believes it is fertile ground to be a hotbed for leadership development.

Prior to his career as an engineer, Price taught tennis while studying for his degree. It wasn’t until he graduated in 1983 and worked as an engineer for 12 years that he realized how much he missed teaching.

“I kind of missed the tennis, but I realized what I missed more was teaching and seeing people go from this level, to that level, to that level,” Price said.

Price spent six years working for Oldsmobile and another six years at Prince Corporation. Through an internal career development class at Prince Corporation, he rediscovered his inner teacher.

“I learned so much at Prince Corporation,” he said. “I received an assessment that said, ‘well you’re more of a teacher than an engineer.’ I was like, OK what do I do with this?”

Price decided to take a chance on it while he was in a three-year leader development program. He talked to the manager of the program, who told him he actually was looking for someone who could run both the training efforts and the leader development program at Prince Corporation.

“I fell in love with it, and thankfully the world has loved me enough to where I can serve a lot of really cool leaders and help them grow as I continue my own journey of learning how to lead more effectively,” Price said.

RODGER PRICE
Organization:
Leading by Design
Position: Founder
Age: 63
Birthplace: Lansing
Residence: Holland
Family: Former State Rep. and current Ottawa County Treasurer Amanda Price; sons, Nate and Collin
Business/Community Involvement: Chairman, West Coast Chamber of Commerce (2006); chairman, Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holland (2007-08/2012-13); president, Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland (2016-18); member, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce; member, Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce
Biggest Career Break: First engineering role at Oldsmobile (’83); leaving engineering after 12 years to embrace leadership development (’95); founding Leading by Design (’14)

Much of Price’s tennis teaching comes into play when teaching new leaders, he said. The process is more about reminding people than instructing them. Though there is some new material to teach, most of the work is reminding leaders to listen well.

“It’s the same for me, whether it’s listening to my wife of 40 years … and making sure I listen really well to these leaders, so they know what it’s like to be listened to and can take that with them,” he said.

Being an engineer also proved valuable, he said, because engineers tend to over-analyze everything. Over his 25 years of leadership coaching, Price distilled his philosophy down to three basic areas that he believes cover most of what it takes to be a good leader.

Price founded his own leadership training firm, Leading by Design, in Zeeland in 2014, with the goal to make West Michigan a “Silicon Valley of leadership.”

“I could argue we may already be there, but nobody’s talking about it,” Price said. “There’s a great faith base … almost a nonprofit kind of feel, even with the for-profit companies. And there’s such an entrepreneurial spirit in Grand Rapids.”

The six-person firm is on track to graduate 1,000 participants from its yearlong course titled “LEAD 24/7” by the time he plans to retire in 2027.

In LEAD 24/7, the first of three basic areas the class dives into is, “what does it look like to be someone worth following?” Price said the course never answers that for the students, but rather the question is meant to stir up their own answers.

“Certainly integrity, all the usual character stuff comes in there, but it’s a little unique for each person when they create themselves,” Price said.

The second area asks students how they would build an amazing team. Through this section, students are taught principals like hiring well and, if they have to fire someone, firing them well. Price said it’s not unlike college athletics in terms of recruiting and developing individuals as a team.

Thirdly, students are challenged to create clarity. How does a leader be explicit with their team about the organization’s purpose, vision and values?

“Who are we, why do we even exist, and then what are our rules? How do we operate together and with customers?” Price said.

Price counts among his alumni GMB Architecture + Engineering President David Bolt, Feyen Zylstra CEO Nate Koetje and Zeeland Lumber & Supply President Mike Dykstra. Corporations including Gentex, ODL, JR Automation and National Heritage Academies have sponsored managers through LEAD 24/7 as well.

Price touted West Michigan’s strong philanthropic identity as the purpose by which it could become the “Silicon Valley of leadership,” followed by his intent to graduate 1,000 leaders by 2027.

The key strategy in this objective is to use LEAD 24/7 to give individual coaching sessions one day a month to each of the nine people in the cohort, Price said. Leading by Design also teaches normal executive coaching to people who aren’t going through the yearlong program.

“When you put these two together, I think it’s especially unique and effective in helping people grow,” he said.

When COVID-19 became a crisis in the U.S. earlier this year, and the subsequent state executive orders slowed the economy to a crawl, Lead by Design opted to offer executive leaders in West Michigan one or two complimentary coaching sessions to help them weather the storm.

“The kind of service we provide is really, really needed to help these leaders come up with ways they can get through this, and at the same time, they’re very unlikely to spend money on leader development,” Price said.

One cultural issue Price said he wants to get around is the problem of being “West Michigan nice,” or failing to address a problem for fear of embarrassing someone. 

“Partly it’s because people here are so tight and family is so tight, and that’s great, but people might not tell you some things that they really ought to tell you to help you grow,” he said. “It can grow to be a big problem, and this isn’t only West Michigan, but I’ve seen people get fired, and they had no clue it was coming.”

To address this specific problem, Leading by Design has a model called “leaning into healthy conflict” that helps build relationships in addition to solving interpersonal conflicts.

Price also wants to help West Michigan leaders lean more into clarifying their vision for the future, whether it’s three years or 10 years down the road.

“We’re trying to help them get clear, because that clarity helps their organization not come (to them) for a lot of answers,” Price said. “Also, an unclear vision creates a tension in people. If they don’t agree with what we’re doing, it’ll move them off the team. So, if you don’t have that clear vision, you may have people on your team who belong somewhere else. They’re not bad people, they just may not be aligned with what we’re doing.”

Around 25 years ago, Price started to dig into who he really was and who he wanted to be, he said. An exercise he recommended was imagining what he wanted to be said about him at his funeral.

“Some of the greatest lives ever lived, those people were hated by some — think Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi — they weren’t liked by everybody, but they were loved by many, and they made great change in the world,” Price said. “I’ve got to figure out who I want to be.”

Leading by Design recently leased a second location in Grand Rapids at the former Steelcase factory at 401 Hall St. SW. The new location will allow the group to better serve its Grand Rapids customers, Price said.

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