Chairman and CEO of The Home Depot, Frank Blake, discussed his own unique leadership style with MGT students and others as a part of the Third Annual Thomas R. Williams Distinguished Lecture series. Held in the LeCraw Auditorium in the Management building, the event drew a number of students, faculty and Home Depot employees.
The Williams Lecture is a special event of the IMPACT Speaker Series, organized by Georgia Tech’s Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship. It is named in honor of Thomas R. Williams, a 1950 graduate of Tech who died in 2002.
The talk was moderated by Dean of the College of Management, Steve Salbu, and began with an introduction by Rachel Gates, third-year MGT major. Gates gave a brief background about the history of the Home Depot company and its experience in philanthropic and youth-focused activities.
According to Gates, The Home Depot brings in over $66 million in revenue and is ranked 29th on the Fortune 500 list. She also said that Blake is known for his quiet-mannered leadership style, though Blake refuses to take the credit.
“I have learned a lot of things [about management] from many people,” Blake said. “I have worked for a lot of extraordinary leaders, who have each left a mark on my ability to lead.”
Salbu asked Blake several questions relating to career paths, resumes, and general career direction. Blake offered a unique perspective to the students in attendance as a former attorney with experience in many different fields.
“Don’t worry about titles,” Blake said. “People can get too path focused. Careers are a progression of solving more and more difficult problems. Look for those challenges and work in an area that excites you. Participate in something that you are passionate about.”
Gaining insight from former bosses, Blake has worked with a variety of famous leaders, including George W. Bush Sr. and John “Jack” Welch, business guru and former Chairman and CEO of General Electric. Blake worked for Bush when Bush was Vice-President and learned the power of recognizing excellent work from him.
“At the start of each day, [Bush] would spend an hour a day typing out notes to people. The feeling after receiving one of those notes was indescribable. He showed me how much we all thrive on recognition.”
From Welch, Blake learned to emphasize simplicity in each and every business interaction in the company.
“[Welch] always said that if you can’t express something simply, then you don’t understand it completely. Now, around the office, I say that a manager must be able to absorb simplicity up and drive complexity down.”
Blake has taken these lessons and applied them to his current business model, radically challenging the existing business model that was in place when he took over the role of CEO three years ago.
“Customers are our company’s lifeblood—and the sole reason we have been able to build such a successful company is because of their support,” Blake said in response to numerous complaints about customer service raised in a 2007 MSN Money article by Scott Burns. “The only way we’re going to continue to be successful is by regaining [the customers’] trust and confidence…and we will do that.”
In concordance with that promise, Blake has made some significant structural changes to address the new challenges that face The Home Depot. The Home Depot owned several different business lines, targeting government contracts and large-scale industrial buyers. According to Blake, these businesses were all sold to offer a course correction, allowing The Home Depot to focus solely on improving their brick-and-mortar retail store experience.
The Home Depot has instituted a new measure to help improve customer service. A veritable “power hour,” associate stores are required to spend approximately four hours each weekday and every weekend to do nothing but customer service.
“About half of our operating hours is spent ‘tasking,’ or doing what is necessary to keep the store running,” Blake said. “Associate stores are required to spend a minimum amount of time not tasking, but instead focusing on meeting the needs of customers.”
With a unique background spanning a variety of different fields including government, law and energy, Blake brings a unique perspective to a competitive company.
“Hearing Mr. Blake speak was a great pleasure,” said Douglas Cox, a first-year ME major. “It was easy to tell that he is a very down-to-earth man in spite of being Chairman and CEO of such a large company. It was also very fascinating to hear how his resume spans the many fields, making him an extremely knowledgeable and versatile leader.”