Strom Executive Briefing Recap: Thoughts on Leadership From Three North Dakota Key Influencers

By Dr. Debora Dragseth, Professor of Business, Dickinson State University

Dickinson State University partners with the Strom Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to offer a series of executive breakfast briefings. Outstanding leaders from throughout the region discuss their  insights on leadership best practices.

This article introduces three speakers from the March 2014 Strom Executive Briefing Series: Dean Gorder, Joe Rothschiller and Mel Nelson.


Dean Gorder, Executive Director of the North Dakota Trade Office

Gorder brings to his position at the Trade Office extensive business experience in manufacturing, agriculture, aviation and education. Funded by the state and private businesses and headquartered in Fargo, the North Dakota Trade Office is a private-public partnership dedicated to expanding North Dakota’s global business footprint through education, research, advocacy and expertise.

Gorder’s job takes him around the world. In January alone he was in Ghana, Indonesia, Singapore and China. To trade internationally, according to Gorder, countries have to have two things: Need and disposable income. Gorder told the group, South Africa is a country that is on the move as economies there are getting stronger.


Joe Rothschiller, COO and President of Steffes Corporation

In addition to his position with Steffes, Rothschiller has served as chair of the board of the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce. Steffes Corporation has developed manufacturing solutions for a number of industries and is recognized for being an innovative company that provides outstanding quality. The company employs 285 people and its sales have increased by 400 percent in the past four years.

Rothschiller addressed the topic: What makes one person’s role in the organization different from another’s and how that difference can be measured within an organization, across an industry and in different countries. Rothschiller illustrated the leadership model that Steffes has used with great success.


Mel Nelson, President and CEO, Executive Management Systems

Executive Management Systems provides organizational development for private and public organizations, emphasizing executive succession planning, leadership, individual and organizational development, responsibilities of governance and coaching emerging talent. Nelson has 30 years of corporate leadership experience in the telecommunications and electric energy industries.

His recent book, Building Bridges: Today’s decisions—gateway to your future, is about personal leadership that is anchored in strong values and supported by strong interpersonal relationships.

What are the characteristics that you believe every leader should possess?

Dean Gorder:  “Characteristics of leaders include courage, intellect, honesty, commitment and the ability to delegate. Leaders need to empower those around them and let go.”

Joe Rothschiller:  “Leaders need to identify their core values. Integrity, trust, safety, respect and teamwork are mine. Leaders must live and breathe these values every day.”

Mel Nelson: “Trustworthiness, integrity and character. Dishonesty, broken promises and narcissism destroy trust. Everything of value is built on trust.”

What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

DG:  “Simply the sheer amount of data. There is an incredible amount of data out there, but it is useless until you turn it into information.”

JR:  “Staying on top of their game. My favorite quote is ‘Leaders never stop trying to be qualified for their job.’ All leaders need to sharpen the saw.”

MN:  “For 21st century leaders, it is living a life of integrity.”

What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of your organization?

DG:  “The most important decisions I make are two-fold: 1) What is my vision as a leader and how do I look just over the horizon while keeping a focus on points well into the future? 2) Who to hire and retain? It’s important to remember that diversity brings great benefits.”

JR:  “Most of my decisions focus around our strategic plan and succession planning.”

MN: “In calibrating your compass, what to use as your own ‘True North.’”

What is one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?

DG: “Not listening.”

JR:  “They are afraid to hire someone smarter than they are and they are afraid to give up control in order to grow more manageably and profitably.”

MN:  “The biggest mistake leaders make is thinking that it is all about them. Also, emerging leaders need to know that the test comes first and the lesson after—life is different from school that way.”

What is the one behavior or trait that you have seen derail more leaders’ careers?

DG:  “Arrogance. It manifests itself in many ways. It may mean not taking other’s advice or the way that you view yourself.”

JR:  “Being a Type One leader or ‘what’s in it for me?’  If you talk and act like it is all about you, then you are dead in the water as a leader.”

MN:  “Hubris—that bubble of pride. The sense that they, as leaders, are untouchable. People forget that leadership is a privilege and they need to keep learning every day.”

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?

JR: “Four mentors come to mind: Bob Stranik, a local business leader who has passed away, kept me focused on the basics of business—don’t get caught up in the wild stuff. Dennis Johnson, whose introvert style of leadership and visionary outlook to challenges I admire greatly. Paul Steffes, who helped me keep family in focus at a young age. And finally, my father, who I admired as a business person since early on in my life.”

MN: “My parents, my wife and my children. The payback is incredible when you invest your life in your kids.”

What are a few resources you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?

DG:  “Read The Economist. It is as good as it gets and it is published in Europe, so it has a world view. I also read FastCompany—the editors and writers are very forward looking.”

JR:  “Read the book Good To Great by Jim Collins. Join a leadership group like Vistage International. In other words, network with leaders you admire and read about leadership any time you can.”

MN:  “Because integrity and humility are among the keys to success, I would recommend reading Integrity: The courage to meet the demands of reality by Henry Cloud and Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership by John Dickson.

What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

DG:  “I turn to a quote by Jack Welch, ‘Before you become a leader it’s all about growing yourself. After you become a leader, it’s all about growing others.’ Attach yourself to a good mentor—someone that is solid and someone that you can trust. Build a strong network of peers, people in similar positions outside of your company.”

JR:  “Be patient and listen more than you speak, even if you think you have the answer. Network and learn as much as you can from the wisdom of great leaders. Never stop learning; read and educate yourself every day.”

MN: “Commit to life-long learning and take a look in the mirror every day. Call it a ‘check up from the neck up.’”

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