This is the first in a series of interviews with leaders in business who also happen to be fathers. Michel Roch is Vice President of Sales at National Office Furniture, a brand unit of Kimball International, Inc. (NASDAQ: KBAL). National is a Jasper, Indiana-based manufacturer of high-quality office furnishings. I first met Michael in 2014 at a Drucker Institute Un/Workshop. From our first interaction, I was struck by Michael’s ability to bring his whole self into his work. In addition to being knowledgeable and affable, Michael brought a disarming sense of humor and a passion for supporting his team members as people. This interview was an opportunity for me to get to know more about a person I respect as a leader, a father and a friend.
Peter Gandolfo: Our lives are shaped by defining moments. They can be points of clarity, success, challenge, resilience, or action. Can you share a defining moment from your life?
Michael Roch: I lost my mom when I was in high school. This helped me develop resiliency. I put myself through school, which set me up for success. I had fun but I didn’t squander opportunities.
I’ve applied this philosophy of making the most of the time we have to both my professional and personal life. It has shaped me as a father.
Peter: What was your path to sales? Did you always know that this is what you wanted to do?
Michael: When I graduated from Miami University (of Ohio) with an economics degree, I was hired by First Chicago, which is now part of J.P. Morgan, for a rotational program in commercial lending. Focused primarily on self-made business owners (<$100 million), I saw what people were risking and putting into their businesses. I realized that while financial analysis was a strength, it wasn’t appealing to me long-term. As difficult a realization as this was, I knew it was better to realize this now than six years down the road.
I had a chance to go to work for a small furniture company I had interned for in college, and I eventually moved southern California to run operations on the west coast, including a factory in Los Angeles.
Peter: When you moved into a leadership role, what was most challenging about that transition? What did you do to overcome that challenge?
Michael: At National, my promotion to Division Manager required a shift to a more consultative role. I quickly learned that the only way I could be successful was if the folks on my team were personally successful. It was a multiplier effect. I had to adjust to succeeding through others, and it was ultimately exciting to see a team member achieving success.
Peter: You currently lead a team of approximately 130 people, ranging from sales to customer service. With so many different stakeholders competing for your attention, how do you prioritize?
Michael: I don’t have it down pat. I focus my priorities on arming the people that work directly for me with what they need to be successful, to germinate the strategies and spread the success. I am clear about who I am talking to Monday mornings. First, I take care of myself. Second, I get my direct reports on a call for their week ahead. Lastly, I inform my manager of my short-term tactics and strategies and long-term projects. I deliberately work in that order. The only thing that comes in the way are priorities set by my boss or a key customer.
Peter: I believe that the leaders that make the greatest impact are the ones that stay true to themselves. What do you uniquely bring to your role that helps you be successful?
Michael: I want my emotions to be seen. It’s important for my team to see that I am a real person. I truly believe what I am saying. If I am working hard for someone else, I would want to know that this person believes in what I did.
Peter: I've seen first-hand your natural ability to use humor to build trust and rapport with a team of 2 and a room of 102. Not everyone, myself included, can pull that off. How do you make it work?
Michael: It’s human nature to want to laugh. It’s a great balance to getting across an important message. I handle delicate situations by applying an appropriate amount of levity. It’s not all that serious what we do. I’m also careful not to use it all the time. It can’t be a comfort zone.
Peter: Can you recall a time when you didn't allow your authentic self to come forward? What was the impact?
Michael: There’ve have been times in the past when I felt out of whack. The feedback that I was not myself was a wake-up call. For instance, If I am with a customer and I am not 100% focused on being present for them, people who know me can tell that I haven’t done anything to elevate my company or my brand.
Peter: What would you want readers to know about your family, and how they impact your work?
Michael: My family has given me so much fulfillment. I’ve learned to put everything else aside when I am with them. As I said before, I don’t want to squander opportunities in business, and this applies to my personal life as well. I may have traveled all week and missed an event, but when I am with them, it’s important that I am focused on the here and now.
I make sure that when push comes to shove, my family wins my time. It’s important for my family to know that I don’t subscribe to forgiving commitments because of travel and other work commitments. The assumption can’t be that I won’t be there for a parent teacher conference. It comes down to communication and understanding what personal priorities I have and balancing those with my professional responsibilities. To help with this, I almost always work from home on Mondays.
Peter: We are often presented with all the ways that parenthood can get in the way of our professional growth. How do you think fatherhood has made you a more effective executive?
Michael: Fatherhood has definitely made me more effective. Balance makes me more appreciative of the success we’ve had as a family and as a company. Last year, being a father opened my eyes to the types of commitments we make as professionals. I asked for open dialogue from my team. Someone came forward with concerns about morale. I realized that it was probably true for others.
I saw this as an opportunity to set up the team differently to support both the company and our families. Collectively, we came up with a plan where my team alternates between weeks focused on internal communication and weeks focused on travel. Without internal meetings peppered throughout a travel week, we can meet with more customers in less time, shortening our time away from home. I may not have been as tuned in to this if I didn’t have a family.
With a remote sales team, I’ve encouraged use of Skype/FaceTime instead of conference calls. There’s no multitasking. At the end of the conversation, everyone feels energized. There’s clarity of how the content is being perceived. It also reduces travel to accomplish what traditionally would have been an in-person meeting.
Peter: What would you like your mark on the world to be?
Michael: It’s such a big question. I don’t think solely about accomplishments at work. I want my family and others to believe that I was there for them when they needed me—that I was loyal and encouraging and that people grew around me. I take pride in seeing others around me succeed. That, of course, applies to my kids, but I also get satisfaction in seeing coworkers grow professionally. It’s funny. While we are focused day in and day out in manufacturing and selling furniture, my mark has little to do with furniture and ultimately much to do with people.