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Steve Stivers on Lifelong Leadership
Episode 116th November 2021 • Leadership Forum: The Podcast • John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University
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Steve Stivers’ leadership style has evolved throughout his years as an Ohio Army National Guard soldier and major general, a congressman and now a CEO. In this conversation with Dean Brown, he shares the important leadership lessons he has learned in his career, how he guides diverse teams to win-win solutions, and critical lessons in communication from the military that help him gain and maintain trust as a leader today. 


Trevor Brown 0:13

Welcome to podcast leadership forum, a conversation with leaders who serve the public good. My name is Trevor Brown, and I'm privileged to serve as Dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, where we aspire to fulfill a very simple phrase that Senator John Glenn used to describe what we do, inspire citizenship and develop leadership. I also have the honor of serving as the host of this conversation series. So welcome to a thoughtful and reflective conversation about leadership. Today, I'm joined by Steve Stivers, Steve has committed himself to a lifetime of leadership and public service. He's an Ohioan. Born in the village of Ripley on the southwestern border of the state, and has served the people of Ohio and the country as a career soldier and now Major General, elected official and business leader. Earlier this year, Steve was selected to lead the Ohio Chamber of Commerce as president and CEO. Steve is a champion of free enterprise and economic competitiveness. Steve, welcome to our podcast, and congratulations on your role at the chamber and as well as your continued military service, and prior elected service.

Steve Stivers 1:24

Well, thanks, Dean. It's great to be on with you. And I'm looking forward to the conversation today.

Trevor Brown 1:28

Right? Well, before we get into the detail of your many distinguished careers, and I know it's not done yet, going all the way back to the beginning, perhaps even to the village of Ripley, what what called you into a life of public service?

Steve Stivers 1:43

I think growing up in a small town, Dean, you all understand that you're in something together and you support each other. And my dad served on village council in Ripley, my mom served on village council, I was an Eagle Scout. And you know, when you go through the scouting program and become an Eagle Scout, you have to do citizenship and your community says citizenship and the state and citizenship in the nation merit badges. And I think they helped inspire me to see the difference you could make. I got to know our hometown state senator, when I was in high school, Cooper Snyder and helped him on his campaign. And then I served as a page in his office, and I watched the difference he made for people and that really continued to inspire me. And you know, I still remember to this day, in Adams County, there was a family, their kids had to wade through the creek every day to go to school. And they lived on the edge of a township. The township on the side with the road was a more prosperous Township, they were willing to pay for a swinging bridge to go across to the family's home, but state law wouldn't let them and so Cooper Snyder, Snyder had to Senator Snyder passed a law to allow that township to build the Swinging Bridge. So those kids didn't have to wade across the creek every morning to get to the bus. So little things like that I watched it, I watched him make a difference in people's lives with big legislation and little legislation. And that inspired me to public service and 19 years to the day after I started as a page, I actually started as a state senator. So it was a chance to sort of come full circle and make a difference. That was my first entree into legislative service. Obviously, in college, I joined the National Guard, because at that time, it was during the Cold War. And I felt like I didn't want to sit on the sidelines, and, you know, force other people to defend our country. And I joined the National Guard, because I wasn't interested in being a full time soldier during peacetime, I wanted to be called up if they needed me, but I didn't, I wanted to have a civilian career too. So now 36 years later, I'm still in the National Guard, and a major general and, you know, all that I think goes back to my experience growing up in a small town and my experience in in scouting, that helped get me on a path of understanding that you can help other people and that we should do a good turn daily.

Trevor Brown 4:22

Well, we're gonna talk about each of those different phases of your careers, but I just want to just put an underline under how important that crucible of childhood can be for setting a trajectory. It's just a pleasure to hear you reminisce about that time. And a story as profound as the the Swinging Bridge one can have such a momentous effect, and I'm sure you think about that on a fairly regular basis.

Steve Stivers 4:50

Yep. No, it's absolutely it's, you know, that's why I also care deeply about so many kids in our state and country that maybe be, you know, don't get the kind of childhood and support they need through either their school or education or might have a single parent or today a lot of kids are being raised by grandparents through the the drug crisis out there and other things. And so it's we need to create a community where lots of people support their our kids, you know, my mother and father were divorced. And my one of my cousins, Richard Zachman, became our scout leader and was a great mentor to me as a kid, so it doesn't have to just be a mother and father. There are lots of influences on people's lives. Fielder Pitzer, one of my teachers, who was my economics and government and history teacher had a profound impact on my life.

Trevor Brown 5:52

ngress, and you now represent:

Steve Stivers 6:25

employers in Ohio:

Trevor Brown 8:38

llenges of representing those:

Steve Stivers 9:16

the NBA or the NFL is one in:

Trevor Brown:

So talk, it's inspiring to hear you, you talk through your your process a little bit. I mean, it's those are some exciting developments that are coming out of the chamber and ultimately, hopefully to the benefit of Ohio and its residents. How do you just as you reflect on your role as CEO, and President, how do you bring people together? How do you get to that win win? How do you get to that place? So I hear I hear the mechanics of how it makes sense and the example you gave, but just as you abstract, what's your process for making people see hey, there's a place where there's some commonality?

Steve Stivers:

Well, it starts but with the end in mind, and you have to show people and get people to buy into the end state of, for example, on health care, more affordable health care with better health outcomes, and stable cash flows to providers with, you know, incentives to providers for the behaviors that we want, when everybody hears that they get excited about it, because it it is a much more collaborative approach that serves the people, they all want to serve their employees, their insured members, their patients, they all want to do those the right things to serve those people. But they're obviously different economic incentives, depending on who you are. So you have to convince people that there is an end state where you can come together on and then you got to work toward it. So it's, it's kind of like the legislative process. It can be messy, but you have to sell people on a vision, and then you can get them to come together and get things done.

Trevor Brown:

Well, so let's let's switch to that you you were elected to represent a house 15th congressional district for a decade. And before that you served in the Ohio Senate. That's that's, you know, close to 15 years of of elected service. Over the years you served, there was a coarsening of public conversation and growing mistrust of government and legislative institutions, both at the state and federal level. How did you deal with that and maintain trust with your constituents?

Steve Stivers:

Well, I think communications is the best way to continue to have trust both as a military leader, you know, public servant, and now a nonprofit executive that serves our members. The people that you're serving, need to understand and I believe in servant leadership need to understand what you're doing and why you're doing it for them. And that does build trust, I like to think, you know, I won my last race for Congress by 27 or 29 points in a race where, you know, the average person of my party would win it by 10 points. So I feel really good that I think I built trust among Republicans, Democrats and independents, they knew me, they trusted my values, and that I would do what was right for them. And in a republic, it only works if the people that elect somebody trust them, to make decisions for him, because that's what a republic is. So I've kind of used that same philosophy in my military, my legislative, and my now nonprofit, membership work, it's about communicating to people, helping them understand what you're trying to do and what your values are, and where you share values. So that then they trust you to make decisions for them, and keeping them informed along the way of what you are doing. So that there's no surprises. I think that's that's how you build and keep trust, in any relationship.

Trevor Brown:

Feel free to get in the weeds a little bit here. And I've often reflected, you know, here being at a large university, and you know, marveling at the ability of of presidents and provosts to really build that trust over a large population, right? I mean, so some of them would say, you know, it's that interpersonal relate, you know, you you meet somebody, etc, but you just can't meet everybody, you can't, you can't create that interpersonal bond. And I got to believe the same is true in Congress, in the sense that you've got 10s of 1000s of people in your, your district, and then now you're representing 8000 businesses, you can't meet everyone. So how do you do that, when you can't do what you and I are even doing right now, which is talking to each other? Virtually? How do you do it?

Steve Stivers:

I think the key to that is showing people you know, there's tools now on social media and mass communications. And Gordon Gee was a master at this, where he would have a personal interaction with two or three students. And of course, it was in the lantern. And, you know, he got it on social media, so that, you know, when people see him interacting with another student that they might be able to relate to, they can put themselves in that student's shoes and say, Oh, this, you know, he really cares about what I think he wants to interact with us. So it's important, like when I go on the road, and I'm meeting members, you know, like you said, we have 8000 members, I've probably only met in person, of our 8000 members, two or 300 of them so far. And but when I do go on the road, whether it's to a small business, big business, we send that information out in mass communication form, so that other members that might see it can relate to it, and help build trust, the same thing I did. When I was in Congress, we did a lot of telephone town halls, we did a lot of, we did some live town halls, we did a lot of personal meetings and interactions. And then we shared that on mass media, be it television, or social media, to help people understand that I was out there and listening, because it's really about in, in many ways, and the same thing as you move up in the military. You know, when I was a company commander, I could know all 100 of my soldiers. But when I became a battalion commander, and I had 600, soldiers, I didn't know them all, when I became a brigade commander, regiment commander, and we had, you know, 2400 2500 folks in our ranks, there was no way to know them all. And now I'm an Assistant adjutant general at a a military, Army and Air that has, you know, 16,500 soldiers and airmen, and there's no way I can know them all so, as you move up, written, and Mass Communication take on much more important roles. And you need to understand social media, you need to understand mass communication, through television and radio, you need to understand other forms, you know, mass emails and other communications that you can do to communicate with folks because you're not going to have direct one on one interaction, the Army does a really good job of doing a lot of training about how communication needs to change as you move up the ranks. And I've tried to pay attention to that and and use those lessons in my civilian and public service roles as well.

Trevor Brown:

So this is this is great. I'm and bear with me here this is this kind of a meta question that might might get too abstract, but I think it's an important one, which is just reflecting on you talking right now about your role in the military. I would assume that part of the allegiance of those that follow is to the role right to the role of whatever position you're in, adjutant assistant general. And then in Congress, it's very interpersonal, even if it's not direct contact in that it's, I'm, I'm voting for Steve Stivers, the person, right, and so it's the person in the role. And I wonder now and I know you're only six months in as you think about building that trust right now in the chamber. Is it with Steve Stivers? Is it with CEO and president the role? Or is it with the organization? The the chamber, right? And so that I would imagine that communication style and the kinds of messaging might be different? across those three different kinds of ways of leading and connecting.

Steve Stivers:

They are different across those three roles. And the answer is at the Chamber, it's all of the above, because there are some people that are only at the chamber. On my first day, a friend of mine called me and said, Hey, I want to join the chamber, because you're there. And, you know, we I talked to her, and she has a small business seven, seven folks in her business. And I said, Well, you know, here's the dues levels, you know, we might suggest like a $2,500 dues level. And she was like, No, I'm all in, I want to do $5,000, in dues. And she wanted to do that, because it was me and she want to support me, there are a lot of people that are coming to do things to support the chamber because of Steve Stivers and the personal friendship that we have. But and I appreciate that, and I want to leverage that for the organization. But then there's a lot of folks, I need to build trust as the CEO, and President of the Ohio chamber, and I'm working on to make sure I do that. And then I also want to transfer as much of that as I can, to the Ohio chamber, because I'm an agent of the chamber. And I want to make sure we actually build the chamber, not just me, because I'm here to serve the members. And I need to build the organization. So it is I need to build trust and communication in all three of those roles. But I also want to make sure that I'm adding real value to the organization that that I'm an agent of so it's, but I'm trying to leverage all three of those is the answer. And, you know, in any organization, you're going to have people that are there because of you, they're going to have people that are there because of your role in what you do. And they're going to be at people that are already there, because they already buy into the entire organization. But the key thing, if you're a good leader is to transfer as many of those as you can to the organization, because you're there in a role for the organization. And you need to move the benefit to the organization. We all know people who have come in, and but they've never transferred the trust that people have in them to the organization. And that makes temporary victories because the minute they leave all the people that were there for them leave too. So my goal is to build this in a way that people build trust in the organization. And I can transfer my personal or the trust they have in me in my role, ultimately to the organization because my goal is to build the organization and make it stronger.

Trevor Brown:

That thanks that that hearing you say that I'm glad we paused and dived into that a little bit that that is a really important insight for leaders as they go through the journey of their career. And along those lines, you served now for 30 years in the Ohio National Guard. And you hold the rank of Major General and you've received the Bronze Star for your your leadership throughout your your deployment. And I had the pleasure of watching it as an aside I had the pleasure of watching you receive that most recent award and watching your children fix various things on your your shoulders and getting you ready to look smart and snappy. It was it was fun to watch how how your family was very much part of that. And I'm sure they've been a constant throughout your your roles. But I want you to talk about your role from your change from role from serving as a soldier to now being in in, you know, almost the apex a general and tell us about that that journey. What's changed in your leadership style as you've shifted those roles, and you can limit this to the to the military. And then what's stayed the same? What's what's been constant and what's changed?

Steve Stivers:

Well, thanks. And I think what's been constant, in my opinion is my values and the things that I'm focused on but your style has to change as you move up and through roles. I already talked about how communication style goes from one to one, when you start and you have a more direct supervision role in any organization but in the military, but then it becomes one to many as you move up and the higher you go in any organization that happens, and you but you have to change your style, in based on the role you're in as well and who your audience is. Because the whole point of leadership is influence. If you can't influence the people that you're working with, then you aren't really leading. John Boehner used to say, if, you know, if you're trying to lead a parade, and nobody follows you, you're just a man on the walk. So it's, you got to actually get people to follow you. And so you have to understand the people you're leading, and what will influence them. And frankly, what influences soldiers is a little different than what might influence folks that are civilians, and they're looking for a little bit more, you know, direct leadership and understanding, you know, what they're going to do, and what they the end state is they really want to know, what am I doing? Why am I doing it, so they can make important decisions along any mission you assign them. So while my leadership style has definitely changed, I think my values have stayed the same. And I think that's a really important key, you don't have to change who you are. And when I say changed leadership style, it doesn't really mean you're changing who you are at all, you're changing the way you're interacting with your, in this case, soldiers, or employees or followers, because you need to influence them. And so, you know, clearly my leadership style has has morphed over the years, because you know, frankly, dealing with millennials is way different than, you know, dealing with folks who are Gen X or even baby boomers when I started my career in the military.

Trevor Brown:

So since we're talking about the military, I do want to just dive in a little bit more what what makes service in the military unique? And then the flip, what are those important skills that are cultivated in the military that are transferable to other contexts? And then finally, what what do you tell those in the Ohio chamber, the members about the value of hiring veterans?

Steve Stivers:

That's those are really great and important questions, and what makes military service different than any other career job. And then there are a few other, you know, first responders, but you know, when you write a military contract, and you sign up and and join the military, you're essentially signing in blood, and you're saying, I'll put my life on the line. And you know, you pay with your time, but you also sometimes can pay with your life in military service. And that is a very different kind of service than almost anything else you do in public service. And definitely in private life. The most transferable skills that veterans have are two things. One is teamwork. And the other is they understand mission accomplishment and getting things done. And you really can't. There are other organizations that can instill those lessons in someone, but nothing does it like having your life on the line potentially. And so I think veterans are the best team players you'll ever find. They understand getting things done and mission accomplishment, better than anybody else I've ever met. That's why when I talk to our members about hiring veterans, I push it as hard as I can. And we're making a new effort in 2022, to encourage more chamber companies to hire veterans, we're going to be engaging with some partners in that effort. It's still an early effort, but I'm super excited about it. Because we have, you know, 1000s and 1000s of veterans in Ohio, Ohio has the sixth most number of veterans anywhere in the country. And we need to encourage more veterans to come back to Ohio when they complete their military service. I think a lot of them, you know, go through lots of places, and then don't always come back home to Ohio. But they're amazing, amazing asset to our economy, if we can get them to come back, back again, because they understand teamwork, and they understand mission accomplishment. So the chamber is going to be getting involved in some veteran hiring efforts in the near future.

Trevor Brown:

Excellent. Excellent. Well, that is something we are very committed to here at the Glenn college and at Ohio State University.

Steve Stivers:

I know Ohio State's been a great destination for veterans to come get their higher education and they're committed to serving veterans and I really appreciate that commitment as a veteran myself so thanks to not just the Glenn school but all of Ohio State for that.

Trevor Brown:

Yep, no it is it is in the in the in the water here. So let's let's pull this conversation to a close, and you've shared so many great pieces of wisdom. But as you look back across the various roles, you've played soldier, General, Congressman, and now President and CEO, what are the one or two primary leadership lessons that you've learned that really stuck out to you? That perhaps you you didn't learn in the Eagle Scouts? You know, now, as you've you've grown in your your roles, what are what are some additional pieces of wisdom you'd offer?

Steve Stivers:

Well, my number one lesson to anybody is don't be afraid of failure, failure is a step to success. And I think there's so many young folks, and when I was young, you know, fear of failure probably drove me more than anything. And that's okay. Whatever motivates you, motivates you. But failure is an important step to success. And, you know, we're not going to succeed at everything we do. And that's okay. And when you're young, trying new things, and failing helps you know, what you might not want to do. But it might, if you're really committed to doing something, it can show you how not to try to do it. So it's a, you can learn very important lessons from failure. I think that's my number one lesson is failure is something you shouldn't be scared of number two, success is all a function of hard work and perseverance. Again, it goes back to you're not going to succeed at everything you do. But stay at it. And if you really want to do it, you can make it happen. Those are really important leadership lessons that I think, you know, some people when they fail, give up immediately. Well, if you really want it, don't give up. You know, when I first ran for Congress, I lost. And I lost by 2134 votes. And I will never forget that. And I, I ran again two years later and won by over 15,000 votes. So it was a massive shift. That you know, and it was the same person I ran against it was different year, a different environment. But it was, I learned a lot of lessons from that failure and apply them to the next race, and then I won. So don't be afraid of failure, work hard and persevere. And you'll be amazed at what you can accomplish. The other lesson that I've learned through all my trials and tribulations is, Don't hog the credit when you're willing to share the credit. It's amazing the kinds of things you can get done.

Trevor Brown:

Well, Steve, thanks for talking with me today. And most importantly, thanks for your service to the state of Ohio and the nation. I just want to offer my humble appreciation for I know the numerous sacrifices you've had to make, to serve on all of our behalf. So thank you.

Steve Stivers:

Well, thanks, Dean. And it's been my honor. And as I just said, you know, I want I think it's really important to note that, you know, when I was a state senator and a congressman, and as a general, there's a lot of people that are behind those successes. It's certainly not just me, you know, there are great soldiers and airmen that helped me every day in the military. I had amazing staff at the at the Congress and in the State Senate, and now at the chamber so in the words of Woody Hayes, you win through people and so you got always got to remember that too. And when you help your folks that supported you be successful, and get to their dreams, it helps you achieve yours.