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June 11, 2019 Blog 5 minute read
For James Gagne, a culture of dreaming big, "getting stuff done" and scaling the business while staying "small enough to care" has enabled SEKO to not only survive but thrive as it reinvents itself over time.
Shipping containers being moved

I recently had the opportunity to meet with James Gagne, CEO of Chicago-based SEKO Logistics, to learn about his company’s culture—the key driver behind his global, high technology, fast-paced logistics organization that touches every major country and culture on the planet.

James is a colorful guy. For example, he likes to start meetings—whether with staff, clients, or new prospects—by reciting the company’s motto: “Dream big, have fun, get stuff done.” (Depending on the audience, he’ll substitute “stuff” for a four-letter word that also starts with “s.”)

“It starts conversations,” he says. “And then I share my big dream—that I want SEKO to be the company that makes the first consumer parcel delivery to Mars. That’s a pretty big dream, but ‘thinking big’ could just as easily be thinking outside of your job—your domain space—because what you do is a labor of love and you want to think wider about it to help your clients.”

“You want to have the platform for people to reinvent themselves. That’s something special, and that’s why we’re thriving after so many years.” 

James credits the “dream big” philosophy for SEKO’s high level of team satisfaction and the longevity of staff tenure. “The environment that we foster results in loyal employees who are always learning. In a services industry, you want to have the platform for people to reinvent themselves.”

This really made an impression on me because, as a service-oriented firm, Plante Moran is also focused on developing our staff. We strongly encourage our people to create a vision and grow—often beyond their comfort zones. I tell staff they’re capable of so much more than they can imagine, and later, when they’re successful, I ask them who’s going to take their job when they move on to the next challenge. This emphasis on succession planning is something that’s so important for service organizations—yet it’s rare to find organizations that really emphasize it.

James says the second part of SEKO’s motto—having fun—is important because the team spends so much time together. “If you calculate the number of hours that we’re going to spend together, it’s a very significant percentage of our lives. So you’ve got to make it count—live it large, have fun, and make it a labor of love.”

And the “get stuff done” part? That’s all about execution. “You can have the best ideas and innovative plans, but if you’re not getting it done, it can really dilute the effectiveness of a business,” warns James.

Another component of SEKO’s cultural strength is its “flat” management structure—one with only three layers between the client and the CEO.

“My predecessor and our chairman, Bill Wascher, was instrumental in living and driving that structure many years ago,” says James. “And today when we meet with candidates who are interested in a career at SEKO, or we’re engaging with our clients, we always take the opportunity to describe our flat management structure. They love it, and it’s one of the things that attracted me when I joined SEKO.”

The flat management structure dovetails nicely with the company’s other mantra, “We’re small enough to care but big enough to scale.”

“We don’t want multiple layers of management; we want to be flat—we want to be empowering.” 

According to James, “small enough to care and big enough to scale” means the organization is nimble on its feet. “In practice that means the front-line associates who serve our clients are there to care, they’re there to answer questions—to get stuff done.” And, James stresses, “This means they’re empowered to make decisions. We don’t want to walk down the hall and hear an associate say, ‘I’ll call you back in an hour or two because I need to check with my supervisor to see if that’s ok.’ We don’t want multiple layers; we want to be flat—we want to be empowering. Accountability is critical, of course, but we want people to be able to make quick decisions.”

This is another striking parallel to Plante Moran, as we aim to push decisions down to the lowest level we can. As with SEKO, we want to empower our staff to make decisions. It takes training and trust but allows you to move more quickly as an organization.

James sums up SEKO’s culture as the force that’s enabled it to not only survive but also thrive as it reinvents itself over time.

“To stand the test of time, we’ve needed a strong culture. A company can change strategy because of business needs, the global economy, and the markets. There can be an evolution or revolution in technology. But what won’t change for us is the flat management structure and the other parts of the culture code—dreaming big, having fun, getting stuff done. And the concept, ‘small enough to care, big enough to scale?’ In 50 years that will be our legacy. That’s who we are.”

More from James

What else did James emphasize during our conversation? Here are a few additional points:

On making technology “stupid easy”

“Clients are empowered to navigate our system so the user experience is key. We're focused on making the technology stupid easy. Because if it’s not easy it’s just stupid.”

On leadership transitions

“Clients, staff, and partners need to know it’s a process—not an event or light switch. Take the time to build credibility, trust, and dialog with stakeholders. Think about the strategy, be transparent, and build momentum by building small successes.”

How do you know if you’re successful? “You want people to say—especially clients—‘Wow you didn’t skip a beat. You just kept on running the company and getting stuff done.’”

On doing business across cultures

  • “No two countries are the same in the way they do business. Even in Europe, where they have a common currency and shared borders, the one thing that isn’t shared is the art of doing business.”
  • “It’s important to be a student of history. Read, listen, and understand some of the history of the countries you’re doing business in.”
  • “When you’re meeting someone for the first time it’s very important to learn about the person that you’re meeting. What’s their background? What period of history did they grow up in? What were they doing during their most formative years in business? You can learn a lot by probing and asking open-ended questions.”
  • “Respect other cultures. Never, ever make any form of stereotypical assumptions about anyone and about any situation.”

Leadership personality profile:

Your leadership approach in one word: Servant

The leadership quality you most admire in others: Inquisitiveness and the ability to listen  

Your best piece of business advice: My former commanding officer called it the six p’s: Proper prior preparation prevents poor performance.  

What you look for when you hire: We focus on flexibility, creativity and responsibility.

To be an effective leader, you must: practice situational leadership.