Transformational leaders are those that focus on innovative possibilities in the future. They use their skillset to make their best predictions about the changes in the world around them and strategically position their talent, time, and tactics.
Steven L. Blue is one such transformative leader who is helping show businesses the way to be innovative powerhouses. Steven is the President and CEO of Miller Ingenuity—a global supplier of high-technology systems that protect assets, preserve the environment, and save lives.
Steven is also an internationally recognized business transformation expert. His inspiring keynote speeches have helped many C-suite executives to maximize their company’s Innovational Potential® and double or even quadruple their company’s growth. Moreover, Steven is also a published author of five books, including a best seller.
Steven mentions, “Years ago, recognizing that our legacy products were nearing end-of-life, I launched an ambitious initiative to move the company into the high-tech world.” He did this successfully with the introduction of his flagship safety product, ZoneGuard. And it worked, because “ZoneGuard is the best product on the market,” he points out.
There’s a lot of truth in transformational leaders playing different roles — part magician, part salesman, and part cheerleader. As an advocate of meaningful innovation, he feels “Once bets are placed, and resources are allocated to meet an uncertain future, communication is key.”
Steven believes that it is integral that all stakeholders must be convinced to prepare for an unpredictable future rather than always hoping for the best. “This starts with the Board of Directors and goes all the way to the bottom of the organization.”
He also mentions that transformational leaders need to be very transparent. “I often hold all-employee meetings to keep everyone informed. My approach is to tell people everything you can. Bone honest, whether the news is good or bad,” he shares.
Additionally, Steven strongly feels that when truth is withheld or people are treated like they aren’t smart enough to understand, they will resent you and never know when you are telling the truth. “You can’t build a team with mistrust,” he says.
Balancing Success and Failure
Steven’s early years were a blend of experiences and lessons. He recalls one of his biggest takeaways in life was from a trade show that he started in Mexico.
Despite being an amateur, he was analytical and introspective to figure the pulse of the trade show business. “I knew what I didn’t like about the one that existed in Mexico at the time. I believed I could do better,” he says.
Then, he started off on his audacious journey by risking a significant amount of money. Soon, his fears almost turned into reality when he thought nearly everything went wrong.
“I remember the night before the show opened. I was scared to absolute death because even then I did not know how it would turn out,” he remembers. That taught him one very valuable lesson: If you aren’t scared to death, you didn’t dream big enough.
To his surprise, the show turned out to be a spectacular success and that led him to his second lesson: Success begets success until it doesn’t.
Coming off the Mexico success, Steven started a television broadcast company and launched the inaugural broadcast from Havana, Cuba. In those days, and even now, it was not easy for a U.S. citizen to go to Cuba, let alone broadcast an event. So, he hired a camera crew out of Mexico City to film the event.
Soon, he was able to secure a license to go to Cuba from the U.S. Department of Commerce, which was not easy. “I sunk a lot of money and time into it. It was a complete and absolute failure. Lesson learned. Never let success fool you into thinking everything you do will be successful, because it won’t,” he says.
Additionally, he also feels that you should never let one failure deter you from trying again. Or trying something else. “I’ve had a lot of successes in my career, but if I count them all up, I have had more failures. You can’t hit a home run if you don’t swing at the ball,” he shares.
Fusing Innovation with Potential
Steven believes that every organization has the “potential” to innovate, but many of them do not. According to him, the CEO must do three things to unlock innovation potential.
Firstly, make innovation a priority by providing resources and time for people to innovate. He thinks that corporate platitudes won’t do it when they are near the end of the month, and employees are tempted to focus on shipments at the expense of innovation.
“In many companies, employees don’t view innovation as the “real job.” They get around to it if and when they have the time. The CEO has to make innovation a job requirement,” he strongly urges.
Secondly, train people how to innovate. Innovation is a skill and a process that can be learned. “In my case, I hired the ex-chief creative officer of the QVC network to teach every employee this skill. And not just white-collar employees, factory employees too,” he adds.
Thirdly, the CEO has to make innovation an all-employee requirement, not just the R&D department. Steven spent tons of money on creating what he calls “a Google-like campus in the middle of the factory.” His employees call it the “Creation Station.”
Employees are free to ideate in the space any time they want. “I am often asked if Creation Station was worth the investment. Absolutely, a million little innovations and a few big ones have come out of that space,” he shares.
Leading An Ingenious Life
As the CEO of Miller Ingenuity, Steven focuses on strategy — big decisions such as major investments in technology and capital — and Board leadership.
Speaking of Boards, he finds himself fortunate enough to have a terrific Board and shareholders. He says, “Over the years they have been very supportive. All CEOs need a good Board that will challenge and sharpen their ideas.”
Being an entrepreneur, keynote speaker, executive, transformation expert, and author, his day-to-day life seems like a perennial yet graceful juggling act.
“I phase in and out of my many roles throughout the day. I have an intuitive sense of knowing when I need to focus on a particular aspect of Miller Ingenuity and when I need to focus on other parts of my business life,” he says.
One minute he might be in a business review meeting with his senior leadership team and the next he is responding to a request to comment on something in the news by a major news outlet. He usually reserves “on the airplane” time to write blogs or his next book.
Recently, he was in Los Angeles accepting an Expy® Award from the National Association of Experts, Writers, and Speakers for a keynote speech he delivered at Carnegie Hall earlier this year. He also had the privilege to speak at the Harvard Law School and the United Nations, to name just a few.
Steven truly feels that people are of essence to any organization. “If you have good people, as I do, they can do it better than I ever could. As the saying goes, give them the freedom and resources they need and then get out of the way.”
Invariably, he takes pride in his talented team to bring out the best in him. “My senior leadership team manages the day-to-day affairs of the company. I give them the freedom and flexibility to run their own shows.”
Everyone who works at Miller Ingenuity breathes the ideology of “family first.” He says, “I personally believe it is important that employees put their families first and I give them the time and freedom to do that.”
Amidst all his daily work, Steven makes sure to prioritize his me time. “I work out every day to relieve stress and keep in shape. I meditate often. And yes, I put my family first,” he shares.
When quizzed about the one thing that he would do differently if he were to start again, he feels he would have taken more chances with his career. “Don’t misunderstand me, I took plenty of chances,” he clarifies.
In his journey, Steven moved his family around often and took on some nasty, unlikely to succeed assignments, all for the sake of advancing his career. “I wish I would have done more, although my wife probably doesn’t,” he remarks candidly.
The Secret to Success
Steven’s recommendation for young and aspiring leaders is to go for the really hard assignments that nobody else wants. He says, “These tasks tend to be complex, intractable problems in the business that nobody else can or will solve. Do enough of these and you’ll become known as an indispensable problem solver.”
However, Steven suggests not stopping at only solving small problems. “That will only get you little advancements. If you want big jobs, you have to solve big problems. If you do, that will get you noticed.”
Infact, he built his entire early career this way.
A bonus towards his rapid career progression was spending time with people across departments. This helped him to learn how things worked from the bottom up.
Forging Ahead for Greater Success
Miller Ingenuity just celebrated its 75th anniversary, something very few companies can claim. A big reason behind this can be attributed to the culture that Steven has built from scratch.
“I know culture gets thrown around a lot as some squishy, feel-good concept. But here, it lives and breathes, and it is the number one reason for our success,” he shares.
He also has a team of absolutely dedicated and superbly talented employees. “I would match them against any team on the planet. We not only survived the pandemic but came out of it with a stronger balance sheet than before,” he adds.
Through 75 years, he and his team have survived half-a-dozen recessions and a pandemic. They achieved this feat because of their ability to continuously adapt and transform themselves.
In ten years, Steven sees Miller Ingenuity transforming itself from mostly low technology hardware products to high technology software and information services.
On a personal front, he is proud and humbled of the growth, progress, and achievements the people on his team have made since he became CEO 24 years ago. “Each and every one of them has made me incredibly proud,” he concludes.