After years of working in the family business, Jim Smith suddenly became CEO of Keith Smith Company, America’s largest independent producer and provider of broiler hatching eggs, in the early 1990s. Looking for support and guidance in his new leadership role, Jim eagerly connected with Aileron’s founder Clay Mathile through a mutual acquaintance and began his professional management journey – a journey that went on to last more than 25 years and continues today.
Jim infused professional management into Keith Smith Company for more than two decades as CEO, using the tools and methodologies he learned from Clay and Aileron to lead the company, culture, and team with intention. But eventually Jim was ready to begin scaling back his day-to-day involvement and invest in training the company’s next leaders. His first step? Connecting with Aileron.
Training the next generation
We often say professional management is a team sport, but in the case of the Keith Smith company and many of the other family-owned businesses in the Aileron community, professional management is a family affair. To prepare both himself and the company’s upcoming CEO – Jim’s son Keith – for the transition, the father-son pair took Course for Presidents together.
“For Keith and I to work together through the professional management concepts with a guided, intentional approach was incredibly helpful.”
The duo also worked with an Aileron Business Advisor to identify training opportunities for the rest of the leadership team. Investing in strategic planning, conscious leadership, and one-on-one coaching provided immediate, visible impacts on the team’s operations.
“We were able to use the tools we learned at Aileron as a framework to address the root of challenges,” said Jim. “We developed a common language that gave all of us – regardless of how long we’d each been in the business – a shared lens and focus to create the approach the company needed for the future.”
Right-sizing the action plan
When a company transitions to a new generation of leaders, there’s a temptation to shift to an extreme: many people either ditch everything and start from scratch or rigidly hold onto the existing tactics because “that’s what we’ve always done.” As Jim and Keith worked with their Business Advisor, they found common ground and worked together to assess the business, preserve what was working, and identify areas for improvement.
For example, Jim and his management team had used various forms of strategic planning over the years. Their Business Advisor helped the team examine the approach they had been using to see what truly moved them forward and what wasn’t working.
“Our past planning helped us set big priorities, but we would get lost in execution steps or focused on immediate needs. Instead of a three-year document, we shifted to a 90-day action plan. Making this shift was beneficial to getting ‘big picture’ things done that make a difference for our company.”
Creating a thriving tribe
Today, Jim is grateful for the deep sense of peace he feels about the direction of the company and its next generation of leaders. He’s confident they have the skills, knowledge, and support they need to continue – and grow – the efforts he’s spent a professional lifetime building.
“Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely place, especially in a family business. No one knows exactly what you’re dealing with, and it’s hard to talk through feelings or challenges because you don’t want to alarm people. But you have to have a space for vulnerability and support to really thrive. That’s what our Aileron team has been for me.”
Jim’s pastor recently connected him with another second-generation family business owner whose experience sounded a lot like Jim’s early days as CEO. It was deeply meaningful for Jim to shift into the role of mentor and coach, and today, that business owner is also working with an Aileron Business Advisor for support.
“To me, that’s what life is really all about. We’re all doing this together, and we want our customers, staff, contract growers, shareholders, and even our poultry to thrive. By using the tools I learned from Clay and Aileron, I – and now my team – have been able to build healthier relationships, confidence, and peace knowing that we’re making the best decisions we can.”
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