Stepping into a leadership role at an established business requires a steady hand and a bit of finesse. The hurdles are many—and can include everything from shoring up an organization’s lackluster performance to reassuring an apprehensive staff.
Susan Horne, president and CEO of Surmotech LLC, and Becky Wehle, president and CEO of the Genesee Country Village & Museum, both shared their tactics for leading a business or organization to the next level.
Coming on board
Susan Horne credits solid teamwork for making a smooth transition when she arrived at the helm of Victor-based Surmotech, an electronic manufacturing firm. At the time, the company was struggling and down to just 21 employees.
Horne said those 21 Surmotech employees they started with were “industry experts, the cream of the crop. We could never have done it without them.”
“We came over from SenDEC, the four of us,” she remembered, referencing Jeff Thaler, John Stryker and Vince Andrews, who joined her in the move to Surmotech. “We couldn’t have done it without this team, because it brought credibility with us. And we came over and just went to work.
“We came in and (told the staff) we are going to do everything we can to turn this place around and get some customers.”
When Becky Wehle started leading the Genesee Country Village & Museum, the situation was a bit different: She had a family legacy to continue. Her grandfather, John “Jack” Wehle, founded the museum in 1966.
“I grew up being a part of the museum world, joining the board in 1998,” she said. “And I served on the board until the time I became interim president, which was in July of 2016.”
Wehle had been with the University of Rochester for 18 years when the museum’s president announced his retirement, but working at the museum was something she had in the back of her mind for some time.
“It had been something I had always thought about, because it is one of the places in this community that is most important to me because of the family connection,” she said. “So when this opportunity came up, I raised my hand and said I would give it a go.”
Horne and her new team had some rebuilding to do. In the process, she wanted every employee to feel secure with their job status.
“Jeff and I agreed that we wanted our employees to go home every day and know they have a job,” she said. “Our goal was to keep people employed.”
For her part, Horne worked front-end to get the company more contracts and said she never turned down a meeting.
“I took a meeting with anyone who would take one with me,” she recalled. “We also visited all the current and all the past customers.”
Working together, Horne’s team and the original employees developed a diverse customer base and grew Surmotech to its current 67 employees. Their diligent efforts paid off—2016 was the first year the company became eligible for the Rochester Chamber Top 100 (Surmotech was No. 50), and in 2018 they were made it to No. 16.
At Genesee Country Village & Museum, Wehle faced some rebuilding as well. She says she realized the museum needed to work on relationships with other local organizations.
“We had been fairly insular and are now making connections with the tourism community and others in Rochester,” she said. “It was a little surprising because I thought we did have that presence, but we weren’t quite as collaborative as we could be and that’s something we have been working on.”
Wehle also made an effort to ensure the museum’s staff felt heard and appreciated.
“The staff here didn’t always feel like they were listened to before,” she said. “I wanted to come in and make change, but it took some slowing down and making sure everyone was comfortable and being mindful of that.”
A few surprises
Horne said that while her team was “ready and focused” when they came in Surmotech’s door, one thing they were not expecting was an audit.
“We had an audit after only being here five days!” she marveled. “And we sat down with this auditor and were like, oh boy, but we passed with flying colors. That really affirmed we had a good system and infrastructure in here.”
Wehle said one of the most eye-opening things for her was the difference between being a board member and being a staff member.
“Oh, I thought, ‘I know what goes on there’ when I was a board member, but you really don’t!” she said. “Of course, on the board you’re not supposed to be part of the day-to-day operations. I am on the boards of other institutions now, and it’s given me a new perspective.”
Another unexpected part of her job? The oxen.
“We have quite an array of animals that who live at the museum who are part of the visitor experience,” she explained, “So part of my job includes everything from making sure they are well taken care of to making sure they don’t escape, which is something that has happened.
“We have some oxen who have gotten out several times, including at our July 4 celebration,” she continued. “They were literally in the road that runs up to the museum! Figuring out how to keep that from happening again is certainly something I didn’t expect.”
A little advice
If she were able to go back in time and give herself some advice when she first came to Surmotech, Horne said she would recommend a little patience.
“I thought things were going to happen much faster than they did,” she said. “I wish I had realized that it was going to take lot longer to build. I added a lot of pressure to myself wondering why it wasn’t happening quickly, and I wish I had understood that I just needed to be a little more patient.
“I really thought it was going to be 18 months and customers would be flocking!” she laughed. “It takes a while to prove yourself, so I wish I had a little more patience with myself in the beginning.
For Wehle, she would advise paying attention to employees’ concerns and ideas.
“Something I have learned in my time here is to really stop as you come into an organization and listen to the staff and make sure you are open to what worries them,” she said. “Your staff’s feelings about change and new leadership can surprise you.”
One thing both Horne and Wehle agree on is they would do it all over again.
“Our family has been a strong presence in the Rochester community for many generations,” Wehle said. “I’m very pleased to have this leadership role, and to be helping make us a great resource for the community.”
“There’s days where (Jeff and I) look at each other and say what they heck did we do? But we have never regretted it,” Horne said. “There is not an employee here who doesn’t feel like they can come to us if they have a problem and we will help them work it out. We’ve had a lot of people come in and tell us they’ve never worked anywhere so nice. I’m proud of what we built here.”