What makes a company great: An interview with Ron Wallace, the former president of UPS

Our executive mentors have told us often that the principles that make large companies great ring true for companies of any size. Even though the issues that leaders of a large corporations deal with on a day-to-day basis don’t look exactly like the issues of small business owners, bridging that gap in a mentoring relationship is not as difficult as one might think.

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Ron Wallace, former President and Driver at UPS

I sat down to chat with one of our top mentors, Gary Mastro, former VP of Product Marketing at UPS as well as Ron Wallace, the former President of UPS International. Ron with support from Gary have written a book on the principles that make a company great, and as you might have guessed, it all comes down to the people – namely, cultivating leadership within everybody at the organization based on a sound values-based culture.

Ron grew up in rural Idaho, and from a very young age had to knuckle down to help support his family. He started at UPS as a delivery driver in 1966. Over the following 38 years, Ron worked in virtually every role, and ultimately rose to President of UPS International for, one of the most respected organizations in the world. His story tells us what makes the culture of UPS so unique and powerful, and how to replicate that in organizations of any size.

An excerpt from the book tells the story of Ron’s first meeting with Jim Casey, the founder of UPS, and illustrates the leadership traditions he internalized and carried forward in his own career…

…I was focused on hooking up a charger to a dead battery in one of our package cars when I suddenly felt the presence of someone standing next to me. I turned, and there he was, Jim Casey himself.  I could not believe my eyes. I am sure he saw the look of shock on my face.

He stuck out his hand and said, “Hello, my name’s Jim. What’s yours?” Fortunately, I could remember it. Then he said, “Here, let me help you. I’ll hold the cables if you want to try to start it.” For a few seconds, I thought I was dreaming. Here was Jim Casey, our founder, a legend, and a man I idolized, getting his hands dirty while working alongside me at the very end of the day.

leadership-lessons-ups-driver-ron-wallaceAfter the car started, Jim asked if I could take a few minutes to talk with him. He motioned toward a bench where we sat and talked for about thirty minutes. During this conversation, he asked me what I thought about “our” company and what ideas I might have to help us do a better job in serving our customers and becoming more efficient in our operations.  Jim treated me as if I was his mentor, instead of the other way around. It was a day that I will never forget and an experience that shaped my approach to leadership for the rest of my career…

Ron and Gary’s book, “Leadership Lessons from a UPS Driver: Delivering a Culture of We, Not Me” is a great read for both leaders of teams and small business owners at www.leadershiplessonsbyronwallace.com.  

In a nutshell, what is this book about? Who is it for?

Ron: This book is for leaders, or those aspiring to become leaders. In a sense, everybody is a leader. The underlying thrust of the book is focused on working with people and the elements of successful leaders – the ability to teach, and be taught. We teach the importance of integrity, doing things from your heart, and doing it right.

What conditions are necessary to create great business leaders?

Ron: Great leadership starts with good character. Typically, this hinges on what you are doing when no one else is looking. If you are not doing things the right way, fudging here and there, it will always catch up with you. A great leader doesn’t look at the clock, and has others’ backs. You have to establish trusting and loyal relationships with your entire team. An organization can provide opportunity but it is up to the individual to be aggressive and take advantage of those opportunities. Learn by doing, A leader is hungry and willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get ahead.

Gary: I would say first, look in the mirror. How do you show up? Are you bringing your very best you to work? What are your strengths, what are your weaknesses? The difference between being a boss and being a leader comes down to your actions, and your ability to get people to follow you.

Ron: Effective leaders demonstrate certain behaviors, like high energy, confidence, and a servant leader mentality. They are more willing to take risks. They hold themselves accountable for their actions. They are modest, willing to listen, and give credit to others.

What is the relationship between mentoring and leadership?

Gary: The two are incredibly aligned. To do either well, you need to be a good listener and have a positive attitude. I happen to think you evolve into a mentor after you become a good leader.

Ron: UPS people are raised under the premise that mentoring is really a two-way street. The teacher is learning more than the student. You are building that trust, making yourself and the other better. I wouldn’t have survived at UPS if people didn’t pull me aside and talk to me. As you work through your career, you remember everything others have done for you in your career, and eventually you want to start doing that for others.

Gary: Jim Casey, the founder of UPS, once said, “as you build up others, you build up yourself.” That couldn’t be truer from my experience – as you work to build up others, it enhances your own skill. It is incredibly rewarding.

How does UPS cultivate talent and leadership from within?

Ron: The first person you promote should be somebody who understands the customer. For UPS, that is the driver. Working at UPS, you go through a lot of job rotations, you can become an industrial engineer, then into operations, then human resources, accounting, automotive, etc. I worked every position at UPS, so I can honestly say that. When you do this, you become a true partner, appreciating what others do and how they contribute to the success of the company.

Gary: The rotation allows us to turn the corner and walk into ourselves. There are those folks who do not go into different departments. It’s very challenging for those folks to negotiate, or build consensus. Being a generalist has driven the success of the most successful people at UPS. The other significant practice at UPS is promotion from within; The UPS bench is very deep, the best in our industry for employee retention among so many other things.

What are some things our readers could act on today?

Ron: Put in recognition programs, appreciate people more, get into the servant-leader mentality. Your legacy should be the number of people that you helped reach their dreams. People get so busy that they forget how to do the most important thing, mentoring others. From my days as a young supervisor I was told,”work hard do the right thing and figure out who your replacement will be.

Gary: Another Casey quote is “success is the sum of many little things done well.” Working with my mentees, I see the, the passion, the desire to move their company or idea along. The challenge is to get from the 3 year vision, and bring it down to bite-size chunks. In my mentoring relationships, we don’t go 3 years out, no one really knows what will happen in three years, we go 3 months out, then we measure and adjust, keeping our three year vision, but getting there 3 months at a time. We don’t try to boil the ocean. When you get your first small wins, that’s when you get excited.

Ron: Even if you don’t have a large team and you are working with vendors and others who contribute to your business, keep everybody updated on the progress of the company, the good parts, the bad parts, and make them part of the solution. Some people only do what they were hired to do, but a good leader always does more.

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To dig deeper, hear the stories from Ron about UPS and utilize the many activities and study guides in the book, get “Leadership Lessons from a UPS Driver” today.


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