Doug Waggoner: Managing By Consensus and Common Sense
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When Doug Waggoner joined Echo Global Logistics as CEO in 2006, the company employed 35 people. Since then, the team has grown to more than 2,300, about 80 percent from the millennial generation, spread across more than 30 offices. Now chairman as well as CEO, Waggoner recently sat down with us to share his leadership philosophy and the pleasures of guiding a thriving logistics company in an era of technological change.
IL: How did you get into the logistics field?
My father's next-door neighbor was vice president of a trucking company. When I graduated from college in 1980, he told me that trucking had just been deregulated, and was ripe for young college-educated people to come in and help evolve the business and make a difference. I'd been working in construction, so I felt comfortable with trucking's blue-collar component.
I came to my work with a degree in economics and computer science. Trucking was an old-fashioned industry at the time, and I had all sorts of ideas about how we could use technology. Fast forward to today, and the industry has been completely reinvented and technology enabled. It is exciting to be part of that and see the vision I had as a newcomer reach fruition over the years.
IL: What's your leadership style?
I tend to manage by consensus. Micromanagers are only as good as their own bandwidth. If you want to be great, you've got to find people who are better than you are. You get great results, and it makes your life easier.
To a large extent, leadership is a matter of common sense and emotional awareness. You need to understand how people understand you and be able to modify your communications so people receive them in the right way. You also have to manage within the confines of your personality. I tend to be an introvert: I'm not a rah-rah, gung-ho kind of guy. I tried to be like that at certain times in my career, and I realized it didn't come off as authentic. Trying to be somebody you're not is draining. You have to be comfortable in your own skin.
IL: Tell us about an important lesson you learned from a mentor.
After climbing the ladder at a large corporation, Yellow Freight, I decided it was time to gain general management experience. So I took a job as president of Daylight Transport, where I reported to the owner. After my first week, I found myself struggling with my decision to move from a sophisticated, multibillion-dollar company to a much smaller one.
My boss noticed that I was having a bit of trouble. One day, he pulled me aside and said, "You know, Doug, I don't know what it's like to be in the boardroom of a big public company. But I can tell you that I probably make more money than most public companies' CEOs." A big company isn't better than a small one; they're just different, he said, and I needed to be open-minded and add this new experience to my tool bag. That speech got me over the hump. One month later, I thought, "This is the best thing I've ever done. This company is entrepreneurial. We make decisions, we move fast, and we're not constrained by bureaucracy." I ended up having an excellent experience.
IL: What keeps you awake at night?
If anything keeps me up, it's the prospect of the opportunities we face because of the technology available today. The whole realm of big data and analytics is especially exciting. I believe statistics work. You can make predictions with very high accuracy if you have enough good data. This is something I've waited for my whole career, and now it's happening at a fast pace. In logistics, we gather massive amounts of data, but we never used to put it to work. Now, at Echo, we're hiring mathematicians—something I've never seen before in my career in transportation.
IL: What makes you happy and excited about going to work each morning?
I enjoy success, and we've had a lot of success at Echo. I also enjoy talking to the young people we hire straight out of college. I explain why we're a great company and why this is a great industry. I tell them about my own career and how I started out just like them, literally, in the same role. And then it's fun to watch those kids grow up. They get promoted, take on bigger jobs, get married, have babies. There's a human component, where you get to create a big family.
IL: Have mistakes and failures played a positive role in your success?
I make mistakes all the time, but I don't focus on them. I live by the rule that if your day is filled with making decisions, you shouldn't be looking for 100-percent perfection. You should look for about 80 percent. Otherwise, you'll try so hard to get everything perfectly right that you won't make any decisions at all. I want to be right 80 percent of the time, and when I'm not right, we fix it.
IL: What sources do you rely on for the information you need to run your business?
Internal reports of course. I get a constant stream of industry research from Wall Street. I read trade magazines. I go to conferences. I could spend my entire day with my door closed, reading emails, articles, and research. Sometimes it feels like you should do that. But sometimes you have to say, "I need to talk to some people," whether they're employees, customers, or investors. Leading is about assessing priorities and deciding what provides the biggest return on investment.
IL: Which projects currently top your agenda?
In 2015, we acquired a company called Command Transportation, which was about half our size. We are working hard to integrate that business in terms of culture, the organizational chart, processes, technology, and physical locations. We see the end in sight, but this will continue to be the number one job on my plate for the next few months.
IL: When you talk to the young people you hire, what advice do you offer?
This is a huge industry where you can build a great career. But you have to pay your dues. One of the values we promote at Echo is hard work and hustle. We say that when you're under 40 you're in your learning years, and over 40 you're in your earning years: Don't confuse the two. A young person can make a lot of money at Echo, but they have to learn the business and work hard.
I also tell them that relationships matter. Whether you're selling to a customer or buying capacity from a dispatcher at a trucking company, it's important to cultivate relationships, because people help people.