Keith Wandell is the current chairman and CEO of Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Last week he stopped by The Fisher College of Business to enjoy lunch with students and speak about leadership. His story is quite unique and he ended up being one of my favorite speakers that has visited Fisher.
Keith was very blunt and honest about his life and the business he oversees. He didn’t sugarcoat anything. He was very transparent and honest in assessing his own performance as CEO and chairman. He admitted his faults and highlighted many of his successes during his tenure at Harley-Davidson. What he has done for the company over the last 5 years has been pretty amazing.
I was really impressed with how focused he was on the customer. When I think of an auto company, whether cars, trucks, or motorcycles, I think of operational excellence. Keith mentioned that his first order of duty when becoming the CEO was to focus efforts on their customer. He felt that the customer needed more attention, and not just the typical Harley customer, but the future Harley customer.
Keith looked into minority groups and helped the company develop and market products to groups that had previously not been targeted. This has been an important factor in the success of Harley over the last few years. Women and African Americans have made a huge shift into the biking industry and Harley was well positioned to receive them.
During his time as CEO, Keith had to make a lot of difficult decisions to help keep the company moving forward. He said that it is never easy, but it is necessary in the position of a turnaround CEO. In addition to being extremely focused on success, he stated that a great leader needs to know how to take a stand against mediocrity. He related a story about meeting with an extremely poor performing Harley plant that illustrated his focus very well. He didn’t negotiate with the employees and was honest in telling them how poorly they performed. His tactics worked. That same plant is now one of the top performing manufacturing facilities in the world and has won various rewards for its success.