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An Interview with Wynne Odell — Part 2: Leadership

Wynne Odell. Photo courtesy of Odell Brewing Co.

Nancy Kepner, CEO of Crafted Leadership conducted an interview with Wynne Odell, the CEO and co-founder of Odell Brewery on June 22, 2018 in the tasting room of Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins, CO.

Together with her husband, Doug, and her sister-in-law Corkie, Wynne co-founded Odell Brewing Co. in 1989 and grew it to the 22nd largest craft brewery in the U.S. In 2015, the family founders sold the majority of the company to its co-workers in a combined management buyout and employee stock ownership plan.

In this part of the interview, Odell talks about leadership.

Question: Did you get any formal leadership training for your own leadership journey? How would you reflect on that?

Wynne: I should have done formal leadership training. I think it would have been really helpful. Over time, we've used formal training for people in our company, and I see the value they get out of it and how it helps them grow. I wish, in retrospect, we understood the value of making that journey earlier on.

Wynne Odell and Doug Odell outside the Fort Collins brewhouse. Wynne’s first role for Odell Brewing Co. was as an accountant. Photo courtesy of Odell Brewing Co.

Question: Did you rely on Doug and Corkie, or did you read books, where did your knowledge come? I imagine much of what you encountered over the years was new. You would be making new decisions based on new experiences.

Wynne: I definitely rely on Doug and Corkie, I relied on the people who work with us, too. The guys who are going to be assuming the company, who now own the majority of stock. They've been with us for over 20 years. We grew up together.

Question: I'm struck by you saying, "I wish I had got more formal training." Yet, you've done so well without it.

Wynne: I'm not quite sure how this ties in, but it's interesting. In 5th grade they had gym teams at our school. Typically, the person who was the best athlete was the president of whatever team. I was a terrible athlete, but for whatever reason, I was elected president. I sort of view that as the start of me recognizing I like to be helping manage groups and organizations. I look at it as I'm a board junkie. All through college, and graduate school, I was joining organizations, and wanting to help move them forward. It's not so much that I like being the chair or the person in charge. It's that it’s a need of mine to help people come together, make a decision, and move forward. I think that ends up putting me in a leadership position a lot. That informs a lot of my leadership track record, that I've been involved with so many different organizations trying to help them achieve their purpose.

Under Wynne Odell’s leadership, Odell Brewing Co. has grown to be the 22nd largest craft brewery in the U.S., with a taproom in Denver, as well as a taproom and brewery in Fort Collins.

Question: Are there leaders you have worked with that stood out or influenced you in your own leadership? I use the word “leader” not as a formal title but as one who influences.

Wynne: Oh, there are lots of people who had positive influence. I would count [Corkie, my sister-in-law] as one of my best mentors.

One of the things I just did not get in the equation originally is the "People First" concept. I was much more on the numbers side originally. I would think, “no, we can't do this for our co-workers because it costs this much money and they can figure it out on their own.”

Very slowly, over time, Corkie helped educate me to the point where I understood that I was absolutely getting it wrong, and that if we put people first, good things come from it. It's the right thing to do for the individuals, as well as the organization.

Corkie Odell and Wynne Odell at Odell Brewing Co. Photo courtesy of Odell Brewing Co.

Question: How would you describe your leadership style?

Wynne: Hands off, that's for sure. I'm not a “get in there and get it done” kind of person. I trust the people who work with me, their skills, and that they are going to make the right decisions and get the work done. If they need help, I'm there to help them work through whatever it is, or help gather the resources they need to be successful.

A lot of what I do now is externally related. One of the things that we have in our vision statement is that we contribute to our community and to our industry. That's part of how my leadership is identified. Our company is part of Fort Collins, and I help cement that relationship, along with all our co-workers, and make sure that it's beneficial to the community.

Community engagement is a pillar of Odell Brewing. Not only does the company support local initiatives monetarily, employees and volunteers partner to serve the community. Photo courtesy of Odell Brewing Co.

Question: When I talked to Darin Atteberry, the city manager of Fort Collins, he talked about loneliness in leadership. Do you experience that?

Wynne: I'm an introvert in the first place. So, I think loneliness is part of that. It's hard for me to reach out to people and make those meaningful connections. What I do find lonely, which is strange, is I grew up with so many of the people who work with us. Like our two guys who have been here for over 20 years. It would be nice to feel like there is more of a social connection, but there really isn’t. I mean, we know about each other’s families and they are coming to our house tomorrow for dinner, but it's not like we are buddies. So, there is that sense of loneliness because I know many of the people in the organization so well in many respects and so little in others. But maybe there is something distinct about my role. It could be different, perhaps, if I were an extrovert. Even with my two partners I sort of feel that way. I'm very comfortable being alone, as an introvert it works okay.

Yes, I would say that being at the top, everyone is looking for something from you, and I'm not the one who delivers on anything. If there is a sense that something is going wrong, they look to me as to how we are going. We decide together how we are, but in terms of how we communicate it, they often look to me.

Question: Do you feel fear? How do you handle fear?

Wynne: I don't feel fear. I don't know that I ever do. There was one day early 1996, we were buying a major piece of equipment, and our lender had made all of these promises about helping us, and they all fell through. That was the only time I ever worried that we would have to shut down. I was fearful then. Other than that, no. I don't have fear. It's maybe because we have a more paced-growth philosophy. We don't get in over our heads (significantly) nor do we totally fall out of the boat. So, sometimes it feels better than other times. It could also be that, financially, Doug and I were very conservative. So, from day one we have been solid here. I need to have a healthy organization, but I don't fear when things occasionally go sideways in the organization.

Question: Has that been true your whole life, not feeling a lot of fear?

Wynne: I guess that is true. I always have just had the confidence that I would be able to do what I needed to do. That's interesting. The older I get the more I recognize all of my failings, which I didn't when I was younger. So, maybe I was just stubbornly over-confident.

Question: Are there qualities you believe are essential to good leadership?

Wynne: There are all sorts of different ways to go about being a leader. One that I think is important is to not think you are the know-all and end-all to the company's success. I look at the people who have been successful and moved into leadership roles in our company and we make jokes about how we could have a "nice off" where we take some of these people who have incredible skills, or can control incredible amounts of activity, and they would all say, "No, you go first. No, you go first. No, you take it."

I'm not that nice at all, but I think that sense of recognizing you are there for the benefit of the people around you, rather than them being there for the benefit of you, I think that’s essential in having a healthy organization.

Another essential is delegation and allowing people to do their jobs. As I said before, I don't interfere in what anyone else is doing. I like to know what they're doing. I want to be able to help them, but I think that's the only way you can continue to grow. If you hang on too tight to every decision then you're not very good anywhere. So, that's a big part of it.

The people part of it, I'm an introvert, yet, I know and enjoy the interactions with everyone who works in the company. At this point I can't automatically tell you who everyone’s name. I may not remember that he or she maybe just had a baby, I may not remember a lot of the details, but I'm still interested. I'll generate the conversation so that I have an interaction with this person that informs me and gives more of a feeling of connection of what is going on. I think it's really important for a leader to not only care about who is working with him or her but to also work really hard to build those relationships and keep them going.

When I look at Corkie, she knows everyone and their grandchildren, their dogs, and I can't do that. My brain doesn't work that way, but I recognize the value of it and I actively try to work on it all of the time. I would never walk by someone without greeting them or trying to have some interaction with them, even if it's just, "How are you doing today?"

In 2015, Odell Brewing became an Employee Stock Ownership Plan company, helping further foster a sense of inclusivity and employee investment.

Question: In our work, we focus on four core leadership areas: self-mastery, relational agility, integrity, and improvisation. Self-mastery is being self-aware. Relational agility is being able to get along with others. Integrity is doing what you say you are going to do and includes transparency. Improvisation is being able to be flexible, being able to make changes based on what is happening.

Of these, do you feel one area is most important in the area of leadership?

Wynne: I wish I were all of these. I think integrity is the one that fits me best. Fundamentally, if I say I'm going to do something, I do it. If I make a promise, it's going to happen. Transparency, yes, I don't have anything to hide. I guess integrity is the one.

In terms of other leaders, absolutely, I look for integrity. I look for it in politicians, too. It's one of those "can't mess with it" things in my mind.

Other blogs from this interview touch on leadership and Odell’s committed approach to company culture, community, and growth. View Part 1: Owning Your Brilliance and Part 3: Growth, Values, Community.



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