Jack Rudnick on leadership: Show compassion, build trust, ask questions to accelerate innovation
Tuesday, December 3, 2019
Jack Rudnick had a front-row seat for innovation and entrepreneurship in Central New York – and still does.
He was general counsel at Welch Allyn. He retired in 2010 after nearly 20 years helping the Skaneateles company grow into a medical-devices giant, spinning off a number of businesses. Earlier, he worked nearly 20 years in the legal department at Oneida Ltd. when it was an American manufacturing icon and darling of Wall Street. He’s also a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.
The center schools SU’s law students in what it takes to help inventors, entrepreneurs, and companies bring products to market. CNY companies benefit from the law students’ research into patents, compliance, regulations, and similar work.
To succeed in leadership, he lists a number of vital traits: Honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, curiosity, and compassion.
Tell me about the Innovation Law Center and your role.
I became aware of it as the general counsel at Welch Allyn. There were really bright students here in law and business that would look at early-stage technologies, medical or any kind, and do a landscape research to advise clients, Welch Allyn or whoever it was, about the prospects for that tech being commercialized.
We’re designated by New York as the state’s Science and Technology Law Center. I'm the director of that. I'm also director of the Innovation Law Center. I think that’s enough directorships. (Laughter)
When I came, it was my idea to grow from six projects to 60 and then to 106 like we have now. Obviously, I didn't do that myself.
By project, I mean an invention, someone’s patent to be, perhaps a prototype or device. It’s an idea from an ambitious student or a doctor at Upstate Medical University or some bright person at Syracuse Research Corp. The person or the company will bring that idea, that invention, that patent-to-be, that dream to us, and we will research it.
We mostly do startups, which is why I go to Upstate Venture Connect events. The success rate of startups is minimal – about 10 percent. When you have volumes – not six but 106 – you start to get successes, and success breeds success.
It’s a little bit of the faculty, sure, but mostly it's law students who have been trained and now they are in their third year and they act as mentors to other students. It’s one way we train them to be leaders.
They research the tech in the area of intellectual property, market, competition, and regulatory.
No tech goes to market without being impacted by regulations either current or what's going to be. Ten years ago, we looked at drones and knew there were going to be regulations. That information is what every entrepreneur, inventor, should have in order to make that key decision. It's a simple decision: Go? No go? Are you going to spend more time or money on your idea? This is what the field looks like. You decide.
We'll do it for free sometimes and sometimes for a very reasonable rate. We do it because it trains the students to handle clients, manage clients, ask the right questions, give the right answers, so they go off and have amazing careers. They have client skills. They have thinking skills beyond the law. They've learned how to bring in business, engineering, and law and to summarize and mix that in their brain to come up with an answer.
Is any of this leadership? I don’t know, but I like this stuff. Part of leadership is training. I had 20 years in the Army, starting in infantry, and the whole thing about leadership there is train your people.
The faculty here are leaders. They were leaders in their field where I used to work.
I try to hire smart people and then I get out of their way. That's one of the qualities of leadership that I would espouse to others. Don't try to take credit for stuff you don't do.
Were you in leadership roles growing up?
I don't know if I could call them leadership roles. I grew up in Oneida. My dad, my uncles, and my grandfather were entrepreneurs.
I think if you're an entrepreneur and you start a company, already you're a leader. I watched my dad (Milton) start a company called Jack’s Snacks. It started in Indiana and he moved it to Oneida when I was a year or two old – I don't know why.
It started as Jack’s Snacks. It’s now called Jax.
My dad eventually sold to Bachman Foods (now owned by Utz). After that he had a bakery business. He worked Saturday, so I would tag along while he was at work. I watched him with people. My grandfather (Harry Rudnick) had a livestock business in Maryland. I watched him walk around the sale place and in the farms and watched how he treated people. He was so respected that everybody would do what Mr. Harry said.
I watched how they treated people, always setting an example themselves and working hard. That had to instill in me those characteristics.
My mother (Edna) was like a drill sergeant. (Laughter) She pushed, she pushed, she pushed. She pushed us all to get the best grades possible. She pushed us to go on to college. She pushed us to get good jobs and work hard.
As I look back, I see in the Army the qualities or the characteristics of effective leaders. I was an undergrad at Middlebury College in Vermont during Vietnam (Class of ’70, political science and history). I was in ROTC.
The Army gave me a delay to go to law school. I graduated from Syracuse University law school in ’73. The Paris peace talks were going on, there was no more war, and I was excess. I owed them six years, but they didn't want me. I did a Reserve obligation for six. But I'm a patriot, and I was grateful, and I stayed in 20 as an officer.
Why did your dad call it Jack’s Snacks if his name was Milton?
I asked him: Did you name the company after me or was I named after the company? It had to be one or the other.
He denied both. (Laughter)
I said: Come on!
To his death not too many years ago, he said it had no connection.
What's your advice to be an effective leader?
I think that the key to leadership is clear communication and caring for the people. It's all C's. Clear communication. Caring. Coping. Cooperation. Being collaborative. Having character and not wavering. And having compassion.
Good leaders are not dictatorial.
If people are working for you, you can make them do what you want. You can say: I'm your boss. I can make you do it, or I’ll fire you, or whatever. That crap happens.
Leaders have to be direct. They have to be honest. They have to be compassionate. They have to let their people know that they care about them.
And when you ask them their opinion and you ask them what they think, listen to them! No one has a monopoly on good ideas.
The challenge and mark of leadership is getting co-equals, people that you can't boss around or shouldn't boss around, to do something. If you're gonna be a leader, you have to get the whole team of equals to do stuff. You will demonstrate your leadership by being a leader among your peers.
Are some of these important character traits in leadership instilled in childhood?
Telling the truth for goodness sake. Being honest. Having integrity.
If you're not a real person, if you're not real, the people you're trying to lead can see right through you.
In the Army – in combat – holy cow! How are you gonna lead your men if they don’t trust you? You can say trust me all you want. But if you're not trustworthy, they’re not gonna follow you.
I wasn't tested in combat, and I'm glad I wasn't. I'm glad that my test was in the business world. But trust is necessary in a lot of ways.
First of all, people must trust you as a person to tell the truth and to look out for their welfare. They must trust that you're making the right decisions. I don't care how much information you have, you probably have a 50-50 chance you're going to be right or wrong. You’ll be OK as long as when you're wrong, you accept it, and you make adjustments, and you make it right.
In your decision making, have other people come in with you. You have to make the call, but you want collaboration and cooperation. That doesn’t mean you coddle people. Coddling them is not doing them any favors.
Leadership is not beating your people up or working them to death. It’s listening to your people and acting in their interest.
People want to be proud of themselves and they want to make you proud of them. They like the atta-boy. They like the pat-on-the-back.
When I was a company commander, I had these wonderful sergeants, and I treated them just like officers. Why would there be any difference? I needed them to help lead the troops, and I needed them to buy in on the decision. We would talk, and very often they had better ideas than I did.
What attributes do you see in poor leaders?
They’re narcissistic. They have huge egos. They are not open – it's their way or the highway. They have a nastiness in how they talk to people and how they treat people.
I’ve seen wonderful leaders – Bill Allyn, a wonderful man, a wonderful leader.
I've seen others that were not that way. They just wouldn't listen to other sides and wouldn't take others’ ideas into consideration. The people who they work with see it, but they don't say much to their face because they know they're going to get called out by challenging that kind of a leader – if you want to call them a leader.
That leader doesn't get honest opinion. That leader only has their own opinion. The result of that is bad decisions.
What should a leader do to spark innovation?
I'll tell you what the leader doesn't do. They don't micromanage. They don't create a lot of rules. They let creative spirit soar.
Human beings have a lot of creativity. Left alone, they will come up with really good solutions, ones that you've never thought of. You want that to happen. Obviously, you want to stay within the law and do certain things like we do when we do our research for clients. But within that, there are a lot of opportunities to be creative.
What's your advice to a budding entrepreneur?
The entrepreneur needs what I call fire in the belly. He or she needs to keep that fire in the belly and not let people throw water on it, because they will.
Keep trying and keep trying and keep trying. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.
Don’t take failure personally. Get up, dust yourself off, and keep going. Be willing to change your mind, change your direction to a pivot.