Billy Stevenson learned a lot about entrepreneurship — and therefore, leadership — early on in life. During high school and college, he spent his summer vacations working for his father's business, and along the way, he learned what it meant to run a company fairly and to earn the respect of your employees.
Stevenson took these lessons with him in 2011when he co-founded iCandee Apparel, a custom T-shirt business designed to serve the local LGBT community in Chicago. Since then, his flourishing business evolved into iCandee Marketing, a promotional products solutions provider with a nationwide client base. By staying true to his roots of humble, hard work and strong support of his employees, Stevenson and his co-founders were able to grow iCandee by more than 400 percent last year.
But it's not just their staff members that iCandee's leaders care about: As a National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce-certified LGBT Business Enterprise (LGBTBE), the company has also leveraged its success to sponsor LGBT events across the country. Stevenson chatted with Business News Daily about how his experiences, both in his family business and as an LGBT-certified business owner, have shaped the way he leads. [30 Ways to Define Leadership]
Business News Daily: What is your personal approach to leadership?
Billy Stevenson: I [was] given the gift of a very strong work ethic. My brother and I were offered the opportunity to get a college education without incurring debt, but the trade-off was that we didn't go on spring or summer break. We came home and worked [for the family business]. That experience made me appreciate hard work and the results it can yield, and I carry that with me at all times. I never ask anyone to do something that I would not be willing to do myself. I put myself in the place of my employees when constructing a project. How would I handle their piece of the project if it were me doing it? Then, we lay out the framework for the job, and I make sure that everyone knows their part in it is vital. No project can be considered complete without each piece of the puzzle in place. That is one key way I like to build respect within the team and the leadership.
BND: Are there any other leadership lessons you took away from growing up in a family-business environment?
Stevenson: I definitely learned the art of respect — respect for the work, respect for our employees and respect for the idea while we may think we are just "doing a job," our clients must feel we are taking care of them and that we can be trusted to keep the job under control. I always marveled at the way our employees seemed to genuinely want to do a good job for my dad ... and I realized very early on that it was due to the respect they received from their employer and management team. My dad taught me that and much more: humility, honesty and integrity. All of these are attributes that a good leader must have in order to achieve success.
BND: What has been your biggest challenge as a leader?
Stevenson: A constant struggle I have is wrangling different personalities and perspectives, and keeping them all focused on one goal, each with the same enthusiasm as the others. I have found that the most effective way to manage this challenge successfully is to consider everyone's needs and goals in tasking them with projects. Everyone has brought their own personality to the table, and that must be managed in the context of the job at hand. Thus, I try to put myself in their shoes, and ask myself, "If I were them, how would I be motivated to successfully do my job?" This shows a consideration for the employee and their needs, and motivates them to want to succeed.
BND: Many of iCandee's initiatives support the LGBT community. Though national attitudes toward LGBT issues have changed dramatically in recent years, there's still progress to be made. Have you faced any unique challenges because of your LGBTBE certification or business focus?
Stevenson: We have been very fortunate in that our status as a certified LGBT Business Enterprise has never hindered our growth, [but] the same cannot be said for others in our category. We have colleagues who are also an LGBTBE in Florida, and they are in the same industry as iCandee. They had an order refused by a factory simply because it was for an LGBT youth group. The factory's owners felt their religious beliefs interfered with their ability to fulfill the request. In the not-so-distant past, that would have most likely been the end of it, [but] all of the LGBTBE companies working in our industry galvanized and took this factory out of our workflow as a "do not use" entity. Once this filtered up to one of our corporate clients who has strict nondiscrimination policies, the factory lost not only their future work but [also] several large contracts from other clients who wish to support diversity and inclusion. It proves the point that discrimination has no place in business. We still have a lot of work to do on the business equality front. There are a lot of states where this kind of discrimination is still enshrined in the law and/or culture, and there is no recourse for us. But I'm happy to say we are in a much better place than we have ever been, and we have much progress to celebrate.
BND: Do you have any advice for the leaders of tomorrow?
Stevenson: I have a Henry Royce quote that hangs by my desk, as it has most of my working life: "Whatsoever is rightly done, however humble, is noble." I have found that to be my guiding principle throughout my professional life, and it has never steered me wrong. Do something good. Create something. Be proud of it, own it and let no one say, "You didn't, you couldn't, you won't." Be that something a blog, a widget, a building or a sand castle, it is yours, you did it right, and no one can ever take that away from you. And with the small accomplishments will come the desire to make the next one bigger, and the next one bigger still. Henry Royce started small as well, and with his business partner, [Charles] Rolls, they created a car company that needs no further embellishment or description. And it still holds one of the highest places of esteem in that industry today. Rightly done indeed, Henry.