Merrick runs Dant Clayton, a stadium-seating manufacturer in Louisville, Ky. He’s had his ups and downs. His handling of crises—both personal and professional—has taught him to stay the course and take setbacks in stride.
WS: What’s the No. 1 trait that a fast-track executive needs to reach the top?
Merrick: A sense of purpose. You can’t just get up in the morning and talk yourself into wanting to go to work. You need to want to accomplish something and enjoy working toward a goal.
WS: But a lot of managers enjoy their work and still don’t become CEOs.
Merrick: It’s more than finding the work stimulating. You need to see yourself as moving toward an important, urgent objective. And once you reach that point, it should be obvious to you and the people with whom you work.
WS: Did you always have that sense of purpose?
Merrick: For me, the real test wasn’t just finding and meeting goals. It was learning how to handle adversity.
WS: Why was that so important?
Merrick: At one point, I was financially on the verge of bankruptcy. My marriage was falling apart. And my parents’ financial future was in jeopardy, which I was responsible for. They had invested in my business, and their nest egg was at risk.
WS: So what happened?
Merrick: In less than two years, I made everything back. The company was making money again, and it all worked out.
WS: How did you persevere?
Merrick: I had always viewed my life in one-year segments. All of a sudden when these things set in, I couldn’t afford to have any frame of reference longer than a day.
WS: Wasn’t that stressful?
Merrick: When you have your back up against the wall, you focus on what’s most urgent and important, period. You block out everything else. You make sure everything you’re doing matches up to what’s most urgent. You don’t do the fun things or what you’re particularly good at, even though that’s more tempting.
WS: So how did you resist those urges?
Merrick: I knew that making payroll mattered more than the fun stuff like product development or marketing. If you have no food in the refrigerator, how can you be focused on buying CDs?
WS: But sometimes the “fun stuff” like marketing is still crucial. How did you set priorities?
Merrick: The key is not to indulge yourself to take the easy road and always justify doing what you want as opposed to what matters most. You have to keep asking yourself, “Is this the most important task right now?” and “What happens if I put this off?” Your answer tells you if what you’re doing is truly critical. If it’s something you have to rationalize, that’s a good indication it’s not urgent.
WS: How did you manage others during times of adversity?
Merrick: It’s important not to bring people down. Ease up on the gloom-and-doom scenarios. It’s better to help others take a long-term perspective and make progress in steps.
WS: Can you spot whether your employees have the same ability to rebound from adversity?
Merrick: Yes. It’s easy. When the company was in trouble, I can recall two managers who took ownership of problems rather than spraying themselves with Teflon. They didn’t hide. They didn’t show up at work and do only what they were asked to do. They might have delegated some tasks, but they never ducked responsibility. That’s the key.
WS: What happened to them?
Merrick: They both still work for me in senior positions. And they earn a lot more money now!
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