Aaron Jagdfeld, 41, runs a fast-growing company with $1 billion in annual revenue. He’s president and CEO of Generac Holdings, a maker of automatic standby generators based in Waukesha, Wis.
Jagdfeld joined Generac in 1994 and became its chief executive in 2008. In the past two years, its workforce has grown from about 1,400 to approximately 3,000 employees, largely due to acquisitions.
EL: How did you become CEO at such a young age?
Jagdfeld: I started here in finance and later became chief financial officer [in 2002]. I think it’s my deep understanding of the business, the products, the customers, the employees, even the supply chain.
EL: If you were to pick one skill that drives your success, what would it be?
Jagdfeld: Decision-making. You’ve got to make educated decisions through data as a leader. With big decisions, you want to solicit opinions from your team, the board of directors and other stakeholders and understand the impact any one decision will have.
EL: But doesn’t gathering wide-ranging input make it harder to decide?
Jagdfeld: I’ll pick a path, and the input process becomes a validation of that path. You can’t go out to people with an open question and just go in any or all directions they take you.
EL: What lessons have you learned to make sound decisions?
Jagdfeld: You need to act swiftly and decisively. Don’t wait for a problem to solve itself. People resolve problems. My clock speed runs faster. If I have the data, I’ll advance toward making a decision.
EL: How about personnel decisions?
Jagdfeld: If you see someone failing or flailing, give proper feedback quickly.
EL: As CEO, what metrics do you track?
Jagdfeld: We’re heavy into numbers. We use KPIs [key performance indicators] to make sure our team has the resources to execute properly. But to me,is also about having energy: getting excited about our prospects and our growth.
EL: How do you express that excitement?
Jagdfeld: My role is to develop the team. You turn into a head coach, calling plays and executing plays. I get to be a cheerleader, coach and traffic cop. Confidence comes from the team saying, “We can do this.”
EL: How do you set goals?
Jagdfeld: There’s an art to giving teams the confidence, resources and drive to achieve goals. You want to set goals that don’t disillusion people.
EL: How would you describe Generac’s culture?
Jagdfeld: In 2008, we had a culture shaped by the company’s founder. When I became CEO, I had a blank slate to develop our culture going forward. We created a list of what we wanted to keep and what we wanted to change.
We formed a “Culture Club” of employees to go through the list. We kept elements such as our speed, flexibility and work ethic. We changed to develop more team orientation.