Len Rodman, 52

Present life: Chairman, president, and CEO of Black & Veatch, a $2.4-billion engineering and construction company based in Kansas City, Mo.

Former life: Starting at age 16 and continuing through college, Rodman worked at a clothing store in Waukon, Iowa, his hometown. He was originally a floor sweeper but eventually graduated to sales.

Lessons learned: The now- retired owner of the store, Dutch Jacobi, taught Rodman a key management lesson during the 1966 Christmas shopping season. "This one day the store was just packed. Normally, Dutch would be talking to customers, fitting clothes, selling clothes. But on this busy day I noticed that he wasn't out on the floor. Instead he was cuffing pants like mad in the tailoring room," Rodman says.

"The next morning I mentioned that I was surprised at how, during the height of bustle, while every employee was hustling hither and yon to serve customers, he was in the tailor shop. He explained to me that during times of stress, people revert to doing what they're comfortable doing. He knew that most of us could sell clothes in a packed store, but he also knew that no one in the store could cuff or tailor any faster than he could. So for the store to run smoothly under pressure, it was necessary for all workers -- including him -- to simply do whatever they did best.

"From that I learned the importance of understanding employee strengths and weaknesses -- and of knowing that the strengths are what really count during challenging moments.

"A few years ago I had a problem operation on the West Coast. Earnings were minimal, and the individual in charge couldn't sell to high-tier clients.

"So I put someone in whose strength was building relationships. And within a year and a half the region became one of our most profitable. As the operation stabilized, though, his skills became more of a disadvantage. He, of course, liked building rather than maintaining. Now we've got someone with a different skill set running the West Coast operation." --I.M.

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