It was 2013, and the HARDI brain trust was mulling over a perennial chess problem. What type of programs could it offer its members that would benfit their financial health and success? Taking input from members and their own discussions led to, in hindsight, an obvious conclusion: the need for leadership training. Under the direction of Emily Saving, vice president, services and operations, a consensus determined that the membership needed a way to identify, encourage and nurture future industry leaders. The entire process recognized an inexorable truth: a younger generation would eventually replace the current leadership crop.

The result of those deliberations was the Emerging Leaders program. In simple terms, the program prepares its participants for greater leadership roles in the future. It meets biannually, with a three-day conference in July and a meeting at HARDI’s annual conference in December, according to Nick Benton, manager of training and HR solutions. Both programs rotate through six identifiable leadership skills that include: Self-Leadership, Leading Teams, Leading the Organization, Financials and Profitability, Strategic Planning and Functional Leadership.

While the program is high on specific leadership skills, it’s the breadth of the program that some have found particularly appealing and helpful.

“As the fourth generation of my family business, it was important to my father that nothing was handed to me,” said Claire Munch, director, customer service at the New Lenox, Illinois-based Munch Supply. “He expected me to truly grow into this business by working in all areas of the company and learning everything possible about this industry.  Because of that, I completed the HARDI Counter Specialist Certification program and HARDI Branch Manager Certification program early in my career.  As I developed into leadership within the company, I was looking for a way to broaden and deepen my industry education.  I needed a program that could bridge the gap between management and leadership. The Emerging Leadership program filled the void.  It provided real-life experience from the best in the industry as well as more formalized education about leadership.  Quite simply, it was a formula that didn’t exist anywhere else.”

Michael Denson, director of operations, Johnstone Supply, Kenilworth, New Jersey, is still involved in the program and graduates in December. “I was introduced to the program through a peer who was currently in the program,” he said. “I was looking for an opportunity to expand my learning past my geographic boundaries. I felt that the investment in my professional development would be best served by being involved in a group that is creating bigger opportunities for the future.” 

HARDI’s Benton says the program is broad enough that anyone who is serious about improving their managerial skills and wishes to gain broader industry knowledge will find the program helpful.

“The mentor-led, round-table open discussions held at the summer event were always a highlight for me,” recalled Munch. “It allowed time for the most successful leaders in our industry to share their words of wisdom, stumbling blocks, and tools for success that they’ve learned.  It also allowed time for us, the emerging leaders, to ask questions and receive a different perspective about our current struggles from someone outside of our company.”

“The sharing of industry-best practices and ideas is something that is difficult at a local level,” added Denson.  “Bringing this format to a national level really accelerates the creation of ideas and strategies.   You have the opportunity to interact with other professionals on a level that is above the competition.

“The biggest aspect that was helpful is the size and complexity of this industry,” Denson continued. “It is easy to become comfortable with your perspective at a local level. This program challenges you to think differently.  It becomes less about the product and more about the wholesale and distribution business we are in.”

Every seminar or learning situation is particularly rewarding when you discover a twist, some benefit that you didn’t anticipate or expect. Munch was surprised to learn that other companies faced the same issue as hers. “When I shared a challenge, I always walked away with multiple ideas on how to solve it,” she noted.

For Denson, the surprise was the commitment companies had made to the program by encouraging employees to attend. Denson saw it through the growth of the program, implying that companies were willing to spend money on future leaders, despite the idea that HVACR is not a “spotlight” industry.

Benton said that while the feedback to HARDI about the program has been overwhelmingly positive, the networking opportunities and the appreciation by participants of meeting, mixing and learning from their peers has been the extra plus. After all, in 10 to 20 years, some of those connections made at an Emerging Leaders’ function will have already borne fruit as current attendees finally “arrive” and are no longer “emerging.”

Those who want a more formal approach can actually “graduate” from the program. They pay a nominal $300 fee, are subject to a performance assessment and receive a certificate of completion.

Indeed, former and current participants are HARDI’s best testament to the program. “This type of professional development is difficult to find outside of HARDI,” said Denson. “The team at HARDI really does an amazing job each year to keep the education relevant and current. They also create an environment that allows for fun social interaction with your peers. “

Turning to the strategic benefits, Munch offers practical advice for would-be attendees. “Take notes, ask for copies of everything, and save the business cards,” she advised. “I completed the program in December 2016 and I still regularly reference my notes and documents that I was given. Suggestions and resources that I didn’t initially think pertained to me have proven to be very useful as my career has evolved. I’ve accumulated an impressive library of great advice and tools.  I also have created an extensive contact list of people who are always willing to answer an email or take a quick phone call when I need it.”

Her view of the strategic benefits of the program is that it “allows emerging leaders to think through common strategic business scenarios in a controlled environment,” Munch explained. “We have the benefit of role playing and discussion at each Emerging Leader event without fear of negative impact to our business. That way, when we are actually faced with real-life scenarios, we have tools, knowledge and experience to make the best decision for that situation.”

Denson sums up his experience this way: “The program continues to change and evolve every year. This allows for different conversations each year that help all attendees in their pursuit of personal and professional development. This is not a ‘one and done’ program. Every year is a new opportunity to focus on a different area of your business and create lifelong contacts.”