Winding the Stem

Written by Ed Brzychcy, Blue Cord Management

Recently I had the great privilege of speaking with Rob Lutts of Cabot Wealth Management regarding the lessons that we may learn from some of the greatest business leaders in the past few decades. In his recently published book The Great Game of Business – Investing to Win, Rob described these individuals as stemwinders. He goes on to explain that similar to the
people who used to wind the stems of old clockwork devices, these leaders lead their businesses in such successful ways that they were able to energize their businesses and build practices which have left a lasting mark on the international business community.

Some of the key characteristics of these leaders were their abilities to see new visions and paths for business, a high over of energy and passion, the grit to overcome obstacles and skeptics, as well as a well-developed ability to attract and recruit great talent. A few of the notable stemwinder we discussed were Sam Walton of Wal-Mart, Ray Kroc of McDonalds, Joe Wilson of Xerox, and Katherine Graham of The Washington Post. Each of these leaders brought a new dynamic into their organizations, enabling growth in fantastic new ways.

Key Takeaways from Notable Stemwinders

  1. Unique vision for the business
  2. Brings value to customer in new, unexpected ways
  3. Builds the team

I believe that there are three key lessons that we can learn from these and other great stemwinders in business. These are always have a solid vision for your businesses, find ways to deliver new value to your customers, and build a well-rounded team of professionals. In bringing these three ideas into our businesses we begin to set a solid foundation of providing new and exciting products and services to our customers which can make a lasting impression on the people in our businesses and our customers.

  1. In building our company’s vision we need to have a considerable knowledge of not only our industry and market, but also of our customer’s behaviors, preferences, and mindsets. Each of these items are dynamic and constantly shifting; industries and markets readily change as new technologies and other disruptions are introduced, customer’s taste likewise shift over time. By honing our knowledge on these items we may begin to extrapolate and project new ideas. From here we know how to bring the greatest value to our customers, not in what they currently expect, but where their tastes will be in the future. When building McDonalds, Ray Kroc had the foresight to see that customers were rapidly becoming more mobile and would want a fast and convenient way to purchase food while on the road. This knowledge allowed him to not only to open new restaurants in response to a future demand, but to create an entirely new “fast-food” industry in America.
  2. In building our vision to serve our customers in new ways oftentimes we need to find new methods of delivering our products to our customers, or simply educating our customers about our products. Joe Wilson faced this problem with Xerox. His company had a truly innovative product, something that could, and has, changed the office forever. Originally his product was a substitute for carbon paper and typing pools, ideas that served their purpose well and which many businesses felt were irreplaceable. In finding a new way to bring his product to his customers, they ware able see experience the true value of a copy machine themselves, without the risk of bringing in a high-dollar piece of unproven equipment. Though a lease and use fee program he managed to educate his customers about the value of his equipment, overcome their objections, and bring about a revolution in office life.
  3. Lastly is a stemwinder’s ability to build a team. No-one is an island, especially in business. Modern business has become complex and multifaceted where few people are able to exceptionally perform all the tasks necessary for building an large organization. Stemwinders know this and have the ability to know not only the gaps in their own knowledge but also to find and attract the people with the capabilities to build their organizational in new ways. Katherine Graham remains an exceptional example of this. After finding herself in a leadership role at The Washington Post after her husband’s tragic passing, she managed to galvanize a strong organization of people around her who had the knowledge and expertise to create a world-class news organization. Stemwinders have the ability to build their people and allow them to succeed though a strong knowledge of themselves and the idea that their organizations are more than one person; where allowing the success of others creates a greater success for the company as a whole.

Stemwinders always have the tenacity to see their visions through. Lessons learned from their setbacks always become set-ups towards their future success.

Ultimately, these three ideas help us to build our businesses in new ways by bringing new innovation into our markets and industries. We should always remember that success here is not without risks. Innovation itself is difficult, and requires a certain mindset and zeal to fully see it though. Lessons must be learned from our mistakes, which are never seen as setbacks but rather as step-ups. The education we receive from our mistakes allows us to reach new heights. This is the enduring lesson from our stemwinders, never give up.


 Ed Brzychcy is former U.S. Army Infantry Staff-Sergeant. After his service he went on to receive his MBA from Babson College and now helps build organizational leadership and growth with his consulting company, Blue Cord Management through his model of Organizational Evolution.

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