Rowland: Ex-Baxter boss touts leadership

CRYSTAL LAKE – Leaders must be reflective, confident, humble and able to read situations from all sides.

That was the message former chairman and CEO of Baxter International Harry Kraemer Jr. had for local leaders at the McHenry County Economic Development Corp. annual dinner Tuesday.

Kraemer is an executive partner at Madison Dearborn Partners LCC, clinical professor of management and strategy at Kellogg School of Management and a Sage Products board member.

His speech, based on the ideas detailed in his book, “From Values to Action: The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership,” focused on what modern business leaders need to do to stay ahead in a competitive, global economy.

“I would guess that most people in this room have at least two or three times the number of things you’d like to do than you’re ever going to get done,” he said. “When you think about all of the things you’d like to do, and the fact that there really isn’t that much time, what we typically do is we just go faster and faster. ... But have we confused activity and productivity?”

To manage in today’s fast-paced, digitally-connected world, Kraemer said he relies on self-reflection.

“Ask yourself a couple of basic questions. ... What are my values? What do I stand for? What really matters? What kind of example do I want to set? What kind of leader do I want to be?” he said. “By taking the time to think that, it really does put a lot of things in focus.”

Kraemer spends 15 minutes each day reflecting on what he said he was going to do that day, what he actually did, what he was proud of, what he wasn’t proud of, and what to do differently in the future based on what he learned that day.

Such self-reflection helps separate what’s important from what’s urgent, he said.

Kraemer emphasized the importance of balance and perspective for leaders.

“If I’m the leader of a team, I will make the final decision because I’m the leader, but I’m going to make a much better decision if I understand what each person thinks,” he said.

“Most people who are truly leaders recognize they usually don’t come up with the answer, but they recognize the answer when they hear it.”

To get that kind of perspective, leaders must foster open, respectful communication in the workplace. Failure to do so, not only can stifle innovation, but ruin companies, Kraemer said.

“Communication is huge,” he said. “I think more organizations fail because of a lack of effective communication than anything else.”

Leaders must have what Kraemer called “true self-confidence” – the ability to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses.

“You don’t have to know everything, but you have to know who does know,” he said.

Kraemer’s fourth principal of leadership is humility. As the CEO of Baxter, he said at least once a week he would “walk up the other entrance into building five, fourth floor, third cubicle from the northeast wall” to remember where he got his start.

“Don’t forget where you came from,” he said.

He pointed out that his career was helped along not only by his own skills and hard work, but also by luck, timing, team and providence.

Without those four things, Kraemer said he may have ended up on the cleaning crew rather than the C-suite.

• Brett Rowland is Business Journal editor. Email him at

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