by Brandon Sawalich
In life and business, we have a desire for coaches, counselors and mentors. Since 1992, I have been fortunate enough to have a front row seat to my mentor, Starkey Owner and Chairman Bill Austin. Having this steady mentor throughout my life and career has not only shaped who I am as a leader, but who I am as a person. When you start your career—for me, it was at the age of 19—you don’t always appreciate the advice and examples provided, but 26 years later, you treasure all the words, stories and anecdotes you once took for granted.
Bill started in the hearing industry on February 10, 1961 and has been a disruptor from the beginning. I describe him as a genuine success story — an entrepreneur who started a business in a basement that has grown into a global hearing health care company. He focused on innovation in his products and provided exemplary customer service before that term was even commonplace in business.
For Bill Austin, this month marks 60 years in the industry, and throughout his success and admitted failures, he always maintained a steady focus on people, serving others and doing what’s right for his employees and customers.
I have been fortunate to spend time with global leaders in business, great philanthropists and leaders of local communities and national governments. I always make a point to ask one question during those conversations: “How do you define leadership?” Bill is the definition of a servant leader. He exemplifies this with his words and actions; he is compassionate and caring. Throughout my life and career, he has shown me time and time again, in private and in public, that his decisions and actions are always driven by his heart and doing what’s right.
Bill Austin will be the first to tell you he’s not perfect, and, like many of us, he has had to learn from his mistakes. I am now President and CEO of his company, and, like everyone, I’ve had both missteps and triumphs. Throughout 26 years of learning the business from the bottom up, watching, listening and asking questions, Bill has been consistent in his words, and he mentored me for a role I never expected when I started in Starkey’s hearing aid repair lab back in 1994. My leadership development started from his simple but powerful values.
Words I heard him share time and time again that made a lasting impact on me:
- Respect and trust people – Inherently, people are good and trustworthy, and we must embrace our differences. Don’t allow a bad experience to make you so cynical it affects how you treat those around you. At Starkey, we are guided by treating people with respect. We value their contribution to the team and trust them to do their job. In the end, it’s about the team, not you.
- Lead with your heart, care and have a purpose – We’re in the business of helping people hear better and providing exceptional customer service. You have to care about what you do and hire caring people who want to accomplish a greater mission than just financial success. If you build your business and purpose around the values of helping people, the rest will follow.
- Be honest and humble – A servant leader leads by example, building trust with their team and staying humble. Bill taught me long ago a title does not make you a leader of people. You have to guide your followers through a clear vision of purpose, honesty and empathy. Your word is your reputation and bond. You never go back on your word. Lead by helping others be successful through caring.
In my younger years, I would hear Bill talk about things that, to me, seemed like common sense. I’m sure at times, I would do a slight eye roll with an internal thought, “Here we go again…yes, I know.” Not until I accepted a larger responsibility of leading people did the magnitude of his words, stories and anecdotes become crystal clear to me. All the dots connected, and I realized exactly what he meant. He was sharing with me the things he learned throughout his career, and how people—the team—are most important to a company’s success. His words were always honest and from the heart. For me, the best mentor is one who has been through the battles in life and has the experience and ability to provide counsel. You take the counsel, and then you make the best decision you can for the company, your customers and employees.
Bill Austin started his path to helping people hear better and live better in February 1961. I started my path at Starkey in June 1994. It wasn’t until writing this blog that I realized we both started our careers at 19 years old. I would not be who I am today without the steady hand and voice of my mentor. It took me a while to understand the greatness of this opportunity I had access to every day, but I never take it for granted now. To this day, at the age of 78, the Owner and Chairman of Starkey—now a driven philanthropist in his later years—calls me daily to ask, “Do you need anything, and how can I help you?” And I, the 19-year-old teenager he hired for the summer 26 years ago, still can’t help but respond each time with, “What can I do for YOU?”
For 60 years, my role model and mentor changed an industry and pushed us to better serve those with hearing loss. He is driven by a purpose of helping people get reconnected to their families and life through better hearing. His reward and motivation are smiles, tears of joy and stories of how hearing brought people back from isolation and provided them the ability to contribute to society. He always stays true to who he is, does what he thinks is right and he genuinely cares for people. His contribution to helping people hear better has impacted the world for generations to come.
I’ve witnessed the hard work, the late nights, the joys and the difficult times. Through it all, my mentor and best friend never forgot who he was. He leads with his heart, a helping hand and a respect for life.
From the age of 19 to today, at the age of 45, I’ve had the best seat in the house to watch a legend change an industry and selflessly help millions of people around the world hear better through his philanthropy. Thank you, Bill, for your mentorship, ongoing servant leadership and compassion to help those in need.
The great Walter Cronkite once told an audience in Minneapolis, “The world needs more Bill Austins.” Yes, it does, and Starkey is fortunate to have the original.
This article originally appeared on BrandonSawalich.com and is republished with permission.
Brandon Sawalich is President and CEO of Starkey. Brandon leads a global team of more than 5,000 employees, with 28 facilities worldwide. He drives the strategic direction of Starkey Hearing Technologies and works closely with the Executive Team and other leaders throughout the organization to support the company’s values and goals. As President, he is focused on forward-thinking leadership and is committed to continuing to innovate the science, design and production of hearing aid technologies, while providing consumers the best quality products at affordable prices. Under Brandon’s leadership, Starkey Hearing Technologies has incorporated integrated sensors, artificial intelligence and Healthable technology into the company’s hearing health products, and he continues to seek out opportunities to bring cutting-edge products and solutions to market.