Dave Whitehead | Crain's Charlotte

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Dave Whitehead


Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, a fully employee-owned U.S. manufacturer, recently purchased a 50,000-square-foot facility at 901 Center Park Drive in Charlotte, where 110 people work now, with plans to hire more than 50 in the coming months. SEL is headquartered in Pullman, Wash. 

The Mistake:

Thinking that change is easy.

I’m an engineer by education, so maybe I don’t have those soft skills that other folks have. I’m good at running projects, and with a one- or two-person team, you can pivot and change very quickly.

I was running a smaller, government services group of 45 or 50 people. Then I took on the role of vice president of research and development, and I got a group of 300 people. That’s where it dawned on me that change is not always easy.

I thought I could make all of these organizational changes, talk to people and get their buy-in in two days. What I thought would take a couple of days really took about a month. I had to explain, on a very personal level, what the benefits were and the impacts to the organization. 

I thought that everybody will instantly see my great vision. That was certainly not the case.

I didn’t factor in – or didn’t appreciate – the personal side of the change I proposed, the “what’s in it for me?” factor. I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the impact it would have on people.

That moment was 12 years ago, and it’s something that has stuck with me forever.

Change is hard. And the more people that are involved, the harder that change is.

The Lesson:

SEL is a pretty rapidly growing company, so every five to seven years, we’re doubling. Change is just a part of our culture at this point. Just the other day, we were having a meeting about organizational changes. We had a communications person in there with us so that we could effectively communicate about what we were doing and what was the value of it – not only to the company, but to individuals within the organization.

We like to help our managers grow, and that includes the softer skills of business, the change management, those sorts of activities. My boss, Ed, who founded of the company, is really good about teaching not only the engineering side, but also the business side and those intangible things – those things you don’t learn in an engineering course, or even a business course. We’ve grown to over 5,000 people now, and I think we’ve really gotten good at the communications side of things, internally and with people around the world.

Follow Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories on Twitter at: @SEL_News

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