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Leadership When There’s No Playbook

The values that S2 Yachts’ next-generation leaders rely upon

When S2 Yachts CEO Tom Slikkers joined me for a Zoom
interview to talk leadership and, unannounced, brought along Whitney Vishey, his marketing director, I got my first message about his philosophy in team leadership.

It was mid-May, and Slikkers had recently reopened the S2 factory in Holland, Michigan, where the company builds Tiara and Tiara Sport power cruisers. He was focused on delivering new boats ordered for the summer.

“Right now, if you asked most leaders, they could say confidently they don’t have a clue,” Slikkers said before slipping into navigator-speak. “Dead reckoning means you’re not necessarily relying on your instruments. You’re using visual. Pre-Covid, business had become increasingly focused on data. Now all the data is pre-Covid, and no leader can hide behind a business recipe.”

On Leading a Team

Slikkers stressed that he would need to stretch Vishey and the rest of his team. “I’ve been in choppy water before,” he said, “and the way we drive our boat through that is going to be different. I need Whitney to leverage her expertise and her team. And she needs to know I’ve got her back and won’t crucify her for a mistake.”

Vishey is thinking, in part, about the company’s new-model introductions for
dealers and customers. “We’ve become known for these wonderful events. Now, how do we bring those experiences going forward? We’re going to have to make people comfortable in a way that they feel safe and they still [feel] the fun and great energy from our company.”

Leading with Grace

Before we spoke, Slikkers sent me a list of six leadership attributes he provides company leaders. In our interview, we explored “lead with grace,” which Slikkers defines as “our leadership will have a component of grace, which is beyond obligation when warranted.”

He said policies can’t cover all unscripted situations an employee may face, some of which stem from outside work. He also referenced a quote found in a book by John Maxwell, author of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

“You can do a lot with your policies,” Slikkers said, “but you are not going to be able to do as much if you don’t demonstrate an authentic, transparent care for employees. I want to know when stuff happens that is affecting their job; I want to know if I need to extend grace.

“They also know I’m hardwired for truth,” he added. “My family is very black and white; we have very little gray within the Slikkers DNA. But I want them to know that I do have a
sensitive spot in my makeup — that I care about them, their success and life beyond work.”

Vishey spreads the same view to her team: “We’re provided our values, and it’s up to us as leaders to interpret those. My key words within those are communication and transparency — being able to communicate to my team, but then having that trust come back. There are human things we come across with our teams every day. I like to keep those in mind when we’re having hard conversations: Be truthful, be graceful, but at the end of the day for me it’s communication and transparency.”

On Being the Culture

“We have a saying: adapt and overcome,” she said. “There’s always something that
happens on a shoot or running boats that you can’t plan for.” In the face of that reality, Vishey focuses on simple things such as being on time, saying please and thank you, and making sure the right tools, snacks and drinks are on hand.

“I don’t like getting up at 4 in the morning.” Vishey said. “I don’t like cleaning boats in the dark. But I’m going to be right there with them and do the same things I’m asking them to do.”

Slikkers said, “This attribute may not be on paper, but ‘be the culture’ means you’re an example and that you’re on 24/7. I look for that on my team.”

He described an open house with 400 guests coming on a Sunday. That Friday, everything was arranged from food to plant tours and gifts. Late Saturday, a maintenance call came in that someone had left the faucet on for the test pond, and water was everywhere in the facility. The next call went out to the entire office staff.

“Everybody showed up,” Slikkers said. “They were tired the next morning, but we were ready to have the event. We expect that because that’s who we are here.”

Learn Your Leadership Style

S2 Yachts is a family business, founded by Slikkers’ father, Leon, who still comes to work at age 92. “My dad is and was very much a hands-on guy,” he says. “I grew up doing a lot of those jobs, but it wasn’t something that was a natural gift.”

Slikkers focused instead on building a
professional, senior team with whom he meets one-to-one monthly to manage an increasingly complex business. At each meeting, he asks if there is anything he can do to help. That’s my job, he said, to set them up for success.

“I’m not the smartest guy, but I have a lot of experience in being here,” he said. “I know when to challenge ideas and how to ask questions, but I do it in the spirit of what’s best for the organization, not in the spirit of ‘I don’t trust you.’ ”

Leaders learn from others and from experience. Vishey mentioned a former employer. “Deb,” she said, “was an amazing woman with three kids. She also ran marathons and the business. She was a steady person, so kind and humble, who taught me the importance of communication and transparency.” In turn, Vishey tries to build similar dynamics in her team.

Slikkers described lessons he learned as president of Pursuit, a company S2 owned until recently: “I was ready to be president in terms of skill, but not in understanding how to build a team. People did not feel they could come and tell me the truth. The truth is I hadn’t invested myself in them. They sensed most of what I was driving at was my own scorecard. Looking back, I realize I unintentionally let some people down because I didn’t understand true leadership.

“Today, I don’t want anybody to feel like their success is not important,” he added. “I’ll never have a legacy to surpass my dad’s, but I hope to be remembered for creating a great space for people to be successful — and in the process of doing that, it ended up making our products and our company great. When we win, we’re going to share in that win.”

Reinforcing an attitude of gratefulness, Slikkers handwrites 12 to 18 note cards a week to employees throughout the company to mark birthdays and anniversaries or say thank you for extra effort. “It’s important for me,” he said, “to say as many times and ways as I can that I’m glad they are part of our team.” 

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue.


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