Sam Wai, Alumni Leading Our Community

Sam Wai

Retired Treasurer, American Crystal Sugar | Wine Educator
Finance and Philosophy, 1976

“The best way to learn from someone is to analyze what you have observed and choose how you want to model and/or modify that particular behavior.”

What experience or what person at MSUM had the greatest influence in impacting your career path?

The Philosophy Department had a small number of majors, so we received a lot of attention, and because of that, I had close relationships with the other students and all of the faculty in the department. It was at the end of the Vietnam War, and faculty members and students marched together. That relationship was unique at that time, and I’m lucky to have had that experience.

What professional experience has had the greatest influence in shaping you as a leader?

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of people, and there are various aspects of many people who have excelled in certain ways that I have learned from. The best way to learn from someone is to analyze what you have observed and choose how you want to model and/or modify that particular behavior. 

What are the most important characteristics of a great leader?

It’s important to be a good listener, a good observer and to be flexible. People have different needs, so as a team leader it’s important to figure out how to work and interact with each person.
Another lesson I've learned over the years is that perceived crises can cause people to react, and overreact, too quickly. Sometimes it’s better just to hang in there and not act too soon. It’s rare that things are as bad as you think they are.

What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

In our fast-paced world there are management buzzwords that cycle through, and sometimes these buzzwords are fashionable solutions that can be dangerous because they really don’t add value. Sometimes, a fashionable solution is simply looking for a problem.

What’s one mistake you see leaders making frequently?

Because of the short tenure of many leaders, there is an issue of overly short-term thinking. A new leader is often pressured to hit the ground running or to stir things up so they can make their mark in the new organization. So when things change, and change again, and change again, it’s often very destructive and costly, not only monetarily but in terms of the people within the organization.

As a leader, what is the most important thing you do every day?

Team building is the most important thing any leader can do. Whether it’s leading your own team or connecting with others outside your organization, that is the best investment of time.
Part of the role of a leader is to provide your team with political covers when needed. Your team members may get into trouble from time to time. You are likely to be in a better position in the organization to take the heat than they are. This gives them room to fix their issues and move on.

What advice would you give someone striving to advance to a leadership role within their organization?  

Professional advancement requires hard work. If you work hard, work smart, observe how people do it well, and build bridges with your colleagues and your wider circle, you have a good chance of doing well. I also believe that people who broaden their expertise and responsibility tend to move up because they have shown they are willing to learn.