CEOs of Tribal businesses are different. A business provides a good or service to a customer, but when you’re running a Tribal business you’re providing another service — to the Tribal people themselves. It’s not charity, it’s opportunity, and many Native business CEOs consider it a privilege, not a burden.
You hear it in the words of David Nimmo, President and CEO of Chickasaw Nation Industries (CNI). (He is not a Tribal member, but he is married to one.)
“Like all of the Native Business CEOs, I am driven by the opportunity to help the resilient and deserving Tribal citizens enhance the quality of their life following years of failed federal policy,” he says. “We say we are fortunate to be both democrat and republican, in that we exercise our entrepreneurial or business interests to fund a totally social mission.”
In less than 20 years, CNI has gone from a fledgling business awaiting 8(a) status approval to a giant conglomerate with 24 subsidiaries and employing 1,850 people. CNI specializes in government contracting, manufacturing and fluid filtration for clients that include the U.S. military, government agencies, the Ford Motor Company, and heavyweights of the energy industry.
And then there’s the other client — the Chickasaw Nation and people, who reap the benefits of CNI’s success, and for whom CNI is a potential career. Beneath Nimmo’s name on the CNI corporate website the mission statement makes the goal crystal clear: “to build a business that supports a Nation.”
For Nimmo, getting his teams to buy into that Nation-supporting mission inspired a kind of self-leadership among them. “Keeping the vision and mission in front of the team provided all the motivation they needed,” he says. The diversification into so many different arenas is a point of pride. “I think changing over time was necessary for our success in building a sustainable business. It takes a great team to embrace change, and take the difficult steps necessary to adopt a new way and own it.”
Nimmo also believes that leadership starts with the hiring process. “You cannot know everything,” he observes, “therefore trust in your team is of paramount importance. Hiring the right people is critical. Not just technically sound, but aligned with your values, and possessed of fire-in-the-belly drive.”
The passion of the team must be balanced by the compassion of the leader — the most important skill or trait, Nimmo believes, is to “develop a servant’s heart.”
“My philosophy in life is to do what I can to help those with whom I come into contact,” Nimmo explains. “You have to be attentive to the needs of others in order to serve them. I believe I inherited or learned from my mother a form of empathy that helps me understand how other people feel, what they want to achieve, and where they are in their journey. That understanding helps me help them.”
Does this all sound a little… soft? With a lot of CNI’s clients, the stakes are high — not only does the company work with every branch of the U.S. military, it’s also contracted with the Departments of Interior, Energy, Justice and others. But the mere fact that your company is handling logistics in a war zone doesn’t mean the leadership style need be combative.
“My view is that you must demonstrate you truly care about those you seek to lead,” says Nimmo. “Then they will hear you when you cast a vision, trust you when you ask them to embrace it, and work to achieve it. Have a vision that is compelling; a strategy that is aligned with their capabilities; and hold the team accountable for their role.”