An interview with Deseret Book CEO Sheri Dew and her unexpected lessons in leadership
It’s probably safe to say that Sheri L. Dew, former counselor of the General Relief Society presidency and current CEO of Deseret Book Company, is one of the most visible and prominent women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today.
In recent months I’ve been working on an article featuring Deseret Book and the commemoration of its 150th anniversary. (Here is a link to that article) As part of that article, I was offered the chance to interview Dew on Oct. 14 in her 8th-floor Triad Center office, as she is also an executive vice president of Deseret Management Corporation. She was gracious with her time as the interview lasted about 20 minutes. I came away impressed, and I admire her accomplishments.
Before she led Deseret Book, Dew penned biographies of two LDS Church presidents: Ezra Taft Benson and Gordon B. Hinckley. I have read and enjoyed both volumes, fascinating accounts of both men and their lives of service. As someone who loves biographies in general, if time permitted, I wanted to ask Dew about those two projects in hopes of picking up a few researching, interviewing or writing tips.
Well, the opportunity came near the end, but without thinking about it, I slightly re-worded the question I had planned to ask. Instead of simply asking about writing tips, I asked Dew what she learned from those experiences and how those lessons have helped her in leading Deseret Book. I must have been received some heavenly help because the question led her to share what I felt was golden information. I came away inspired. Here are a few of her thoughts:
“Those were two remarkable experiences for me personally, to try to determine how to capture in writing the lives and do justice to the lives of two profoundly inspiring and accomplished men, who I sustain as prophets. One of the things that happened for me in that process was learning more about leadership. They were very different in their approaches to leadership, but both very effective in their approaches, so as I studied their lives, the things they had done and accomplished, without really realizing it, it probably helped me learn some key leadership principles that I started to fall back on when I was named the president of Deseret Book.
“Surely nobody has ever been less prepared to be the CEO of a company than I was. What I knew how to do was make products. I didn’t have an MBA. You wouldn’t have thought that the path I was on would have led me to be the president of a company. But what I faced in those early days at Deseret Book was the reality that we needed a leader, and they had asked me to be the leader, and I had to figure out what the leader does. How does a leader really work to gather the right people and harness their energy and unleash them to do good? I probably, without realizing it, thought back frequently on some of the things that I had learned in studying the lives of presidents Hinckley and Benson, because they were both remarkable leaders, and quite differently, and that is another thing to learn — there is no one cookie-cutter approach to leadership, but there are some fundamental principles. That was a real blessing for me to have that experience.”
I followed up by asking her to point out a few of those “fundamental principles of leadership,” which she was happy to share.
“For example, with Pres. Hinckley, remarkable optimism. You need a leader who is optimistic, who can give you the confidence that, hey, that person knows where we’re going and I am willing to jump on board and help.
“Vision is another one. You could see with both Presidents Hinckley and Benson that had great vision. They could see things that didn’t currently exist and inspire you to want to follow.
“They also both had a great respect for people, for the goodness and talent of people, and how to work to unleash the talent of others.
“Leadership is not about the leader, and any time it is, the leader is at some point run aground. Leadership is not about the leader, it’s about the people they lead, it’s about the people they are serving. As the leader, you have to get out of the way and help others achieve their full potential. I could see that in both of them.
“They were remarkable men, and it was a remarkable experience. I had the opportunity to sit for hours in interviews with them and ask the anything I wanted. At the time, I think that I thought I was just gathering information to write those biographies, but in retrospect, I have reflected on what a privilege it was to be able to sit across the desk from a prophet and ask him things about church government, priesthood keys, the growth of the church throughout the world, challenges that arise in the growth within a dynamic organization, and the development of their faith. Those were privileges that I appreciated at the time, but that I absolutely treasure now.”
I appreciated the insightful lessons in leadership, but her thoughts also caused me to reflect on the mentors in my life.
Am I observing and learning all I can from the remarkable people in my life?
What important lessons should I be learning from them that will help me later in life?
I committed to do better in this department.