‘Serving’ Is Key Leadership Trait

A man who sold his Raleigh-based software company in May so he could focus on helping prison inmates succeed in business spoke at the recent Wilkes Chamber of Commerce Membership Celebration at the Walker Center.

Brian Hamilton is the founder of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, a national program that helps people with criminal records start small businesses. The nonprofit is supported by the Brian Hamilton Foundation, which provides access to entrepreneurship to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it.

Hamilton also co-founded Sageworks, a major provider of software to U.S. banks. He sold the company to a private equity firm last year. Hamilton holds multiple patents for his work in automating financial analysis.

He spoke about the “key components of leadership,” particular in a business setting, at the Jan. 17 chamber event. Earlier that day, Hamilton visited West Wilkes Middle School and spoke to students about entrepreneurship.

He also met with Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd and said inspiring stories he heard about Byrd’s background prompted him to change his remarks at the chamber event.

Most importantly “you have to be about serving other people, truly,” said Hamilton as he began listing what he called “basic building blocks” in his own business life.

“Even though it seems so trivial, check your heart. Are you about you or are you about helping other people? Your employees will detect that. Your customers will know that, your vendors – they’re just going to know that.”

Hamilton said, “You’ve got to be about giving way more than you’re getting, and that’s the beauty of a capitalist system…. We need to teach that more in school.”

He said there probably are successful greedy business people, but he hasn’t met any.

Hamilton said another important component of leadership is that “you have to like the people you are leading. You have to believe in the people around you. You can get away with a lot of stuff…. but if you don’t like the people around you, you can never get it right.”

He said he and Byrd agreed about this point in relation to football coaches and their players. “People always know whether you care about them.”

Hamilton next cited the “incredibly powerful” skill of being a good listener, whether it’s employees or customers. Having good listening skills “draws people to you,” he said.

“And related to that, I think, is admitting mistakes readily” because people understand imperfection in others.

Hamilton’s next point was “the way you are with employees, particularly in today’s economy.” He said a good business leader has empathy for employees.

Hamilton said the need to have a job and work hard was instilled in him while growing up in Connecticut as the son of a Marine in a family that often talked about scarcity and economic uncertainty at the dinner table.

“So, when I became a (business) leader, it took me a long time to learn that sure you’re giving someone a paycheck, but you owe them a lot more than that.”

Lastly, said Hamilton, allow yourself to continue learning from both good and bad experiences.

“What can you learn from things that aren’t perfect every day? How can you grow?”

Hamilton is a regular guest on CNBC and Fox and often writes for major national publications such as Inc. and Entrepreneur magazines.

The first in his family to attend college, Hamilton holds an undergraduate degree from Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, where he served on the board of trustees. He has a master’s degree in business from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.