Knotts’ Landing: How CEO Dan Knotts Freshens His Long-Running Leadership Of R.R. Donnelley

Dan Knotts has been with R.R. Donnelley for more than 30 years, finally ascending to the CEO job in 2016. Such a climb up the corporate ladder is rarer than it used to be because of how the dynamics of business, and the expectations of important constituencies, have gotten more demanding.

R.R. Donnelley has revenues of about $7 billion and was No. 388 in the Fortune 500 list last year, employing about 43,000 people across 34 countries and 13 business lines.

Once known just as a premier business printer, the company now is an industry-leading provider of integrated multichannel marketing and business communications for driving consumer engagement and driving business performance.

Nowadays, the demands of running the company include overseeing Donnelley’s expansion of capabilities such as data analytics and insights and “intelligent content management” as well as driving supply-chain efficiencies in a portfolio that ranges from traditional labels to digital platforms.

“every organization needs an infusion of fresh ideas and different ways of thinking, so it’s very important as CEO to figure out where that comes from.”

Knotts rose from an entry-level accountant at an Ohio facility in 1986, where his goal was to become plant controller, up through the manufacturing side and into the top-executive ranks.

Part of what it’s like to lead the Chicago-based giant after so many years of working toward the top hasn’t surprised him, Knotts said.

“People interaction and the responsibility associated with leading people remains pretty much the same” as he has risen, he told Chief Executive. What has been different and more demanding than he expected, Knotts said, is “the outside requirements and demands on hour time, to balance external with internal components.”

Knotts has done some analysis of what has enabled him to succeed over such a long tenure and with just one company in what has become a fast-changing industry – business printing and communications – and ultimately to become its CEO. Here are 8 key factors.

1. Engage robustly. “Your personal engagement with your team up and down and across all levels of the organization remains a critical success factor on a personal level and for the business going forward,” Knotts said.

2. Focus on your team. Knotts said that “even as demands from all over the place – clients, markets, investors – are placed on your time, you need to stay connected to the people inside your organization. It’s critically important.”

3. Value diversity and authenticity. In building that team, he said, “Make sure you surround yourself with a talented and diverse team and create an inclusive environment where different thoughts and ideas are encouraged and respected. And every interaction you have throughout the organization is important – so it’s critical to be authentic and make it count.”

4. Always communicate. In good times and in bad, Knotts said, it’s essential for CEOs to communicate. Whether the arrow is pointing up or down, he said, “Effective leadership requires constant communications, and the cadence shouldn’t vary dramatically whether times are good, or challenging. The message may change, but the cadence shouldn’t. People want to be in the know, so they need to be able to connect with you and the organization and understand what’s going on.”

5. Make sure the talk is two-way. Knotts said along the way he learned that “the organization is always talking to you, sometimes without saying a word.” As CEO, he said, “Are you listening and paying attention to that and are you driving the right level of two-way conversations as a result of that?”

6. Motivate variously. Leadership agility “drives higher levels of performance,” Knotts said, and for CEOs to demonstrate such agility requires “understanding what inspires and motivates different teams within different businesses, and different functions, and across various geographies, to get them to perform at the highest level.” In other words, “There’s not a one-way approach that fits all, and it’s really important to understand your role in getting people to respond in different ways.

7. Balance inside and outside perspectives. Knotts has appreciated the understanding of R.R. Donnelley that he has gained by being on the inside, advancing, for so many years. “You have extensive business knowledge and an understanding of the culture and how to drive that forward, including the relationships and trust and respect that you’ve earned over time,” he said. But “every organization needs an infusion of fresh ideas and different ways of thinking, so it’s very important as CEO to figure out where that comes from.”

8. Be a change agent. Knotts noted that the pace of disruption of all industries and business is accelerating and occurring “at the fastest pace ever. As CEOs and leaders, we need to be change agents. Our role is to constantly challenge our teams to think differently to avoid complacency. Change is not natural or easy. Someone needs to lead it.”

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