When he reflected back on his years in management, Jim Zelem realized while he had thought of himself as a leader, over time he actually transitioned from being a boss to a leader.
He said there is a difference.
“Delegating versus coaching – what do you want to do?” he said. “You can get more from a team than just a group of people.”
Over three decades, Zelem rose up from being a common tester on an assembly floor and an engineer, to a plant superintendent and a vice president of operations as he moved across several companies.
As of July, he’s written a book detailing those experiences, to help others become leaders, — titled “Stepping Stones of Leadership.”
The book outlines the 12 steps that he believes will show the way to becoming an effective leader. In each step, Zelem uses examples and stories from his own life to emphasize important pillars of becoming a leader including trust, managing results and defining personalities.
“Leadership is not a personality contest,” Zelem wrote in the book. “Leadership is about doing the right thing for the right reason at the right time. You don’t have to be popular as a leader. You have to be fair and honest.”
Across chapters including “Your Past Definitely Influences You,” “Understanding and Managing Personalities,” “Coach and Develop; Don’t Demand and Use People,” and “Sometimes You Can’t Understand Something Until You Experience It,” Zelem draws on experiences like working as a plant superintendent for Snap-on tools and a vice president of operations for Thomson Gale publishing company.
He said the book is intended for people who find themselves in leadership roles they weren’t given the training for and for people stepping into a supervisory role at their jobs.
“Too often, people are thrown into leadership roles based on their performance with little knowledge of being an effective leader,” he said. “This book is dedicated to the ‘stepping stones’ or the basic things a new leader should know. There are leaders out there who are diamonds in the rough, their potential, needs to be polished.”
Zelem, who is retired now, is still a leader, he said, as he serves as the president on the Friends of Verona Senior Center board. He’ll be facilitating a virtual program about the book for the Center on Friday, Sept. 11.
And even though he wrote the book during retirement, Zelem said writing it was not about making money, but helping people. While he said he’d love to see 100,00 books sold, if the book helps even just five people, he’ll consider it a success.
While Zelem said he had “always wanted to write it and always played with it” and that “it was coming along,” he said it probably would have taken another two years to finish under normal circumstances, but the COVID-19 pandemic gave him the time to sit down and finish the book earlier than anticipated.
For now, he has self-published the book exclusively on Amazon but hopes to make it available more widely.
Zelem said one of the best qualities about the book is that it was written by an “average person” and too often people who speak about leadership are focused on large organizations.
“There are all these books out there about leadership, but it’s amazing how people are pulled in the direction of really famous people,” he said. “There are a lot of little people like me who did it, who can teach you more than they can because we lived it more than they did and can help smaller companies grow.”