Great Business Leader I Know — Roger Williams At A Non-Profit

A story well told.  An organization well led.  For me, these are two of the most inspirational things in life.  I found a wonderful leader in an organization I never would have expected to find such a person, a national accrediting agency for vocational and training schools that has over 650,000 students in the schools he accredits for the US Department of Education.  He is a better business leader than many CEO’s of public companies and other large businesses or organizations that I know.

Great Business Leader - Roger Williams

Roger Williams was an excellent leader of ACCET over 25 years.

Here is what makes Roger Williams of ACCET (Accrediting Council of Continuing Education and Training) a great leader:

  1. Integrity.  I would trust this guy with my life’s savings.  He oozes good judgement, stability, thoughtfulness, and pragmatic decisions.  Over 25 years, his accrediting agency is the only one to maintain a high bar for quality and integrity on many standards from unannounced visits to schools, requiring a 90% attendance by students at ACCET schools, particularly rigorous methodologies to measure completion and placement rates, and willingness to close down schools and call out schools for doing things that should be improved.
  2. Tells you what he believes.  Roger is no wishy, washy regulator afraid to take a stance and keep you guessing on how to interpret regulations.  He tells you exactly what he thinks, most importantly when it is something that you do not want to hear.  He knows that “the truth is rarely comfortable” and he doesn’t try and make it comfortable when it is something someone needs to hear.
  3. Manages the fiscal health of his organization very well.  Roger managed this non-profit organization from the brink of bankruptcy in 1990 to one with a healthy reserve, ownership of a building, and a stable, bright future in 2012.
  4. Great communicator with eloquent use of language.  He doesn’t say that the commission “discussed” an issue when saying they “anguished” over an issue is more accurate.  He doesn’t say we need to “think about the idea a bit more” when he could say “that idea needs a bit more beechwood aging”.
  5. Smart and Thoughtful.  When he articulates something, it is well thought out and on point.  I take what he says seriously because I know he has thought about it wisely.
  6. Focus on Quality, Inspiring People to Do Better.  Roger is always pushing schools to improve their quality, to improve outcomes for the students, and pushing schools to do better.  When I am facing a big decision for my school, it is Roger’s voice that I hear in my head.
  7. Appreciates the entrepreneurial spirit.  For me, it is so refreshing to hear a regulator encourage the entrepreneurial spirit among the schools he regulators.  He understands the enterprising spirit and realizes that it is a source of great innovation and improvement among schools.  It is something to be fostered, not squashed, as some regulators would prefer.
  8. Appreciates the importance of culture to an organization.  ACCET has a culture among its staff, members, and commission that is serious.  As Roger said, “Without a serious purpose in life, we are just wasting our time.  We have a purpose.”

I had tears in my eyes this week when I heard Roger speak at the ACCET conference for the last time about what schools mean to him and his journey at ACCET.  He has taken something that could be a mundane job and made it profound.  He has built an organization with a unique, strong culture and deep dedication to its task.  He has taken a job inherently difficult — an organization formed to self-regulate its members — and managed it with integrity.  He has proven that great leadership makes a great difference.  I am grateful for being able to see Roger in action and being able to learn from him.