Rich Dausman on leadership: Be genuine, treat people with dignity and respect

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By Stan Linhorst |

Cryomech moved to a new building on Moore Road in DeWitt in the fall of 2020. The move from Falso Drive expanded its space to about 76,000 square feet. CEO Rich Dausman said the property has space to expand another 30,000 square feet.

That might turn out to be a good thing, because Dausman said business has been growing in double digits and he foresees no letup. Fueling this demand is Cryomech’s reputation and ability in inventing and manufacturing the machinery for cryogenics, the branch of physics that deals with temperatures approaching absolute zero. Absolute zero is the temperature where atomic motion stops. Such low temperatures are usually measured on the Kelvin scale. Absolute zero is 0 Kelvin. That’s about minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit.

Syracuse University mechanical engineering professor Bill Gifford founded the company in 1963. His son, the late Peter Gifford, joined the company in 1973 and took it over in 1980 after his father died. The company developed a reputation for innovation. One reason was Peter Gifford’s willingness to challenge himself and excel in products no one else would make. Another reason was his success in recruiting talent to Syracuse – cryogenicists like Chao Wang.

A variety of growing high-tech fields in medicine and energy require super-strong magnets. Such magnets require temperatures near 0 Kelvin. Cryomech’s cryogenic refrigerators and cryogenic systems make them possible. Growing fields in quantum computing and other quantum technologies require temperatures near 0 Kelvin, also made possible by Cryomech.

Dausman joined Cryomech in 1976. He leads about 150 employees. When current vacancies are filled it will be close to 170 employees. To effectively lead, Dausman advises to be accessible, genuine, and to treat people with dignity and respect. It also helps to have a sense of humor.

I have the impression that Bill and Peter were quite influential in your life and on creating the culture of Cryomech, which is now employee owned.

Yeah. For sure. I graduated high school (Henninger, Class of 1976), and I started working at Cryomech.

I figured I’d take a year off before college and make some money, because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I started working at Cryomech and really enjoyed what I was doing. I started going part-time to Syracuse. Bill, being at the university, knew there was an opening at Link Hall for somebody to take care of the mechanical engineering labs. Bill and Peter said: You should go up there; you can go to school for free.

I was going to be hired for that job in Link Hall. But then Bill and Peter said: Stay with us. We’ll send you to SU, and we’ll also pay you what they were going to pay you at Link Hall.

So I stayed, going to school part-time, but that didn’t work so well, trying to work and have a young person’s life and school on top of it. I said until I can go back and do it the right way, I’m not going to go.

Move forward a few years later, I’d gotten married, had kids, and decided it was time to go back to school. So I went to school full time and worked about a third of the time at Cryomech. I got my engineering degree at SU. I think I graduated in ‘94, so that would’ve made me 36 when I graduated college. (Laughter) I wouldn’t recommend that route, but everybody does what they have to do. I tell parents with younger kids: Look, everybody has their own path. They’re not all going to be the same.

Bill certainly cared about the people that worked for Cryomech. Bill was somebody that loved to teach. When he would come in, he’d spend time with me and it showed that he was someone that really did care for folks. One gentleman worked part time on the weekends, and Bill would come in sometimes on Saturday with lunch and a beer and spend some time with him. So that was Bill.

Peter was gregarious, outgoing, passionate, and also big on teaching and learning and caring for the people at Cryomech and caring for Cryomech.

So those were the things that I learned – caring for the people that work with you and for you and being open and sharing and welcoming and just trying to make your folks successful. If you make your folks successful, the business should be successful. Those were really big takeaways from the two of them.

Those are good takeaways. What other advice would you give to lead effectively?

For me, one thing really important is to be yourself. You can take in examples of others, but don’t try to be them. Be you. That requires really being honest with yourself and what you value and who you are and what you stand for. That’s important because people will see right through it if you’re not being honest and not being yourself.

I also think it’s very important to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

I think it’s important to get to know people. For instance, I make it a point to go out and walk through and say, hi, and how you doing? And just check in with people. We’re all here together and we’re all equally important. It matters that you connect with people and that people see you’re genuine and that you’re not doing it for show. I’m out there because I really do like them and care for them and want them to feel that they’re connected to this place.

Being accessible is part of it, too. My door’s open and people can come to me with good news, bad news, whatever it is. You have to react to them in a caring way. For someone to come up and knock on your door and share some news that might be hard to share, you have to consider their feelings and treat them like you would somebody that’s in your family – because they are. I know it’s a cliche, but we try to keep Cryomech going as one big family, like I remember when Cryomech was that big (holding index finger and thumb close).

Every job here is important. And it is important for people to see how what they do adds to the bigger picture and to the end product that goes to the customer. It is important for people to get that connection to their work, to the company and who we are as a company, and to the culture of the company.

The culture is the big thing to preserve. I think our culture has been successful for us. Those are some of the big things that I would tell folks.

What qualities do you see in good leadership and in leaders you admire?

They have the ability to connect to people on a personal level. They are good communicators. They have confidence without arrogance. Being confident is important, but you can be humbly confident.

They are thoughtful decision makers. We all have to make decisions, and some aren’t easy, but it is important to really think through them and consider all the alternatives.

And the last one is the ability to laugh at yourself. (Laughter) I think people need to see that we’re not perfect and we don’t have all the answers and we’re gonna mess things up. If we can find some humor in that, I think that makes everybody feel a little bit more connected to you.

How should the leader react when someone makes a good-faith mistake?

Yeah. We all make mistakes. That’s obvious. What we try to instill in people here is that what we make goes out into the field and customers expect that thing to run for years on end. It’s like getting in your car and driving it a hundred thousand miles and not having to do anything to it.

So if there’s something that you think you’ve done wrong, either in the moment or after the fact, you let us know. That’s really what we expect. If you’re kind to people and you’re listening to people and you’re not being loud and calling them out, they’re gonna tell you what they did and what they didn’t do.

We treat people this way: Hey, we understand. We’ll try to figure out what happened together. Was it poor training? Was the equipment bad? What may have caused that mistake?

I truly believe that everybody comes to work to do a good job, and when someone does make a mistake it is a learning experience. Either we can learn, because we didn’t do a good job training, or they can learn. There’s omission and commission, and as long as you don’t keep making that same mistake over and over we’re OK.

I think the best thing to do in a leadership role is to surround yourself with good people, hopefully smarter than you are, and let them work. You have to have faith and trust that they’re going to do the right thing. It doesn’t mean you’re not in tune with what’s happening and being informed. Not every decision they make would be the same as you would make, but you have to trust that they know what they’re doing. I can’t micromanage everything.

Once a decision’s made and you move forward and something doesn’t go as planned well then, yeah, you, the leader, need to step up and take responsibility because ultimately, I could have changed the decision. I could have changed the course of direction, but I didn’t, and it didn’t go as planned. Somebody has to raise their hand and say, yeah, that’s on me. I think that just goes with the territory. It is what a leader should do.

What attributes do you see in a poor leader?

I would say somebody that isn’t a good listener. Somebody that doesn’t respect other people. Someone who really thinks more about themselves than others. Someone that’s just not connected, that wants to just sit in their office, maybe close the door, and not have anybody bother them. Those are some of the things that would drive me crazy.

What’s your advice for a leader to spark innovation?

For us, innovation is very important. Innovative technology is the lifeblood of the company.

We get ideas from customers and potential customers. We see what’s going on in the industry, and we don’t just confine that to our R&D group. We encourage innovation across the board.

Having that innovative spirit and that innovative culture is extremely important to us. And how do you do that? I think you have to create the atmosphere. And we sort of touched on it before – mistakes. Mistakes or maybe things that are not quite as successful as you hoped are part of the learning process.

That’s the environment you want. You want people to take chances. You want people to push the boundaries. You have to give them freedom to do that. Every time you fail, you learn something, and it becomes another tool in the toolbox.

Breakthroughs in technology don’t necessarily come linearly. It can be more of a step function where you’re going along and all of a sudden you figure something out and now you’re up quite a level from where you were. What’s really important is to build a team that is unafraid, but not reckless. You’re calculating, and you’re pushing the boundaries, but you’re not going in directions that don’t make sense.

We try to partner with our customers to make them successful. The more we know about what they’re doing, the more we can tailor our product to fit their needs and to mesh much more smoothly with their product. You’re learning how you can be of more value to your customers.

In the world of quantum, the overarching acronym is QIST, which stands for Quantum Information Science and Technology. One application is quantum computing. We’re already involved there. But there are lots of other applications within quantum.

For instance there will be a quantum internet. It’s a huge, huge, huge opportunity. Cryogenic technologies are a critical enabling technology. Within the sphere of QIST, there is quantum computing, quantum sensing, quantum networking, and other applications. They all depend on cryogenics. We’re getting involved in the greater QIST eco-system. A lot of what they’re asking for in that technology does not yet exist, and that’s why we’re focusing on collaborating with others to push that technology. Somebody has to be first. Why not us?

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The weekly “Conversation on Leadership” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. Last week featured excerpts from 2021 Conversations about the pleasures of living and working in Central New York.