It had only been a few years since Frank Kiesner joined ADC Telecommunications when, in 1979, CEO Charles Denny Jr. tapped him to spearhead negotiations for a major licensing agreement with Hewlett-Packard. The young in-house counsel was to venture to Scotland, where he would lead the negotiating team.
“Before I left, he gave me a general outline of what he hoped we could achieve,” Kiesner recalls. A first round of negotiations gave rise to difficult issues. Denny “allowed me to organize and negotiate the second meeting, and he came to the hotel where we were staying, to be available to answer questions and talk with as a mentor,” Kiesner says. What’s more, “he never interfered with the negotiations. He helped me and guided me, and he let me do my job. I can’t imagine a bigger gift for a young attorney.”
Guiding while also giving people the space to learn is the kind of gift Denny has given hundreds of people throughout his long and distinguished career in business and philanthropy. That career includes top leadership roles at Honeywell, where he worked from 1959 to 1970, and ADC Telecommunications, his employer from 1970 until his retirement in 1991.
“You sort of fall into [mentoring] naturally as you rise in any organization,” Denny says. As one grows older, “you find yourself in sort of an avuncular role, helping youngsters understand what they need to know about the business itself, and then the culture that you develop in a company reflects often your own personal views as to how one should properly lead one’s life, and how therefore a business should behave in terms of its community and its competition and so forth.
“I found that one of the greatest pleasures in my job as I rose through the ranks was being a helpful teacher of those who followed.”
During his long career, Denny has mentored numerous executives in both the for-profit and nonprofit realms. And many say that he’s not only guided their careers, but shaped them and given them meaning.
When Denny became head of Honeywell’s French operations in 1967, one of his mentees was Charles “Carlo” Ranunkel, who says that Denny “literally created my career.” After earning his master’s degree in engineering, the French-born Ranunkel joined Honeywell in 1959 as a salesman. “I had absolutely no serious management experience before I worked with him and learned everything from him,” Ranunkel says.
Under Denny, Ranunkel rose to become general sales manager. He left Honeywell for a few years, then returned in 1971 when Denny arranged a job for him in Philadelphia. Ranunkel later worked as a top executive in several large French industrial firms. “What I have appreciated the most was his kindness,” Ranunkel says. “When I badly screwed up some of the tasks—like forgetting the yearly price increase—he never raised his voice.”
Another of Denny’s French mentees, Jean-Pierre Rosso, joined Honeywell France in 1969. He left Honeywell in 1975 to become CEO of French ski company Rossignol, and later became CEO of farm implement manufacturer Case New Holland. During his career, Rosso has used many of Denny’s leadership lessons. “I believe a key trait that separates great from not-so-great leaders is emotional intelligence,” Rosso says. “Chuck’s ability to relate to people, to understand and motivate them, is top of the chart.”
As for Kiesner, he’s now chairman and CEO of a California-based oncology diagnostic start-up called OvaGene, and he’s putting into practice many of Denny’s lessons. “The willingness to take risks and try to do things that have not been done before—to create new tools based on changes in technology—are things that Chuck did at ADC,” Kiesner says. Just as the telecommunications industry was undergoing fundamental change during Denny’s tenure leading ADC, “OvaGene is in an identical strategic position,” with “large changes in market and technology. We’re looking at complex changes without fear—looking for the opportunities in those changes.”
Denny also imparted lessons about ethics and “the importance of the company’s mission,” Kiesner says. Indeed, Denny believes that a key part of mentoring is setting an example. “You are passing on information, which may not even be verbal.” But those who follow you are watching as well as listening.
“You have no way of ever avoiding the fact that you are having some impact, people are drawing some conclusions,” Denny notes. “They may or may not choose to follow your model, but at least they know what it is. That is a mentoring role.”