Valuing People and Integrity

As Executive Chairman of A.O. Smith – and with a long and successful business career with major manufacturing companies — Ajita Rajendra has a lot to say about the importance of values and people in an organization.

Recently, he shared some of these thoughts with Lubar School of Business students at the Great Journeys Inspirational Series, sponsored by the School’s M&I Marshall & Ilsley Center for Business Ethics. The series emphasizes the values of business integrity, ethics, and social responsibility.

Rajendra told students that the founding family at A.O. Smith –a 145 year old manufacturing company headquartered in Milwaukee — established a strong set of principles that “guide us to this very day.” In contrast, he said, there are big companies that have compromised their ethics and lived to regret it.

“You could find yourself in a situation where your company is putting pressure on you to do something that is not right,” he said. “You may not even realize it at first. If that’s the case, run quickly. You know what’s right and what’s wrong. Usually, it’s very clear. Do what’s right. Whatever you do, don’t compromise your integrity.”

Rajendra also spoke at length about creating strong work teams. “When you build a team, treat everyone with dignity, respect, and transparency. Make people want to excel, so they can grow and thrive to their highest potential,” he said.

Rajendra said he encourages people on his teams to share their opinions. “If you are on my team and agree with me all the time, I don’t need you,” he said. “I need people with different opinions, so that we can have a dialogue.”

But you had better be able to back up your opinions with facts, he said. “Get the facts out there. If it’s something you think a person doesn’t want to hear, it’s probably something they need to hear.”

“The only thing I’m sure of is that I do not have all the answers. So I want to surround myself with people who have better skill sets than I do in certain areas and who are smarter than me,” Rajendra said. “Surround yourself with people who can challenge you and challenge the status quo.”

That said, strong work teams also respect the hierarchy of the organization, Rajendra pointed out. “At the end of the day, the boss makes the decision,” he said. “We must be aligned to move ahead. You can’t have everyone going in one direction and someone decides to go in an opposite direction. That person wouldn’t last on my team for ten minutes. Whatever the boss decides, you have to support it.”

Finally, Rajendra recalled an important lesson he learned in high school. “I had gotten an A- on a paper, and I was pretty pleased about it,” he said. The teacher wasn’t happy about his reaction, however. She asked, “Why would you be satisfied with something that is below your capacity?” she asked. Rajendra said he never forgot that lesson. “It has an impact on everything I do,” he said. “The important thing is to give it your best shot.”

Ajita Rajendra has been the Executive Chairman of A.O. Smith since 2018, serving most recently as the company’s Chairman and CEO since 2014 and in numerous executive capacities before that.  Prior to joining A.O. Smith, he held executive positions at Kennametal Inc. and Corning Industries. Active on numerous corporate and civic boards, Rajendra is also a member of the Lubar School of Business Advisory Council.