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Preparing to Lead into the Third Generation

Tom Smolenski seeks to push himself on behalf of family business

Tom Smolenski
Vice President of Operations, Steinwall, Inc.

Vanderbilt MBA 2019

Unlike almost everyone else who enters an MBA program, Tom Smolenski had a post-graduation job already lined up. He simply wanted to be prepared for it.

For five years before he came to Vanderbilt, Tom had worked for Steinwall, Inc., an industry leader in plastic injection molding. He knew that someday he’d have the opportunity to be the third generation from his family to lead the organization, which employs 175 people. “But to be a more successful leader, I needed to add more tools to my toolkit,” he says. “I wasn’t taking enough time to push myself as hard as I believe I needed to be pushed to become a more impactful leader.”

The eventual responsibility for the business is one Tom does not take lightly. “I don’t care what a business makes or does,” he says, “what matters is how a leader creates an environment that fosters personal and professional growth for all employees. The more knowledge I can acquire, the more successfully I will be able to lead the company through uncertain times.”

During his first year, Tom says, he was struck by the number of “aha moments” he had “when the class is having a discussion or the professor is discussing a certain theory or topic. It has been unbelievably powerful to have five years of working experience and then be immersed back into the classroom to review how I’ve thought about a certain topic previously and then reflect on how I can utilize new ideas to improve when faced with similar situations in the future.

“The classroom experience has helped me realize that there is never really a right or easy answer to a lot of business decisions. It’s important to view the decision from a different lens and to acknowledge that certain decisions will impact some individuals and departments positively and others negatively.”

While Tom is serious about his degree, he’s also having fun while he earns it. “Being a 29-year-old, country music-loving, barbecue-eating fan of golf, I’m not sure it’s possible to live in a better city than Nashville,” he says.

Fun Fact: After graduating from college, Tom returned to his alma mater high school in Minneapolis to coach basketball and golf.

“The classroom experience has helped me realize that there is never really a right or easy answer to a lot of business decisions.”