May 1 2006 12:00 AM

My favorite moment in my interview with John Crowson was when I asked him what he thought made him a good leader. Immediately after I said it, I regretted it, because I thought I'd worded the question poorly. Crowson could have easily responded with nothing more interesting than a laundry list of adjectives like hardworking, dedicated, focused, etc. What Crowson actually said took me by surprise. He said there was a piece of good advice he'd gotten early on in his sales career that had stuck with him for decades. "A fellow told me, 'you have two ears and one mouth and they should be used in that proportion.'"

The phrase made me laugh, but got me to thinking. What the phrase meant to Crowson was that he'd gotten as far as he has by being a good listener. And that, right there, speaks volumes about his character. He's so humble that he credits his success not to any lofty qualities or ideas he has, but to his ability to listen to other people's advice and expertise. This is a man with no big ego to fluff up -- if he's wrong, he's wrong, and he's willing to ask for help to get it right.

If you try to quiz Crowson about his childhood, he'll tell you he grew up in Illinois, and then chuckle and say that most of the rest of his young life isn't that interesting. In high school, he played football and basketball like many boys, and also took a number of Advanced Placement courses, enjoying the challenge they presented and hoping they'd aid him in his quest to be a doctor.

At the Southern Illinois University campus of Edwardsville, Illinois, he declared his major to be pre-med. Thanks to his AP classes, he had plenty of units handy to get into the required upper-division science classes he needed, but found himself a mere freshman competing against juniors and seniors for the slots. In fact, there was no competition -- the juniors and seniors always won, and Crowson couldn't register for the necessary pre-med requirements.

He decided to take some business classes to pass the time, and soon fell in love with them, ultimately dumping the pre-med major to graduate with a degree in business administration.

Crowson began searching newspapers for interesting job possibilities and eventually hit on Telelect, Inc., of Bloomington, Minnesota, an international maker of truck-mounted cranes and aerial baskets, where he was hired as international sales manager.

The job turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to 29 different countries in just seven years. While most of the trips were only two to three weeks long, sometimes Crowson got to stay for up to a month, soaking up experiences he could've barely dreamed of as a boy in Illinois.

Looking back now, Crowson recognizes that his time in the Middle East in particular gave him a fairly different perspective about that area than most Americans have. "Telelect did a lot of business in Iran, and in the space of two years, I saw things change from when Americans were welcomed in that country to when they felt quite the opposite about us." Crowson left Iran for the last time the day after the Shah fled the country, and said the experience taught him how much Americans have to be grateful for and how much they take for granted.

After doing so much traveling in so short a time, Crowson was eager to return home and plant some roots. His office at Telelect was only a few blocks from the Toro Company's headquarters in Bloomington, and in 1985, he joined Toro as dealer development manager. He eventually moved on to area sales management and customer development, and also returned to college -- this time the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota -- to study finance. "My background was in marketing, but I found myself having a lot of contact with finance people. Marketing people and finance people aren't always on the same page, so I wanted to study finance to see where they were coming from," Crowson explains.

In 1992, Crowson caught the eye of an executive recruiter. Scag Power Equipment of Mayville, Wisconsin was seeking a person with Crowson's talents and they made him an offer he couldn't refuse; he joined the company as national sales and marketing manager. As he journeyed up the ranks, he eventually earned his master's degree in finance in 1997. He's been with Scag ever since, and is now the vice president of sales and marketing. A part of the green industry for 21 years now, Crowson can't imagine doing anything else with his life and sincerely hopes that this is his last career stop. He enjoys what he does, and he enjoys the people he works with. Once again praising others before himself, he says of his coworkers, "They're good people."

Another person Crowson is fond of is his wife, JoAnne. They'll have been married for 30 years come this September, and have one teenage daughter, Kristin. Crowson is proud to say that Kristin has already been accepted to Purdue University of West Lafayette, Indiana, where she'll start pursuing a degree in psychology this fall. Of course, if her college experience is anything like her father's, her degree could actually end up being anything from mathematics to art history -- not at all what she originally intended. He will be proud of her wherever she ends up.

Crowson likes to try to keep a balance in his life between work and family, noting that in his earlier years, that balance didn't exist -- his life was almost entirely work. Now, he enjoys spending his free time pursuing outdoor activities like golf, hunting, and fishing. He's also the happy owner of a Harley motorcycle. "I've been riding motorcycles for about 25 years, and I'm still alive, so that's not a bad thing," he says with a laugh.

Indeed, it's not. In the half-hour of contact I had with John Crowson, I could easily tell that he's a lot like the 'good people' he's been so fortunate to work with for so many years. It was a pleasure to follow his advice about using your ears more than your mouth -- although he might describe his life as 'basic' or 'boring,' I found him to be a pleasure to speak with, and not at all boring.