Active leaders set the pace – Interactive approach works best in small businesses, experts say

Given the opportunity, many workers will let things slide, settle for a lower standard or take the easy way out. Some even purposefully do the wrong thing for their own gain.

By Ann Meyer
Special to the Tribune

And they often get away with it because no one wants to confront them.

"It’s just our culture. Don’t rock the boat," said Gaye van den Hombergh, president and managing director at The Johnsson Group, a midsize finance consulting firm based in Chicago.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Johnsson Group has worked hard to encourage its workers to do the right thing, even if it’s uncomfortable, van den Hombergh said. Sometimes it means having tough conversations with client companies, even though they are paying the bill.

Motivating workers to meet a high standard is all about leadership, suggests Ed Gubman, a Wilmette consultant and author of the new book, "The Engaging Leader."

When it comes to leading employees to great heights, smaller companies should have a leg up on their larger counterparts, Gubman said.

"Leaders of smaller firms have an advantage because they are able to form close relationships with a much greater percentage of the people in their firms than are leaders of big firms," Gubman said. "It’s relationships that produce results."

An effective leader in a small firm is a motivating influence, Gubman said.

"When people feel good about a leader, that’s when they’re the most productive. You get the best service and quality in work," he said.

And at a time when many large corporations have had their images tarnished by corruption, some smaller companies are getting new notice because they emphasize leadership values like integrity, excellence and ethics.

Getting workers to embrace those characteristics can be no small feat. But if you lay the groundwork with a clear set of company values and persuade workers to be leaders in their own right, your job will be much easier in the long run.

That’s the approach The Johnsson Group takes by stressing leadership as part of its company culture. It helps if you look for "a certain kind of person" when you hire, acknowledges van den Hombergh. By the time candidates are through with the interview process at The Johnsson Group, the company usually knows whether the applicant’s values are aligned with the company’s.

The company looks for consultants with at least a decade of experience, but because courage, honesty and respect are so important to the firm, it also needs evidence of those values, van den Hombergh said.

"We look for people who can show us they have made some tough decisions in their careers and have done the right thing."

Whatever your company values are, make sure it’s a good match when you hire, agreed Gubman. He stresses attitude, particularly enthusiasm and adaptability, and recommends companies look for people who like to collaborate with others. "It’s very unlikely you are going to do anything by yourself well. You have to have teamwork skills," he said.

But hiring is only the first step. The Johnsson Group puts new hires through training, such as a course on "flawless consulting," which emphasizes the company’s commitment to excellence. The company further reinforces its values by giving leadership awards and bonuses of $500 to $2,000 on a quarterly basis to employees who exhibit leadership qualities.

While the consulting firm acknowledges that to a certain extent leadership is an "I’ll know it when I see it" quality, it offers guidelines for the awards based on characteristics presented in the book "Leadership When the Heat’s On." The criteria are posted, so it’s no mystery what the company is looking for:

– Individual consideration, manifested in someone who coaches or helps other workers.

– Energy and enthusiasm for work and relationships.

– Intellectual stimulation, spurring others to think about old problems in new ways.

– Courage, or doing what’s right even if it’s uncomfortable.

– Dependability and responsibility, including owning up to mistakes.

– Flexibility, or functioning effectively in changing environments and changing course as needed.

– Respect for others, exhibited by encouraging other people’s ideas and accepting feedback openly.

Johnsson consultant Rita Gallagher has earned two leadership awards at the company in the past 12 months. Her courage to bring forward bad news to a client even though it was unrelated to her project with the company earned her one award. While working with a client company on procedures, she uncovered tax problems the company wasn’t aware of.

"I noticed a situation that was going to be a problem. I could have closed my eyes to it, but it wasn’t the ethical thing to do," she said. "I had to be courageous and bring up an issue that was uncomfortable."

Another time The Johnsson Group recognized her for the mentoring and idea-sharing she contributes to co-workers on a regular basis.

"I like mentoring or training new people. That comes easy for me," she said. "I might say. `I tried this with a client and it worked well, why don’t you try it?’"

The leadership awards contribute to an understanding that helping others is as important as helping yourself. That philosophy isn’t present at all companies, Gallagher says, noting that some companies reward only personal accomplishments, thereby discouraging employees from sharing knowledge with co-workers.

She once worked at a company whose "make-your-numbers-at-all-costs" values conflicted with her own. "Once I got to management and realized what `all cost’ meant, I didn’t want to stay there," she said.

By spotlighting Gallagher’s leadership finesse, The Johnsson Group reinforces to its entire workforce why courage and collaboration are important.

Teaching `soft skills’

"What makes a difference in consulting work is the soft skills," explains van den Hombergh. That means "being able to have difficult conversations with our clients and making sure we always do the right thing even if it’s the hard thing."

The leadership awards are an effective way to encourage workers to buy into your company values because they help to define and clarify what they mean in day-to-day practice. They’re also a method of communicating with workers, which is paramount for a company with strong leadership.

Effective communication is fundamental to building relationships and reinforcing values at companies of all sizes, Gubman suggests. But it can be particularly effective in a small firm, where layers of management aren’t an issue.

"In a small firm, there’s no `them.’ It’s `us.’ That’s the most powerful motivator there is, that sense of intimacy," Gubman said.

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