Richard Giese Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007
Richard Giese’s mother used to tell him he had two ears and one mouth for a reason — he should listen twice as much as he talked. Giese has taken that advice to heart as president of Mount Union College, a private, liberal arts school in Alliance. He listens to his 362 employees when he drops into their offices, he listens to the board members when he visits them in their homes, and he listens to the students when he sits with them in the cafeteria or invites members of the freshman class into his home for dinner. Listening has helped Giese learn what his employees and students want and allows him to lead with a clear vision for the college’s future and manage the institution’s $56 million budget. Smart Business spoke with Giese about how listening to employees helps leaders realize that they don’t have to have all the answers.

Know your organization. It’s important for a leader to get to know the organization and the people when they first come in. You cannot lead an organization if you do not know it inside and out.

Part of this is knowing the dreams and aspirations of those within the organization. History, traditions, policies and aspirations need to be understood. Once they are, a leader is in a position to promote and embrace those that are positive, challenge those that need to be modified, or abandon those that no longer are relevant to the organizational success.

You need to spend the time in order to be able to make an informed judgment of where things should go. Sometimes a mistake can be made when someone comes in and feels like they need to make all the changes right away.

Don’t set lofty goals. In creating a vision, you need to identify the strengths and the opportunities for your organization, and then work with your team to create a vision that is consistent with the mission of the organization but forces the organization and the individuals within it to stretch to be better.

You also make sure that if they stretch it, it is within their grasp to attain it. If you have goals and a vision that are unattainable, if people recognize that they’re unattainable, then they no longer become motivators. You have to have steps along the way that people can attain and see the vision becoming a reality. It is important to celebrate milestones that contribute to the fulfillment of the vision.

If you set the vision just beyond the level that people think they can accomplish, they tend to rise to be able to accomplish it. A good leader can make people accomplish more than they feel they can accomplish themselves.

Have the courage to accept change. Anticipate the future. Analyze the past and learn from it. Evaluate the present and study the emerging opportunities and challenges both in the immediate and long-range future.

Expect and embrace change. As much as you try to plan, you know that your plans are going to have to change. The successful leaders recognize this, and they embrace change as a fact of life, and they’re willing to adapt.

It’s important not to be afraid to fail, not to be afraid to take chances, not to be afraid to take risks. Only if you do that are you able to push the envelope of progress.

The leader must create an environment where people cannot be afraid to fail. If they have setbacks or failures, you accept them, but you don’t emphasize them.

For example, when a vice president fails in a certain task, you might want to spend the time assessing why things didn’t work out. But it isn’t that you’re angry at them or you’re mad at them. You want to encourage them to try things so that you realize that sometimes it’s not always going to work out the way you want it to.

An environment that fosters change involves taking calculated risks. Guard against being satisfied with the status quo.

If everything seems under control, an organization is not moving fast enough.

Acknowledge that change is always occurring and is not to be feared. It is natural and should be comfortable — not scary.

Give positive reinforcement. Reward progress and accomplishments. A good leader is constantly giving positive feedback. This can take many forms, from a simple pat on the back to public acknowledgement to performance-based rewards.

Financial rewards are great; however, people want to know that their opinions are valued, that their contributions are recognized, and oftentimes, that’s just appropriately placed comments at the right time. When people receive that positive feedback, they tend to strive to do even better.

Be aware of changing relationships. You have to be careful not to get too close to the people that you work with because you have to maintain a little bit of a distance. You don’t want to be perceived as favoring somebody over someone else.

You want to be close to your people on an everyday basis at work, but more outside of work, you have to consciously decide that, to a certain extent, being the head of a company is a little bit lonely. You can’t have the friendship levels that you had outside of work with people at work, like you might in another position.

Prioritize and stay on top of tasks. Make sure that you’re making the best use of your time, in terms of setting priorities for and responding to what’s really important and not just what’s imminent. You are always confronted with a host of small issues that seem like they demand your immediate attention but may not be the most important use of your time.

Put together some kind of support network with your assistant or with other people so they can handle some of those emergencies, and you can focus on some of the bigger issues.

HOW TO REACH: Mount Union College, (330) 823-6050 or