Listen up Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008
Diversity drives creativity. That notion may not be particularly revolutionary, but it has nevertheless proved invaluable to Jeff Johnson at Weaver Industries Inc.

As executive director of the organization, which provides vocational training and employment opportunities for 750 adults with developmental disabilities, Johnson must routinely apply out-of-the-box thinking to solve commonplace dilemmas. In 2005, for example, he was charged with creating a new venture to provide more employment opportunities for Weaver’s internal customers.

So Johnson turned to a diverse group of executives from the Akron community to assist him and established an enterprise task force. The unique backgrounds of those individuals were crucial in adopting a social enterprise model that manifested itself as Weaver-SecurShred, a secure information shredding company. Since then, Johnson has relied upon the fresh perspectives of a rotating board of directors to help guide the strategic direction of the company.

Smart Business spoke with Johnson about how simply listening will help you clarify your goals and why it pays to just be yourself.

Listen to constituents to get buyin. It starts with relaying the internal customers’ needs and requests.

We listened to them and sat down with the board and talked about strategic avenues and strategic tactics that we could implement.

From that conversation, we were able to discuss different ways [in] which we can meet their needs.

Stay focused on your mission. If you really listen to the population that you’re serving, it really will help clarify what you need to do and where you need to go.

It’s absolutely necessary. If you’re growing and you’re expanding, nothing is going to be easy. Staff will continually be challenged, and they will be pushed, and they will be asked to do things differently, to do things better and to improve processes.

If they know why they’re doing that and that there’s a real reason out here of why we need to get better and why they’re being pushed, they don’t view that negatively, and they’re willing to really step up and push.

If they look at it and they just see someone coming up every day pushing them to do something better or faster, they don’t know the real reason why, and they’re going to push back.

Be yourself. Person-centered leadership, from an academic perspective, is leadership that starts with a comfort level that starts with yourself, where you’re comfortable in your own skin.

There’s no work Jeff, director Jeff and another Jeff — they’re all the same person. Communicating that and reinforcing that every day is very important.

It’s being comfortable with who you are and what you are.

When you’re true to yourself as a person when you’re enrolling your employees in your vision, they’re more willing to enroll into that vision when you exhibit those types of traits as opposed to a work personality that puts on the executive-director hat.

Gauge character by taking job candidates out of the office. We really want the right people with the right background, education and the right character to run divisions or branches. Those are the folks that are in the trenches every day that are working very closely with those internal and external customers.

I always have two interviews. My first interview tends to be more structured. I have a series of questions that I will ask, specific answers that I will be looking for.

Have a second interview outside of the office environment and try to have it in a public setting, like a restaurant for a lunch or dinner, where you can see how that individual interacts in a different environment, in a more relaxed environment.

I like to hear a little about their family. What are their hobbies? What are their interests?

It allows the conversation to move away from the specifics of the job and move more toward what’s that person’s life like and what’s important to them.

Treat ‘no’ as the starting point.

On sales calls, when a customer says no, it’s a good start because you can learn why they’re saying no and keep moving forward.

It’s asking that customer, ‘If no, why? Is it service? Is it price? What is it?’ It might be something that there’s nothing we can do or they’re going a different direction.

At least we can seek feedback so that we can know if there’s something that we need to change within our operation. We can gauge whether we’re competitive, and then we can move forward, and, ultimately, that will help our business in the long run.

HOW TO REACH: Weaver Industries Inc., (330) 379-3680 or