A helping hand

Robert Olson isn’t afraid to jump in and help his employees if they have a problem, even on something as simple as calling a stubborn vendor.

“I’m doing it not to straighten the problem out, but I’m doing it to show my people that I’m there to step up and help them in any way I can,” says Olson, founder and CEO of R.D. Olson Construction and founder, president and CEO of R.D. Olson Development.

Olson’s willingness to help his nearly 200 employees has helped him grow both companies, which he founded in 1979.The construction company posted fiscal 2007 revenue of$147 million, while the development company posted fiscal2007 revenue of $110 million.

Smart Business spoke with Olson about how to engage employees and why being a leader is like being a gopher.

Look for the right people. They treat others with respect. … That will show their ability to work with people. Their own ability to communicate is important, to communicate their ideas.

[Look for] people who when they give their word, they will do something and follow up —basically do what you say you’re going to do.

You can see it a little bit in their eyes about how they respond to questions. You want to craft questions that elicit the responses that are in line with what you’re looking for.

They’re who gets the work done, who makes it happen. If you’re doing it by yourself, you’re going to fail; you’re not going to get much done. The more ability you have to empower your people, the more leverage you get. It’s all about leveraging. You need to leverage your time in every way you can, and this is through people.

Value and reward people. There’s the financial reward, which is important, but even more misrecognition and recognizing people when they’ve had a success and bringing that out.

It gives them personal recognition, which just makes them want to succeed more, and it also shows the group what you consider to be a success. It’s huge; it goes a long way.

It’s not one person. The president can’t do that on his own; you’ve got to get your executives who have to have this mentality, as well, and recognize your people. The president, his job is to recognize the people immediately below him but always recognizing everyone along the way.

The day-in and day-out recognition comes from your leaders, your executive staff. You’ve got to push that down and keep it going … just again highlighting when someone’s done a great job.

Show respect for employees. When someone is not performing well, it’s fair to have the conversation of your expectations and what exactly is it that they’re not doing.

But you close it with respect: ‘Thank you, I appreciate you hearing me out. I’m looking forward to working with you to improve this. Let me know what I can do to help you do abettor job.’

You’ve got to just be on board to help, be willing to help. The higher up the ladder you go, the more you become the gopher, the water boy. You go get it, make it happen, help your people to get it done and be willing to do that. And not just talk it, dot — be willing to talk the talk.

Look within. A vision sort of comes from (within), what that vision is, what you think it should be, and it has a lot to do with your personal core values, your own expectations, your own life experiences that set up your vision.

That also includes collective wisdom that you’ve garnished from other people who you respect and understand your business.

It’s just this collective gathering of experiences and information all filtered through yourself.

Engage your employees. Vision’s great, but if you don’t get engagement from everybody, it just falls on deaf ears.

I always ask questions. Ask a lot of questions to try and get them to come to their own conclusion of what I see is the right choice and get buy-in. Through this, maybe there’s an adjustment from the collective wisdom — ‘That sounds great, but what about this?’ I start by asking questions and then get everyone engaged, and then it’s like we’re all as one group marching up the hill together rather than one man.

It gives everyone a common goal. Everyone understands where we’re going and has a copy of the map. So everybody is empowered to do what it takes to achieve the vision.

Show employees how the vision affects them. You have to ask the question, ‘What is it they can do to help you achieve the vision, which has become a goal? What is it that they do?’ Each person is different. …Everyone has a different role to play, and there are different things that they do to help achieve that vision.

They need to understand what the overall goal is so then you break it down, what does that mean — if you’re a person in accounting say, ‘Your job is incredibly important to this vision,’ and let them know how important their job is. Everybody has a hand in making the organization successful and achieving its goals and vision.

HOW TO REACH: R.D. Olson Construction and R.D. Olson Development, (949) 474-2001 or www.rdolson.com