George L. San Jose

George L. San Jose has seen a lot of companies that were great at the 100-yard dash. However, he’s not impressed by the flash-in-the-pans of the world and prefers to liken his company, The San Jose Group Co., to a well-conditioned marathoner. Fostering what he
describes as a customer-centric culture, San Jose has stressed persistence and consistency since founding the Hispanic-focused
marketing agency in 1981. Employing 54 people in Chicago and more than 700 worldwide, The San Jose Group now records more than
$130 million in domestic annual billings. Smart Business spoke with San Jose, the company’s president and COO, about leading by
example and seeking out fresh ideas.

Personify your vision and build buy-in. If you’re
expecting people to follow you and to
follow your example, then you have to
live your example. You have to be a living testament as to what they can

In a way, you almost have to be their
mirror, so that they can see themselves
in you and thus begin to think on their
own that, ‘Gee, if he did it, then I can do
it.’ It’s like anything else. You have to see
the end from the beginning. You have to
know where you’re going before you can
figure out how to get there, and if you
know what it looks like, you at least
know when you’ve arrived.

My style is very much leading by example, casting out a vision. There are three
major steps to it. First is casting out a
vision, specifying the objectives, achieving the buy-in from everyone in the
vision and making sure they understand
it. It has to be made into a common
vision for everyone to feel and touch.

Then you have to support that with
incentives. There has to be a reward
mechanism in place for those folks who
are going to help you.

The last part is pulling the people to
help you accomplish it. You lay all that
out, and then you just have to pull them

Hire for potential. I’ve learned that the
vision that I had can be accomplished
and that the vision we set out has really
made a difference in the type of agency
that we have become, the size of our
organization and the quality of our work.
I’ve also learned that not every person
wants to be pulled into a higher professional level than the one that they
presently might have achieved.

Studies show that 20 percent of the
people in an organization are going to
resist change. Not everybody that you
hire is going to be one that wants to
achieve that higher level of excellence.

A lot of times in the hiring process, we
try to evaluate candidates on not what
they bring to the table right now, but as
best as we can, is this a candidate that can be promoted two or three times
higher than the level they’re at right
now? At the end of the day, I’m a coach.

It’s kind of like a sports team. You have
great players in different positions, and
as a mentor to them, I look at people not
based on what they can deliver but
based on the full potential that they

It’s impossible sometimes to know in a
30-minute interview or even if you
screen them at two or three levels what
the person’s disposition is going to be.
There are telltale signs that you can look
at and read, but a lot of times it’s just like
the stock market. You look at where
they’ve come from, and that’s how you
can judge where they’re going. It’s not
necessarily true 100 percent of the time,
but it does provide you a pretty good

Constantly strive for excellence. Most employees would tend to do enough work just
to get by. They’ll do good work, but good
is just not good enough.

To achieve excellence, it’s something
that you have to constantly work on.
Excellence is in the details. To get people to see your vision and to capture the fact that if we do work at a higher level
of excellence, we don’t have to do as

We’ll do less work, run more profitably
and with less stress. That’s a hard point
to get across sometimes.

I can’t repeat enough how important it
is to be constant. It’s constant training,
constant evaluation, a constant pursuit
of excellence and teaching by example.
That’s not only as to how you behave
yourself but as to how you would tackle
projects or assignments or basically
points of view on how to manage a business better.

Seek out new ideas. Leaders tend to sometimes live in a vacuum. They run their
own companies and they make statements to themselves that we’re the best
at this or we’re the best at that, and a lot
of times, those statements and that way
of thinking are not founded or grounded
in anything that is actual truth. They
believe that, but they haven’t exposed
themselves to what their competitors
are doing or what their colleagues might
be thinking.

It’s important for a leader to break
away from the office at least two or
three times a year and go to conferences
where they can see other businesses and
how they’re addressing issues and other
things that they’re doing. I’ve found that
has recharged my battery on a continual

If you always think that the people
you’re competing against are smarter
than you are, you’re always going to try
to be smarter than they are. That, in
itself, will make you more competitive,
but you have to constantly be on the
lookout for what’s hot and what’s a new,
innovative way of doing something.
There’s something that I constantly
teach my folks here, and that is if it was
great that way last week, what are we
going to do differently to make it better
this week?

HOW TO REACH: The San Jose Group Co., (312) 565-7000 or