It was a question Janice Leone just had to ask. She was on an airplane, and just happened to be seated next to a passenger who was an airline pilot.
“I said to him, ‘Do you ever get scared up there?’” Leone says. “‘Do you ever get fearful when you’re flying the plane?’ He looked around and said, ‘Nope. I might get a little apprehensive about 50 mph crosswinds. But I’m not fearful.’”
The conversation moved on to something else until 20 minutes later when the passenger asked Leone to tell him what she did for a living.
“I said I own my own business and he says, ‘Now that I would fear,’” Leone says with a chuckle. “It’s all a matter of perspective.”
Leone is president and CEO at Corporate Interiors, a company which helps companies develop ideal workspace environments.
“We do all the vertical and horizontal lines that you see inside the envelope that people work in,” Leone says. “From the acoustical control systems to the lighting to the walls and all the internal building blocks and furniture down to the contract flooring, that’s what we do. We put all of these solutions and products together to help companies with some of the current issues in the workplace.”
It’s been a successful company that has experienced steady growth and now has more than 130 employees. But there have also been some challenging times and Leone says one of the keys to managing the ups and downs is not giving into fear. One of the toughest times was back in 2008 when the recession hit.
“There is a tendency to pull the first lever you know how to pull and that’s to reduce your headcount,” Leone says. “That’s easy to do. So over six months, I would bring leadership back into a room, and it was a huge workshop for us. We lived, breathed and ate taking our company in the right direction.”
Leone says proposals would be put on the table to make staff reductions, but each time, she resisted.
“I would say, ‘We have to go back to the drawing board because when we come out of this, I want a greater commitment, a greater connection to our workforce than we have right now,’” Leone says. “‘That won’t do it for us. I won’t budge from that.’”
In the end, schedules were adjusted for everyone, including leadership, and while a few people were let go, it wasn’t a lot. And things did turn around for the positive.
“It wasn’t easy, but we’re in better times now,” Leone says. “I think we’re stronger than we were before we went into this.”
Here are some key principles that guide Leone and her leadership of Corporate Interiors.
Culture may not always be top of mind in the leadership of your business. But it is there and it is visible for everyone who comes in contact with your company to see.
“It’s reflective of who you are,” Leone says. “We can walk into a lot of companies and get a sense of who they are not only from the exterior of the building, but the interior. From the time we walk into a lobby, we can tell what kind of company we’re walking into.”
Many workplace cultures are going through dramatic changes as companies seek more open workspaces and collaborative working environments. It’s what Corporate Interiors is all about, but Leone is still conscious of the need to manage a culture, whether it’s that of her customer or for her own business.
“The more you make it open and collaborative, the byproduct of that is more potential for disruption and distraction,” Leone says. “There is a huge and delicate balance between creating these environments.”
Leone was thinking about culture when she made the decision to not make significant staff reductions, she thinks about it with her customers and she thinks about it with her company going forward in 2014.
“The human spirit is very important to me,” Leone says. “The encouragement and recognition of people and the total engagement of our leadership group is very important to me. I believe in contact leadership. Sometimes I refer to it as post-heroic leadership. The lead positions are heavily engaged in the journey and the work. They are able to roll up their sleeves and get intimately involved.”
Leone is happiest when everyone is working together and feels empowered to meet the challenges that the company faces. And she wants people to feel comfortable being who they are and not to feel like they have to put on a show in order to impress her or the company’s clients.
“We have a 100,000-square-foot operational center outside Wilmington,” Leone says. “We take clients through for a facility tour. Our warehouse supervisor says to me, ‘Janice, I’m not a presenter.’ I said, ‘I don’t want you to be a presenter. Tell them what you make a living doing and what you are so good at doing.’
“He’s been with me 15 years and clients gravitate toward the genuine nature of people, not through some contrived formula or saying something because they think they have to. The best people to present to our clients are the people who are natural at it. They are not there to give a canned speech.”
Let people shine
The companies that thrive in today’s economy are the ones that work as a team from the person at the top all the way down to the lowest level of your organization.
“The lead positions in our company are partners to our sales representatives,” Leone says. “They are aligning resources and putting support resources around them. They are not at a distance. They can get involved to the point that the success and the results are focused at the individual project manager, the sales rep and the design of that team.
“The lead position had a lot to do with it, steering it, nurturing it, supporting it and getting the resources lined up. But at the end of the journey, the spotlight is on the individuals and that team. And our leadership understands that. Our leadership group is made up of people who are doers. They are engaged and know the detail of our process and the detail of our strategy.”
Leone goes back to the skies for an analogy to demonstrate the connectedness of her leadership team.
“I’ve seen lead positions in other companies where they are 30,000 feet off the ground,” Leone says. “I often say we’re not 30,000 feet off the ground dropping leaflets. We’re in the crop duster that is low to the ground. That’s the difference. Sometimes in corporate America, you are 30,000 feet off the ground. You’re not heavily engaged in what’s going on.”
Leone says it’s a philosophy she has followed since she was working out of a small satellite office years ago in Delaware.
“We had maybe 18 people, totally full of energy, full of great fight and tenacity,” Leone says. “They just needed structure and prioritization and the resources and infrastructure to help them do what they needed to do. The expansion and growth was exponential because of our ability to get the yield and essence out of people. They were part of something and everybody wants to be part of a winning team or a company that is growing.”
Leone wants the leaders within Corporate Interiors to feel like they are running their own businesses. With that in mind, she is open with them about the details that illustrate how the company is doing.
“We have all kinds of statistical information that goes to them,” Leone says. “At 6 a.m., I call it a push report that goes to every one of our lead positions. It has all the metrics that we run our company by. I have lead positions that are very good at what they do. When I think I need to jump in and steer something, quite frankly, I don’t beat around the bush.
“We have a hearty conversation about it. We come out of the conversation with a unified front and a direction. It might be an altered one from the one I have because they in turn might have had a hearty conversation with me. We just feel it would be strange not to have that kind of conversation.”
One of Leone’s key tenets of leadership is to build a team without asking people to shed their identity.
“Let them take risks or do something creative or do something that at the beginning might seem hard to do, but is achievable. Let them step out and have the freedom and empowerment to do things. That’s what I would encourage business owners to do.
“There is more potential in the people that make up your company than some leaders see. It’s just not apparent to some of them. I’m amazed at some of the things that I see our people accomplish, and I tell them that. There’s just a sense of honesty.” •
- Never forget who your employees are.
- Don’t force employees to perform.
- Help your talent to blossom.
The Leone File:
Name: Janice Leone
Title: President and CEO
Company: Corporate Interiors
Born: Wilmington, Del.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in business, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, West Chester, Pa.
Did you want to be a psychologist? No, but it’s not totally unrelated to what I do. I think I learned more through my experience of owning this business than I would in a degree. I just met with a bunch of alumni from West Chester, and it was a great college. But what it teaches you is the basics. It’s all up to you on how to apply it in life.
What was your very first job? I used to cut my neighbor’s flowers and sell them on a little card table until my neighbor started yelling at me for selling their flowers.
Who has been the most influential person in your life? My mother. She just passed away in June. You prepare yourself all your life for the departure of your parents. In my eulogy to my mother, I said that she used to say to me, ‘Where did you come from?’ It was in a funny way. In the eulogy, I said, ‘I came from the essence of you,’ because of her strength and her sensibility. A lot of who I am — my tenacity, my sense of center and balance — it all comes from her.