Javier LaFianza is always eager to hear about the next great idea, even when it’s not great

Javier LaFianza, president and CEO, Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership

Javier LaFianza will listen to any idea an employee offers up or any suggestion he might get from one of the 4,000 volunteers at Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, more commonly known as HOBY.

That doesn’t mean he’ll always agree with it or even think it’s an idea worth pursuing. But he will listen and give the person a chance to make their case for whatever point they are trying to make.

“If people are giving you two or three suggestions and you’re shooting every single one of them down, they will be left with the impression that this isn’t real,” says LaFianza, the youth leadership training organization’s president and CEO.

The “this” is the idea that you are an open-minded leader who has an open-door policy and wants to hear from your people.

“If the only way you’re communicating is through memos, e-mails and big staff meetings, you’re just reinforcing the perception that you’re higher up, you’re not all that interested and that communication is a one-way street in your organization,” LaFianza says.

So if your suggestion box is covered with a thick layer of dust, it may be more of a punch line for your employees than an actual tool that makes them feel empowered. You can start to turn things around by first closing your mouth and paying close attention to what your people have to say.

“If you listen to them and you say, ‘Thank you for sharing, thank you for your feedback, I’ll consider that,’ they feel like they have been heard,” LaFianza says. “They appreciate that a great deal more. You still may not end up going along with their idea. But at least you listened. That is something that really helps.”

There may even be times when your people bring up an idea that is worth implementing. LaFianza recalls an experience at a job he had before coming to HOBY.

“It functioned a lot like an insurance company would in terms of processing claims from providers, mainly child-care providers,” LaFianza says. “We didn’t have a single place where providers or parents who had complaints or issues or needed particular help, we didn’t have a single place for them to go. One of the line-level staff said, ‘Maybe we should set up a customer service center and have a group of people who are dedicated to processing some of those issues. We set that up and it increased our customer satisfaction dramatically.”

LaFianza says senior leaders need to know their place in their organization and try to stick to it.

“Your job is really to develop a strategic priority, develop the metrics and develop the strategy on how you’re going to achieve those things,” LaFianza says. “Then you turn it over to the rest of the staff or your managers to implement that. You have to trust them to do that and hold them accountable. Otherwise, you’re wasting time, talent and money.”

So if you want your company to be known for providing great customer service, explain that message to your leaders and then let them figure out how to make it happen.

“If you’re doing that and you trust your managers and they feel empowered and they’re making a difference and implementing and are able to be innovative and creative, you’ll find people will work harder and be more efficient and more excited and happy with their jobs,” LaFianza says. “That will trickle throughout your organization.”

HOBY is all about teaching young people about being leaders and so it would be inconsistent if LaFianza didn’t lead with the same philosophy. But it’s a philosophy that applies to any type of business.

“If people feel like they are going to lose their job immediately on every project, they are going to be paralyzed and they’re not going to develop their leadership and management style,” LaFianza says. “They need to feel like it’s a safe environment and they can take a risk, within reason. If it doesn’t work out, they can learn from it, do a diagnostic and move on. You’re going to be instilling a culture of learning and discipline and not just a culture of shame and fear.”

How to reach: Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, (818) 851-3980 or www.hoby.org

Look for the signs

Javier LaFianza has learned to identify leadership traits in individuals at a very young age. That might have a little to do with the fact that he’s president and CEO at Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, a not-for-profit organization that has helped more than 375,000 youngsters hone their skills as future leaders.

“As a leader, some traits I look out for are if someone is taking an initiative,” LaFianza says. “Is someone speaking up both with positive ideas and what may be frustrating them? Are they offering very good suggestions? Are they not just complaining, but following up their complaint with a suggestion? Are they able to communicate clearly enough so that people are gravitating toward them and getting bought into their idea?”

And perhaps most important, are they willing to go along with someone else’s idea if their idea is not chosen?

“If you’ve made a decision that you’re going to go down this road instead, are they able to get on board and implement it and make it successful?” LaFianza says. “Those are all key signs to me.”