Terry Davis: Managing hundreds of employees effectively takes leading by example

As CEO of a nonprofit with nearly 500 employees, my primary objective is to provide great services to the individuals entrusted to our care. Over time, it has become very apparent to me that one of the major keys to our agency’s success has been my ability to maximize employee productivity.

Nearly 30 years of heavy lifting as a nonprofit executive has netted a winning managerial formula: Let my employees see me as one of them.

Know it or not, we’ve been schooled on how to set ourselves apart as managers since childhood: Didn’t the all-powerful Oz have his command center behind the curtain? Get rid of the curtain. Get rid of the comfort zone you’ve surrounded yourself with and connect on a real level with your employees.

Be a member of the team

While some may view this as a risky concession of power, experience has shown me that the risk is well worth the reward. I have found that positioning myself as a member of the team provides the necessary reinforcement and motivation for many of my employees to take that extra step. In other words, I lead by example.

Yes, the concept of leading by example is not new or rocket science. But as a daily management discipline, it requires a consistent and hands-on application in order to command the productive outcomes a large organization demands. Being open and accountable to staff for my decisions, good or bad, has been vital to the formula’s success.

I encourage my administrative team to point out areas where I can make improvements and openly engage in a critique of decisions that did not work out. I have found that an active demonstration of transparency is not only a great motivator, but builds employee confidence in me, and by extension, the organization overall.

The other side of the formula includes clearly communicating your organization’s mission and vision and backing that up with a solid foundation of policy and procedure. The organization stands for much more than any one individual, and driving our corporate philosophy from day one is one of the most important things I do as CEO. 

Meet all new hires

With this as a priority, I meet each employee that joins our team during his or her orientation. Yes, demands on my time can make this commitment difficult, but I’m not about to argue with results that work. Putting myself in front of each employee provides them with the opportunity to hear directly from me and gives me the chance to hear directly from them.

In the end, once policy and procedure have been digested at a level that successfully sets the ground rules, this management strategy opens the door for independent thinking to occur which leads to excellence in service delivery.

Simply put — being one of them allows me to communicate on a much more effective level. Employees know where I stand on issues. They know my expectations and they understand consequences. They know that I have faith and trust in them.

Over time, this has translated into lucrative managerial dividends. Employees take the investment I’ve made in them and leverage it forward with a personal commitment to co-workers and most importantly, the individuals our agency serves.

Terry Davis is president and CEO of Our Lady of the Wayside. The Wayside is a regional leader in residential, respite, transportation and adult day programming for children and adults with developmental disabilities. For more information, visit www.thewayside.org.