A walk in the park Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

Ever think your management style could use a bit of Greek philosophy? It works for J. Michael Robison, who uses the Socratic method to get greater buy-in and commitment from his management staff at Lanier Parking Holdings, a $46 million, 794 employee management company that has handled parking and transportation needs for Super Bowls, the Democratic National Convention and the Olympic Games.

When discussing a plan with his employees, Robison uses Socrates’ style of holding a dialogue through a series of questions until they reach consensus, a method he finds more effective than simply stating his plan.

“I’m really leading a horse to water and making him drink,” says Lanier’s chairman and CEO. “When they come into that right answer, it’s so much more effective if they have come to that conclusion for themselves.”

Smart Business spoke with Robison about how he gets buy-in from his employees and how to deal with a bad decision.

Q: How do you deal with bad decisions?

We try to act very quickly. The main thing we impress upon all management folks is try to make an intelligent decision as best you can and make it in a time-sensitive manner. You’re not going to get kicked around for that.

Just immediately make it right. Disclose the problem; do not cover it up. Covering it up and sweeping it under the rug is a no-no in our culture. Get it out in the open and address the problem.

You need to acknowledge the mistake and apologize when necessary and build the infrastructure to minimize the chance of the same mistake happening again over time. So many companies we see struggling repeat the same problems over and over again. That’s because a lot of companies try to cover up mistakes instead of finding the problem and fixing it.

Q: How involved in the day-to-day operations should a leader be?

You have to show up to the dance every single day until you’re ready to check out for good. The speed of the pack is governed by the pace of the leader, and if you’re not showing up to the dance, then you just shouldn’t be here.

Delegation is probably the key to growth. I take five hours to train someone to save me five minutes. Then you wake up 10 years later and you’ve ultimately delegated thousands of hours worth of work that you would have been stuck doing yourself.

I’ve never believed that to get something done right you have to do it yourself. On the contrary, to get something done right and grow, someone else capable has to do it.

Q: What do you look for in employees?

Everybody’s got to bring their ‘A’ game when it comes to presenting a positive attitude, even in the most adverse conditions. With a bad attitude, you can’t get anything done. With a good attitude, you can get anything done.

We tell people during the interview process that we’re looking for very smart people with positive attitudes who believe they can accomplish anything and change the world. Those people can learn anything and accomplish anything.

Yeah, we look for job skills, collegiate resumes and things like that, but equally important are the attitudes of people. Even their attitudes toward previous jobs they have left — a tell-tale sign for someone who is not going to cut the mustard here is someone who spends time belaboring things going on at a previous company that they didn’t like.

We’re looking for people who get into a situation and look to change things rather than reflecting on the negative. Negative people just don’t survive very long around here.

Q: How do you manage growth?

When we first started accomplishing explosive, massive growth of about 50 percent annually year-in and year-out, we realized that we had to start stepping back in order to take a couple steps forward. So we continually passed on opportunities to ensure that we invested sufficient time to build infrastructure and to maintain the same level of quality. We’d like to double the size of company in the future while still maintaining that level of quality.

Without question, our biggest challenge has been putting a leash on our growth. It is so painful.

It’s just not as exciting to pass on opportunities in order to invest resources to position yourself to grow in the future, but it’s something you need to do.

HOW TO REACH: Lanier Parking Holdings LLC, (404) 881-6076 or www.lanierparking.com