Designed for success Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

In the 1980s, Niles Bolton Associates Inc. grew more than 25 percent each year for five years straight, but Niles Bolton says that growth came with a cost.

“We outran our senior management and outran our talent pool,” says the company’s founder and CEO.

To resolve the issue, Bolton became more selective when taking on new contracts, which, in turn, allowed him to be more selective when hiring employees. Today, the 33-year-old architectural firm’s controlled growth plan has resulted in stability and success, posting 2007 revenue of $42 million.

Smart Business spoke with Bolton about how to inspire your employees and why they should wear ties — but you shouldn’t wear your concerns on your sleeve.

Q. How do you inspire your employees to be better professionals?

I grew up in the Boy Scouts and the Army and found what it took for me to work and gain the confidence of the people that I was leading.

I’m the chief cheerleader around here. If I walk around and something is bothering me, the staff can read me like a book. I’ve got to have a positive attitude and can’t let them see me when I’m worried about something or else they’ll start questioning and wonder what’s changing.

I have an MBWA — management by wandering around. You get what you inspect, not what you expect. It’s amazing what you learn by walking through every day and noticing how people work and what they do.

I may go up to somebody and say, ‘What are you messing up today?’ Well, if they know me, then they know I’m not being harsh. That’s my way of joking with them and getting with them. I’m looking to see what project they’re working on and trying to keep it light and fun — the cheerleader side.

But there are times I’m going to see things that will bother me. Then I can pass those comments on to somebody. I noticed this happen, what this person is doing. But when I walk around, then they tend to feel that it’s easier to turn around and ask a question.

Drop in and out of conference rooms where your staff has meetings going on. It’s amazing what you pick up on and understand. Then they know that you are keeping up with what’s going on. And they believe in you because you’re not sitting back, just in an office and never around.

They know you’re aware of things and want to keep up.

Q. How do you keep up with the operations?

You need a lot of good senior partners. They know I want to be aware of things — that I’m interested in what they’re doing. I’m not trying to manage those day to day, but I want to be kept up because everybody knows that things can be an issue.

They’re not all trying to just create their own book of business, or say, ‘Well, I’ve got to do this, and I can’t tell anybody else about it.’ They’re working as a firm, and they’re not being compensated to do it all by themselves. So they tend to share or bounce things off of you.

It’s the same with the 20 partners that have all bought in to where we are going. I am trying to see it all passed over to them. I’m hoping there’s a full buy-in on what we are doing.

It’s the people, and when they’re not in competition with themselves, they don’t mind talking and bouncing ideas off each other to verify what they’re trying to do.

Q. How do you create buy-in with your employees?

First, we try to take them into as many meetings as we can. It’s not just senior people going into meetings. All the guys here have to wear a tie every day, which is a little unusual. But I say, ‘You’re a professional, and I want you looking like a professional and treated like one.’

I want to be able, when the conference rooms are filled with clients coming in, I want the team leader to be able to take them in there so they hear and understand how we’re working and dealing with our clients.

Q. How do you measure your employees’ potential?

You determine from that how good their listening skills are. What are they hearing? When you’ve got two or three people in the room, did they all hear the same thing? They’re encouraged to give their own ideas and be a part of it. We’re trying to see who can take something on — who wants to step forward and be able to move out versus saying, ‘Everybody’s got the same rate because you’ve been here the same length of time,’ or, ‘You’ve been out of school for the same amount of time.’

Find out who can take responsibility and who can lead. Who can think and who is just occupying a seat as a job until they figure out something else they want to do?

You start seeing those people come out. But they are encouraged to talk within their teams, to create ideas, to have solutions.

HOW TO REACH: Niles Bolton Associates Inc., (404) 365-7600 or