Long-term leadership Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

Pam Sessions has been an entrepreneur and enjoyed working from an early age.

As a 7-year-old, she hosted mini carnivals, and by age 12, she was ordering candy as if she had a real store. She says she loved working and felt she was wired to do so because she enjoyed making people happy and providing them with something that they wanted and for which they were willing to pay.

That love for work and an entrepreneurial flare stayed with her as she and her husband, Don Donnelly, founded home-building company Hedgewood Properties in 1985. In 2006, the 70-employee company posted revenue of more than $100 million, and Sessions’ leadership as co-owner and president is being tested as the company faces the steep housing recession.

Smart Business spoke with Sessions about how to alleviate uncertainty when your company is facing tough economic times.

Communicate. What people fear the most is uncertainly. There’s such an important need to keep strong and consistent interaction and communication, so you don’t have uncertainty lead to rumors, lead to fear, lead to who knows what from there.

It’s humbling, and it’s important to be completely honest. Although we can’t give them certainty as to what the market will do, we can let them know the strategies, the effects and the impact, and not just talk at them but include them and get their feedback and opinions.

At the heart of how everyone listens is, ‘How does this affect me?’ Be sure that you’re speaking to them and you’re able to walk in their shoes and understand what their concerns are, what their uncertainties are and be confident. It’s so critical to be confident, to be courageous.

If you have self-confidence, you can instill it in others. It’s building partnerships and maximizing the energy. In times of uncertainty, leadership is even more important, so it’s not having all the answers and needing their input to make good decisions but still exhibiting confidence.

Hire great people. It’s times like these that highlight the quality and spirit of our people. You see clearly what your culture is about and the character of your company. It’s all about your people. It sounds trite, but it absolutely is the difference.

We look for more than just the job skills. It’s important to hire people with positive attitudes and creative thinkers.

We have a testing process that is behavior-driven for compatibility of that job and to help us understand how to bring out the best in that employee. We like to meet people’s family, if possible, because a job isn’t just a one-person factor — it affects the whole family.

Then it’s just a matter of asking the questions that matter to you most and getting people to talk to you. ... Ask open-ended questions that enable people to open up.

When you hire people that share your philosophy, passions and principles, you are working within a trusting environment, and when you are in a respectful environment, all ships rise. Everyone learns that respect for each other is part of the culture. It definitely can provide a more trusting atmosphere.

Be in it for the long term. Make the commitment to a long vision. The decisions that are made short term are not always the most impactful.

Think about where you want to get and all the smaller impacts that are necessary to get you there. You have to hone down, refine and make as efficient as possible everything that you are today just to survive.

It’s important to not fall into the trap of being myopic. You have to stay in the broader world and be aware of what’s happening, changing trends, changing demographics, population trends — everything that influences tipping points and social changes.

It’s not just about your business. Your business is interconnected with everything else that’s going on in the world, so it’s looking at that for logistical reasons but also for inspirational reasons.

Having a long-term focus helps you get through the day to day.

Solicit input. When you work in a participatory style, you’re working together, you’re communicating, and everyone has an important role in the process.

Don’t call a meeting to discuss things. You’re just out amongst your people all the time. You’re talking, and it’s casual and comfortable, so it’s not intimidating because you’re doing it all the time.

People still look to you, as the leader, to be the decision-maker, but they know their voice matters. They continue to give good advice and good consult because they know it does matter. They see that you’re taking in their input and understanding that perspective, and your decisions are influenced by that.

Do what’s right. Make those sound decisions to do what you believe to be right all the time, even in times of conflict, even times of temptation. Take that high road, do what is right and make good, sound decisions in that spirit. Just do right by people.

Leadership is over time — I don’t think anyone is an instant leader. Over time, it’s those little pieces — one happy customer, one great partnership, or one loyal employee, all of those things where you make decisions — and little rewards add up to a successful business.

It’s that same commitment, even when there’s apparently nothing in it for you.

HOW TO REACH: Hedgewood Properties, (770) 889-3667 or www.hedgewood.com