Letting it flow Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2007

Leaders who are too involved in their own company are kidding themselves, says Deni Tato. The president and CEO of Contract Interiors of Cincinnati Inc. says the biggest problem she hears from her peers is the inability to step back and realize their way isn’t always the right way to do something.

“I just think you bring a lot of confusion to the organization when you micro-manage,” she says. “So, step back and make that list of, ‘What do I really excel in? Where am I really needed?’”

Tato uses that philosophy to lead her office furniture solutions company, which posted $11 million in 2006 revenue; she estimates 2007 revenue of about $15 million.

Smart Business spoke with Tato about how to step back and let employees do their work, while still staying in contact with them.

Q: What are the keys to being a good leader?

The job of a leader is to recognize and nurture and inspire the unlimited potential in people. You have to have an infectious passion about what it is you’re doing. A leader needs to be able to paint a picture that allows employees to see the success that comes from aligning the strengths of each individual for the greater good and to instill in them the belief that we have what it takes to succeed.

What works for me is to always work from a position of abundance rather than scarcity. We try really hard around here, and we preface things in such a way that we are able to really focus on strengths as opposed to eliminating weaknesses.

Q: How do you recognize employees?

I have 20 employees, and I know each and every one of them very, very well. I know what they deal with on a personal basis is always a part of what they bring here. So, really knowing them and valuing them as an individual, instead of my accounts payable person, is huge.

I allow tons of flexibility. I really believe in their ability to self-manage, to get the work done, to know the right way to get the work done. My way is nothing more than my way of doing things. And I allow them so much freedom.

We have to agree to a common goal or a certain outcome; how they get there is really up to them. I just recognize them

as a unique human being that has desires and passions and issues that are unique to them, and that we kind of work around that and help them capitalize, again, on their strengths and what is working and, ‘How do we do this and get you to the next step?’

Q: How do you know when to step in and help an employee?

As the owner, I know I could have a lot of control. But, again, I believe the best results for my company come from trusting in their ability to self-manage that process. I really do work from the 30,000-foot perspective. I do work on the business; I do not work in the business.

I leave that to the employees within each department. I know because we have constant conversations. That is where my day is spent, not in big meetings; it’s completely open. We are a very flat organization, but it’s in constant conversations and me asking questions. I offer very little answers. I think the answers need to come from them. I just pose a lot of questions.

If there are barriers that I can remove in order for them to be able to visualize it and see what the right answer is, I do that. But I really stay away from dictating or saying this is the right way because, I think, a better result comes from them finding it, and it usually is because they know what they do much more intimately than I do.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is working too much?

It’s an internal process. You have to sit with yourself and say, ‘What is it about me that makes me think I am so valuable to everyone?’ I think people, if they leave at 3 and they don’t think their work is done or they think something is going to go wrong, that’s uncomfortable and not at all healthy.

I think the work of the CEO really needs to begin internally and get to know yourself and say, ‘Why am I so bothered by this? Why do I respond in this way, and what is it about me?’ I think when you really sit with those thoughts and digest it and just kind of accept that your way is not necessarily the best way.

HOW TO REACH: Contract Interiors of Cincinnati Inc., (513) 641-3700 or www.contractint.com