Barry Carlson leads in front at Office Furniture Source Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

When Barry L. Carlson was in the Army, he attended a leadership academy, where a general told him something that stays with him to this day.

“You can’t get people to follow you into a hail of bullets when you are standing behind them saying, ‘You guys go ahead, and I will catch up to you later,’” he says

As president and chief operating officer of Office Furniture Source, Carlson has a similar message strategically placed in his office where he can always see it.

“As a leader goes, so go the followers,” says Carlson, who helped lead the company to more than $7 million in 2007 revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Carlson about how to lead so that your employees want to follow.

Q. How do you get people to follow your lead?

I will listen to their opinions, even when they are not good at expressing them. So, their opinion matters. Two, when I tell them that this is my opinion or it’s is my final decision, they know I gave it some thorough thought and that I will back them up if they go do what I told them to.

The third is I will monitor whatever that is and I will be the first to admit if it isn’t working, and we’ll adjust. I don’t leave them hanging.

Fourth is, if it fails, I’m going to take the blame, and I’ll come up with a new plan.

So, I think people are pretty confident when they hear me talk. I talk with authority, and they know that I mean it, and they know they are going to be accountable, and they know that I’ll never put the blame on them. I might share the blame with them. But, when things don’t go right, I’m going to go back and say, ‘Wait a minute. Is this because of the plan, or is it because we didn’t follow the plan?’

Q. How do you get employees to let their guards down and approach you?

We start at the interviewing process. We tell people, ‘Look, here’s what it takes to work here.’ One of those things that we tell them is that you have to be willing to express your opinion.

You’re not going to get yelled at for having an opinion. But you are going to get yelled at if you don’t share your opinion. As a matter of fact, you will probably get fired. So, right upfront, they have to participate. Then we have a process called team meetings. Everybody in the entire company, with the exception of myself and John (Perin) our CEO, they are in a team — mandatory participation.

They elect their own captain, and the captains serve for six months. The team’s objective is, talk amongst yourself, come up with ideas, come up with situations. If you could deal with it, then you are empowered to just go ahead and just don’t bother me, just do it.

On the other hand, if you need help from another team, like our sales group might need help from the office group or something like that, then it’s your job to go over and tell them that and work through it collectively.

Then, I act like a league president. We have the captains come together, and they give their team’s report. That’s monthly, and that’s where all the captains hear everything everybody else is doing.

(My) role is to sit there and teach them and coach them on, ‘Well, how do you deal with it on your own?’ Because our mantra is to get everybody to know what they are supposed to be doing and then give them the power.

Q. What advice would you give other leaders to empower their employees?

First and foremost, you’ve got to tell them what the boundaries are. You’ve got to tell them what you want them to do. What are they allowed to do? Where’s the line that they really shouldn’t cross?

That’s probably hard for most leaders to express that because somebody is going to look at you across the table and go ‘Well, every day is different.’

Then, this is the hard part. You have to back them up. You can’t yell at people for exercising judgment, if you trained them and you coached them and then they go do it. Now, if they go outside the realm of reality, well, now you’ve got something to complain about, and they are going to get yelled at or fired.

That’s a world of difference. You have to understand: Am I dealing with somebody that is just a mustang that’s stretching our realm, or is this somebody that broke the rule? If somebody goes out and orders a new Mercedes Benz and puts it on the company tab, that wasn’t in their power.

How to reach: Office Furniture Source, (513) 531-0900 or