The ‘we’ in leadership Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2010

There’s one letter Joseph V. Barna tries to leave out of leadership.

“I always tell people, ‘Forget the ‘I’ word and adopt the ‘we’ word,’” says Barna, principal of CRESCO Real Estate. “When you hear owners of companies and it’s, ‘I did this, I did that,’ it drives me crazy, and it negatively affects the morale of the company.”

By replacing pronouns, Barna strives to boost engagement by seeking input from his 26 employees and involving them in problem-solving.

First, before you can expect employees to open up, you need to gain their trust. That starts by proving your credibility.

“I would never implement a policy or a strategy or a goal that I wouldn’t do myself,” Barna says. “When you’re doing it and you’re taking the lead and people see that it’s getting done by the management, you build credibility.”

But as credible as you may be, employees won’t trust you if you’re distant. You also have to develop personal relationships.

“Take an interest in the people. Know a little bit about what they do outside the office,” Barna says. “It’s good to know what their family’s about, if their kids are playing baseball. So when you’re talking to your employees, it’s not necessarily about work but it’s like, ‘What’s happening with you? How’s Johnny doing in Little League?’ When you start to develop that type of relationship, you build that trust.”

Barna asks simple questions while walking through the office like, “What’s keeping you up at night? What’s bothering you? What can we change?” Initiating conversations comes with the caveat that you’ll actively listen to the feedback.

“It means that you’re gathering information instead of shooting from the hip, giving information that you probably don’t know that much about,” he says. “You’re much more effective when you listen to the people — I call them the foot soldiers. Go to the people that actually do it hands-on and have an open conversation with them.”

If you’re trying to streamline a billing process, for example, you’re better off asking your billing coordinators than trying to handle it yourself. Barna even calls trusted advisers who lead other companies and asks their billing coordinators how they’ve mastered the process.

You start with digging expeditions to uncover frustrations, then asking front-line expert employees for their suggested solutions — but hopefully you foster ambitious problem-solvers along the way.

[See Barna talk about using 'we' in leadership on video]

“I would rather people come to me and say, ‘Here’s the problem. I looked into it, and here’s three solutions, and of the three, here’s the one I think will work,’” Barna says. “It’s a lot easier to do things that way than for them to come and say, ‘This doesn’t work.’”

But trust goes both ways. It’s not just about them opening up to you; you also have to trust that they’re giving you viable solutions. It’s easy to believe your IT tech who’s been with you for 20 years, but it is more of a process with newer employees who haven’t proven their problem-solving abilities.

“If they’re not proven yet or I don’t have the same level of confidence in them, then I know I’ve got to investigate other solutions,” Barna says. “Or I just get to the second- or third-level questions: Why? Are you sure? What makes you think this?”

Not only does involving employees bring better solutions, but it also improves morale and buy-in.

“When you include the employees in all aspects of looking for solutions to problems, you’re promoting morale because they’re part of the process. It’s easy to get employees’ buy-in,” Barna says. “You’re also fostering an environment where they start to think about solving problems before they become problems.”

How to reach: CRESCO Real Estate, (216) 520-1200 or http://www.crescorealestate.com/ or http://www.barnacaplan.com/

Keep it balanced

As important as it is for Joseph V. Barna to build personal relationships with his employees at CRESCO Real Estate, it’s also crucial that he keeps work and personal life separate and balanced.

“It’s getting much easier due to technology,” says Barna, a principal at the Cleveland company. “Between my BlackBerry, my laptop and one of those little air cards, I can be anywhere and conduct business. So there’s no excuse.

“It’s kind of a bad thing, too, because when clients know that you’re connected and they reach out to you, you can’t say you were traveling for two days. They know you’re getting your e-mails.”

To keep work from running into your personal time, revert to traditional tactics.

“You just have to do it the old-fashioned way and set time aside,” Barna says. “You just block it out.”

At the insistence of his doctor, for example, Barna made a commitment to get to the gym four days a week. So he sets his alarm for 4:30 a.m. and knocks out exercise first thing in the morning. Also as an avid fisherman, Barna — who happens to live right on Lake Erie — blocks out time in the summer for fishing trips. To make up for it, he works some winter weekends in anticipation.

“I don’t miss a beat because I have competent people in the office,” he says.