In touch Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

When it comes to building a culture of collaboration and teamwork, keeping things simple can sometimes become a complicated task.

As principal of architectural and interior design firm Vocon Inc., Debbie Donley has built trust and confidence in her employees by adhering to a few simple rules — seek employee input, maintain a flat organizational structure and treat your employees like the adults they are.

Adhering to those principles has helped Donley minimize turnover and keep the company — which generated $15 million in 2008 revenue — both culturally and financially sound in a faltering economy.

Smart Business spoke with Donley about how you can build an employee-oriented culture at your business.

Q. How do you develop a culture of collaboration?

It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. Your actions have to give everybody permission to participate in that kind of culture. If you say you’re inclusive but then turn around and make decisions on your own, it’s not going to work. It has to be a grassroots kind of effort in order to have that leadership style.

Q. How do you develop an organization to remain flat?

One of the challenges of building an organization is keeping it flat while still having accountability matrices in place. It’s always an uncomfortable conversation when you’re saying to your management team — in our case, studio directors — that you want to be casual and inclusive and democratic but still telling them they’re accountable for the profitability of their groups. But you can balance it. It’s not a free for all — otherwise we wouldn’t be financially stable like we are, even with a slowing economy.

Q. How do you build accountability into an organization?

It’s really just communicating what your expectations are. You have to make that clear, because when you don’t know what your expectations are, it confuses everyone around you. That’s why we’ve really worked as a management team to become better communicators, not just with our internal management group but with the entire firm.

Honesty and trust are the keys to good communication. Like a lot of companies, we have been forced to make some tough decisions in terms of layoffs — the first time we’ve had to do that in 21 years of running the firm. We laid off a group of folks, and afterward, it was really tough to stand up in front of everyone and explain why, but you just have to be honest.

That is what we’ve tried to be along the way, because if you lose the trust in employee relationships, everything just kind of spirals backward and it becomes really difficult to correct. So it just comes back to being honest. We have good things that happen and we share those, and sometimes we have setbacks and we share those. It’s better than just letting everyone be surprised about what is around the corner. So try to be as transparent as you possibly can about your situation.

Q. How do you keep employees engaged in building the company going forward?

People get motivated when they’re a part of the solution. You have to try to build that kind of can-do atmosphere. There is no secret as to where the economy is going. Most major corporations are hurting right now, so if I stood up at our state of the firm speech and said, ‘Everything is great, guys,’ that would be silly. So our people know that every hour they can spend doing something productive with their time will help Vocon.

The key to that is spending the time and taking the time, not brushing someone off if they approach your desk when you’re in the middle of something. If it’s a silly question or a personal question, you just have to be in the moment.

There are days where it does get in the way to have that approach; I’m not going to lie. You have deadlines; you have things to do. But you just have to make it a priority. If you’re accountable to your business and an active part of the leadership team, you should be accountable for the communication part of things. At Vocon, you won’t survive here if you don’t. We have hardly any turnover, but those who have gone, in many cases, it came down to not fitting in with our culture.

Q. What are some other keys to building employee trust and confidence?

I go back to the line, ‘It’s not what you say; it’s what you do.’ It’s one thing to get up and preach about the economy or preach about efficiency, preach about hard work, it’s another to actually demonstrate it, to put your money where your mouth is.

For example, we have flextime here at Vocon, and one of the reasons is that being a mom is a huge priority to me, and that flexibility is important to a lot of parents here. That’s just the bottom line, and we don’t want to do it any other way. As a result, when people walk out of here at the end of the day, you’re not hearing whispers that they had to blow something off on their schedule or anything.

People are accountable for their own schedules. The bottom line isn’t if you put in your 40 hours, or however long, it’s did you get your job done. It comes back to the fact that your people are adults, so you should treat them like adults. You need to promote adult-to-adult relationships in an organization, not relationships that are more like adult-child. That’s something we’ve worked really hard at doing.

How to reach: Vocon Inc., (216) 588-0800 or