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How Tony Thomas leads Welcome House Inc. with humility Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2010
Tony Thomas doesn’t mind being the one to clear the table and wash the dishes after dinner at Welcome House Inc. It’s a subtle gesture, but it’s one that earns him a level of respect from his 255 employees at the provider of programs and services for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“You’ve got to feel comfortable getting out of your leadership skin once in a while and getting down on the ground floor with your employees,” says Thomas, the agency’s executive director.

This kind of rapport becomes even more important when your organization or business is going through a difficult financial stretch. Employees are looking to you for guidance. They don’t expect you to say everything is great when it’s not, but they do expect a plan and a level of confidence that the plan will work.

“If you’re going out and saying it’s all doom and gloom, that’s not the message they want to hear from their leader,” Thomas says. “They may think things are bad and they may know it. But they want to hear from you about how you’re going to deal with it. What actions are you taking? How confident and positive are you as a leader? It’s being both positive about meeting a challenge and confident that you’re going to get through it. As a leader, you have to meet those challenges and you have to lead.”

So what do you do after the dishes have been washed, dried and put away? Well, try not heading straight back to your big corner office.

“Don’t walk into a site and then walk out quickly,” Thomas says. “Whatever business segment you have, when you walk into a site, spend some time. Talk with the folks. If you haven’t been there for a while, sit down and spend some time. Make sure you spend time at all levels.”

Your employees want to know that you’re working the numbers and finding ways to help your company get through the tough times. But they also want to see you.

“It’s actually getting out and talking with the staff and letting them know exactly what we’re doing to try to address budget,” Thomas says. “You really want to engage your front-line staff in the conversations about what you’re doing. I could see leaders really shrinking up under the pressure of this financial situation. Instead of shrinking, you have to expand your presence and your personality. You have to engage people in conversations, and you have to send out communication and really let people know that you’re concerned about them.”

So what if you’re only comfortable in the boardroom with an agenda and a big table as a buffer between you and your people?

“If you’re feeling uncomfortable, try to have small dialogue with groups of staff in neutral locations,” Thomas says.

Breakfast with the staff is a popular option for many leaders, and it can actually be effective at breaking down some barriers and easing the flow of communication.

“For a person who is not used to doing it or may be uncomfortable with dialogue, that’s a better format to get to know their folks and get to know their people,” Thomas says. “It’s not in your office. It’s not at a staff meeting. It’s not in front of the board. It’s in a neutral location. Folks are more willing to talk over breakfast or a cup of coffee sometimes than me coming to a staff meeting.”

But whether it’s breakfast, dinner or a meeting that doesn’t involve food at all, just make sure you’re not in a hurry. At least for that short period of time.

“Don’t just run in and run out,” Thomas says. “Ask lots of questions. Show them that you’re a real person.”

Find another way to help

Tony Thomas feels bad when he can’t give a pay raise to his employees at Welcome House Inc. But he believes he can and should do more than just provide them with a shoulder to cry on about it.

So that’s what he did. Welcome House, a provider of programs and services for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, partnered with its bank on a program to help employees save more money.

“We started an employee benefit program called Auto Save,” Thomas says. “It helps people save $5 to $10 per paycheck. We helped them set up special savings accounts through the bank so they could build it up and have a rainy day fund for those emergencies that happen to all people.”

Welcome House and its 255 employees worked with their bank, PNC, and with the treasurer’s office to develop the program.

“If those folks save $5 to $10 a week for the entire year, the state treasurer’s office will match it with an additional 3.25 percent interest,” Thomas says. “We look for ways to help employees stay positive and keep morale up even when we can’t provide additional salary in a traditional instance.”

How to reach: Welcome House Inc., (440) 356-2330 or www.welcomehouseinc.org