Know thyself Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

To be successful in business, Donna James says executives must empower their employees while providing a clear sense of direction.

The founder and managing director of Lardon & Associates LLC says this concept is hard for business leaders to adopt because it seems at first contradictory.

“Empowerment is one of those trite words that people use often but don’t necessarily execute very well,” she says. “As leaders, you have to create a vision, set expectations for quality, accountability and execution, and then allow people to work within those parameters. You also have to be ready to allow them to push back on you to reshape your vision.

“It is a balancing act. Empowerment without some type of foundation or some guiding principles is not really empowerment at all; it’s ambiguity.”

James retired after 25 years at Nationwide, most recently serving as the president of Nationwide Strategic Investments and as the executive vice president for Nationwide Insurance and Financial Services. She is the founder and chair of the Center for Healthy Families, and she currently serves as a board co-chair for the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio and as a board member for the Health Policy Institute of Ohio and Ohio Health.

Today, she is busily writing the next chapter of her professional life — running a consulting firm that specializes in corporate governance and new business development.

“One of the dangers as you move forward in leadership is that you’re constantly surrounded by people, but you could be isolated in your thinking, in idea exchange, in terms of feedback and the reality of what’sgoing on,” she says. “If you allow yourself to be in that ivory tower and if people aren’t comfortable telling you that the emperor has no clothes, you will walk around naked and have no idea.”

James says business leaders have to communicate to their work force that they welcome their ideas and their feedback, even if the employees’ ideas are different than their own. First, she says, leaders have to encourage employee feedback in the moment.

“When they do it, you have to thank them for it and say, ‘Wow, I’ve not thought of it that way,’ or, ‘Tell me more,’ or, ‘Why do you see it that way?’ or, ‘Here’s what I was thinking; what am I missing?’” she says.

Next, leaders have to invite feedback if it’s not occurring naturally, be authentic in their request and open themselves up to being vulnerable.

“Good leadership takes people who are comfortable with being wrong because sometimes the right thing is not necessarily what they think, and it’s not easy,” she says.

James says vulnerability can open up the leader to other people’s agendas, but the leader must trust his or her own judgment to discern between feedback and manipulation.

To make that distinction, James recalls some advice she received from a former employer: If you’re not sure how to make a decision about something, find three people you trust and ask them the same question. If you get three different answers, you’ve got a problem. If you get two answers that are the same, you might be on the right track, and you’ll know which avenue to explore.

Sometimes, James says, we stay in our own heads, trying to figure things out.

“The universe will keep sending the truth to you, whether you want to receive it or not, and if you don’t get the message the first time, you’ll eventually get it,” she says.

Sometimes the best way to see the truth about a situation is through the eyes of a business coach, and James has built relationships with several executive mentors throughout her career.

“Have someone whose job is to sit down with you and help you see the things you’re very good at — natural talents — and the things that don’t come naturally — either you have to work at them or you need to surround yourself with people who are naturally talented in that area,” she says.

She calls this concept “being an authentic leader” and says that understanding this philosophy allows executives to know themselves better, accept their strengths and their weaknesses and be open to advice as well as criticism.

“I’m much better and much more self-aware now than I’ve ever been before, but hopefully nowhere near where I’ll be when my time ends on this earth,” she says. “If I’ve got it all figured out, we’re in trouble.”

HOW TO REACH: Lardon & Associates LLC, (614) 222-0810