John M. Davis thinks of himself as a people leader, which translates into being in front of his employees as often as possible.
But being that kind of leader has become more difficult since Davis accepted the role of president and chief operating officer at National Investment Managers Inc. in 2007. The investment management and pension administration company — which posted 2008 revenue of $42 million — has 24 offices in 15 states, but only nine of its 450 employees work with Davis in the corporate headquarters.
For Davis, that means communication has taken on new forms, such as phone conferences and webinars. But the importance of staying connected to employees hasn’t changed.
“Constant communication with employees is vital,” Davis says. “They have to hear from you. They have to know that you listened to what they said.”
Staying connected means listening, asking questions and involving employees in decisions. The end result is a staff that feels appreciated and gives you a pulse for the company.
Smart Business spoke with Davis about how to engage your employees.
Stay connected to your employees. You have to stay grounded with your staff. Frankly, I think a lot of business leaders forget that. They forget where they came from, they forget that they were on the front line at one point, at least many of them were, and I know I was.
You have to remember where you come from, what’s important to those people, and continue to reinforce the behavior and let them know that you appreciate what they do because they are the most important asset that we have.
You have to get out and talk with people. You have to walk the floor. I would set aside time every week to do nothing but walk the floor maybe for a couple of hours, stop in cubicles, talk to people.
You would be amazed what people will tell you. Then, tell them what you think. People will ask you what you think, and you tell them. You don’t try to pretend that this is too important to discuss with employees.
You have to do that. If you’re not out there, you’re missing it.
Ask and listen. The one thing that I do that people appreciate is — and this sounds simple but — listen. Ask. I’ll do breakfast meetings, I’ll do dinner meetings, lunches.
I ask people what’s on their mind. ‘How is it I can help? What are you concerned about?’ When you start to hear common themes you have to act upon it, so you can go back to those employees and say, ‘I heard what you said, and this is what we’re doing.’
You would be surprised, even if in the course of a month (if you) took a couple of ideas and made even a subtle change. The employees in the organization talk. When they can spread the word that, ‘Oh yeah, I talked to John, he invited me to a breakfast. This is what I said, and this is what he did.’ I’m telling you they will listen to you. There’s not this ivory tower management team here that doesn’t listen to the employees. And, oh by the way, when they listen, they take action.
You’re not going to take action on every item because you do get some people that just want to complain and moan about they didn’t get a big enough raise or whatever it is. But there is a lot of value in listening to people because they will get to the bottom or the heart of the matter of a lot of things. There’s a lot of ‘oh wow’ moments that I’m able to act upon.
I’ll go out and build a task force and say, ‘This is what I’m hearing; let’s research it a little bit more. Bring me some facts and then let’s make a decision about what we want to do.’ People respond to that.
Promote teamwork. I can’t be everywhere, and because I don’t have a corporate staff that can run every project that I need to run, I have created numerous teams, committees, task forces — teams of people in the field ranging from three or four people to 10 people to solve various matters.
I ask for volunteers. I generally pick a leader. I pick someone that I think has expressed interest to me. I typically ask them for volunteers and build the team and empower them to solve the problem.
The team might stay together for a month or three weeks or whatever it takes to bring a recommendation to me, and we evaluate it and make the best decision on what to do.
I can’t be everywhere, and my staff can’t be everywhere, but I have a team of people that will lead the initiative. I have to rely on that.
When people get to participate as part of a team, they see the value that they are bringing to the organization because when I go out and announce to 450 people that this team that might be five people was successful in negotiating this arrangement or was successful in solving this problem, everybody knows it, and their names are out there and they get full credit in what they’ve done.
That’s how you engage people — you let them solve problems. They’re not just there to answer the phone and go through the motions during the day, but there are other things that I assign them. They really feel valued.
How to reach: National Investment Managers Inc., (614) 923-8822 or www.nivm.com