Keeping it real Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

When Elaine Roberts was offered her first job at an airport, she accepted it but told her boss she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay in that field for her career.

Twenty-five years and three airports later, Roberts is president and CEO of Columbus Regional Airport Authority, an independent, governmental entity responsible for operating three Central Ohio airports: Port Columbus International Airport, Rickenbacker International Airport and Bolton Field.

With 2007 operating revenue of $75.4 million and 390 employees, Roberts runs her organization like a private business with a public purpose. Several years ago, the airport authority was experiencing growing pains, so Roberts and her managers solicited input from employees to create a five-year strategic plan to manage growth.

They also hired an outside consultant to study the efficiency of the three airports’ IT division, and the employees were so pleased with the results that Roberts expanded the study to make her organization’s other operating units as effective.

Smart Business spoke with Roberts about how she makes sure her employees are heard and how she motivates them to do their best.

Be collaborative and accessible.

Where it’s practical, I like to get consensus and buy-in to decision-making. When we don’t have that luxury of time and decisions need to be made quickly, I certainly can do that.

I have regular staff meetings every other week with my management team. I try to engage conversation with that group before making a change. I’ll make sure everybody has an opportunity to be heard, and if there is disagreement, we’ll see if we can look at all the options before we make a decision.

My style is fairly open; I want to be accessible to all employees. I’m a pretty hands-on leader. I try not to micromanage, but I do keep pretty informed about what’s going on across the organization.

When we’re going to discuss a change in direction in the way we’ve been doing things, I’ll try to engage conversation with my executive direct reports and our senior team before making the change. I’ll make sure everybody has an opportunity to be heard, and if there is disagreement, we’ll see if we can look at all the options before we make a decision.

Aim for alignment and accountability.

Alignment helps keep focus on what’s really important. If you’re not aligned properly and you’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen trying to manage problems, it’s not nearly as efficient. It can also be stressful because you have people in the ranks saying, ‘Who’s doing this? Who’s got responsibility?’

The biggest issue is accountability. Who do you hold accountable if something doesn’t get done? Do you have to ask two or three or four people how much of this project are they involved with? Employees generally don’t want to see their peers getting away with not being held accountable.

Alignment and accountability are ways to communicate to the entire work force: ‘Here’s what we’re focused on. Here’s who’s going to have lead responsibility, and they’re going to need support and help from the other divisions.’

Motivate your staff. A couple years ago, we created the President’s Award of Excellence. Throughout the year, you can nominate another employee, or a supervisor can nominate somebody, and we’re looking for things like how this employee exemplified our core values.

Twice a year, we go through a selection process with a committee of managers and senior leaders. We have a recognition luncheon and let those employees invite their families. We give each person a check, and we do a communication piece with their picture and why they were a recipient of the award, and that’s distributed to all the employees.

Does that motivate people to perform? I would hope it does. It’s really more about the recognition in front of their peers and their family that motivates people to want to do well.

If you don’t recognize when employees are performing well, they’ll lose potential motivation to do a good job, and they’ll think that their boss doesn’t care one way or the other. If you don’t recognize employees, it also allows the company to become more complacent and satisfied with the way things are.

It’s important to reward exceptional performance when an employee goes above and beyond. This is the kind of behavior, performance and customer service that we want our other employees to model. We want to be known as exceeding our customers’ expectations.

Stay grounded. Don’t get too big for your britches, and don’t forget where you came from. There are a lot of people that helped make you successful personally as well as the team and the organization.

There’s always a place for recognizing personal performance and holding people accountable for their responsibilities, but it also takes a lot of people to run any successful organization, and you need to identify it, show appreciation and not lose sight of that. I’ve had the fortune of some excellent mentors and people who opened doors for me, and I’ve always greatly appreciated that.

I had one of these strange ambitions growing up of wanting to work in everybody’s job at least a day so I could relate to those individuals and appreciate what they go through. ... So I had a lot of part-time jobs and summer jobs before I went away to college.

All of that ties back into my history: I can only be successful if I have successful people around me, and the whole team is successful.

HOW TO REACH: Columbus Regional Airport Authority, (614) 239-4000 or