If you want to become an approachable leader, don’t shoot down someone’s idea, even if you’ve heard it before, says Steve Kopitz.
Kopitz, founder, owner, president and CEO of Summit Sports Inc., says that it’s easy to cut ideas short when you’ve been in business awhile and think you’ve heard it all, but you need to keep an open mind.
“We may have tried it 10 years ago,” says the leader of the sporting goods company, which posted 2007 revenue of about $20 million. “It may have not worked back then, but it may work now.”
Smart Business spoke with Kopitz about how to be more approachable to your employees.
Q. What is the biggest challenge to being approachable?
The biggest challenge is getting people over the hump of really believing that it’s true. They’ve usually worked for people that are not approachable or who say they are. We have a saying in my company, and that is, ‘No one can be fired for anything that they say.’ Meaning, you need to feel comfortable and you should feel comfortable in voicing your opinion, even it’s completely against what we’re doing. Maybe it’s you think everything we’re doing is ridiculous, but we want to hear that opinion. Even if we maybe don’t agree with it, when we’re done hearing it, we still want to hear it, and I don’t think that corporate culture exists in most companies.
So, you can’t just have a person come in and you tell them, ‘Well, nobody ever gets fired in our company for what they say (and) that all of a sudden they’re just going to be an open book and tell you everything that they feel. It takes time, often months or years, before people truly believe and understand that philosophy.
Q. How can a leader create an open corporate culture?
The best thing that you can do is simply go around and ask people how they really feel. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to tell you the first time, but, over time, they’re going to get comfortable when you seem to really be interested in their opinion, and especially when their opinion actually ends up being something that you implement.
Because we sell sporting goods and it’s something that everybody who works in the company really likes, we have these things called ‘Sports Bucks,’ and that’s basically gift certificates that we give employees for a variety of reasons.
One of the things we give them to (employees) for is for good ideas. So, when an employee comes up with a good idea, we’ll give them $25 or $50 or $100 of ‘Sports Bucks’ that they can use toward free sports equipment of their choice.
So, not only do we compliment them that it’s a great idea, but we really reinforce it by rewarding them with some cool sports equipment.
Q. How do you become more approachable?
The first thing is you have to be very open-minded. You think you know the way, and I have very strong opinions in my business, but I never make any decision without consulting at least multiple people. Because, even though I think things are really clear, after I consult multiple people, I find that sometimes, my ideas are not as well thought out as I thought.
I try to emphasize to all of my staff, ‘Don’t make any decisions in a vacuum. Run your ideas by other people.’
Sometimes, you’ll change your idea completely, or some times, you’ll get an enhancement on it. But, even at the top, it’s very dangerous to make decisions without getting as much input as you possibly can.
Q. What other advice would you have for a leader on how to become more approachable?
One is just a real open-door policy. I’ve got about 150 employees, and they all can and often do call me or e-mail me or sometimes even stop in to say something or even invite me to lunch if they have something really on their mind.
Q. What does an open-door policy mean to you?
It means that every employee has to feel comfortable. I mean, your door can be open, but that doesn’t really mean anything. They’ve got to feel comfortable that they can really speak their mind and get a bit of your time and that you really will give them the feeling and the sense that you really care about their opinion.
Even if you don’t agree with it, they don’t always have the information that you have. But, sometimes there’s a morsel, that if you shut yourself off just because maybe you’ve done it before or it’s something that you are totally against the best ideas come out of the craziest ideas.
So, you’ve got to let a person completely explain what their thought process is and not shut them down in the very beginning because once you shut them down the first time, they’re not going to come back and talk to you again.
HOW TO REACH: Summit Sports Inc., (888) 271-7500 or www.summitonline.com