Carl Roehling Featured

8:00pm EDT July 28, 2006
 If there’s one thing that Carl Roehling has learned during his 20 years with SmithGroup, it’s the importance of people. Roehling, who was named president and CEO of the $130 million-plus architecture and engineering firm in 2001, says that the first thing new CEOs should do is evaluate the people around them and make sure the right people are in the right places. Doing that has enabled Roehling to train the current and future leaders of SmithGroup, enabling its expansion into new cities and overseas. Smart Business spoke with Roehling about the importance of people and how to be a good leader.

Plan for the future.
It’s very important to be able to have a clear understanding of where you want to go and to be able to have a clear picture of the future for yourself. It guides you in making decisions every day and helps prevent you from making short-term decisions that may compromise that long-term vision.

Surround yourself with people who are different.
Make sure that from Day One, you have the right team around you. That is something that I thought was very important.

I know my own personal strengths and weaknesses. I did not surround myself with people that were like me. I surrounded myself with people who were completely different from me and had very different skills.

That is the key to success. You have to understand what you do well, where you add value to your company as a leader and make sure you have a team around you that brings a different value to the firm.

Take a stand.
I believe that there are many leaders who just believe that everything should be a vote or popularity. And there are many times that a leader must take an opinion or a position that is not popular and that is a very difficult position. But they have to have the courage to stand behind their convictions and make that decision and stand by it.

I think that’s really important in a leader, especially in a firm like ours, which is fairly egalitarian. There’s a great many that are very consensus driven, and that’s our culture.

But on occasion, a leader needs to step up and make a decision that’s not going to be a consensus decision.

Be empathetic.
A leader has to be able to put themselves in the position of those that follow — of the individuals and the clients that we have outside the company — and be able to understand what their issues and concerns are from their perspective before they can craft a strategy or direction.

People call it emotional intelligence. I think that is a very important skill to have when dealing with both individuals within your firm and staff, as well as your clients and customers.

Be sensitive to other cultures.
There is a completely different business culture outside of the U.S. Things we take for granted, like handshakes, are not the same. Negotiation is not conducted the same way.

It’s those norms and cultural differences that you have to learn. People can tell you what to expect, but the only way to really master it is to actually go there, be involved, make a few mistakes — do some things that are probably not the most appropriate response at the time, but you learn from it.

It doesn’t take long, but you have to do it. There’s no way around it.

Know what you want.
The key things in our acquisitions are understanding the clear motivation that we have for acquiring a firm or merging with a company, and the motivation they have for being acquired or merging with us. It’s very important to make sure that that is openly discussed and in agreement.

We are very much a people business. So there are no assets we can assume in an acquisition and just assume that they’ll perform. We have to have buy-in by the individuals that are going to become a part of our organization.

The most important thing is to get their buy-in and to have them understand and articulate what is the benefit of being a part of our company and what our expectations are for them. There is really nothing else that gets close to those two issues.

Create buy-in.
It’s a fairly long process. It’s very much relationship-building and it starts from the very beginning of our discussions with them about a merger. We spend a great deal of time with facilitators in many cases and a great deal of face time one-on-one.

If you think about it, you are really building a relationship over a period of time. It takes time. It takes interaction. It takes informal dinners together.

You’re really building friends. You’re building connections and bonds. It takes months. It’s not something you do in one meeting or two meetings. It will take six months at a minimum to really build that relationship and that trust before we think the merger can work.

Know your financials.
There is a certain amount of business acumen that you must have. You have to be able to understand the blood of a company is its financial measures and metrics.

You have to have an understanding of those. You don’t have to be an expert, but you certainly must understand how they work and the implications for being healthy financially.

Take risks.
Many corporations or companies are too cautious. They’ll live within the status quo and won’t take a risk. We do like to take risks — calculated, of course.

We’re very careful about them, but without them you won’t be able to sustain the organization. That’s something we believed in and something most companies need to conscientiously do — change the status quo by taking some risks.

We always say to ourselves, ‘If it’s a good idea, what’s the worst that can happen?’ And if we can live with the worst, then we’ll take the risk. I think that’s a good credo to live by - in your personal life, as well as your company’s life.

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