Understanding the vision Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008
When Dennis M. King took over leadership at Harley Ellis Devereaux Corp., he spent his first year analyzing his own personal leadership style as well as how the organization could succeed.

“It came down to an understanding that all of us pulling together, taking advantage of our myriad of different views and visions and ideas and capabilities and talents could take the organization much further than me as one person trying to do it all,” says the company’s corporate chairman and CEO.

That’s when he realized the importance of vision in leading the 500-employee commercial architecture organization, which posted approximately $70 million in revenue last year.

Smart Business spoke with King about how empathy and persistence are critical to communicating your vision.

Q. What are the keys to being a good leader?

You have to begin with a vision that invigorates the organization. If you can’t articulate and share with everyone a simple message about where you’re going, then it’s very difficult for employees to get excited about an organization. So, having an invigorating vision is important.

You have to be able to sell that. You have to be able to communicate enthusiastically — to sell the vision and communicate it and repeat and get people to buy in to it.

You just have to be able to have empathy and understand how people are feeling about your message. It’s one thing to just sort of give directions or make suggestions. It’s something entirely different to understand how your message is being read and felt by your organizations. So you have to be empathic.

Maybe above all, you have to be persistent. Leadership is all about the sort of traditional follow-me kind of concept. If you keep changing direction or giving conflicting messages, it gets very muddy and difficult for people to understand where they’re going.

So persistence is really important.

Q. How do you show empathy?

Everyone learns differently. Some people learn from listening, some people learn from reading, some people learn from writing and combinations of all those kinds of things. A lot of people take a different amount of time to absorb and appreciate things based on their interest, their training, their background, their knowledge.

Particularly when you are trying to implement a change of some sort in an organization, you have to be persistent and, more importantly, you have to be watchful of how the message is being accepted and how people are embracing it. There is the natural, initial resistance for any change because people don’t like to upset their lives. So they are going to wait to see if change is for the best and if it’s going to last or whether you are going to give up on it.

Q. How do you know when you are being persistent enough?

Our staff members let us know that. Because of the kind of culture we have, we have an open-door organization. People can walk into my office anytime and give me feedback at anytime as necessary.

Now, not everyone is comfortable doing that no matter how nice of a guy I am. But, there are mechanisms where they can do that to their direct supervisor or they can do it to a peer who perhaps is more comfortable talking to leadership.

We do an annual staff survey to gauge how we are doing in our organization year to year. That gives us a measure of areas where we may need improvement or areas where we are improving or issues that may be arising. Just like we communicate on many plains, we also try to listen on many plains. We know when there are struggles or tugs of war going on in the organization or where personalities may be conflicting. Then we can work in a proactive, positive way with a staff to address those kinds of needs.

Q. How do you handle someone who is resisting the vision?

Initially, with patience, repetition, reinforcement and then, at some point in time, if you’ve done everything you can, and the individual is opposed, then you have to make a decision. They have to either decide to move on, or they have to decide to be a part of the organization because I think there is a limit after which an organization cannot put up with resistance that is disruptive to the organization.

If you don’t take that action, if you let a staff member get away with the opposition for an unreasonable period of time, then the other staff members are going to look at you and say, ‘Well, what happened to the big vision, to the message about change and the importance of that? Why is that person allowed to get away with it?’ Sometimes, that can be painful. You can have a situation where an individual might be very valuable to the client as far as the skills go.

But if they’re disruptive to the productivity of those around them, then you might have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

HOW TO REACH: Harley Ellis Devereaux Corp., (248) 262-1500 or www.harleyellis.com