Listen up Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

Like most people, Lizabeth Ardisana works in a building with office walls.

It’s an unfortunate thing for her because the co-founder, principal owner and CEO of ASG Renaissance LLC wants to understand what her 250 employees are doing and what they think about the organization, but the walls can cut down on her face time with employees. To counter that, she walks around to communicate her message and to get feedback from everyone at the professional services firm, which posted $25 million in 2007 revenue.

“You have to be able to listen to feedback, both positive and negative feedback,” she says.

Smart Business spoke with Ardisana about how she got over taking feedback personally and how to get employees to tell you what they really think.

Q. How do you create a culture where employees feel comfortable giving you honest feedback?

You have to create trust. It doesn’t happen overnight. Depending on what people’s previous experiences have been, it can be difficult to do. But, people have to see that it’s OK.

The data can be negative. Their feedback can be negative. But it’s not personal. It’s all about, ‘How do we make this thing better?’

The very first way you do that is take personal responsibility. The truth is, anything that is not going right in my company is my responsibility. I bear part of that no matter what the situation is.

Sometimes, I’m probably 99 percent the problem, and sometimes, I’m 5 percent the problem. But, I always have some responsibility for it. I think that you create that sort of environment by taking responsibility and sharing that responsibility.

Q. How do you get people to share information with you?

When you’re looking at a situation, it should be all about the data. I started years ago doing these surveys, asking people what they liked and what they didn’t like and what issues they had. You hoped that everybody will just actually feel comfortable discussing that with you, but sometimes, they’re not.

But you’d be surprised, like when you do a little survey, all this stuff comes up on the survey. The very first time I did that, I was annoyed. Like, ‘What are they talking about? What is that?’

I do a lot of marketing work, and we do a lot of market research. I said to myself, ‘Well, wait a second. This isn’t negative feedback. This is just like market research. Do you like chrome or black?’ It’s that kind of thing.

Nobody gets personal about that. Nobody says, ‘Oh my God, they didn’t like chrome; I’m dead.’ So, if you think about this as market research, then all feedback is good. But you have to sort of put yourself into that mind-set that every bit of feedback is good.

Q. How do you handle negative feedback?

The method of getting feedback to me is the same whether it’s a great idea or it’s a bad idea. You need to listen, which is hard for us all to do. But, you need to listen to the idea, you need to reasonably and fairly evaluate that idea.

Sincerely value the idea, and then you need to weigh it against a bunch of other factors. Not all ideas are doable. Not to say whether it’s a good or bad idea, but not all ideas fit into our business case or fit into the plans we have. It may be a great idea, but we just can’t do it.

I think if you value somebody’s idea, give them honest feedback. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea or a bad idea or an idea you could do or not do. The key is that you really thought about it. You gave it an honest consideration, and you gave somebody feedback as to whether or not it could be done.

Q. What advice would you give to someone who is not listening to employees?

You have to say to yourself, ‘If I prioritize all that I do in a day, what’s really the most important part of that? What’s the highest priority?’

The highest priority is the people. There are days when nobody lives up to that because you may say, ‘Sitting down and talking to someone is my highest priority, but I do have a client on the phone. I do have a stack of mail that needs to be read, I do have a bunch of financial grumble I have to go through, and you’re standing here in my office.’

No one of us can do that perfectly. If you’re doing that perfectly, you’ve got too much time on your hands. There are times when you feel like, ‘I’ve got something else I’ve got to do,’ and I think sometimes you should have to say that to somebody — ‘You’re really important to me, but, I’ve got this killer thing on my desk at the moment. So, as much as I’d like to communicate right now, we’re going to have to wait and catch up to that.’

As long as you’re not doing that all of the time, people are pretty understanding.

HOW TO REACH: ASG Renaissance LLC, (248) 477-5020 or www.asgren.com