When Rebecca Smith founded construction company The A.D. Morgan Corp. in 1989 at the age of 29, she knew she was in for a challenge.
As a young woman leading a group of older men, Smith had to work extra hard for respect. But instead of making her presence felt by pounding her fist and reminding everyone that she was the boss, Smith took the opposite route.
“This ominous power that comes from an ivory tower doesn’t work,” the company’s president says. “I needed to be very tactile, real and in touch with those folks because they needed to find strengths, security and safety, and they needed to feel good about me. Therefore, they needed to know who I was, and showing strength at the same time that you maintain restraint is key.”
Smith followed that philosophy in growing the company — which employs about 50 people — to 2007 revenue of about $75 million.
Smart Business spoke with Smith about how to communicate with employees to stay in touch with them and stay out of the ivory tower.
Be part of the team, but be in charge. You need to be in touch. You need to be very real. You need to lead by example. You need to not be afraid to be constructively critical and leave it in a positive, lesson-oriented message.
You go in, bite with the bad news, step back and leave it on a level of, ‘I know this is not your normal behavior because you are generally such a capable manager,’ or, ‘You are such a capable superintendent, but let’s agree that this particular circumstance can’t continue. So, let’s get back to where you were.’
So, I come in with a message, and I am very clear and very specific and very honest and very direct, but the friendship part is, I’m not going to leave you wounded. I’m going to leave you with the sense that I believe this is a hiccup and not a trend.
Look at an employee’s full body of work. If I see a general malaise in their attitude or a little bit of a flip, cavalier sense, I jump them pretty hard. If they are generally tasking and working and just have made an error or overlooked something, the message is still direct, and it’s very honest. I just don’t keep harping on it.
That’s part of that being in touch. You can’t lead from an ivory tower. You have to know what is going on with people. Let’s just say that there was something going on in their personal life that I had been made aware of. If they were not on their game and not necessarily working at their level, I wouldn’t go and lambaste somebody that I knew was struggling personally. I would deal with it a little more sensitively.
But again, look at the overall performance in their job. ‘What’s going on with you? Are you feeling like you’ve got the world licked and you are in charge of you, and that’s the end of the story?’
Then we’re probably going to clip those wings a little bit more to bring it back down to a sense of real. ‘You are a part of this team. You are not the team. You are responsible to perform, although not to perfection. We all accept errors, but this is X, Y, Z unacceptable.’
You have to know where you are going, but then you have to look around you and say, ‘These are people that I am trying to motivate, manage and direct. How do I get them to enjoy my mission? How do I get them to understand?’ Well, in order to do it the very best way, you have to understand each individual.
Communicate the good and the bad. For me, it’s at the core of my being, but I have always wanted to work in an environment [of], ‘Just tell me where I stand. Give me the mission, step back, tell me if I have accomplished it or not’ — that direct, honest, continuing communication.
It’s good in every part of your life. Whether it’s your relationship, whether it’s your business relationship, whether it’s your relationship with outside business interface, it’s all good.
Nobody can ever do better if they don’t understand what they’ve done is either right or wrong, good or bad. How can you, if all you do is you write memos to people’s personnel file when they screw up? How will they ever know when they’ve really done something well, that somebody took notice?
How many of us in our lifetime said, ‘Well, they sure never tapped me on the back when I knocked one out of the ballpark. Boy, I sure don’t hear anything when I brought the job in early.’
Well, that’s not so. We talk about errors, mistakes, oversights and, at the same time, going around the circle talking to the manager or the superintendent. I’ll say, ‘Let me just stop and say thank you because if you guys don’t know this, so-and-so just brought their job in. I will tell you, it is one for us to all sit up and be proud for.’
I really talk about it. It’s good feedback, and it’s the hierarchy of family. It’s the hierarchy of business. It’s the hierarchy of humans. I’ve always thought that people will never work harder when you give them more money, but they’ll work really effectively and be committed to the mission if they get feedback that they are on the right track and doing well. Because who doesn’t love that?
HOW TO REACH: The A.D. Morgan Corp., (813) 832-3033 or www.admorgan.com