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8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008
George Ball wants all of his employees to be all-stars.

The chairman of Houston-based Sanders Morris Harris Group Inc. views his role as leader of his 684 employees similar to that of the manager of a baseball team.

If someone dictates the starting lineup to the team manager, Bell says that tends to create in the manager a subliminal desire to achieve defeat. But, if the manager establishes the batting order himself, he is motivated to show that he’s made good choices.

That’s why Ball allows his managers to make their own choices at his $185.8 million financial services holding company instead of dictating behavior to them.

Ball’s firm provides its clients with money management, trust services, investment banking and brokerage services. Fifteen years ago, Ball joined the firm’s New York office — one of many locations throughout the United States — and moved to Texas in 1996. He expects the firm’s 2008 revenue to reach nearly $225 million.

Smart Business spoke with Ball about how he delegates his authority and how he empowers his work force.

Delegate, but stay involved. My leadership style is probably more that of an involved delegator than an order giver. It is very difficult for people to manage following the dictums of another person. 

On the other hand, delegation without involvement is abrogation because you are simply saying, ‘Here is the job. You go out and do it.’ If you don’t counsel, aid, involve, motivate, hand-hold with a person, then you’re really not doing anything to enrich their abilities.

Don’t micromanage. I ask people questions about what they’re doing. I’ll probe them on the ‘why.’ I’ll challenge them on personnel decisions or strategies and not to try to superimpose my will but rather to get them to think thoroughly about their direction. 

My father was a college professor, and he said he would never tell a student an answer. He would talk with them, work with them and coax them until the student got the answer.

You really don’t learn simply by having a fact handed to you and then regurgitating it. Your cognitive facilities are enriched only when you are able to articulate an answer or a theory, and that’s what I find works best for me most of the time.

Grow and then empower. When I first worked at the firm, we were — of necessity — more involved in every intricacy, every decision, every fact, every outlay and every investment. As you add more people, you have to empower them, not leash them. 

You get much more creativity, much more imagination, much more involvement and much more dedication from people if they know that they, in part, create their own destiny rather than simply acting out someone else’s destiny.

No. 1, tell them that they are empowered so that there’s no mistake about it. No. 2, have a very brief compact with them, which essentially deals with three things: The first is that we will talk frequently, the second is that I would like to be able to talk through with them the important decisions they are making before those decisions are etched in stone, and the third is that I will not go around them to manage their people or their departments but will work with them so that they can do it well.

The response is positive, and sometimes it’s skeptical: ‘Will you really let me be the master of my destiny, or are you going to be a micromanager?’ It takes time working together before they believe that.

Sometimes people come to you rather than making the small decisions, and even though I may know exactly what the decision ought to be, I will tell them, ‘That’s up to you.’ It makes them better because, No. 1, they get to rise or fall based on their decisions not mine, and No. 2, they become stronger.

They know that they get to, within some broad limits, make the key decisions affecting their areas of responsibility.

Be motivated by your career. I find this business to be a fascinating combination of finance, of people and of emotions. If you get money, mankind and motivation all mixed together, it is a constantly shifting kaleidoscope, and that is very exciting.

When you see people who don’t love their jobs and don’t get joy out of their jobs, they generally don’t do them well, and they should do something else. Most people spend more of their waking hours at their vocation, their profession, than they will with their families or doing anything else, so if you aren’t exhilarated by your work, you’re really living your life foolishly, and you probably don’t do it well.

People do well those things that they enjoy.

Challenge your employees. I am excited about the business, and to some extent, excitement is infectious. Try to hire people who are equally excited about the business, and help people to have a series of constructive challenges that make them better and give them some successes and a reason to enjoy every day and every hour.

That gets back to being an involved delegator. If people see that you’re interested in what they’re doing, that you are aware of what they’re doing, that you are involved in what they’re doing, but you aren’t meddling unnecessarily, they will perform better.

We all like to be on stage. We are all actors, and we enjoy appreciative audiences. If you respect your boss, and that boss is an audience for you, you will sing longer, stronger, more on key and put more into it.

HOW TO REACH: Sanders Morris Harris Group Inc., (713) 224-3100 or www.smhgroup.com