Listen up Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008
Walter C. Greig is a collaborative leader who has created an open atmosphere at ESI Inc., where his 400 employees can interact with each other on ideas and projects. The president and CEO of the industrial product engineering, design and manufacturing company gets involved in that process, as well, and likes to sit down with employees, listen to them and get as much input as he can before making a decision.

The collaborative environment at ESI, which has two divisions — Enduro Systems in Houston and Intersystems in Omaha, Neb. — has helped the company grow revenue 27 percent during the past three years.

Smart Business spoke with Greig about how to use trust and honesty to build a collaborative environment.

Put the right team in place. We look for honesty and creativity. Find people who are creative and have the courage to voice their opinion, who are not so overtly shy that they won’t tell how much value they have to offer to the organization.

Have people who can honestly state their opinion and be honest, whether it’s about a success or a failure.

I listen in an interview and have people tell me about themselves and their families. Their resume is what they’ve done, and that’s either right or not and can be checked. If somebody tells you about their family, it tells you about them and what’s important to them.

Bite your tongue and listen. It’s hard to listen. It’s the sitting on your hands kind of stuff.

It’s posing a question and having this interesting combination of patience and the courtesy to let somebody either succinctly answer a question or walk themselves into a corner they can’t get out of because they’ve confused themselves through the process.

When you’re busy, the easiest thing to do is assume that everybody has properly understood you when you first make your mad dash through the office. There’s a reluctance on the part of groups to ask questions. You stand there and say, ‘Does everybody understand what it is that I’m saying?’

Even if they don’t, nobody’s going to say anything because they probably want to get out of the meeting as fast as they can or don’t want to look silly, unintelligent or think they’re wasting your time.

Recognize that, that exists. Try and have as many small, one-on-one or small group discussions as you possibly can. We have our general communications meeting every quarter, where we tell everybody what’s going on. We encourage teams to get together with one of our managers, sit down, and try and make sure that they understand what’s going on.

In a smaller group, pose the question and then listen. Listen to the questions, what the concerns might be, and then address them at that level.

It’s hard because it demands time, and that’s always one of our worst enemies. If it’s important to you and the health, integrity and culture of the organization, you have to take the time to understand what the people are telling you.

Build trusting relationships. You can only get people to trust you by being honest. Communicate what you’re going to do and do it.

There’s no way you can walk through a plant or an office and say, ‘You people have to trust me because I’m not going to lie to you.’ They want to believe that, but they’re only going to believe it when they see it in action.

It’s like in a family. You can’t do anything if you don’t trust the people around you, and you have to have them trust you.

You have to spend all of your time ensuring that whatever it is you tell people you’re going to do, you’re going to do it. It’s like in relationships — 100 things done right are quickly forgotten when you do one thing wrong.

You can tell your employees 100 times over you’re going to do something and do it, but the one time that something is important to that individual — somebody was going to have Saturday off and you tell them no — that event has spectacular ripple effects, not only throughout the organization but throughout that person’s family life.

Build a vision from values. A vision has to be something that you believe in. You can’t say, ‘I need to create a vision, so I’m going to buy some books and read what Donald Trump says. He had a cool vision, so I’ll adopt it.’ You can’t do that.

It’s the hard part of sitting back in a quiet room and reflecting on what it is that you’re doing. What are you trying to accomplish in your business? Hopefully, it’s not just to make money because that’s the upside-down version of why you should be running a business.

In order to share that vision with people, you have to communicate what you think is worthwhile. If you don’t honestly believe this stuff yourself, then you’re not going to be able to passionately communicate it to anybody. If you believe in your business, when things are going absolutely 180 degrees the opposite way that you thought they ought to be going, you have a belief in your business model and that your business has a reason to exist.

You’re going to persevere and keep pushing yourself and your employees ahead.

HOW TO REACH: ESI Inc., (713) 358-4000, www.esi-1.com