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Be a true leader Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

Leading your business with honesty is not a strategy or a tactic, says Walter Ulrich.

“It’s simply a matter of being yourself and treating every question and every communication opportunity with respect,” says Ulrich, president and CEO of Houston Technology Center. “We can talk about a lot of good news. But people don’t believe the good news if you don’t also share the bad news. You don’t do it for the purpose of increasing believability. It’s an essential element of being believable.”

Being honest means more than just not lying. It means being open with your employees both about the challenges your company is facing and the positive things they can do to help clear those hurdles.

HTC helps companies in the emerging technology sector both through coaching and through funding. The nonprofit organization has provided feedback to more than 1,000 companies and helped to create more than 3,000 jobs. It has also raised more than $500 million for those companies by always communicating in an open and honest manner, a value that begins at the top.

Smart Business spoke with Ulrich about how to be honest both in finding and leading your employees.

Be clear about roles. Work with the person during the recruiting process to make sure there is a mutual understanding of what the goals of the organizations are and the goals of that position and what the boundaries are on that position.

I go out of my way to make sure they know all the bad news. ‘Hey, sometimes we have to work late at night.’ I make sure they know that. If they say how often, and I think it’s twice a month, I’ll say, ‘Two to four times a month.’ When they come, I want it to be better than I’ve advertised it rather than have them be disappointed.

When the person comes on board, they already know what they are supposed to be doing. Then it’s a matter of monitoring their progress and evaluating their results.

Ask for honesty. I ask (recruits) to be honest with me. ‘You know yourself better than I know you. You know this job. What are your reservations about taking this job? What are the things you worry about to be successful in this job?’

We can have a pretty full conversation about it. I always ask them that if they don’t feel they can make the commitment I’m looking for, to turn down the job. I use those words. ‘We’re asking for a commitment. We’re asking for these things to happen. We feel comfortable with you. If you don’t feel you can make this commitment, you’re the final arbiter. Think carefully before you accept this job.’

Keep communicating. Communicate to them both in the hiring process and then on an ongoing basis during their career what the goals of the company are, how they fit in to that, the goals of their job and what their responsibilities are and how they fit in to that.

Give them freedom to make decisions, and then coach them as they are making decisions. Congratulate them on the right decision, and gently coach them on the wrong decision.

If you don’t do all those steps and you just give them a lot of authority without having the grounding and the understanding and context and appreciation, then you’re going to have bad things happen.

Know your audience. You might communicate with hundreds of people, but you also have to communicate one on one.

If every job is important and you respect the person in that job, you not only have an obligation, but you’re going to have a natural interest to see how they are doing on a regular basis.

They also educate me from time to time and help me to do a better job. You watch the play unfold on the field, you look at the film, then you meet with the player and ask what they were thinking and what they thought worked and didn’t work, and you suggest things that might work better.

Most people respond to that type of coaching because you’re showing genuine interest in what they are doing.

Reach out to people. You have to genuinely believe they have something to offer. Listen very intently to what they say, and if you don’t understand it, ask questions. If their perspective is different than mine, I’m naturally curious about why.

They could be right. I want to draw out and learn why they are thinking the way they are thinking so I can educate myself. I know in my organization that on most subjects, I’m not the smartest person.

Even in areas where I have a deep history, the person who is working on that as a full-time job every day, even if they have got much less experience than I do, they probably know more about it than I do.

When it comes to problem solving, you get the people together who have the knowledge and know-how, and you facilitate them coming up with a solution, obviously lending your own judgment and experience.

If you do that, there will be a consensus developed around a solution. Whether it’s problem solving or how you approach a new opportunity, you’ll come up with a great consensus solution. Everybody will feel proud to be part of it.

Most people do like it when the CEO of a company listens to them or when their boss listens to them and takes their input. Even if they don’t use it precisely the way they suggested it, they include it, that’s a great way to get people engaged.

HOW TO REACH: Houston Technology Center, (713) 658-1750 or www.houstontech.org