Lending an ear Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008
What is a CEO’s role in leading a company?

It’s a broad question but a heavy one — a question that has many possible answers. For Anne Sellers, the answers start at the bottom rungs of her company and move upward.

The managing principal and majority owner of Sensory Technologies, a $20 million audiovisual solutions company, says that your job is to listen. You need to listen to what everyone in the company is saying, what your employees are pleased with, what they need help with and the ways they feel management can improve the company.

It can be a difficult task, particularly as you field criticism on your performance as a leader. But if you don’t allow your employees to evaluate your performance and give their input on the company’s direction, you run the risk of losing your best people and stalling your company’s growth.

Smart Business spoke with Sellers about why it is important to listen to all of your employees and how you can become a more effective listener.

Listen first; talk second. What your employees have to say is very important to listen to. They are the people in the trenches. They’re the people where the rubber hits the road. They’re the people who deal with the grit of your business. They’re the people who see the trends of your business, what the mood of your clients are, whether money is being gained or lost. You have to trust them, and you need to communicate to them the fact that they’re great employees. And if they’re great employees with the big picture in mind, they know you may not be able to do exactly as you wish you could do, but you’ll deal with their concerns one way or another.

As leaders, we first of all have to listen to as much information as we can. We need to take our individual departments, talk to the people in those departments, get a sense of what those people need in the trenches, then identify the issues that these people feel are impediments to getting their jobs done. So we identify the issues and trends, and we take action appropriately.

As the managing partner of the company, hopefully I get those trends correct and lead the company in a direction that puts us on the probable side of those trends. But you alone can’t do it. I cannot do it without my partners. So total collaboration and total agreement on where we need to go is always the best course of action.

Let your employees impress you. One of the best things I have found is visiting our larger client projects as they’re finishing up. It yields great communication time.

To begin with, you want to make sure that you have a happy client or customer. Then you spend time with the managers on that project and you give them a chance to talk to you about what went right and wrong on the job, what was beautiful and what was ugly about the job. Then before you finish, you have a chance to ask them how are things in general.

This approach yields fabulous results. First, you get to spend time with the client and hear firsthand their degree of satisfaction. But more importantly, the employees get to show off their work, and you get to be proud of that employee.

Then you get to hear how it went, what the challenges are, how to make things better, what needs your attention in the future.

This is where we face challenges. We have several satellite offices. We meet these challenges by utilizing what we sell, videoconferencing technology. All of our regular departmental meetings employ videoconferencing to bring everyone together, which allows us to read body language and makes sure that the message we’re trying to send gets across, and that the message people in the satellite offices are trying to send gets sent across.

Videoconferencing does go a long way, but it’s not like shaking a person’s hand. So, as partners, we divide up into departments and schedule in-person meeting times with each employee regularly.

Open the door for personal growth. Everybody wants to grow in their career and personal aspects of their professional life, and our company is growing, as well. You need people to move into important positions and understand several aspects of the company.

So if they’re in one department for a while and performed well and think they fit in another department, and we open the job up, we encourage people to apply. Then we can get them training in other aspects, and we can bring all their experiences from Department A into Department B. It makes them a better, more well-rounded employee that they know they have an idea of the big picture.

If you don’t show employees the big picture, the company won’t succeed. We established metrics for our entire company. Then we asked everybody how their individual jobs would contribute toward meeting those company goals.

From that, we derived an individual set of metrics for each employee, and then we measure those quarterly to let them know how they’re doing against their own personal set of metrics. It also shows them how the company is doing as a whole toward meeting our collective goals.

In the end, if your company meets the metrics, you have a larger pool of money from which to draw, which can mean more raises and bonuses. To what degree each person meets their personal metrics likely determines to what extent they will participate in the bonus pool and raises.

HOW TO REACH: Sensory Technologies, (317) 347-5252 or www.sensorytechnologies.com