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Just one of the guys Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

Sam Smith used to have his own office, but when his company relocated to a new space that was twice as big, he downsized to a cube.

“I sit in a cube just like all the other employees,” says Smith, co-founder, principal and CEO of RESOURCE Commercial Real Estate LLC. “I don’t have an open-door policy because I don’t have a door. I get a lot of hellos and goodbyes, and if people have a question, they walk right in. We welcome that kind of open communication.”

Smith does not see his role at the 28-employee full-service commercial real estate firm as one in which he gives orders and awaits compliance. Instead, he values a culture in which he is simply part of the team and where he works with employees to meet the goals of the company. This leadership philosophy has enabled RESOURCE to grow rapidly, increasing revenue 1,260 percent from 2005 to 2006.

Smart Business spoke with Smith about how to build a team-oriented culture and why making a mistake is different from failing.

Q. How do you build a healthy culture?

People believe what they see, not what you tell them. People believe what you do, not what you write.

I’m not off in a fancy office while they are slaving away in a salt mine. We’re all in this together.

I feel like I work for the employees. I spend time supporting the employees and clients daily. It’s not like I’m the CEO sitting on top of a hill waiting for employees to do my bidding; it’s quite the opposite. I enjoy helping clients and helping our employees succeed.

It’s the servant-leadership mentality. As CEO, I work for our clients and our employees. I exist to help my clients and employees succeed. If they succeed, then I succeed.

Q. How do you find the people to fit your culture?

It’s really interviewing the heck out of them that helps us differentiate one candidate from the other.

When you don’t hear a lot of ‘we’s,’ you can pick up very quickly whether the person values others and works well with others and if their success has been team-oriented or strictly individual.

We usually have them interview with five to 10 people within our company. We ask a lot of questions and try to get to know them on a personal level as far as who they really are and what makes them tick.

We may miss on an employee. If they turn out to be a bad apple, we get rid of them. You can’t let one bad apple spoil the bunch. We will quickly remove the cancer, no matter how productive they might be.

Q. How does your culture deal with failure?

I differentiate mistakes from failure. We want our team to be aggressive and creative for our clients. We don’t tell our employees to run out and make a bunch of mistakes, but we do encourage them to push the envelope and to learn and grow.

By nature, that means they are going to make mistakes. It means you’ve stepped in something and you need to clean it up.

The key to our culture is we expect them to resolve the problem immediately and make lemonade. It’s OK to make mistakes, but it’s not OK to fail. Failure would be not doing your best for clients.

We’ve made mistakes and had our heads kicked in over the years. But we’ve learned a lot of things on how to maximize opportunities. Mistakes, though not preferred, are OK if our team members are empowered to make decisions, to learn and to grow.

Q. How do you empower employees?

Put them in a good position, provide the tools and resources, and then get out of their way and support them as needed. Any new employee we hire will have a mentor, a senior adviser committed to helping them learn and succeed.

New employees are not truly on their own because they have a senior person with them every step of the way.

It’s the environment they are in that allows them to be empowered and raise the bar and go to another level. We try to lead by example. Hopefully, our walk will be consistent with that vision.

Q. How can the leader of a company support that empowering culture?

Don’t get ahead of yourself, never take yourself too seriously, work hard, have fun and make smart decisions. Leaders who put themselves first will not succeed. Putting clients on a pedestal gives you a better chance to succeed.

We all work together. No jockey ever carried a horse over the finish line. It’s about our people.

A good leader must be a good listener. It doesn’t take a genius to listen to clients and employees and to understand what they need and what we need to do to support them. My ‘great ideas’ were simply a result of being a good listener to the best source for ideas — our clients and our team.

HOW TO REACH: RESOURCE Commercial Real Estate LLC, (317) 663-6000 or www.resourcecre.com