Actors on the stage Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

To Daniel J. Elsener, running a large organization is like producing a play or an opera. The production involves many people who have to not only know their roles but feel inspired to perform their roles at a high level.

“There are scriptwriters, singers, actors, there is storytelling, there is a message, there is a passion, there is a stimulating of excitement,” says Elsener, president of Marian University, a Catholic and Franciscan institution that generated $40 million in 2009 revenue.

The key is to find how each performer in your organizational play best fits the overall production and then playing to their strengths. You do that by building a culture that emphasizes building employees up and encourages them to seek what truly drives them each day.

“You have to build a culture of achievement, a culture of passion, a culture of faith, a culture of commitment to the people you serve,” Elsener says.

Smart Business spoke with Elsener about how you can put the right performers in the right roles for your business.

Discover strengths. If you think about it, when you were a child growing up, along the way, someone might have taken you to a football game and something caught your imagination. There were sights and sounds, and you might even have thought about being a football player then. You certainly wanted to talk about it and be a part of it. If you go to a play, maybe you don’t end up wanting to be the actor on the stage but maybe you want to branch out and go do something that it inspires you to do. Maybe the actor on the stage inspires you to go out and do something, and the message resonates in your heart and mind, and you leave that theater and say that you have a calling, you’ve been prompted to do something.

You find what relates to you, with the talents and gifts that you have, and what you are going to do with it. Great performances inspire us in general to do other great work. That’s how you get engaged. That’s why I think of culture as this production that keeps telling a story.

As far as the leader’s role in that, the biggest thing I’ve learned over the years is that I used to think I could remake people. We don’t try to remake people anymore. God made them, and they develop their talents, desires and passions. The best way to help people find their role, take their role and live it with passion is to work out of their strengths, their desires and their gifts. When people do what they’re good at and what they love, I just stand in awe of it. When you’re forcing them and trying to remake them, when you make the accountant be a great artist or the great artist be an accountant, that’s when you can have problems.

A good friend once told me, ‘Don’t try to teach pigs to sing. It frustrates you and annoys the pig.’ So that’s why we’re always trying to find the strengths of a person and have people on teams understand each other’s strengths and manage each other’s weaknesses. Once that happens, an organization rolls.

Build strengths while neutralizing weaknesses. We do have some instruments that help you find your strengths that are well-tested, but when we have groups of people working together, we’ll put their strengths on the table, and you can kind of see where they’re coming from, how they perform a task. So you try to get a strengths quotient, not only on the individual but also the group. Then you have performance reviews when people set goals and so forth. We’ll show people their strengths and how they can use it to help us here at Marian and how we’re going to support them.

You manage weaknesses by making sure they don’t ruin your strengths. And look for technology and other team members, assigning other people to support that. At least manage the weaknesses so they don’t trip up your strengths. You can do that in a lot of various ways. First and foremost, if a person has weaknesses, don’t give a job where their weaknesses are going to be a constant burden for them. Make sure it’s manageable in a certain situation.

Set the cultural tone. You have to know people and you have to like them. If you’re going to be in a leadership position, it’s a requirement that you have to stand in awe of a person’s goodness and giftedness and what they can achieve.

Being an educator is a great training ground to be a leader. When you teach and you’re part of an organization that teaches and learns, you see how people develop, and you can do amazing things. They can grow so much if you encourage and affirm and get to know them, spend time with them and listen to them. You can do it informally, by getting to know people, spend time with people and listening to people. But you get much better at this when you put it into your philosophy on personnel management and hiring. If you put it front and center in the beginning, talk about it in seminars, develop your capacity to understand strength management in the organization, it becomes a way of life.

It’s also quite interesting that as you work to make it systematically part of your operation, people are less likely to just get angry with someone because they don’t do something. They’re less likely to become frustrated with their bosses. Most performance reviews spend about 90 percent of the time talking about what you’re not good at. But you’re much better off working from someone’s strengths and building them up, and manage those things where they’re not naturally inclined. So you really have to make it a part of your approach to personnel management and selection.

How to reach: Marian University, (317) 955-6000 or