Mike Barth III Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2007

Mike Barth III has made a life out of listening and observing. Whether it was following in the footsteps of the two Mike Barths that preceded him in the family’s electric business or listening to his 300 employees as president and COO of Barth Electric Co. Inc., he’s always open to everyone’s side of the story. To Barth, that’s the only way you can really be sure that you have all the information to move forward. That ability has been kind to him on more than one front as Barth Electric has pushed past $48 million in revenue, and, according to Barth, he’s one of the few guys on the planet who has a wife who admits he’s a good listener.

Smart Business spoke with Barth about keeping his ears open and coaching his staff.

Let your staff do the work while you coach.

I like the word coaching. It’s very rare that I actually head a project.

I think that with them having the freedom of heading the projects, there is a lot more self-satisfaction for them. A little bit of personal pride equals a better job. Every one of our projects has a final scorecard after it’s done, from the biggest job we do down to the smaller stuff, and I try to put notes on those to share some thoughts with people.

That certainly helps with their pride and self-satisfaction. Those are probably more important than the compensation. It’s not a quantifiable bonus, but it’s huge. If they feel good about what they do, they work harder at it, and they do better at it. And they’ll carry your message to the people around them.

I like the flexibility and the freedom to let people do their job, instead of telling them how to do their job.

Listen to all three sides of the story. I listen, and I pay very close attention to my surroundings. And, from that, it’s like the old joke about the three-sided story. I let all three people tell me their side of the story, and I’ll listen to it and decide which one, or one-and-a-half, reasons sound like the thing to do, and that’s what we run with. But I make sure everyone is in on it, and I hear what they’re saying.

Then I try to follow up. If it’s something they need to do their job — a new computer program or a new tool — I listen to it, and if it makes sense, we’ll happily do it. If it doesn’t make sense, I make it a point, after I look at the situation, to go tell them why.

Keep track of your employees for the future.

Positions don’t really come around every day, so it takes some patience on their part because we can only move people up as we have a need for them.

Along with that, I’m painfully quiet about not making promises to anybody. People know they can come in here and talk, and they can tell me their aspirations and I’ll listen, but I won’t make a promise if I don’t know when or how I can come through on that. Most people see that the opportunity is here, and if they do the job, I will try to give them a chance.

A lot of our people start off as electricians, and they do a very good job, and they work their way up, and as they learn, they will come and put a bug in my ear about how they might be interested in a higher position when one comes up. I keep a file of names of people who have come to me and some notes on those matters. Whether it happens in six weeks or three years, I do know their aspirations.

And if he’s an existing employee, I probably already know him pretty well — or at least somebody on my key staff does. So I kind of already have a preconceived notion, but I still listen and talk to them.

Don’t wait on the tough decision. The hardest thing about being a leader is making tough decisions about people — especially when it’s not working out. But I pace a little bit and just decide that I have to do it, so I do it. When I get done with it, I know it’s the best decision for the company and the other employees here.

I’m generally pretty swift about the actions. I put out a memo within the department with a slight delay and then let it go out through the rest of the company from there.

It’s just easier on my mind that way. For the company, it’s going to be disruptive one way or another, but if you give somebody two weeks notice or something, it would be pretty hard for that person to care to do their job. And it’s even more destructive to give that person time to talk to others; that can be detrimental.

Believe in your gut, but double-check. I joke that I grab my posterior and let my gut lead the way on big decisions — it’s usually out in front of me anyway. The way the whole thing feels is very important to me. But we also go through the pros and cons list of why we want to pursue a venture.

Once a potential project comes in the door, we’ll decide which team is going to do it, and we’ll get that team leader, our head of estimating and even our financial guy, and we’ll gather them together and ask why do we want to pursue this job. And then we’ll knock around the pros and cons, and we’ll go from there.

I can sit here and decide that we want to go pursue that new factory, but if I get the team in there, it makes them feel better, and they will do a better job if they’re in on the final decision.

HOW TO REACH: Barth Electric Co. Inc., (317) 924-6226 or www.barthelectric.com