Head of the herd Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

To Mike Crowther, leading means staying connected to your people, communicating, collaborating and strategizing.

In contrast, managing means focusing more on processes, the nuts and bolts of what makes an organization run. There is certainly a time and a place for managers to manage, but if you concentrate too much on managing and not on leading, Crowther says you’re probably robbing yourself of time to focus on your people.

“If you operate at an appropriate level for a leader, it’s fairly easy because the type of connection that is involved in sharing strategies, collaboration, which is not quite as overwhelming from a time management standpoint as trying to operate as a manager,” says the president and CEO of the $23 million Indianapolis Zoo.

Smart Business spoke with Crowther about the differences between leading and managing and why the best CEOs are big-picture thinkers who don’t let opportunities for communication and collaboration get clouded by processes and policies.

Keep communication active. The most important thing is to not let communication turn into a policy but instead keep it as an active process. There are different methods of communication that are needed for different times of the year, different times in the life cycle of an organization, different audiences.

The worst thing to do is say, ‘These are our communication policies; this is what everybody will do,’ because everything becomes rote and it isn’t really communication. At that point, it’s simply going through a process.

We do regular all-staff meetings where everyone on the staff gets together, and we provide information and update everybody. We do send out e-mail communication on things that are relevant, but I think the most important thing for me to do is understand and trust the people who have the job of communicating to their own staff.

I have five direct reports, and we have had no turnover in those positions in the six years I’ve been at the Indianapolis Zoo. Because we have had no turnover in those positions, they know me and I know them. I can rely on them to guide me as to what I should be doing.

I get great guidance from the people who are responsible for the divisions of the company. Every week, I go out to lunch with all of our executive staff. We go somewhere in town and sit down, and we might not talk about anything that has to do with business.

We might talk about a specific project or multiple issues related to the industry, or we might just talk about the Indianapolis Colts. But we have that kind of off-site regular meeting each week with the executive leadership.

You need to have that connection, even if you’re not talking shop, because dealing with human beings requires you to behave like a human being. The person you see out doing their job hopefully woke up in a bed that morning and was thinking about their personal situation, how their kids and spouse are doing, whether they need to change the oil in the lawn mower, those kinds of things.

Those are human beings; they are not machines doing jobs. If I want somebody doing a job efficiently, the first thing I have to do is recognize that it is not a machine, that it’s a human being, so how will a human being react to performing a certain task? I don’t know until I know the details of that person.

While it is not my job to go around and watch them do the job, my job is to let them know it is another human being that is providing some of the strategy and direction for the institution and making the policies that impact them directly.

Create platforms for collaboration. One of the great things about collaboration that many people overlook, they think collaboration is collecting a bunch of diverse opinions and coming up with a compromise solution. Collaboration is actually an evolutionary process where a group of people work together to derive the best solution.

As an example, we opened up a new exhibit last year called ‘Oceans.’ We started about three years before it opened.

We started a series of meetings in which anyone on the staff could participate.

We were talking about why we were doing the exhibit, what we wanted to accomplish, then we started listening to what others wanted to accomplish, what they thought and what their ideas were. Then we had meetings with specialist groups like the aquatic engineering staff who would work in there and got information from them.

As time progressed, the ideas and thoughts were narrowed down until we knew exactly what we were going to design and create. There is no question that what we ended up building was not like what many of the first group participants expected or even wanted to see. But as the process continued, it became obvious what the end product should be.

Keep moving. I have a strong belief that you can’t lead if you’re not moving. So my leadership style is that the institution — and by definition, me — are always moving, and hopefully, that means moving forward.

We’re definitely a dynamic operation, and I try to stay that way myself. To do that, you have to be connected to the rest of the body. If you’re moving and the rest of the organization is not, you’re in trouble. So you have to stay connected.

Those are the two things: Keep moving and stay connected. Then that takes you to the next step: If you are moving, you have to know where you are going.

HOW TO REACH: Indianapolis Zoo, (317) 630-2001 or www.indianapoliszoo.com