Thinking out loud Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

Roland Salman says that when you get a group of people together for the first time, it can be difficult to get someone to speak first. And once people are talking, it can be even more difficult to get them to say what’s on their minds.

Salman, president of RW Armstrong, says that this can be a major hurdle to communication, and it’s a situation he tries to avoid at his construction management firm, which generated 2008 revenue of $77 million.

He’s done it by setting an example of straightforward communication for others to follow, an example he repeatedly demonstrates at every opportunity.

Smart Business spoke with Salman about how to say what you mean and how to set the stage for your employees to do the same.

Emphasize quality over quantity. A lot of people focus on the frequency of the communication. I focus more on the type of communication. You have to be very candid, very sincere and transparent. That opens the door for honest debate and working through things.

If you’re going to be a good communicator, many times, you have to make the first move. Communicating is a two-way street, but many people in business might be afraid to take things head-on. A lot of people want to be nice to each other.

My concern right now is we have been hiring people from the outside because we’re growing so fast. We can’t just promote from within.

Obviously, communication in a rapidly growing company is very important, and I find myself catching people communicating, but after the communication, there is a lot of frustration because the issue wasn’t resolved. They were just being nice to each other, talking superficially but not getting down to the issues.

So candid communication is the first advice I would give. Be straightforward, identify the issue and work toward resolving it.

Set an example. The challenge is to set the example and get others to do the same thing. When I communicate, I explain to others how I would do it and then show them by my own example.

When I communicate with people, I dig down and ask the tough questions in a straightforward manner. Recently, I called for a meeting with one of my partners because of certain things I’ve said that I could tell didn’t go over real well. I went to lunch with him and we talked. That is what you have to do.

You have to bring out the issue immediately and force the other person to talk about it. If you open up, the other person is going to open up, and if you speak in a candid way, they will speak in a candid way.

Maximize your opportunities. If you go to lunches and dinners, act like you are meeting your friend or next-door neighbor. I focus a lot on that, and it builds that emotional bank account so that when things get tough and things go wrong, if people know where you are coming from, they know they can come back to you, have that personal contact and find out what is going on. It really helps you work through problems as a company.

I first develop the relationships with my direct reports, and then with as many people in the company as I can. We have 450 employees now, and I try to develop relationships with people at all levels, whether it’s entry level or overseas.

When I meet people and talk to them about business, I also mix in personal questions about how they’re feeling and so forth. I am an emotional, passionate person, and I’m not afraid to ask people questions about how they feel, their families or anything like that. And if you’re sincere and people see that you are sincere and transparent, that helps make that relationship.

If, when you meet somebody, you only talk business, you’re never going to build that personal relationship.

Build trust through communication. Trust is very, very important on a team. You have to make sure that when you hire people and put them in positions of responsibility that their heart is in the right place.

If you do that, if you have that trust and candor among your team, I think it’s easy to talk about issues and communicate. In board meetings or any forum you have, you’re going to have to be the catalyst to do that. If you lead by example and open up to put issues on the table, it encourages others to do the same.

In our company, our senior-management level has been together for a long time. We have that history of trust and credibility, and people know that we can disagree about something in the boardroom, but when we walk out, everybody has come to a decision and walks out with a unified front. When we disagree, we know it is over a certain topic, and it doesn’t have to do with our relationships.

To develop those kinds of relationships, you have to have a combination of circumstances. You have to have the raw qualities in a person to start with, an honest person, someone with integrity, the basic things you expect from people. But you can also mentor people with regard to what you expect and help them to get to that point.

How to reach: RW Armstrong, (317) 786-0461 or www.rwa.com