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Leading by example Featured

8:00pm EDT October 25, 2006
Vicky Carlson’s motive for getting into the office furniture business was simple: She needed a job.

“I was fresh out of college and had to pay the rent,” Carlson says. “I reluctantly took a temp position at the Office Pavilion in 1986 and was pleasantly surprised. It was like a whole new world. The business and design elements make this field exciting.”

Carlson is now president and owner of Office Pavilion, an integrated office furniture dealership and facility care center and the sole full-service distributor of Herman Miller furniture.

“We have the luxury of corporate training and support, but can operate as a small business,” Carlson says. “This arrangement allows us to be quick and nimble and not get bogged down with lots of bureaucracy.”

When Carlson purchased the dealership in 1994, 25 employees generated annual revenue of $6 million. Since then, she has grown Office Pavilion to 47 employees and $22 million in revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Carlson about the true meaning of leadership and getting employees to buy in to her vision.

How would you describe your leadership style?
It was a bit of an epiphany when I discovered the true meaning of leadership. For a long time, I thought being a good manager was synonymous with being a good leader.

The reality is the two are very different. If people are not willingly following your example, you are not an effective leader.

I am not a micromanager. I lead by example. Rather than giving answers and providing solutions, I ask questions to develop creative problem-solving skills in my staff. They need to be able to make solid business decisions, and I strive to avoid being a bottleneck.

When I realized that I was more of a manager than a leader, I changed my tactics and began modeling desired behaviors. I began getting more involved in the community and getting the name of our company more in the public eye.

My job is to generate enthusiasm and excitement, and to make sure the employees know they are part of a success story.

How do you get employees to buy in to your vision?
My goal is to walk the talk and set the right example. In the early stages of owning the business, I did more talking at staff than collaborating with them. Some were on board, while some were trying to row the boat in a different direction.

Now, we have monthly meetings with a different focus. We are all talking about setting the right goals for the organization.

For example, four years ago, we took an honest look at the company. We realized our customers loved us, but those who were not customers had never heard of us.

To be known as a dynamic force in the community, things had to change. I shared my vision with the management staff and explained the steps I felt we needed to take — focusing heavily on the positive end result.

We opened the doors of our building to be used for other purposes, such as training and seminars. Companies using our facilities became intrigued with what we had to offer. This generated more business for us.

Whenever there are changes, employees will have a certain amount of skepticism. Accept that and remain consistent in selling your vision. It is gratifying when those who were previously skeptical buy in to the vision wholeheartedly.

What one thing can bring a company down or prevent growth?
Not responding to the times. So many companies did not survive the difficult economic conditions in 2001 because they had a sense of unrealistic optimism. They ignored the signs rather than making quick decisions.

I noticed our orders slowed down drastically in early 2001. We were on pace to do $25 million by the end of the year. It was obvious we would end up at about half that revenue. This meant we had to make difficult decisions, including downsizing. We had to cut a million dollars from our budget. For a small company, this is no simple feat.

The difference in our quick response was that after 9/11, we did not have to take further action. We had already responded to the economic conditions.

What key skills do successful business leaders need?
The most important skill is strong and accurate decision-making ability. You must be able to move forward and not be paralyzed by uncertainty.

Even if your decision is wrong, you will know it quickly and can proceed with greater knowledge. The worst thing is to be too overly cautious about taking action.

Also, I believe in listening to your instincts. Looking back at decisions I have regretted, I invariably would have been better off following my inner voice.

Finally, I recommend that business partners have solid buy-sell agreements. This is something that is often neglected in the beginning stages of forming the business. Everything is going well, and there is good will between the parties.

That is the time to get the buy-sell agreement nailed down. It is a lot easier to do when things are harmonious than on the back end when there may be philosophical differences.

HOW TO REACH: Office Pavilion, (858-784-5200) or www.opsd.com