Consensus leader Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

Everyone who works in Phil Blair’s office knows that he has a short attention span.

The co-CEO and co-owner of Manpower Staffing of San Diego admits that he bores easily, so he doesn’t expect his employees to sit through long-winded staff meetings, communicate via impersonal memos or prepare reams-long reports — the standard at many companies.

Instead, Blair prefers “management by wandering,” walking through his administrative office, communicating with his employees in person and doing a visual checkup of their stress levels. He would rather talk with employees than get an e-mail from them, and he says they prefer that, as well.

Blair, who also serves as president of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, leads a staff of 100 people, who manage 3,000 temporary workers daily through his company’s six countywide branches.

His franchise posted 2007 revenue of $85 million, and Blair anticipates 2008 revenue of $95 million.

Smart Business spoke with Blair about how he communicates with his staff and how he makes sure that everyone is heard.

Be inclusive. I like to have everybody give their fair share of input. I like to come to a consensus on a decision, but I also understand that sometimes the buck clearly stops with me, and I have to do what’s best for the business. I may have more of a 35,000-foot-level view on issues than my staff may have, and they need to understand that.

Everybody understands that they get to have input. Often they get to have a vote, but I hold a veto. I play it very rarely, but when I do, I explain it very thoroughly so that they respect it. They may not agree with it, but they respect it, and that is important.

Otherwise, employees may say, ‘I work for a consensus leader, except he ignores everything I say. He goes through the game, and we waste time giving our opinion and discussing issues because he’s already made up his mind when he walked in the room.’ Many times, I don’t want to lead the discussion with my staff; I just want to be in the room, listen to their thoughts, let them come to their conclusion and let them make their decision.

Many times in those meetings, it’s not worth playing my trump card. I understand their thinking, and the decision is not what I would have done, but it makes sense, and there is either value in the win or education in the loss. Sometimes, you have to learn through your errors. I’m never there to say my decision is always the perfect one and the right one.

Don’t nurture the yes-men. When someone sees the CEO going down the wrong path, sometimes they’re afraid to say anything, or they don’t bother saying anything because the CEO’s going to do what he wants to do anyway, so why ruffle the feathers?

Just the opposite: I want them to fight heartily for their point of view until I’ve either blessed it or not. I like people that challenge me, make me think and make me a better person.

If we’re discussing an issue, I will lob out my concerns and will give them a chance to sell me on their point of view. Rarely do I say, ‘I’ve got to think about this for a few days.’ I like to leave them saying, ‘I’m not with you yet on this. Let’s meet again about it because it’s probably important to you.’

Support your work force. You can’t keep layering more good ideas on people and not give them the support, both financially and technologically, to let them do their best work.

Employees get excited about doing and implementing new things in the company. When they like working, they’re energized by it and going to work is fun. They don’t want to lose an opportunity to be challenged or to do an interesting new project.

Be both patient and impatient.You might have a great idea and want to start it tomorrow morning. Employees may not have the support system to make it work. You have to be patient, saying, ‘OK, it’ll wait two weeks, but let’s do it.’

You also need to have the judgment to know when to be patient and when to push projects to fruition. If the staff says they’ll do it when they get around to it, and six months later, nothing’s happened, then you’ve been a little too patient. Nothing happens because all the momentum is lost. You’ve got to keep momentum going; you’ve got to keep the fire under an idea.

Provide a clear and supportive message. You’re working through others and implementing, and you have to sell an idea that you think is obvious. It’s not so obvious to others. A successful business manager delegates well, and that’s a two-way path.

The great people around you will tell you when they disagree with you, and you have to give them their chance to explain their views and give them the opportunity to fail forward. You might say, ‘I don’t think this is going to work, but you’re so excited about the concept, and you’re energized by it, and the downside is not that bad, so go for it.’

And, never say, ‘I told you so,’ or insinuate it. If anything, you’ve got to give them lots of kudos for trying. That’s how they learn, and often, you learn more coming out of a bad situation than you do if it’s successful in a mediocre way.

HOW TO REACH: Manpower Staffing of San Diego, (619) 237-9900 or www.manpower-sd.com