How Scott Dennis encourages a collaborative approach to work at D&K Engineering Featured

7:27am EDT June 11, 2010

Scott Dennis recognizes that most businesses can’t be total democracies. Sooner or later, someone has to make the decisions or the business will not grow and progress toward its goals.

But that fact doesn’t eradicate the need for a strong sense of collaboration among team members. At D&K Engineering Inc. — a developer and manufacturer of electromechanical products that generated $35 million in U.S. revenue last year — Dennis and the rest of the leadership team have worked at creating a culture of collaboration and communication among the company’s employees.

Smart Business spoke with Dennis, the company’s co-founder and CEO, about how you can build a collaborative mindset into your company.

How do you begin to promote collaboration?

My leadership style — and the one that probably pervades our organization — is a collaborative style. While we work hard on making sure goals and vision are very set and clear to everyone, we try to accomplish our goals in a collaborative way whenever possible. We do recognize that someone ultimately has to make the call. It’s not management by consensus, but we do try to collaborate together because we are an innovation company here.

How do you foster a collaborative mindset with employees?

One, that starts with the kind of people you try to hire. We hire people who are very passionate about what they do. If we’re trying to do a new product development endeavor, and we have a group of engineers sitting together, once you have an environment where everyone’s input and valued and it all contributes to solutions, it kind of snowballs from there.

The other piece is to set an environment where you’re not afraid to confront the brutal facts about whatever the situation is. It may mean facing difficulties in a project or you’re behind schedule or you’re not meeting some other goal or specification. So you need to be honest about where you are, working through difficulties together as a team, and then celebrate the successes on the other side. If you do that over and over as a team, over time you turn around and find that you have quite a collaborative environment.

What tips would you give other business leaders about creating a collaborative environment?

You have to establish rapport with everyone, and that will be different depending on the kind of company you have. In our company, most are professionals with degrees, so once you’ve given people responsibility within a project, that kind of collaboration develops within the company.

But you also have to actively build that rapport, as well. We have quite a number of regularly scheduled casual events, and we’re kind of disciplined on scheduling these casual events, like barbecues and pub nights. You do get to know people better in a casual setting and develop those communication channels. Perceived barriers are knocked down. Then when you’re in a higher-pressure arena, some of those perceived barriers are gone because you got to know each other in a more casual setting.

Also, as a leader, you cannot be afraid that you don’t like the news coming at you, to take that input, learn from it and not bite people’s heads off if you don’t like what is coming at you. That is another factor in ensuring that communication flows smoothly. It comes back to being the type of organization that always confronts the facts of the situation, no matter what they are.

It takes a lot of discipline to be willing to take the bad news and use it to improve the company. You might be frustrated and you don’t think the circumstances should be that way for whatever reason. But the reality is, the situation is what it is, and as a leader, you need to make up your mind that you want to know the actual facts so that you can do something about it.

People aren’t perfect. Obviously you want to hold people accountable for their responsibilities, but you also have to be realistic that not everybody performs at an A-plus level 365 days a year. People makes mistakes, the organization might miss something, so it is better to know what went wrong and try to put procedures in place to make it not happen in the future.

How do you take mistakes and turn them into learning experiences?

Let’s call them ‘honest mistakes.’ In our business, doing research and development, by definition, you know you’re going to run into unexpected roadblocks. So you have to make sure you’re testing new solutions, and sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But to take actual errors and turn them into a learning experience, use ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ a lot as you’re talking to your people. As in, ‘We should do this in the future,’ rather than singling people out and putting them on the chopping block for honest errors. Also, since you’ve acknowledged that everyone makes mistakes, take ownership of your own mistakes. Be willing to tell people, ‘I messed up,’ and take ownership for your own issues. If you can do that, everyone else will feel comfortable enough to do that also.

How to reach: D&K Engineering Inc., (858) 376-2500 or