Loose-fitting leadership Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

Around the time of the dot-com bust, Barbie White was listening to a radio interview with an executive whose company had just capsized. He said, “We didn’t know this was going to happen to the company. Well, I knew we were in trouble, but ...” and White just couldn’t believe it.

In the 26 years since she founded Japanese Weekend Maternity — which makes fashionable clothes for mothers-to-be — there have been three occasions when things got so bad she wasn’t sure that the company would make it. In each instance, she was on the phone with all of her vendors, letting them know the situation. She says that being honest is always better than the “Don’t talk, don’t pay the bill” approach that some executives use when their companies are on the rocks.

Smart Business spoke with White about how to create an atmosphere of trust and the importance of being open to communication and criticism.

Q: How would you describe your management style?

It is loose; sometimes, I term it organic. We have a pretty fun, open, family-like workplace.

The key is hiring people smarter than I am. Then I can be more assured that areas are being taken care of and employees have more autonomy to do their job under their own direction. It becomes a more creative conversation about solving problems than micromanaging somebody by task.

Q: How do you retain employees?

We have a very flexible place of employment. We’re fine with any type of flextime, in any department, as long as the job is completed responsibly. Of course, this is not the case in something that’s direct with customers — that has to be within a certain time frame.

Because the atmosphere is relaxed, it feels like there’s less of a sense of office politics in our company and a little less pressure, as well. That’s because I, as the owner, am open to ideas and criticism.

It helps set a more relaxed tone, where people feel more comfortable. They don’t feel that someone is going to be talking about them behind their back. There’s no employee sabotage here. Things are much more open, upright and honest.

Q: How do you create that atmosphere of trust?

I am here; people see me. They see me interacting with other employees. So they’re able to perceive from my openness that I actually encourage ideas and criticism, rather than try to place blame or run away from it.

I encourage employees to behave that way with each other. Taking their responsibility for what they want to do, particularly in product development, is very important. So there is a sense of employee ownership in whatever job that employee is responsible for. That sense of ownership really makes the communication work more successfully.

Q: How do you communicate your vision?

The first word is honesty, and if I perceive we need a change or want to go into a particular direction, we’ll call a meeting; we’ll talk about it. Maybe we’ll just say this is a meeting for creative input, without any negative fire-hosing or shooting anybody down. We’re just going to put all the creative ideas we have around this topic. Then we’ll have another meeting where we set goals and strategy to try to accomplish it.

And if I don’t get results with that, then I’ll work in smaller groups.

Q: How does working with smaller groups help?

You can pull out the people who will help make it happen, and you are more able to get it done. It’s much easier to implement something if everyone you’re working with actually believes in it and thinks it’s a good idea, rather than to spend your time working with the people who support it and still don’t understand how it would be useful.

There isn’t anything wrong with acknowledging that not everybody may find it useful to the company. That’s OK, as long as you have enough support behind it to get it implemented.

What often happens is once it’s implemented, the people who had difficulty visualizing it, they see that it ended up being productive, and they get on board with it on the day-to-day operational level.

Q: How do you motivate or empower your employees?

The biggest thing is setting a sense of autonomy in the business. We set goals and we have a check in to how those goals are being met. Each individual employee is very active and 100 percent responsible for what their goals are.

It’s just touching base. That sense of not feeling you’re being really watched is a big plus in how employees view their jobs and their positions. They get freedom.

HOW TO REACH: Japanese Weekend Maternity, (800) 808-0555 or www.japaneseweekend.com