John F. Eller first experienced a leadership transition when the two founders of SB Architects retired from the firm and left him in charge.
“The thought that scared me to death was, ‘The founders are going away; now what?’” he says.
But Eller rose to the occasion. The principal and president of SB assembled a strong team around him, and with his guidance, SB Architects has become a 98-employee, two-office enterprise that earned $28.8 million in 2008 revenue.
Smart Business spoke with Eller about how to motivate employees and how to tell when they are ready to be promoted.
Q. How do you motivate employees?
Each member of our management team defines that a little differently. For me, I define it in terms of what motivated me. What I’ve found successful in motivating other people is describe to them and encourage them toward opportunity.
Try to eliminate for them and encourage them toward really demonstrating their particular talents and capture the opportunities that will come by that demonstration.
I usually define it in terms of, ‘Do your job, and as best you can, do your boss’s job.’ My advice to them as part of the motivation is, ‘Always be learning.’ Always be focused on trying to do their job as well as they can, be in command of that responsibility, but always look to do their boss’s job, so they learn while there is a safety net. The security is that their boss is responsible for their own performance. But the more that person can do their boss’s job, they learn in an environment with a certain level of safety — but they take on the opportunity to improve the performance of their boss.
Then, when they are given the opportunity to step into that position, they’ve already been doing it. They’ve already demonstrated their capacity to do it.
Q. How do you handle an employee who doesn’t want to take advantage of those opportunities?
Every company has people who find their comfort zone. It is incumbent on the person to engage in the company.
For those who want to come punch the clock and do their job and do it well, they can be valuable people in the company. Very talented people who participate in the company at that level — you tolerate for their talent. You provide them with a certain level of reward.
But the people who really want to participate in the company, who take that extra step, are the ones who reap the greatest benefit just in personal return and also in the reward the firm provides and acknowledges them for their efforts.
Q. How do you assemble a strong management team?
You look for those people who took advantage of opportunity, stepped up and showed an interest in participating at that level — people who demonstrate not only the desire but the sense of judgment, sense of people, sense of ‘firm first.’
Really, it comes down to trusting your instincts about people and knowing that a variety of people have to compose the management team. It’s not a one size fits all; it’s not just little clones of myself but people with different talents, different attitudes, different perspectives.
They complement each other. Over time, establish that group so there is a significant level of trust between the players.
Q. How can you tell when an employee is ready to take that next step up?
That’s mostly gut instinct. But I’ve always found that to be a really interesting dynamic. There are people in the company who are very ambitious. They aspire to title and request it. Generally, those are the people who are not ready.
They can be, and you can tolerate elevating them for their talent and ambition, but in some respects, you want the person who just does what you are hoping they’ll do as they follow their career path. They understand there is opportunity, pursue it and take those steps without the need for acknowledgment.
Yeah, it’s there. They want it, but they aren’t asking for that acknowledgment. They are more often surprised by the opportunity. When you say, ‘I want you to be engaged at this level,’ and, ‘I want you to do this, this and this,’ they feel surprised, motivated, challenged, scared, all those things.
Then they acknowledge they’ve been honored. But the real answer is the people who deserve it most are those who may in their own hearts harbor expectations and desires, but they don’t go about advertising it. They don’t go about insisting on that recognition. When given that opportunity, over and over, I’ve seen them ask, ‘Are you sure?’ They have that trepidation; they have that doubt. But it tends to translate to a desire to prove that your guess that they can step up and take that responsibility is accurate.
How to reach: SB Architects, (415) 673-8990 or www.sb-architects.com