Climbing ahead Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

When Jim Doti was climbing Mount Elbrus in Europe several years ago, he had to stay focused while going down a narrow ridge. If he lost his footing, he would have fallen down a steep vertical drop.

Doti must also keep that same focus as president of Chapman University, whether it’s guiding his 1,125 employees to reach the university’s vision, keeping the lines of communication open or treating everyone with respect, and spreading those values throughout the institution.

“The most important quality is to be highly ethical and to have a high character and an attitude where everyone you interact with, every individual is treated with respect and dignity,” says Doti, who oversees the university’s $230 million operating budget. “If you can do that, then people will respect you, and over time ... that particular attribute will begin to pervade the entire institution.”

Smart Business spoke with Doti about how to maintain your focus on creating a respectful and open environment.

Treat everyone with respect. You think about how you would like to be treated. Let’s say if I have to let a person go, I put myself in that situation of that individual. ... What would I want to hear? How would I want the senior person with whom I’m interacting to interact with me about that situation? And think about that before you act.

In many cases, leaders don’t do that. They sometimes think about what they might want, what’s most comfortable to them to say, when they should be thinking about what is it that the individual would want to hear.

You don’t want to just talk about the negative aspects — much more important is commending individuals and communicating that openly. If I were to be commended, I would think about, what would I want to hear? If I did something good, is it just a slap on the back or what was special about what I did that is worthy of being recognized?

And that’s what I would want to communicate to that individual. The key is put yourself in the role of the other person, and that’s a part of interaction with other people and treating people respectfully.

Your workers have a much better attitude. People are generally good, people try to do a good job, but they’re not going to give you their all unless they feel good about the place, and they will not feel good if they’re not being treated well, being treated with respect and dignity. It can only move forward if people feel good about the place

Remain open and candid. It’s honesty, but it’s being honest in a particular way. If you have to be open about a particular issue where you need to change an individual’s action ... you need to be honest about it, but honest about it in a respectful way.

There’s a way of being honest where you don’t dress down a person, you’re open about the issue. What people want to hear then is not, ‘Why did you do this, how could you do this after the many years you’ve been with the organization, don’t you understand what we’re trying to do or what we’re seeking to achieve?’ That’s dressing down a person.

But by treating that person respectfully, if you were in that person’s position, you would want to know, what is it that I could do that would put me in this more positive path?

That’s being candid with the person in a way that will be more productive than simply leading to ill will and a feeling of frustration, rather than leaving an office feeling invigorated about, ‘Hey, I have a better idea of how I could do a better job at this place.’

Recognize employees for doing a good job. It’s not just important in terms of financial bonuses, it’s oftentimes a thank you. A simple thank-you note — not an e-mail, but taking the time to write a little note that personalizes it. So however I’m recognizing that person, that person sees that other people realize that I’m commending that individual.

Then you get into the awards and public recognition. When I give the State of the University address ... I talk about the individuals who are making it happen, and I recognize them and their teams for what they’ve done. It’s public recognition, and people deserve that for doing things in a special way.

People receive much more gratification when they are commended and recognized for what they do rather than simply being rewarded financially. Not that you don’t also do that, but individuals receive more gratification from simple thank-yous.

Make sure employees are treating each other with respect. You observe it in ways of interacting with as many people in the organization that you can. It’s by walking around and seeing the attitudes of the individuals.

The most important thing a leader can do is to make sure you’re walking the walk, not just talking the talk but walking the walk, so that in a senior staff meeting ... they’re seeing how you interact with others, you’re creating an example.

If you yell at a person in front of everyone else, they automatically think, ‘This is the way the organization works, this is the CEO, I can do the same thing.’ So you have to set the example.

And then you monitor it. When you have your meetings, you point out that there may be a particular morale problem, and you look into it and discuss this with your senior staff and with others who will see that’s important. If it’s important, my actions will reflect that.

HOW TO REACH: Chapman University, (714) 997-6815 or www.chapman.edu