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Seeing is believing Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

When Larry Armstrong and Jim Williams bought Ware Malcomb in 1992, Armstrong knew they had a challenge on their hands.

The real estate market was struggling, and the commercial design firm hadn’t diversified enough to be ready for the downturn. Somehow, Armstrong needed to convince employees that better days were ahead.

“Believe in yourself,” says Armstrong, the company’s CEO. “Be willing to not give up and to do whatever it takes.”

Belief can only take you so far, however, and Armstrong’s ability to gain active followers on the path to recovery through transparency and open communication helped the firm find a level of success that has endured as Ware Malcomb recorded 2007 revenue of $49.7 million with about 215 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Armstrong about how to get your employees engaged in your vision to move your company forward.

Q. How do you begin a turnaround?

Have a vision for what you want. Set some parameters or guidelines of what the mission is. Having a plan on paper is very powerful. People buy in to such a thing when they participate in the creation of a plan. It becomes a very defined mission.

Set an example for your people of continuous personal growth and hard work. Set the tone at the top for what you are trying to accomplish.

Whether you are comfortable with it or not, people look up to you and can either get positive energy from you or negative energy. It’s kind of your choice when you’re the leader.

Express a belief in your people and the successes they have and acknowledge their successes. Create opportunities for people to rise up and stretch and grow.

Internally, there’s a lot of cheerleading that goes on, encouraging each other, whether it’s a promotion or an acknowledgement at a company event or a companywide e-mail.

Q. How do you get people to believe?

Understand each person and what they are passionate about and try to provide opportunities to them that fit the company’s mission but also what that particular person may be passionate about. Recognize that, and channel that energy.

Direct reports and group leaders have programmed time and oneon-one sessions to make sure that they are checking in with their people, encouraging their people and understand what each person’s growth goals may be.

What aspect of the business are they passionate about — where they would like to grow and learn more?

Be transparent. You say, ‘Look, we’re in this situation. It’s ugly, and it’s tough. But here’s our plan. Here’s how we’re going to get through it. Here’s what we’re trying to do, and here’s what we want you to do, and here’s the help we need from all of you to get there.’

Be open and honest with people and let them know what it is you are trying to do and ask for the help to get there. Talk to people in a group and talk to them individually.

Q. How do you get things moving?

It’s a combination of brainstorming sessions and then some time to carefully think about each aspect of the plan and have each leader contribute. Then we all review it and talk about it and get it to the final synthesized plan.

If people feel like they are part of the process and their opinion is heard and acknowledged and valued, then people can get behind the direction your company is going to go. Ultimately, leaders need to lead and make decisions.

I try to allow that I could be wrong about something and that I’m hopefully open-minded enough to see that if I’m outnumbered, there must be a good reason for that. I try not to think that I know everything. If I’m badly outnumbered, there is probably a good reason for it.

Q. How can you lay a foundation for consensus?

Spend time with each other outside of the office and just try to build those personal relationships. That’s always been a critical part of who we are.

You understand where a person is coming from a lot better. They become your friends, which is great.

Positive energy and a good relationship with the person you are working with inspires a love for the company and a love for each other. You like the people you work with, you like what you do every day, and you can’t wait to get to work and execute the mission you’ve decided to do.

If I love coming to work every day, which I do, I have a better chance of inspiring my team to love coming to work every day. Everything that happens on the leadership team, we encourage our leaders to do the same things with their respective teams.

Get to know people a little better, understand what they want and what their passions are.

HOW TO REACH: Ware Malcomb, (949) 660-9128 or www.waremalcomb.com