The ties that bind Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

Never sit in the middle at a dinner table with a large family or you’re going to spend the entire meal passing bowls to both sides. That’s just one of the things that Anne Belec learned growing up in Quebec as the fourth of six children.

Now, as president and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America LLC, Belec applies more life lessons when managing an even larger family of 351 employees. Among the lessons: Express ideas clearly and concisely, don’t cut others off when you should be listening, and assume a fair amount of the shared responsibilities.

Smart Business spoke with the personable executive about how best to become acquainted with your staff before applying some of these lessons in the workplace.

Know thy staff. You have to invest the time upfront to get to know the people, their styles and their strengths. There’s no shortcut for it.

When I went to work in Sweden, I was facing a different culture, and I was coming into a new company. One of the things that I implemented, I call them skip-level meetings. I’m not just talking to my direct reports; I go in the organization a level or two and bring in groups.

On a two-hour block of time, the full first hour was just setting up a situation where people talk about themselves. I would give them a make-believe situation like, ‘We’re on a desert island, and you can only bring one person and two of your favorite things. What would they be?’

I let people talk this way, and then I would stop and say, ‘What has this revealed about this person?’ and get everybody to start talking about their insights into this particular person.

It really speeds up getting to know the individual and establishing the trust and a connection so that when we then move to the business part of the discussion, there’s already a certain level of trust and comfort that is established.

When you lead a large group of people, it also helped me remember people’s names. ‘OK, this is the guy who collects trains. This is the person that would have brought Tiger Woods instead of his wife.’

I still do these skip-level meetings on a regular basis to gauge the level of happiness, some of the things that are bugging people in the organization that we can pick up on or things that are common nature and then address as a management team.

Prep your staff before meetings. The more prepared people can be before they actually get to the meeting, the more efficient the time spent.

(Provide more than) just an agenda. It’s trying to provide a little bit of texture, some questions, or, ‘Come prepared to discuss the following topics ...’

(If employees) know what we’re going to be discussing, and they have time to formulate the ideas in their minds, when you get into the meetings, they’re more organized in their thought process.

I demand that they come in prepared. If they believe enough in their point of view, then they will have done good research and provide some good arguments for it. ‘Why do you say that? Do you have facts? Do you have data that supports your point of view or your direction?’

For a manager, it is difficult to back off from the point of view that you had. I am willing to do that as long as a different direction is well supported.

If they come in and say, ‘I’ve done my homework. This is why we think it’s a better decision or it’s a better idea or whatnot,’ if you have a good discussion around it and, at the end of the day, there’s an argument that is stronger, let go of your own point of view.

Validate decisions by explaining the rationale you used to make them. When you do get to the end and you say, ‘This is going to be the decision, and this is the direction that we’re taking,’ explain why.

We always circle back and say, ‘OK, I know this was not all your points of view starting out, but this is where, as a team, we’re going to go. This is why we’re choosing this path. Walking out of here, we all have to agree that now the decision is made and that we all support it.’

It’s a learning process for all of the managers who may be responsible for a very specific discipline. When you hear out the thinking process or the argument that others bring to the party because of their different backgrounds or because of their different experiences, you have the ability to share. You’re developing the whole team through that process.

Set the boundaries when granting autonomy. Micromanagement undermines people’s capabilities. People tend to start relying on the fact that you’re going to be verifying and changing things and doing stuff. They have less ownership of what they are doing when you overmanage.

Trust and empowerment does-n’t mean you’re not going to check what’s going on. Blind trust can lead to a lot of surprises. It only works if you understand the boundaries.

Empowerment is not embraced at the same level by every employee. Some people like to be directed much more closely than others, and others like to have a lot more leeway in what they do.

HOW TO REACH: Volvo Cars of North America LLC, (800) 458-1552 or www.volvocars.us