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Reaching out Featured

7:00pm EDT December 31, 2006

Good CEOs know when to reach outside their own circle for guidance, says Melinda Masson, founder and CEO of The Merit Cos. Masson and her management team did just that as they sought outside consultants to help find an appropriate business model for her company.

“We utilized a group to help us understand what this business is,” says Masson, the company’s founder and CEO. “It didn’t have the big flash in the pan, the quick hit that a lot of the other Web site companies did. But we sustained and the other ones did not.”

The company, which provides professional community association services, was founded by Masson in 1980 and now has 410 employees and 2005 revenue totaling $34 million, up from $27.8 million in 2004.

Smart Business spoke with Masson about how she finds good employees and the importance of occasionally pausing.

What skills must a good CEO possess?
Knowing where the company is going is many times more important to the CEO than where we’re currently at.

There are lots of opportunities that come in every single day. Know what your core business is and what opportunities make sense to add to your business. You can really take a side turn and end up down the wrong path if you’re not careful.

I’m very strategic in terms of how I guide and lead the company. I’m also very passionate. As a result, I probably have a tendency to be an influencer. At the same time, I’m accountable in that I do not ask people to accomplish things that I myself would not also be willing to do.

Always be listening. There are times when you just want to shoot from the hip and just go for it. We are so driven, we are so visionary and focused that we get impatient with the process. It’s extremely important for me to surround myself with those people that are very strong and good operationally and consistent at saying to me, ‘Melinda, we need to pause on this.’

You have to be able to establish and manage priorities. You have to always show respect and build trust not only with your employees but with your clients. You have to deliver financial performance.

What is your leadership style?
The most effective leader is one who seeks to serve versus one who is seeking personal empowerment. When you’re a CEO, you can look at a CEO as one who has incredible power, or you can see a CEO as one who has incredible opportunity to empower.

As one starts out, it’s a very lonely walk when you accept a role of a CEO. There’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of accountability. The CEOs who continue to empower their people within their companies are the ones who are really successful. It’s servant leadership. A very successful CEO recognizes very early that serving is what it’s truly all about.

How do you work through challenging situations?
In our core values, we really embrace a culture of learning. It’s constantly being willing to learn how to listen differently, how to deal with conflict and how to handle confrontation. There is a lot of role-modeling.

Having adults feel comfortable with asking questions and using other people to help them solve a problem is the center of our leadership style. When we have a difficult situation, it’s a company norm that they can pull in whomever they need to help them address or solve the problem.

We’re also a culture that spends time celebrating. I think as adults, we lose sight of having fun. We lose sight of how important it really is to not only be told that you’ve done a good job but also for someone to tell someone else, ‘Way to go, great job.’ That’s really important to me.

How do you deal with failure?
My father gave me advice on this when I started the company years ago. He said, ‘Melinda, there are no failures in life, there are only detours with great opportunities.’ So that’s been my guiding principle. I don’t look at failures. I just look at something as a detour, and then I seek out the opportunity.

We’re always learning, which means that we’re comfortable with one another making mistakes. The mistakes then create the opportunity to learn to do something better the next time.

The most important part is that you pause, acknowledge and then look for the opportunity. It’s a matter of, as a CEO, giving permission to your staff to say, ‘We need a time-out and we’ve got to figure this thing out before we take it any further.’

If you’re just pausing, sometimes that can be a way to just hide by not wanting to confront or deal with the issue.

There are times as a CEO when you have to say, ‘You don’t have time to pause. Make it work to the best of your ability.’

HOW TO REACH: The Merit Cos., www.meritpm.com