As founder, principal and president at Avatar Partners Unlimited LLC, Marlo Brooke doesn’t have a lot of time to sit around and talk. But the moments when she does have heart-to-heart discussions with her employees are vital to the company’s success.
“I always ask, ‘Are you happy? How are you feeling about things?’” Brooke says. “Just directly asking the question, usually you’re going to get a direct answer. There are always tasks and projects at hand. But in addition to that, there is the question of how they are doing. That seems to cut off at the pass a lot of issues between them and myself and between them and other employees.”
By staying in tune with her employees’ feelings about the company and their jobs, Brooke emphasizes the importance of both communicating and listening in everything the company does, and in doing so, she has led the software systems integrator to 50 employees since it was founded three years ago.
Smart Business spoke with Brooke about how although she doesn’t keep many secrets she motivates employees by not telling them how they can earn bonuses.
Q. What are some keys to effective communication?
Keep drilling down beyond the obvious questions. It’s a very similar methodology to being an excellent journalist. Being able to really listen many times to what isn’t being said.
Needing to effectively listen is just ensconced in our mentality. It’s constantly discussed in our internal meetings and training with everyone from accounting to customer service consultants to the sales and marketing team.
Everyone knows that we need to have this openness of understanding, really almost a humility. Just a willingness to go beyond your own head/mind constructs of the picture we built up in our many years experience. We don’t have that arrogance to assume that we have all the answers.
Nobody is wrong for saying anything or having any kind of idea.
Q. What role does a leader play in establishing open communication?
The attitude of top management funnels down through to everyone. As the president, I work on that constantly. I also allow people to criticize the things I do in a constructive way. It puts a check and balance on me.
I’d rather have the learning come internally as opposed to jeopardizing our relationship with our customers. We treat our customers the same way, just allowing that flow of communication.
I have to care about the employee even more than I care about myself. I have to be looking at what is in their best interests. I have to be thinking, ‘Are they happy? Are they getting fulfillment? Are they challenged enough?’
Different employees need different things. Some people are only interested in money. Some are only interested in accolades and fame. Some just want a good job. It’s my responsibility to have the caring and concern for my employees, and then it comes back tenfold.
Q. How can communication ease the sting of failure?
Everyone has very sensitive egos. If a person didn’t do as well as they wanted on the last project, it’s really important for leaders to focus on the positive.
It’s very easy to be negative. It’s very easy to come down on a person and be critical and maybe even get a temporary result by being harsh with them.
It’s harder to be positive with that person. But it’s much more successful in the long term, and that employee will be much more productive in the long term. Focus on what they did do right and lessons learned.
I frequently manage by giving examples of mistakes I’ve made and how I’ve succeeded through them so that they know that leaders are fallible. They need to know they are not the only fallible person and the only person that made a mistake. Just having that commonality can go very far.
Q. How does having a secret bonus plan motivate employees?
We don’t believe in structured bonuses. We won’t do Christmas bonuses every year. We give bonuses based on factors. Our management committee gets together once a month, and we have a factor that we’ll give a bonus on to an employee that month. Nobody knows what it is.
At the end of the month, our management gets back together and finds the employee that has done that particular thing and we’ll give them a bonus on that. We find unexpected bonuses really tickle and excite people. They feel what they do really does matter.
If the objective is sort of vague and nobody really knows what the bonus is, it incentivizes people to do well at everything they do.
It’s also an expectation thing. If you give somebody something they expect, they’re happy. But if you give them something they didn’t expect, that’s a gift. It makes it exciting and fun.
HOW TO REACH: Avatar Partners Unlimited LLC, (949) 622-5557 or www.avatarpartners.com