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Heroes need not apply Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

Eric Holmen believes the strategy for success at SmartReply Inc. is analogous to succeeding on a soccer team.

In soccer, players often have to shift quickly between offense and defense during the course of a game, and their ability to do so successfully goes a long way toward determining the outcome of the game.

Likewise, in the business world, employees need to be ready to adapt to new challenges to ensure that their company continues to grow.

“Problems aren’t solved by individuals; they are solved by everybody,” Holmen says. “Likewise, problems aren’t created by individuals. If an individual has that much ability to create a problem or to reach failure, the rest of the organization is falling short.”

Holmen has created a culture in which everyone, including himself as company president, is trained to check their egos at the door. This philosophy has helped the retail marketing solutions provider grow to about 50 employees and 2007 revenue of $9.4 million.

Smart Business spoke with Holmen about why reaching consensus isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and why you’re probably not the smartest person in the room.

Q. What’s the best way to stimulate employee engagement?

An admission that you’re not the smartest guy in the room. If you come in with that perspective and you’re demonstrating it, other people might have better ideas that need to be fleshed out.

It makes it so much more efficient to solve the problems and pursue the big ideas. I’m not afraid. I don’t think good leaders should be afraid to admit often that they don’t know or that they are wrong or that they need help.

Sense of destiny can be a very powerful driving force. You know it’s inevitable you’re going to get to that destination. You may not have the plan or the specific pieces nailed down to get to that destination. It’s going to take a lot of attempts and ideas and collaboration to get there. That’s why these two things work together.

Q. How do you generate those ideas?

Structured meetings tend to be the worst place to bring new ideas. It’s letting things kind of evolve organically and mature.

The meetings tend to be very much, ‘Here’s what we’re here to talk about. Here’s the whiteboard. Grab a marker.’ We take turns or sometimes argue over the marker and diagram things out on the board and end up with a conclusion.

So how do you make purpose out of these organic sessions? I strongly believe you have to start out being very clear on what is the problem we’re trying to solve. If you’re not solving that problem, is it really a problem?

If everybody came in and said, ‘I know the answer to the problem,’ you’d have more traditional corporate meeting structures, which are very monotonous and not productive. If you start out and say, ‘Here’s the problem we’re trying to solve,’ everybody has the ability to solve this problem if we work together.

Q. How important is it to gain consensus?

Consensus doesn’t have to be reached. That’s one of the rules of the meetings. When it’s a majority agreement where we’ve solved the problem or come up with a good solution for the problem, we move forward.

What consensus has the threat of doing is making everyone harmonize, and that can destroy great ideas. Harmony is not what it’s cracked up to be in problem-solving.

If we went into a meeting and said, ‘Here’s the problem that we’re here to solve, and we’re not leaving the room until we all agree on the solution,’ you can end up with compromises along the way instead of a disruptive idea rising to the top.

Something that can be very difficult for some people on the team to accept for a variety of reasons. They don’t get it, or they don’t have experience in it, or it means a lot of work for them.

If you go for consensus, everybody is going to start out saying, ‘I think I already know what this person would agree with me on, so I’m going to give that watered-down idea instead of something that is really a breakthrough.’

Q. How do you avoid hard feelings?

I don’t think that we see an individual’s ideas as something that is a winning idea or a losing idea as much as what is the best idea for the company to solve this problem. We’re all in it for the long term, whether our ideas are chosen or not. The wounds aren’t very deep.

Team-building happens off the field. Provide regular environments for people to connect outside of the day-to-day grind of work. We do everything from a day at the races to paintball.

That’s where team-building really happens.

You can be genuine and authentic. You get to know that person a little bit better. If your idea gets shot down, generally it’s shot down a little more politely than what you might expect because you’re dealing with friends. You can make up on the paintball field. Or discuss it over pingpong.

HOW TO REACH: SmartReply Inc., (949) 340-0700 or www.smartreply.com