Blossoming business Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

Growing up in a family business, John P. Ferry Jr. learned a valuable lesson about respect.

“Just realize you don’t demand respect; you have to really earn it, and that takes awhile sometimes to learn that, to grow up and understand that it’s not just given,” says the president and CEO of Robertson’s Flowers. “You’ve got to earn it.”

From previous generations at the 81-year-old florist, Ferry also learned how to be a good listener, something he credits with his success in leading the company, which posted 2006 revenue of $6.5 million and employs about 80 full-and part-time workers at three locations.

Smart Business spoke with Ferry about how to earn respect from your employees and how to be a good listener.

Q. How can leaders earn respect from their employees?

One of the things is to make sure somebody knows that you’ve done their job so that you at least have an understanding. You work alongside them at some point.

It’s difficult to do in some capacities, but I think it helps a lot if the people you’re leading realize you have done their job. Certainly not full-time or anything close to that, but that you know what they go through. I think that is really critical.

I’ve heard too many criticisms of people that, ‘This person just doesn’t understand.’ It’s that old adage, ‘Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked in their shoes.’ Do it in kind of a small scale, but just understand what somebody goes through. You need to be able to do that. Every so often, do it again so people see that aspect of you that you are willing to do that.

Q. How does earning that respect help you grow the company?

It gets employees and everyone on the same page. This is a tough business to be in. Everybody’s business is tough in some respects, but this demands some ridiculous hours because it’s so seasonal.

You’re asking a lot of people to work 80-hour weeks for three or four straight weeks during the Christmas season, and people get tired. By the 24th, everybody, no matter how good they are, has just had it with the holiday.

If it starts out bad, or if you don’t have the respect, they are never going to make it that long. If it starts out with a good foundation, then people will do anything you want, sometimes without really even being asked. They just realize that is part of the job and it’s expected, and they actually help kind of ride herd over anyone that is new.

Q. How can a leader become a better listener?

I think it’s maturation. Sometimes, when I look back at what I was like when I was 25, I cringe with what I would do. I learned a lot as I went along. I had some great teachers. I had some great examples.

But until I had children, I think that’s actually what kind of solidified everything for me. That made me realize I needed to be a better listener, and I needed to be a little bit more empathetic and realize that I was teaching and not dictating to people.

Until I had that experience, I don’t think I was really good at that.

Q. How do you make sure employees know that you’re hearing them?

Listen to what they are saying as opposed to talking over them. I’m sure you’ve experienced people in your lifetime that may look like they’re going through the effort. They’ll ask a question, but instead of just listening to the answer, they’re responding. They’re responding to your answer, and I don’t think that builds any kind of trust or respect. Let somebody say their total piece, and have an honest dialogue.

That’s what I meant by being honest. I may disagree with you or disagree with somebody, but I’m going to tell you why or what we’re going to do or why we’re going to do it. I will listen to what you have said and honestly take it into consideration.

You don’t just do things because that is the way it is done or that is the way we did it 20 years ago. You have to be open to some change and especially listen to people that are on your front line.

If somebody is dealing with the customers all day long, they’ve got a better perspective of that than you do. Or, if someone is dealing with suppliers all day long, they have a better perspective on that than you did. So, honestly, listen to what they are saying and try to be receptive to it.

HOW TO REACH: Robertson’s Flowers, (215) 836-3050 or www.robertsonsflowers.com