All the right moves Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

You don’t want to be the smartest person in your company. Really, you don’t.

In fact, John Grierson says it’s your duty to find people who are smarter than you are and put them in positions where you can best leverage their talents and skills.

“The greatest thing I can do is surround myself with people who are more talented than I am, who have better ideas than I do and are willing to express those ideas,” says Grierson, president of Pulte Homes Delaware Valley Division. “Through that, we’ll take a path that others haven’t taken.”

Grierson says that stagnation and a constant adherence to doing things the way you’ve always done them is a recipe for failure in business. The only way you’ll keep your business on its toes is to hire people with the foresight to look down the road, listen to customers and develop an accurate picture of where the markets you serve are heading.

At Pulte Homes Delaware Valley Division — a $300 million wing of homebuilder Pulte Homes Inc. that serves parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware — building for the future means looking at new housing development concepts, such as Applecross Country Club, a master-planned golf community situated on about 1,000 acres in suburban Downingtown, Pa.

It is one of the largest projects Pulte Homes has undertaken in the Mid-Atlantic region. Once it is built out, sometime between 2015 and 2017, the community will feature more than 1,000 homes.

“In order to bring that job to the marketplace, it took an extraordinary amount of teamwork,” Grierson says. “We needed a much broader team than we usually use on our projects; we had to find skills sets that we hadn’t had before. Then we also had to introduce a master-planned community to the Philadelphia marketplace. There just isn’t that type of community (in the Philadelphia area) yet.”

Without a vision and a willingness to stick your neck out, Grierson says it is difficult to grow your company in a meaningful way. You might not think about shouldering a project as expansive as Applecross Country Club in your own business, but Grierson says the need to rise to the challenge is the same regardless of what business you are in. Your team will perform the labor, but you have to set the tone.

Getting through major projects requires communicating your vision to employees, relying on cross-functional teams and leading by example.

Communicating the vision

A company vision might be a long-term set of goals that looks years down the road, and that’s fine for you and your senior management team. But for those farther down the corporate ladder, you have to root the message far more in the day-to-day activities of the company. Grierson says your employees have to know how their daily tasks contribute to the bigger, long-term picture.

He doesn’t try to wow his 200 employees with grand statements about the future of Pulte Homes. Instead, he maintains consistent communication with his team members on the ground level, keeping them focused on a number of basic core values.

He says communicating a vision comes down to one word in the end: discipline.

“Really what the discipline is, is a focus to communicate,” Grierson says. “Our operating team works very hard on our strategic plan. We spend a lot of time setting that up and reviewing it. From that, we really gain our vision. We then incorporate that vision into everyday life. We talk about it in our meetings, we communicate it to the entire team.”

Keeping messages consistent and frequent helps ensure that your employees understand what is expected of them.

“Keeping those vision-oriented messages front and center defines their attitude every day of what they are going to focus on,” Grierson says. “The other thing is, they’re faced with decisions all day long, and when they have a set of core values, a belief and a vision, it’s much easier to make the right decision. Then, at the end of the day, they know (management) will support them in those decisions because it clearly was the right thing to do.”

Grierson uses many different types of communication to get his messages across, from meetings to electronic means to simply walking around. It’s a time-consuming task, especially when your staff spends most of its time spread out among various job sites.

Electronic communication has its place, but there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. If it’s important to you, you have to find a way to make it a priority, even if it means placing other tasks on the back burner.

“Getting out in the field is probably the thing I’m most passionate about,” he says. “As a former Navy guy who ran a division on ship, this is a field-focused business, and you need to be in the field to help run the business. I try to spend 50 percent of my time out in the field, with the operating team once a week, and then with the individual members of that team throughout the rest of the week.”

Grierson says the best part of getting out in the field is the opportunity to learn firsthand how things are being done. He looks upon it as an opportunity to gather best practices from multiple sites and share them with people working on other projects, which, in turn, helps keep the entire company focused and working together toward the same goals.

“I learn so much being in the field, and I can bring it back and take what I have learned and translate it to 30 other operations or communities, and really help share best practices quicker with the team,” he says.

“I think being out in the field really reinforces the things we do well. At the same time, it opens up the door for communication with folks so they feel very comfortable to ask a question. It creates an interactive, very inclusive environment, getting out there.”

Cross-functional teams

Getting out and talking with his employees is great for building rapport and focusing everyone on a single vision and set of core values, but Grierson likes to go even deeper.

If you are going to work at Pulte Homes Delaware Valley Division, you are going to learn what your co-workers do for a living.

Grierson started by setting the example himself when he first moved to the Philadelphia area. Upon accepting his post as head of the division, he decided to spend a year working in the field, covering every department, learning a wide range of jobs.

“I spent four months selling homes, I spent four months building homes, I spent several months in customer relations,” he says. “Until you do that, you won’t have an appreciation of what the person on the other end of the phone is struggling with.”

It was such an eye-opening experience for Grierson that he decided to make it a companywide policy. Now, cross-functional training teams are the norm; homebuilders learn about dealing with customers, salespeople learn about accounting, and accountants learn how a home is constructed.

Grierson also uses the training sessions as his own excuse to get involved.

“We do exercises,” he says. “Some are about customers or processes. I try to attend all the training sessions for at least part of it. One, to reinforce the vision. Two, to offer myself up to any questions about things going on. Three, to listen to the feedback they have as they go through these exercises.

“When they go through these exercises, what I want them to take away from these sessions is, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know what these folks did.’ Then, when they’re picking up the phone and calling to ask someone a question, they have a much better understanding of who that other person is on the other end of the line.”

Cross-functional teams also help build a team approach to problem-solving. Once those in a company get to know each other and each other’s jobs, they can begin to put their heads together on projects, bringing different perspectives to the table.

“If you have a diverse voice, people from different backgrounds and job descriptions, you’re going to get a whole bunch of different ideas on how to approach a certain situation,” Grierson says. “It’s that collective, diverse thought that makes a company a lot stronger.”

Keeping it real

Throughout all of his communications, all of the meetings and cross-functional training sessions, Grierson says there is one universal truth that never changes: Your actions must follow your words.

“Credibility is the most important thing you can have as a leader, the trust of your employees,” Grierson says. “If you don’t walk the talk, you lose some of that credibility. That’s something important about leadership qualities — to be consistent, to be continuous in doing the things you say you’re going to do and continuing to live by the vision.”

Grierson frequently monitors feedback, including employee surveys and question-and-answer sessions, to gauge whether the messages he is trying to convey are the messages that are reaching his employees’ ears.

Grierson also places an emphasis on setting the right example. With a stated goal of satisfying every customer, he wants his team to quickly address any customer complaint, something he does personally when needed.

“If there is a dissatisfied customer, I will go talk to them,” he says. “I encourage our operating team to deal with it first, but if the customer is still not satisfied with the house when they close, I want to know so we can get better at managing those expectations.”

Youalsobuildcredibilitybyallowingemployeestogetinvolvedin formingthefutureofthecompany.Griersonsaysit’saformofbuilding trust, and a big part of that is letting your employees take ownership of their ideas.

“That’s really where a culture is bred, when a mass of people feel that comfort in sharing their ideas and feeling that their input is valued in the company,” he says.

Even if you don’t end up using an idea or suggestion, considering the idea and giving it legitimacy in front of the rest of the company is a powerful tool for enabling and motivating your employees and, in turn, getting them to believe in your vision and values.

“It’s really important because I don’t have the idea,” Grierson says. “They’re coming from the folks who are in the field every day, that are seeing what is happening. They are the ones who are going to have the great ideas, and you need people like that who are passionate and want to be the best.

“Once that passion is unleashed by getting those ideas on the table, they become engaged, they become part of the team, then they become a leader on the team. It goes a long way from an employee standpoint to feel part of the team. There is not much more satisfying than that.”

HOW TO REACH: Pulte Homes Delaware Valley Division,