Setting an example Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

Judith M. von Seldeneck credits her attendance at her children’s school meetings with teaching her to be a better business leader.

At the meetings at Hyde School in Maine, everyone was encouraged to talk about what was on his or her mind.

“When I would come back from some of those meetings, and we would have a meeting in the office, I would say, ‘We are going to have a Hyde meeting. We are going to go around the table, and everybody’s is going to share what’s on your mind,’” says von Seldeneck, founder, chairman and CEO of Diversified Search Ray & Berndtson LLC, a 60-employee, $15 million generalist retained search firm.

In addition to encouraging open communication, von Seldeneck — who served 10 years as executive assistant to former Vice President Walter Mondale — is a strong believer in diversity in the work-place, and emphasizes that factor when placing job candidates with client companies.

Smart Business spoke with von Seldeneck about how doing the little things can go a long way and why she sometimes asks employees to show her some love.

Q: What are the keys to being a good leader?

The example that you set in terms of how hard you work, your integrity and the way you treat people. You have to be able to earn respect, and the best way to do that is through example.

People see you are putting in the same kind of hours they are, and you are willing to roll up your sleeves and get your own coffee, pick up the phone, make your own calls. Just because you are the CEO, you are not above doing some of the things everybody else does.

Q: How does getting your own coffee help the culture?

People here know I am not above doing anything. There are plenty of times when I say to them, ‘Show me your love.’ They know that means, ‘I am busy, and would you please get me a cup of coffee?’

It’s not that I’m above it, but I am swamped, and they know it and will do it. The rest of the time, I will get it myself.

If we have a lunch in the office, I will pick up some of the plates afterward, and they tell me not to do that. But I’m a Southern girl and was brought up to where you clear the table. So, I just think it sets a tone.

Q: How do you handle problems?

I’m the kind of person that doesn’t keep things inside of me. People know how I feel about things, and I don’t stew about things for long. If something is bothering me, I deal with it.

It’s benefited me emotionally because I am not all weighted down with this stuff. Sometimes, it doesn’t serve me well because sometimes, I should keep my mouth shut instead of saying what I think. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to say it better. It allows me to get it off my chest and communicate it in a way that doesn’t get me in as much trouble as it did in my youth.

Q: How do you teach your management team what to look for in potential employees?

The best way to teach people is experience. My style is my style. But to be part of the interviews and meetings that I’m involved in, then they can see my style and see what works for me.

Out of that, there’s something that they can adapt to that is going to work for them. Because I really do think experience is the best teacher. You can give people manuals and stand up, lecture and bring in trainers, but at the end of the day, you just have to really experience it.

Q: What are the downfalls to an open culture?

You can create expectations that are beyond what is reasonable to achieve because of your enthusiasm, and you are just talking off the top of your head. It creates an expectation that once you put it out there, then you have to deliver, and that can make things more problematic. If you don’t, then you’ve lost credibility, and you really are damaging the culture. You just have to be careful of that.

Or you may say things or do things that aren’t really the smartest thing to do right now.

Q: What do you do if you speak too soon?

I just explain to them why it didn’t work out. There’s this firm we are trying to acquire, and I’m sure we are going to get them. It’s looking great, and I can’t wait to celebrate, and then things start to fall apart, and it’s not going to happen. I really go into the detail why it didn’t work out and what the reasons were, so they understand.

I take the time to be open and share that kind of information. I put an awful lot out on the table.

HOW TO REACH: Diversified Search Ray & Berndtson LLC, (215) 732-6666 or