Walking the walk Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

M. Gordon Daniels strives to lead by example at Land Services USA Inc.

“I think you have to set a good example,” the founder and CEO says. “I think it’s not necessarily what you say, it’s what you do that people follow.”

Daniels also works to be open, honest and direct with people.

“If people know what their expectations are, if you are very clear in setting those out, I think that is half the battle,” he says.

Daniels has led the title agency, which has about 30 employees, to 2006 revenue of $10 million.

Smart Business spoke with Daniels about how he sets the example and how being honest helps his company succeed.

Q. How do you make sure you’re setting a good example?

It’s a relatively small business. If they understand and they watch you and practice customer service, then hopefully that sinks in. It’s not just lip service.

You work hard to solve problems instead of passing those problems or issues off onto other people. If they see you actively involved in resolving things, I think that sets a good example. Even the mundane stuff — hey, we are busy or crazy, that means I have to be the guy at the copy machine doing things. It’s all the sort of mundane, trite things, but it is the truth.

Like, ‘Oh, yes, I am hands-on,’ but then when the time comes, you are dumping it on other people. No. When it has to get done and you have exhausted your resources, no, I am going to do whatever it takes. Hopefully, those things become contagious in a positive way.

Q. Is being open, honest and direct as easy as it sounds?

No, it is very difficult. It is very difficult. Sometimes I have to reiterate that.

We are all human beings, and that’s one of the most difficult tasks is when you’ve given somebody an opportunity and they aren’t meeting those expectations that hopefully you’ve laid out. When you have to have those conversations, it’s very awkward.

So, no, it is not an easy thing to do. Everybody has feelings. I try not to treat my employees as digits on an Excel spreadsheet. There are probably some folks, after a month or two, that [think], ‘Gosh, this is not going to work. It’s not what I thought it is.’ That is part of the maturation process of being the owner of the company. You really try to give people every opportunity. But, at a certain point, you have to make those decisions.

So, it sounds a lot easier than it is. I joke around, you want to be very careful in your hiring process because, at the end of the day, people have mortgages, people have children, people have health insurance things, and you try to make sure you do it right, but sometimes, unfortunately, you do not.

Q. Do you encourage you employees to be honest with you in return?

Absolutely. We have hired some more senior-level people and some very stressful weeks have (transpired). But I view them as very positive. And, when we sit down, we say, ‘Hey, listen, we aren’t personalizing things.’

Those open, honest discussions — again, it is very hard ... not to personalize it. The focus is what is in the best interest of Land Services. If we look at that as the common denominator, we are all sharing the same goal, so let’s not personalize things. Let’s look at what’s in the best interest of Land Services. I think we are getting there. It is always a constant struggle, but you always have to focus on that.

Q. How do you deal with things when they do get personal?

What happens is when you are driving home or laying up in bed at night, you start to think, ‘Wait a minute, this is starting to teeter in a direction.’ My approach is to sort of grab those parties back together.

Now, what happens is, the e-mails go bouncing back and forth. ‘Whoa, whoa, wait guys. Let’s stop it. Let’s all sit down in the conference room together. Let’s all sit down somewhere.’ Maybe it is running down to a coffee shop. Let’s get out of the heat of this thing. Let’s really sit down.

What are we trying to accomplish? I’ve got to tell you, sometimes, and I don’t want to embarrass myself too much, but, the people hiding behind the e-mails and the chain, let’s take 10 minutes and discuss it face to face. I think a lot of times, the voice inflections, the raised eyebrows make such a big difference than the battles going back and forth in cyberspace.

HOW TO REACH: Land Services USA Inc., (215) 563-5468 or www.landservicesusa.com