The big picture Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008
John “Ozzie” Nelson Jr. doesn’t like to get wrapped up in the details.

Instead, the president and CEO of NELSON, a $70 million international design and consulting firm, surrounds himself with people who do focus on the details so he can focus on what all of those details could become in the big picture.

That big-picture thinking has helped fuel 12 merger/acquisitions for NELSON during the last three and a half years.

During that period, Nelson has focused on rapid growth, avoiding distractions, being disciplined in speed to market and quickly doing transactions, a textbook approach that was exactly what his company needed to get to the next level.

Now managing 36 locations around the world, Nelson has adapted his management approach from driving growth to becoming a servant leader to his 500 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Nelson about how he took on a new leadership style while maintaining his vision for the company.

Adopt a servant-leader attitude. I’m a firm believer in being willing to roll up your sleeves and do whatever is required but also being a vision-based leader that can help others see what they might not see in the day to day of their working experience. There are some tactical ways you do that, and there are strategic ways you do that.

I try to spend as much time as I can shoulder to shoulder with our teammates. Yesterday, I was in one of our offices and spent the day with our team, helping to add any value that I could and really getting to know the culture and people within that office. It’s really getting into the trenches to see that.

I keep a directory with photos of all of our teammates with me. Over time, if we’ve had four phone calls, it’s kind of like working face to face with them. It’s amazing to me the smile that will come on someone’s face when you walk through an office and know their name and you can make that connection with them. In this environment, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of psychic compensation for our teammates.

I also send out a weekly e-mail every Friday without fail to every teammate within the company. I try to be very conscious of not having that be the format of just the things I want to talk about but a combination of the things that I think people want to hear.

That’s an important part of the way they connect with me, and I can share a little bit of who I am, but it’s also a piece that is as much personal perspectives of mine as business perspectives. It shows some vulnerability that allows people to connect with the person instead of the position.

Support your team. In our environment, everybody is a team-mate as opposed to an employee. It sets a tone that we are all teammates in a vision and mission that we are trying to accomplish.

When someone who’s at a junior level in the organization sees themselves as a team-mate and they see they have a place on the team that’s no different than the spot the CEO has on the team, they’re more likely to have buy-in. They’re more likely to be connected to the company vision.

When people have put a faith in you and have treated you in a certain way, those are the people that you never want to let down. It’s everything from the way that you talk to them to the way that you listen to them. It’s not any one thing that you do as much as it is a lot of years of consistency; it’s showing that you really mean what you say and that you’re committed to them.

Live with honesty and courage. You have to be able to look at things through an unfiltered eye so you can make the moves that you need to. There are a lot of people who talk themselves into things being a certain way.

In today’s environment, where there is so much change, you have to be willing to see the change and understand the opportunity to move in that direction. That unfiltered view of the world is important.

Whatever your motives, courage is a really important thing. No matter what your journey is, whether it’s a flat lineup or it’s a seesawing ride, it takes a certain amount of courage to remain constant to the vision and to be the one when the day is done that has to deal with people’s mouths being fed.

We can sometimes feel like something is overwhelming, and it becomes important that you coach yourself. I look at people who have been in similar situations and either seek their counsel or read their story. I try to put my story in some kind of perspective and then I step back and say, ‘That’s OK. I can do that.’

Be flexible. No matter how powerful and how strong an organization is, a CEO who is not flexible in understanding the changing operating environment, and what that requires of them, is really going to have a challenging time.

Maybe the CEO doesn’t have to change, but he has to change the way he manages the company. If you’re not good at people skills, for example, and you notice that’s something that’s important to your environment, you better bring somebody in who can do that.

Change is here to stay, and the most successful CEOs in the future will be the ones who become change masters.

HOW TO REACH: NELSON, (215) 925-6562 or