Steve Dake Featured

9:37am EDT June 30, 2006
For Steve Dake, the vision comes with the doing. In his view, landing a solid project and completing it profitably — to all parties’ satisfaction — is more valuable in setting a company’s course than a vision statement could ever be. The action-oriented approach by the president and CEO of Sargent Electric Co. is tempered by plenty of experience in the contracting and engineering fields, and a penchant for making sure that each project gets the analysis it needs.

Dake expects the 250-employee company to top $40 million in revenue this year and post double-digit increases over each of the next several years as it diversifies beyond the steel and utilities segments to pursue work in the retail and distribution businesses.

Dake spoke with Smart Business about the value of listening, the necessity of failure and how to communicate a corporate vision by doing.

Practice good listening habits. You have to be a good listener. You have to not overreact. Even the most egregious screw-up is based on a rationale by somebody as to why they did what they did.

I think one of the mistakes that a lot of leadership makes is to be so convinced of the correctness of their own position that they forget to listen and to gather information and investigate and to look at both sides. Excess hubris has probably done more damage to businesses than incompetence.

The more moving parts you have in your business, the more you have to investigate why things are the way they are.

Spend more time listening than talking. Ask the same question to a lot of different people, and at every turn, compare the answers. Try to surround yourself with people that are a lot smarter and a lot brighter and a lot quicker than you are and challenge them.

Give people the opportunity to make mistakes, give people the opportunity to try things, maybe even things that you think won’t ultimately work, but give them the opportunity. At the same time, put some backstops in place so that people can’t fail abjectly or can’t create organizational disaster with their mistakes.

Encourage dissent. There’s a lot of senior management out there that doesn’t like to hear things that differ from their view of reality. But I’ve always found it to be quite valuable to listen to dissent and the other side of the coin.

It doesn’t mean that I’ll always agree with it. And it doesn’t mean, frankly, that if you come to me with an idea and you’re passionate about it and I think you’re dead wrong and I try to convince you that you’re dead wrong, I’m going to get mad at you for trying.

Communicate by doing. We’re a very tactile business; we do things. You can have all the theory in the world and all the great visions — marvelous PowerPoint presentations and go to the industry confabs and listen to all this stuff — but the reality is, find it, harvest it, do it.

That will drive you forward more quickly than all the theoretical stuff. Other than just telling people what it is we want to do, the best way to communicate a decision is to find a representative project and bid it or negotiate it and execute it. And by example, the vision, the execution and success leads everyone to want to embrace similar projects.

There’s nothing that succeeds like getting middle management to lock onto a project, either bid it or, preferably, negotiate it, do it and have the client be happy with the outcome. It’s a good thing for both the client and the company.

Acknowledge what you don’t know. I have a little plaque on my desk that I bought a number of years ago while wandering through a little store in Sweden, and the essence of it is ... knowing what you don’t know is, in a sense, omniscience.

The essence of it is never be afraid to admit what you don’t know and then try to find a way around it or fill in the blanks or backstop the knowledge. Don’t get too full of yourself.

The only way you learn is to fail. You just want to mitigate the size of the failure. As I’ve told people here repeatedly, we’re all going to make mistakes, and we’re all allowed to make mistakes.

The worst thing you can do is surprise us. When there’s a problem, get the problem up on the table. Tell us what the problem is.

Nobody will be summarily executed for tabling problems. The only summary executions are held for hiding problems and allowing people to fail when they didn’t have to fail. Being a good listener is important for that. The last thing you want is fear and trepidation from the employee ranks to tell the truth to management.

Recognize the limitations of rules. I worked for a company once that had ironclad dictates about the kinds of margins that had to go on projects, and those dictates had nothing to do with the realities of the market. They had to do with the spin that senior management felt it had to give to Wall Street.

You can’t dictate what margin you’re going to put on a project if the market won’t support it. You’ll look like you’re selling work at margin X, but as you perform against the projects, you’re going to have cost overruns. I’ve seen a lot of witch hunts conducted to figure out what the problem was, when in reality, you should have put a much smaller margin on it, put down real costs and figured out how to control your overhead so you could actually afford to do work at those smaller margins.

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