Group thinkers Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

Dennis Barnes Jr. is never short of ideas — something that helps him in his job as president of Marketing Direct Inc.

But he’s learned that just because an idea seems good to the person who came up with it doesn’t mean that it will work.

“Before you just roll out a vision, it’s important to do a little sanity check and have people poke holes in some of your thinking,” he says.

Barnes bounces ideas off his management team at his $12 million, 45-employee, direct-marketing company, and if the team validates those ideas, it’s time to move forward on them. And if his ideas aren’t validated, then it’s back to the drawing board.

Smart Business spoke with Barnes about why collaborative leadership beats holing up in your office and how to get everyone involved in the process.

Q. How do you develop a vision for your organization?

By surrounding myself with great people and collaborating, we have immediate buyin when there is a vision that comes out of it. That buy-in of the leadership ultimately trickles down through the organization.

So instead of holing up in a room myself and trying to decide where we should go, I pull together the leadership team — people over the various disciplines of the company — and say, ‘Let’s talk about what we’ve achieved in the last several years and [what] we want to achieve in the five years ahead.’

Q. Why is it important to get input from different areas of the company?

Everyone has an opportunity to speak. There is a big difference between a day in the life of somebody who is doing sequel programming and somebody who is on the front lines as a customer service representative dealing with clients or somebody who is heads down on a Macintosh designing a mail piece or a TV spot.

When we have all those people in the room together talking about what their priorities are, it brings everybody together, and they realize what the various roles are and how they are interdependent. While they do very different functions, they are all ultimately focused on the same outcome for our customer.

Q. How do you get employee buy-in?

It does need to start internally, rather than externally. We have something we call ‘20-minute sessions.’ We call them 20-minute sessions because we thought that’s all it would be, and they’ve become hour to hour-and-a-half sessions.

Those 20-minute sessions are either myself or myself and our senior vice president doing a one-on-one or two-on-one with every employee to talk about the vision, the values, their role, how they fit into that whole vision. We end up getting great feedback, and it ends up being a great dialogue.

The benefit for the employee is an opportunity to have reinforcement for what contribution they’re making toward the vision. Day to day, we get siloed and lose focus on how important the role we’re playing is toward the goal.

So it’s a great opportunity to reinforce, ‘Here’s where we’re trying to go, and here’s your role in that.’ Also, we get some feedback from them on things that we could do differently to make their role either more rewarding or more effective.

So, they get clarity, and we get great ideas.

Q. How do you find time to meet with everyone?

There’s not a timeline on it, so I’m not trying to knock every meeting out in one month. It’s just a rolling process, so I may meet with two or three people this month and six people next month and one person the month after that.

I know who we’ve met with and who we haven’t, so we have this rolling rhythm, and we schedule them out over time. It’s a good discipline, but we don’t tie ourselves down in terms of a timeline.

I don’t want them to feel forced, either. Sometimes, they can be impromptu. Sometimes, that feels better than something structured where you send a meeting invitation — ‘Come sit in my office.’

We’ve had feedback that has led to us implementing changes in processes and investments in things that were good ideas. So the actions coming out of it reinforce that it’s time well spent.

Q. How do you sort through all of that feedback?

If something shared in that meeting looks like a potential concept for improvement, I’ll take that concept to our management team and share it with them. We’ll kick it around and talk about some of the pros and cons and make a determination together if it’s something we’d like to explore further and implement.

If so, we usually involve the person who came up with the idea. If not, we go back to the person and talk to them about the discussion we had and why we chose not to move forward with it at the time.

Usually, that gives it some closure. You see some action, or rather than perceived inaction, they get some feedback.

HOW TO REACH: Marketing Direct Inc., (314) 590-8301 or