What makes a great business leader? The employees of three local companies think they know.
They heaped praise on their CEOs, so much so that they led all the companies in the Times survey of workplaces when it comes to leadership. They are able to create a culture that drives their work force to succeed. It's part motivation, part communication, with a heavy dose of bedrock values.
"He praises his employees continuously," the employees said.
"Is approachable, loyal and genuinely cares about his employees."
"Uses common sense and tries to do the right thing."
How do the leaders pull it off? The Times went to the winners, sitting down with Tom James of the regional investment firm Raymond James Financial of St. Petersburg; John Auer of the insurance firm American Strategic Insurance of St. Petersburg; and Barry Shevlin of the telecommunications/IT equipment reseller Vology Data Systems, the new name as of this month of Network Liquidators in Oldsmar.
James, 67, ranks among the area's best-known, longest-lasting business captains. Auer, 55, wins survey kudos for staying in close touch with employees. And Shevlin, 39, tops survey feedback as an impressive motivator — a key credential running a sales-driven business.
The hour-plus exchange held in the Raymond James boardroom was serious, but at times funny, a bit combative and self-deprecating. It touched on topics ranging from the importance of positive corporate culture and communicating a company's mission to recalling the benefit of mentors. And, of course, possessing the grit and discipline to make swift, tough decisions in difficult economic times.
Best quote about leadership
James (on the value of being prepared for the next business crisis): You will remember the minute the alarm goes off and people will rally around the flag and get to work. You can't sit back and say, "What do we do now, coach?" Someone has to make decisions. That is what leadership is all about.
Auer: Success of an organization has a lot more to do with the people than a leader. A leader needs to get the right people and create the right culture. And he needs to try to make sure people understand what we believe will lead to success in the company and how they can share in that success.
Shevlin: The thing I fear most is complacency. If you enter a difficult time with complacency, you are going to fail. Stopping complacency is a core focus of our leadership team.
Your toughest time as a leader?
James: We were in the center of the recent economic firestorms. A lot of those (Wall Street) companies disappeared in our industry. I had a great benefit. After business school, I got to live through the recession of 1973 and 1974 when three business degrees would not have given me the same experience.
We built a lot of systems then in risk management, so we already knew how to turn the switch and employ practices. In the recent financial crisis, we started watching our cash on a daily basis. Newer people would not know what to do because they'd never experienced anything like these events.
At other companies, professional managers thought they were too good and got into trouble. They did not think they were putting their company at risk, but they did. They did not pay attention to the lessons of the '73-'74 recession when my father (Robert James, a co-founder of Raymond James) and I could not pay ourselves a salary. I even had to sell my coin collection.
Auer: It was during 2004 and 2005 with all those hurricanes (including Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne). We had 51/2 years of property claims in six weeks. I was scared to death, but the employees got it done. It turned out to be a great time of teamwork and very reinforcing. But it was quite frightening at the time. We closed the claims quicker, with fewer complaints, and remained profitable.
Shevlin: It's emotional to let people go who were there at the beginning of the business but no longer fit in the organization.
A lady who first ran accounting is no longer the right person to run it at a $60 million company. We can do a disservice to people trying to fit a round person in a square hole.
You have all just led companies through one of the worst recessions in our lifetimes. Are there lessons to be learned and shared with your employees?
James: I want to remind our people. I do not want them to think this was a bump in the road. Our business plan has to contemplate we are in a tough time, and we will be lucky to survive for reasons outside our control. If you do not have that in your memory bank, you do not do the types of planning you would do otherwise. And that is why you need all those systems.
Auer: We insure homes. And when what you insure is going down in value, foreclosures are at a record rate and people owe more than a house is worth, it is a difficult environment. We have to do everything better than our competitors. As a smaller company, we can have a better attitude, do things quicker, be more innovative.
But on the negative, we do not have the staying power of a State Farm or Allstate. We had good profits last year — knock on wood. Everyone understands. Let's do the work without hiring more people and let's thank the agents (who refer insurance clients to ASI) for their business. So far, it is working. It is not doing anything different but re-emphasizing what led to our success.
Shevlin: We felt we need to make decisions quicker, whether it is adding people or letting people go. We work on that daily rather than wait for the end of the quarter to make decisions out of fear of the overall (economic) environment. Early last year I made sure I was in front of my employees every day, whether it was to fix a problem, a strategy, a customer or policy issue. It's something we do every day, and we will not deviate from it.
What is the one specific piece of advice you would give to others seeking to become stronger leaders?
James: Stay true with your values and conduct yourself with integrity.
Auer: Most companies do not excel. They go to work from 8 to 5 and do not take pride being on a winning team. Kids are on sports teams and work out every day with no thought of being paid. Why? The joy of winning.
If a company is winning, employees should understand how important it is to share that pride. That's why it bothers me sometimes when it seems I get the credit. The best thing I did was hire them, and I want them to understand how important that is.
Shevlin: I would go back and focus on building other leaders in your organization.
Contact Robert Trigaux at firstname.lastname@example.org.