Davis Driver Jr.

For the past 18 months I have been able to step outside the system. I sold my company — Traditional Concepts, a high-end design/build firm on Chicago's North Shore —and have remained working as a sales consultant. Not having to drive the bus, I no longer have to keep my eyes on the road and can take a hard look at the scenery. It is still the same company, the same employees and customers, but now I have a different perspective.

Being outside the system permits better translation between my head and my heart. I can more clearly see that the impact that leaders and owners have on their organizations is significant.

One thing I am focusing on now is the company's culture — those invisible attributes that drive a business for better or worse.

Owners define the culture by the collective effect of their behavior, values, and ethics, which are communicated overtly and covertly at every level.

Of course, no one wants to wait until retirement to help their company build a positive culture. It is difficult, but you can create one from within.

Stop Talking First, you have to start with the truth. Ask the questions, stop talking, and listen to the answers. Suspend judgment, don't defend or make excuses; take inventory, and consider that maybe, just maybe, you do not have the true picture of what is going on. The collective comments by employees and clients are usually right. They see things owners cannot. Value their input and take it into account, or ignore them at your peril.

Learn From Others As a leader, you might be surprised to learn from others about the value you provide and the pain you inflict. For example, I believed our clients used Traditional Concepts because the company did its work well, on time, and on budget.

After hiring a marketing consultant to confirm this with our longtime clients, we discovered that these attributes were not what our clients assigned the highest value to; it was our personal touch.

This discovery drove the creation of the Personal Touch Experience — our 101-step process that was a replicable system to consistently deliver on our promises — as part of the external communication of our culture.

Conversely, I remember repeated requests from lead carpenters for additional carpentry support on our larger jobs ... but I shut it down each time by reciting stats on job budgets and efficiency. I was unwilling or unable to hear the plea, communicating that I knew best and did not care about their struggles. Morale on the larger jobs suffered and telegraphed through the entire company. (I eventually saw the light.)

Be Open To Criticism Clients' and associates' true feelings need to be coaxed out into the open to fully understand them. If there is a history in which divergent opinions and perspectives are punished or lip service is given, the leader will never hear honest input. The truth is painful to hear and difficult to deliver. For an employee to give an honest opinion is like being selected to tell the emperor he is wearing no clothes.

Knowing the truth allows you to modify your actions and attitudes to align with what you truly want your business culture to be. Only then can you make a positive impact while you're still working within the system you've created. — Ted Brown, president of Xiphos Design in Lake Bluff, Ill., consults with design/build remodeling companies to increase organizational effectiveness.