Some of the best advice Rex Jensen ever received came the day he was promoted to president at Schroeder-Manatee Ranch in 2002.
The advice was from SMR Chairman Bob Gardner. He told Jensen, who had been vice president of real estate at SMR, that the newly minted top executive could probably do any job at the company, and do it well. But Gardner was also blunt with Jensen: To succeed, Jensen would have to fight that urge. Instead, cautioned Gardner, Jensen would need to delegate. A lot.
It's good advice, considering SMR, now with a payroll of 350 people, is one of the biggest private employers in the Sarasota-Bradenton region. Departments range from a cattle ranch and citrus groves to commercial real estate and a polo club. The firm is the developer behind Lakewood Ranch, one of the largest master-planned communities in Florida and a top 10 project nationwide in annual residential sales.
“I believe my job is to deliver on the long-range goals of the company,” says Jensen. “To keep my own sanity, I have to allow people to do their jobs.”
Jensen nonetheless says delegation doesn't mean dereliction. He will provide the freedom, but that comes with a responsibility to perform. “I can be a pain in the ass to work for,” says Jensen. “I expect someone to do the job they are being paid for.”
There are two other hallmarks of the Jensen delegation method, say several SMR executives. For one, Jensen has a complete open-door policy. The second rule is to never surprise the boss, especially when it's something negative.
On the second rule, Jensen says knowledge is half the battle, which is why he sticks to the open-door policy. Says Jensen: “If you wrap some problem in bubble wrap and hope it goes away, that's not good.”
The open-door policy can be a distraction at times, says Jensen. But he believes there is no other way an executive can successfully foster an autonomous work environment. Besides, says Jensen, pre-dawn mornings are perfect for doing work. “It's a door, not a wall,” says Jensen. “If I'm truly to encourage open communication, the worst thing I can do is say come back next Tuesday.”
Jensen's leadership style has impacted more than SMR's growth. It's also filtered down to other parts of the company. Todd Pokrywa, vice president of planning at SMR since 2003, says Jensen has taught him self-reliance he didn't know he had. “He allows you to grow professionally,” Pokrywa says, “and become more confident.”
Tony Chiofalo, who has held accounting roles with SMR since the late 1980s and is now CFO, says Jensen's style also creates a sense of camaraderie among senior leaders. That's because while the group members know they have to perform, and perform well, they also don't fear failure at every turn when making a decision.
Fear of failure gripped Jimmy Stewart, vice president of sales at SMR, in a previous job with a homebuilder. Stewart says he had little independence, and when he did make a decision, he was often second-guessed by the owner. “No one likes to be micromanaged,” says Stewart, who worked in sales and management for the Ritz-Carlton for five years. “It was absolutely brutal.”