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Triumph of the ‘we’ spirit

Dean Jernigan insists on teamwork

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Career Management,Leaders & Managers,Office Communication,Workplace Communication

As founder, chairman, CEO and president of Storage USA Inc., the country’s second-largest self-storage company with $250 million in revenue, Dean Jernigan understands how to create a team. Jernigan, 55, likes to surround himself with folks who show desire and can-do attitude.

WS: What kind of leadership qualities do you look for in your employees?

Jernigan: I like to see people who are not looking to be led, who don’t bring you a problem without also offering two or three solutions to choose from. I also look at someone’s face in hopes of seeing bright eyes, a pleasant smile, a look of energy and confidence.

WS: But many employees have those qualities. What are some rare traits that only true leaders possess?

Jernigan: Finding someone with a real can-do attitude is hard. There are enough people out there who tell us why we can’t do things. But it’s a rare employee who accepts a challenge even if I don’t think he can accomplish it. They adopt a glass-is-half-full philosophy and wind up exceeding my high expectations. Those people go very far.

WS: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about getting ahead?

Jernigan: I went into the Army at 21. In my experience as a first and second lieutenant and captain, I learned personal accountability, not just to myself but to everyone who reported to me. That means being responsible not just for myself but for everyone below me.

WS: How does that apply to managing employees?

Jernigan: You can’t let someone make a big mistake. You must identify and correct little mistakes early on so that everyone’s learning in a team environment. The goal is for everyone to assume responsibility for everyone else’s actions to the point where both you and your employees take ownership.

WS: Can you take ownership for someone else’s actions?

Jernigan: To some degree. I have an employee with a listening problem. He’ll either work with me to improve his skills or get another job. It’ll be my fault if he gets another job. I take responsibility for his improvement, for closing this disconnect.

WS: Lots of ambitious, talented employees want to reach the top. Why do so many lose their way?

Jernigan: Because they’re not thinking big enough. If your vision is to be the office-supply store in your town that sells the most paper clips, you can reach that vision. But so what? You won’t be that successful. When we started this company in 1985, we named it Storage USA even though we only had one storage facility. People laughed at us for choosing such a grand name. Now we’re growing internationally. So even I didn’t think big enough!

WS: What other barriers block career advancement?

Jernigan: Poor communication skills. If you’re involved in lots of communication breakdowns, that’s a bad sign even if you think they’re not your fault. You could probably have prevented at least some of those breakdowns if you communicated well.

WS: What’s a great way for one of your managers to impress you in a quick conversation?

Jernigan: Talk in terms of “we” and “our” to emphasize we’re a team. I deplore the use of “I” or “me.” Speaking in the collective is better than the singular person. I’m always correcting people here who forget that and say “I” or “me.”

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