How to lead in hard times? Tampa Bay area CEOs urge honesty, empowering workers

Wake up and good morning. How do you manage a business in such uncertain times? How do you lead others? Challenging questions and some interesting answers emerged Tuesday evening from a panel of area executives speaking at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg College of Business forum. While the Campus Activities Center event drew a wide range of attendees, many of the remarks from the panel were directed to the many university students undoubtedly a bit nervous about entering a difficult economy and one of the more challenging job markets in decades.

Perhaps the best slice of conversation emerged when each of the six panelists was asked: What single word would you choose that best defines leadership? Here's a rundown, in order of response. Note the common themes:

Empowering. Denise Walthers president of the DW Group and sales vice president for Dermazone Solutions, said leaders need to empower people "to do the job you want them to do." It's better to encourage employees even when mistakes happen, she added. Walthers, the sole woman on the 6-person panel, also recalled the days when she worked for an airline and wore "hot pants" to work. Women have come along way, though as the sole rep on the panel, there's room for improvement.

Communication. Bob Bailey, former CEO of State Auto Insurance Companies and now a business consultant, hammered on the importance of being a good communicator. Make your employees "part of the mission," he said and -- timely remark -- walk the walk as a leader. That includes, he suggested, flying coach and doing without an executive dining room and a specially reserved parking space.

Approachable. Scott Corley, market vice president of Walgreens, said it was key for leaders "not to live in an ivory tower." as proof, perhaps, he told how Walgreens decentralized, sending managers out to 29 different markets to get closer to their communities and workers.

Authentic. Paul Tash, St. Petersburg Times and Times Publishing Co. chief, said he wants people "to know what I stand for." A CEO's credibility is paramount, he said, noting he uses "unblinking honesty" when speaking to employees. Tash said he wants his epitaph to read: "He gave a damn." (And yes, full disclosure: Tash is the boss of my boss's boss, or something like that.)

Servant. Tony DiBenedetto, CEO of the IT company Tribridge and a serial entrepreneur, said serving employees is critical to success. His pitch: "What can I do to help the team win?" It's an attitude especially critical to start-ups and a trait DiBenedetto said he first learned when he worked for the accounting/consulting firm Arthur Andersen before his days of creating companies (he's on his 4th).

Trustee. Paul Reilly, CEO of the Raymond James Financial investment firm (who is still shaping his leadership after succeeding Tom James, perhaps the most potent and long-lasting area executive), said a leader serves as a trustee of both a company's employees and shareholders.

If there was one other critical message from the panel to the audience, it was this: Always be a student. Always keep learning. If you stop, they suggested, you're toast in this demanding and fast-changing economy. Good advice.