O.C.'s Top Workplaces: Leadership, Vision

Originally published in the Orange County Register, November 18, 2011.

A Great Place to Work Starts at the Top

Each year, the Orange County Register honors the county's top workplaces as determined by employees themselves in anonymous surveys, and invariably these employees mention their appreciation for bosses who communicate openly, provide vision and move the company forward even in tough times.

Quite simply, a company without good leadership does not make the list.

But each year, three executives are singled out for leadership that stands apart even among strong competition. This year's top leaders are Hayes Drumwright, CEO of Trace3, an Irvine computer systems integrator; Tina Rector, broker of Evergreen Realty & Associates, Inc. in Irvine; and Ralph Opacic, founder and executive director of Orange County High School of the Arts in Santa Ana.

Drumwright, who also received the special leadership award in 2010, said he has had to adapt his leadership style as Trace3 has grown. The company hired more than 100 new employees in the past year.

In 2009, Trace3 had 70 employees and he called every one personally when the prolonged recession forced a 20 percent cut in salary across the board. Now the company has 250 employees so Drumwright spends his time coaching his top managers to, in turn, provide leadership to their departments.

"When we were small, I could personally touch everyone. Now it's more difficult for me, as a leader, to let others do that," he said recently.

"The most important trait for a leader is transparency, being clear in good times and bad what you expect," Drumwright explained. He writes playbooks for the company covering the next three years and updates them annually. He also blogs for an employee audience once or twice a month.

Anonymous comments from Drumwright's employees complimented him for his "transparency and informative on long-term goals and strategy" and "he has hired and promoted some incredible individuals to help him guide this company."

Now if the company has to implement cuts or other difficult decisions, Drumwright explains the details completely to his managers. "Then I say, 'Would you rather not know that information?' They almost unanimously say they'd rather know. So I say, 'What makes you think the people who work for you don't want that same input?'"

Tina Rector's leadership style might best be described as humble. Although she was voted for the leadership award this year, she said her best move as leader was putting son Randy in charge of the growing real estate company. (Randy Rector won the Register Top Workplaces leadership award in the past.)

"Randy has taught me a lot," she said. "I'm not a corporate person. He was a CPA and brought on board good practices. I sometimes forget he's my son and admire what he is doing."

Employees praised Tina Rector for "communicates well with everybody" and "supports all aspects for agent to have the best and most productive environment."

When she started Evergreen Realty in 1993, Rector had a revolutionary idea: instead of splitting her agents' commissions, she charged a flat fee.

"When I started (as an agent), I split my commissions 50-50 with the broker and I knew that was ridiculous. The broker didn't do that much for me," she said.

The approach empowers the agents, Randy said, but also frees Evergreen from depending too much on top-producing agents.

"I decided to go out on my own because of the unethical behavior of other brokers; things they allowed, we won't," she said. "Years ago I pulled aside an agent for doing something wrong and he said, 'I pay your salary.' I said, 'Excuse me. You are going to remember this for the rest of your life,' and I let him go."

Ralph Opacic said he has sought buy-in from everyone involved since he started an after-school arts program in 1987. He continued the practice when the program became the charter school, Orange County High School of the Arts in 2000.

"I spent time with students, teachers, parents and the community on our core values, our vision," Opacic said. "Every couple of years we revisit those issues in depth. Three or four times a year I speak to all the stakeholders. We are a school of choice because they are part of the process and embrace our mission."

Employees agreed in anonymous comments. "He has an amazing vision and inspires us to create a unique and innovative learning environment for our students," one said. Another said, "He is great at explaining things to people," and a third praised his "communicating school's vision, following up with plan and action."

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