29 Sep Ask the Executive: Shelby Russ
New Orleans is home to a diverse and active business community, and much of its energy comes from the top, the executives whose actions and decisions move companies forward despite some of the most challenging economic times in history. Biz New Orleans is diving into what drives those decisions and actions with an exclusive section, which asks local executives about how they arrived where they are today and what they believe drives company success.
We’re thrilled to have Shelby Russ, AOS President and CEO, featured in the “Ask the Executive” section of Biz New Orleans‘ September 2021 issue. Read the full interview below as seen the print and digital editions.
What have been some of your biggest challenges and biggest successes?
Hands down, my biggest challenges have been leading our organization through two unprecedented crises. Hurricane Katrina and the Covid-19 pandemic. While unique in their complexities and impact, both have called for courage, humility, and unwavering commitment to one another. I have found humanity to be the greatest tool we all have in navigating turbulent waters. When we can step out of our individual fight-or-flight mode and remember that we are all in this together, there is a much brighter future on the other side.
A significant success has been building the culture that has attracted such a talented, hard-working group of people that enjoy what they do and who they do it with every day. I am also proud of our team’s community engagement. I am surrounded by people that are passionate about making our region a more vibrant, diverse, and inclusive place to live, and they achieve that through countless volunteer hours, board positions, and personal contributions outside of their professional roles.
Which changes or innovations do you hope to see for your company or industry in the next five years?
Our firm has pioneered the deployment of manufactured interior construction in our region, which is a smarter, more sustainable way of building out commercial interiors. It has taken us a while; however, we have found how to make these sustainable methods cost neutral to conventional methods. It is my hope that we can expand the deployment of this approach as it delivers much better value to our clients and the environment.
The challenge is changing decades-old processes and mindsets. A mentor once told me, “You know you have a great idea when you have to shove it down people’s throats.” Meaning change is difficult for most even when the benefits are obvious.
In your experience, what are the keys to maintaining a healthy and productive company culture?
Primarily trust—having enough confidence in the people you have invited to join your team, expecting that they understand the mission, and allowing them to deploy their own individual creativity, talent, and ideas to support that mission. People deserve to be treated this way. I have found that a culture built on this premise attracts the very best talent and strengthens over time.
Who have been some of the greatest influences on your career or leadership style?
From the beginning, my parents, and every day, my team. We have a sign in our office that reads, “You know you have a great culture when it is hard to tell who the boss is.” If the leadership style is unidirectional (top-down), the organization will struggle. I learn constantly from my team, and I am a better leader for that. I prefer a collaborative style of leadership; that said, I am ever ready to make the tough calls.
How do you maintain a balance between your personal and professional life?
Maintaining this balance has been surprisingly easy throughout my lifetime. New Orleans has long embraced a culture of working hard, playing hard, and honoring your family. A lot has been made of this issue in the last 10 years as millennials have entered the workplace. Article upon article has been written about how this generation has redefined work/life balance and priorities. In my opinion, this balance has always been the case in New Orleans—maybe the rest of the world has finally caught on!
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“Shut up and listen!”