Lesson learned Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008
Victoria Tifft isn’t the smartest person at Clinical Research Management Inc., and she’d be the first one to tell you that. As founder, owner and president of the biomedical research firm, she’s surrounded herself with a team of people with superior levels of expertise in many fields of study.

Although some egos might collapse under this arrangement, Tifft says it’s the savviest way to manage in business. Leaders can’t know everything, she says, and when they approach a gap in their knowledge, where better to turn than a bevy of skilled, in-house resources?

At CRM, Tifft has approximately 200 such resources at her disposal, which she has used to push 2007 revenue to more than $17 million.

Smart Business spoke with Tifft about how to tap into the potential of your staff members by supporting their decisions, learning from your mistakes and establishing a culture of trust.

Support your employees’ decisions. Even if you don’t agree with decisions, you have to let them make decisions unless you know the decision is going to be harmful to them or the company.

Sometimes, I would not have done something a certain way, but because it’s important to them and they want to do it a certain way, I let them. Nine times out of 10, it’s a better method. You have to stand by them and support them.

It used to be that people were incentivized by money. Today, it’s a mixture. It’s financial and the fact that they feel important — that they’re a value added to the company. With our managers, the biggest thing for them is, they’ll say, ‘On that day, when I made those decisions, you supported me. I felt like I made a difference and what I had to say mattered.’

Don’t give out all the answers. We learn from mistakes, or we learn by trial and error, or we learned because we made a good decision and it worked.

I have a director who needed help in a certain area. She sends me an e-mail and says, ‘Do you have any advice for me?’ I can tell her exactly how to do it, but that doesn’t help me. It helps me if she can learn to do it on her own, so I give her advice and advise her so that she can think and create her own decision, which will be different than the one I had, but it will work for her.

It’s important for them to find their own way. If I make the decisions for them, they’re not moving forward. They’re standing still.

Learn from your mistakes. You can’t grow if you don’t learn from your failures or your successes.

We just finished a very large project, and we all had lessons learned. Everybody submits their ‘lessons learned,’ and then we sit down and talk about it. We call it a ‘lessons-learned’ culture.

We all discuss, ‘Here’s what happened to me, and how could we not have that happen again next time?’ We have a discussion group of any way we can come about having a better way to do that next time so we don’t have that same ‘lesson learned.’ Nobody wants to go through the same mistake twice.

We can’t afford to make a mistake, but we’re human, and we make mistakes. The difference is that we have a culture where a mistake is brought out on the table.

You have to do that diplomatically. I wouldn’t recommend just saying, ‘OK everybody, come in here with your failures.’ Some folks will say, ‘I’m going to hide them. I don’t want them to know my failures because that will make me look bad.’

Elicit honest participation by establishing trust. I always come forward and say, ‘Here are the mistakes that I made during this process, and here’s what I think I can do better.’ In that environment, it has to be an open forum, and everybody’s on equal footing.

What happens in that room is progress. We don’t bring that up later on an evaluation and say, ‘Well, Johnny, on such-and-such a day, you said you made these mistakes.’

We receive a great deal of benefit from it because there’s an open forum where we trust one another to bring forward our mistakes. That’s the biggest benefit, that we don’t do it again. We don’t have to keep repeating the same mistake and getting aggravated by it. We’re able to overcome and move on.

Walk through the muck. When things are difficult, don’t stop communication. You cannot sit back and hope it goes away. Walk right through it. Address it head on.

If there’s a swamp, and there’s a lot of muck in the middle, and you need to get to the other side, you must walk through the swamp. That’s what I tell our staff all the time: ‘We’re walking through the muck because that’s the only way to make it to the other side.’

In those cases, you have to increase everything you’ve done. Increase communication. Put a lot of resources if there’s an issue or a problem, and tackle it. That says to the customer or the employees that we’re listening, and we’re trying to do something, and we haven’t turned the phones off and turned the computers off to try to stop communication.

HOW TO REACH: Clinical Research Management Inc., (330) 278-2343 or www.clinicalrm.com