Brian Horn

Friday, 25 June 2010 20:00

Vision quest

In order to set a vision, Mike Porter has to understand the business and the people he is leading.

“Not only from a historical perspective and what they’ve gone through but also where is this business trying to go and where’s the company trying to go,” says Porter, who oversees more than 500 employees as a regional general manager of Microsoft Corp.’s central region. “Then, you have to take into account the culture, the people — the appetite for change if you will.”

Smart Business spoke with Porter about how to create a vision and get buy-in for it.

Q. What’s the most important step in business?

Being able to set that vision, I’ve found, is the most important thing. It allows you to, stealing a (Steven) Covey term, ‘begin with the end in mind.’ Then you have to have that courage, conviction, that confidence piece. ... In my experience, that’s what allows you to put that vision, that stake in the ground out there because visions aren’t necessarily contracts that say you are assured that all are going to come true.

So you have to have some darn confidence as a leader in what you are doing so you can set the vision and get all the people, the entire organization to go with you in that direction. Because you are really only as good as your people and their ability to understand what you are trying to do. That’s a tough, tough set of different things to go through as a leader in this day and age given the disbursement of people and how many different moving parts there are.

Q. How do you get people to buy in to the vision?

Researching, getting insights, testing ideas, sharing my theories, and openly and honestly asking for feedback. Let’s say it’s a turnaround, versus a sustained success type of business. The difference is in a turnaround, I’m probably going to take a move to start making those changes much quicker than if it is a sustained success. In a sustained success, I’m going to spend a little more time getting more and more people’s input and sharing out my ideas and pieces ahead of time before formally saying this is a vision. Because in a sustained success, I’m going to make sure that by the time I set the vision most people can regurgitate it, if you will, as it comes out. They’re already in. They feel like they are part of it.

In a turnaround, I just need the top performers to confirm what I think I see because the appetite for change is usually so high in a turnaround anyway, that the key is getting the communication, the vision out there quickly because people want to follow something. If it’s a turnaround, they typically feel like they’ve been following a dead end if you will.

Q. What are the keys to getting honest feedback?

When you come in or when you are running a business already and whether it’s starting a business or being there already, the key is just to inspect the business. It goes back to creating a vision. As you inspect, you likely are going to find information, whether it’s looking though the numbers or business intelligence. (That) is something that our customers at Microsoft are asking us for and that’s what we use a lot. Show me the numbers, show me the scorecard, show me the things that are going on, and then, in turn, what that should show you is it should show you some trend data that says, ‘OK, I see some trends that I need to go and investigate more,’ and maybe that leads to the communication ... and then test that with the people you know that you can trust. They’re the honesty, they’re the historian-type folks that have been there for a long time.

They are going to give it to you straight and then you test that in a small group. Then after you are able to get close to confirming that your suspicions or your assumptions were correct in certain areas, then what I do is I go out and ask for feedback. But you have to ask for something specific, and you have to give them a safety place to go with their feedback.

For instance, you could, as a leader, say, ‘Do you think we need to be better at selling?’ And, of course, everyone would probably say, ‘Oh yeah.’ But they wouldn’t give you much to go on. But if you were to say, ‘Do you think we need to be selling to customers that we’ve had as customers for a long time that maybe have plateaued or they look like they’ve plateaued with us, and do you have any examples where you’ve seen that work or not work?’

Because then that is a safety net. You’ve given them enough where they know whatever they tell you, it’s going to be in line with what you are thinking about. Then based on the way that you react to their feedback, they’ll give you more is what I’ve found. You have to be open to feedback and to ideas and to sharing that out again. When I have those conversations and I get good feedback, I’m very quick to pull them in and show them how I took the notes or send that back out or give them access to where I’m storing all my thinking and data and try to be transparent with it.

Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Sum of the parts

When Snap-on Inc. acquired ProQuest Business Solutions in late 2006 and formed Snap-on Business Solutions Inc., there were a few challenges. Departments were performing the same tasks and the new people needed to learn the acquiring organization’s culture and processes.

“The core problem was you take these two stand-alone businesses and you put them together, and now you have obviously some areas of overlap, which typically you would not accept,” says Tim Chambers, who was named president of the newly formed entity in early 2009.

“A lot of that was in our sales channel. You could have two people calling on the same customer and they are now from the same company. We went about a process of declaring that we were moving to one sales organization and that one sales organization was going to represent the entire product portfolio.”

Snap-on had a “who we are” statement, that defined the mission, vision and core beliefs of the company as a whole, but as Snap-on Business Solutions, there wasn’t that one unifying document that defined the operations of the company for its 850 employees.

“When I got here, a lot of the integration had just started, so the combined entity actually needed to get clarity on what their mission was,” he says. “The person who was appointed to drive these pieces of business together was new to the Snap-on side and had been at the acquisition for a year, so relatively new, and there wasn’t a unifying mission that had been created for the combined entity.

“The first few months we worked really hard on getting a mission — what are the key deliverables? Why does it make sense that these two businesses are together, what is the value proposition? So that was the piece we worked on really hard initially. I would say that was the first two to three months.”

Talk to people

For those first two to three months, Chambers spent a lot of time traveling and visiting sites and talking to employees.

He would talk to a cross section of about 10 to 15 people, keeping it small enough so there could be meaningful dialogue. At every meeting, Chambers heard the same thing over and over.

“It was pretty clear that we hadn’t described a clear path to our future,” he says. “Almost immediately, whether it was discussions with our associates or whether it was out talking to our customers, we needed to very quickly come to a conclusion on what it is we were all about.”

You have to be honest and answer as many questions that you can. In Chambers’ case, it was difficult because he was still learning the ropes.

“On a very high level, since I was still learning, I shared with the organization and our suppliers why the corporation made the decision to put these two businesses together,” he says. “Philosophically, what was the driver in driving this together from Snap-on’s perspective.”

Chances are, you won’t have any problems with getting honest feedback, which Chambers found out firsthand. But you still have to create an atmosphere conducive to open conversation.

“It’s about the environment you create,” he says. “Before the meeting, I asked them to think about things that they wanted me to talk about so they could submit questions to me in advance so they are anonymous.

“I think the fact that it can be anonymous, that is a very nonthreatening environment. It’s relatively small, and they’re not asking me questions. I’m asking them questions, so you somewhat provoke the conversation.”

Sometimes you are going to get questions or comments about something on such a specific level that you won’t be able to answer accurately, but you still have to address it.

“I have to table the issue and say, ‘OK, I don’t know the answer to that, but I am going to follow up on it and you should get a response to this issue,’“ he says. “That’s typically the toughest for me is that sometimes the questions are (so) very focused on their particular work that they do that its beyond my scope.”

When he was asked about why the two organizations came together, the answer was on such a high level that he had to break it down. You have to simplify ideas and answers for front-line employees because they may not be able to understand the big-picture idea just as you have trouble relating to their day-to-day job.

“To make it more clear, you have to have a fairly good understanding of the organization and how we create value,” he says. “After you understand how we created value and how the organization operates, I think the best way to create clarity is to utilize real-life examples. The group of people you are speaking to, there is probably an event or a circumstance that has happened recently that you could use as a learning experience. You talk about that experience and how that might have been implemented.”

Chambers’ meetings with customers were somewhat similar to those with employees, but he did look for slightly different information.

“We’ll have a discussion about our performance, and that’s usually what I talk about is how are we performing as an organization and meeting (their) needs,” he says. “Where internally, I’ll specifically want to talk about the things that are going well and then the most critical things we need to change.”

When you put yourself out there after a major change like an acquisition or merger, you have to be prepared for anything from both customers and employees. You can be put on the spot at any time, and a minor slip-up can turn into a major problem.

“You are very vulnerable,” he says. “That’s part of getting good feedback is put yourself in a position where you are vulnerable.”

While you want to be asked questions, you want to ask them, as well. Just lecturing to people can cause them to tune you out.

“Communication is two ways, and you can deliver an idea, but you also have to listen in return that it can be repeated,” he says. “You do that with questions.

“After you deliver an idea, you can formulate questions to gauge the comprehension or clarity or the fact that it made sense.”

Evaluate data

So, you’ve pounded the pavement and collected information from customers and employees. You might be tempted to keep going because you feel that you still don’t have enough data to reach your goal, but you have to stop eventually.

“In all business planning, you never have 100 percent,” he says. “At some point, you just have to say that this is good for now.”

Through talking with people, you have an idea of the outsider’s perception of a change and, in Chambers’ case, what an acquisition meant for his company. You also have gathered what is working well in your organization and what can be improved. Eventually, Chambers stopped collecting information after three months because his visits started to produce the same information as previous stops around the country.

“There are themes that come up that are very consistent, although they may be said different ways and the words used are different,” he says. “There are themes that start to emerge. Those are themes that you start to need to address in a more urgent matter.

“The information that I was getting was consistent with the information that I had received before. There was a consistency to what I learned and therefore that suggested where we needed to focus.”

All of thi s information can be overwhelming, which is why you have to rely on your management team members to sort through the data.

They can be a part of collecting the data, but they definitely have to be part of sorting through the data.

“I would strongly suggest it’s not an individual effort,” he says. “It does take a team to pull this together. Having multiple viewpoints is constructive. In many cases, you will find alignment. Where there are points of disagreement, that’s really where you exert your leadership.”

Just like you had to create an environment for customers and employees to feel comfortable talking to you, you have to do the same when trying to get input for your management team.

“You have to be open to input — having a relationship or building a relationship with your leadership team such that they can come talk to you about issues without reprisal,” he says. “Such that when you are faced with issues that it is about getting the team together to drive through the alternatives and vet the process and get to a conclusion. I think it’s somewhat consistency, too, that you constantly perform in a way that the team has an expectation of how you will operate.”

To keep the disagreements at a minimum, you and your team all have to be on the same page as to what information is important.

“If you have a shared body of knowledge, most people come to the same conclusion,” he says. “Discourse usually happens when you are working from different sets of data.

“If you can get folks with a common base of knowledge, most people come to the same conclusion.”

When there is a disagreement, you need to ask what would be the alternative to what the group is proposing. If there is still disagreement, you as the top leader have to step in and decide.

“I don’t think it’s about voting,” he says. “I don’t think consensus is a fantastic management tool. Ultimately, if there is a disagreement, it needs leadership to break or to get the resolution.

“I would just say that it’s proven in business that consensus building can’t be your leadership tool.”

Once Chambers and his team collected the information and evaluated it, they put the mission on paper and began communicating it. While they were communicating bits and pieces of it during the three months, they continued to get buy-in after that time. Like most changes in business, it’s a continuous process.

“You have to educate around it,” he says. “What does it mean, and more importantly, what does it feel like? So when people aren’t living that document, you need to take action. You have to intervene and explain to people why that doesn’t fit with Snap-on culture. Then use those examples as educating opportunities where in Snap-on we expect people to behave this way or take these types of actions. ‘There were alternatives in front of you, and you chose this path. In the Snap-on world, we would have liked you to pursue a path that looked more like this.’

“So it’s really a constant process of education and reaffirming what a positive behavior looks like.”

How to reach: Snap-on Business Solutions Inc., (330) 659-1600 or

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Creating freedom

Burt Kunik wants a culture of employees who think freely and view themselves as entrepreneurs. Kunik, founder, chairman and CEO, of Sharps Compliance Corp., which posted $20 million in fiscal 2009 revenue, has to spread that message throughout the medical waste company.

“The leadership of a company needs to speak at all times relative to the culture that you believe it is — that creates a success that you want in your company,” he says.

Along with an individual message, your company needs to know the mission and vision of the organization. The more employees feel a part of setting and reaching organizational goals, the more successful you will be.

“Everybody needs to feel a part of where you’re going and to be a part of your vision,” he says. “When we have a staff meeting, people all show up and they are very excited to talk about where we are, what we’re doing and the role they can play in it.”

Smart Business spoke with Kunik about how to create an entrepreneurial culture.

Be inviting. You have to invite an openness amongst your employees to make them feel comfortable, always. The big word in the culture that I’ve created is creative entrepreneurship. I think that everybody in the company needs to feel they are part of a creative entrepreneurship. In that regard, I invite people to come in, (and I say), ‘What are your new ideas?’ It just can’t be wrong. The only thing that is wrong is not having ideas and not being able to discuss how we can be a better company. That to me is a big part.

You see that in a lot of companies that are getting started because large corporations have created a lot of people working in silos that aren’t really a part of a creative entrepreneurship. When you are in a company that is a smaller size, you make people feel a part of what you are doing. It’s pretty easy. You just have to want to do that every day.

Be consistent. If you want your people to feel like they are a part of your vision, you have to work on that every day. It’s in contrast to showing up at a meeting, making a statement and then going to do something else. That has to be part of your every day — [from] when you walk into the office to the time that you walk out of the office — that you stand for what you believe in, (which) is the culture of the company.

You have to visit with your staff members. You have to discuss issues with them, you have to make them feel important and part of your creative entrepreneurship there. You have to have frequent meetings where you can have discussions and sharing.

Use ideas. I always take (an idea) in, and I try to incorporate it the best that I can, even though I don’t think it’s a good idea, and try to figure out how I can make it a part of what we are doing some way. So, I can respect and care about the fact that they brought me something new. You have to respect the person for the fact that they really thought it was important to bring you something.

People care that you care, and once you show them that you care, they feel proud of the fact that they did care enough to bring a new idea to the company. Then, you can even mention it along the way at the staff meeting that, ‘Carol brought in an idea today, and we are trying to work with it.’ Just try to respect the person for the fact that they brought something to you.

Don’t handle managers’ issues. If your senior managers are good people, then that should rarely happen. It’s when people come to me to discuss that, I try to listen to what they are saying and then I say, ‘This is something really you need to talk (about) with your direct report.’ So, I probably will follow up to talk with the direct report to relay the conversation and just make sure that gets managed by whomever they directly report to.

Very good senior managers understand the value the employee brings to the table. If that employee really brings everything to the table, I think they will understand that they just missed it and should accept it in the right vein and move on.

Wait for employees to adjust. If somebody is dishonest, I like them to leave right away. If somebody is trying to find their way into the culture, I think you need to work with them, give them time and give them an opportunity to become a part of it because a lot of people have not come from a creative entrepreneurship background, and coming in is a new experience. Sometimes they have tremendous talent that’s just never been shown before, and you give them the opportunity and, all of a sudden, you have a wonderful employee there who is part of your culture.

It’s the leader that has to speak to it at all times because otherwise the managers don’t feel reinforced to begin with because everyone has their fires to put out every day. So, I reinforce that with managers, and then I reinforce it with staff meetings at least once a month.

Check your ego. For me, as a leader, I have always said, ‘Don’t ever look to respect me because of my title or the fact that I have anything to do with your paycheck. Respect me because of what I bring to the table.’ Our future is based on our creativity and it’s all up to us. We have what it takes. We don’t have any debt, we’ve got plenty of cash, and we have a great future in our company. What our success will depend upon is our ability to be creative and execute.

How to reach: Sharps Compliance Corp., (713) 432-0300 or

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Special treatment

There was nothing really wrong with the mission and value statement at Aultman Health Foundation. But in late 2004, Ed Roth, president and CEO, and his team decided it was time to simplify things.

“We had a nice mission statement, but it was really too long and a value statement that was really too long for anyone to know,” he says. “You’d have to read it to know and understand it. We took what was already an excellent mission statement and a value statement, and we put it in something that we could communicate to our employees so that every employee would know and understand exactly what the mission of our organization is, which is now very simple.”

It was as good a time as any. The company, which has more than 5,000 employees, was growing and, as new staff members were added, they would be taught the new mission and values.

“About 33 percent of our staff has been here five years or less, and then on the other side, about 41 percent of our team has been here 10 years or more,” he says. “As you think about that, it’s about how do you create the teamwork approach to take a group of people that’s delivering very good service and try to drive them to excellent service? So, we did some thinking about that and went through a variety of different things that led us to where we’ve been able to see some significant improvement in both our patient satisfaction but more importantly in our employee engagement. Engagement in employees, according to Gallup, leads to a more satisfied customer.”

A big part of employee engagement is making sure employees buy in to a company’s mission and values and that they understand them.

“Today, we really need a positioning statement that is something that your employees can get (their) hands around and they’re able to know and understand,” he says. “If we want them to deliver on the values of the organization, we thought it was important that they understood those values. In order for them to understand them, we’ve simplified them so people could remember them.”

Work together

It would be wonderful if you could quickly create a message that everyone loves all by yourself, but that’s not usually possible.

“The one thing you have to do is involve a fair number of people in the organization so you can get feedback from everyone, because the mission statement is not the statement of the CEO or the executive team,” he says. “It’s really more of a statement of the organization. It’s good to include different people within the organization to get their feelings on it.”

He started with some small focus groups with front-line employees and lower-level managers. They were given the current mission and value statement and were asked what they knew about it, what they would suggest to change it and what about it was important.

That information was brought by a consultant to a one-day off-site retreat where the executive team and the managers would use it to help shape the new mission and values.

The participants were asked to select words that they felt should be the focus of the message.

“Try to just pick off keywords,” he says. “What is it that we think our organization is doing or should be doing in the future that would suggest that we either develop or change our mission statement?

“The mission statement should be a purpose statement. Why do we exist? Why are we here? What are we trying to accomplish? It’s not a slogan. There are slogans in organizations, too, but this is more a statement of purpose. What do we expect to accomplish on a daily basis in our organization?”

When the group gathered at the retreat, three ideas were prominent with everyone. Each person wanted the statement to revolve around leadership, community and improved health.

“We had a pretty good idea of where we were going, but it takes awhile to get there because when you get 15 or 20 people around a table, everybody has an opinion and you want to hear their opinions and understand,” he says.

The consultant would break the teams into small groups and would ask them what words they wanted to be in the statement.

“That way everybody is getting input and you’re getting to see different ideas,” he says. “Because if you try to get ideas from 20 or 30 people, you’re not going to have that many people talk, first of all. You can go in a variety of different directions, where as if you have a small group, I think we had five or six around each table, then everyone has the opportunity to give input.

“It was kind of a quick turnaround. You had to do it within 10 minutes and then (the consultant) would come by and pull off the keywords, and we’d end up with about probably 15 keywords on the screen by the time we went through it a few times.”

The small groups would reconvene and would have to rank those words and put them in a couple of sentences, which would then be discussed by the group as a whole.

After going through that process a few times, they were able to trim the words down into a succinct mission statement: The mission of Aultman Health Foundation is to lead our community to improved health.

For the values, they ended up with a statement that centered around using the word “respect” as an acronym.

“It’s easy to remember,” he says. “Respect: You may not remember all seven points, but it’s easy to remember the word ‘respect,’ and it’s a very powerful word.”

Overall, the lesson with creating a message with a group is forming an environment where people will feel free to share their opinions without being judged.

“The most important thing you have to do is listen,” he says. “A lot of times, we want to react to things and have the answer or disagree. The best thing to do is to sit back and be calm and listen, and sometimes you are going to hear things that you don’t like to hear. But those are opportunities to improve your engagement, opportunities to improve your service, to improve outcomes. There are opportunities for improvement that you have to be willing to listen to what an employee is saying about the current situation if you want to make the future situation better.”

Reinforce the message

After the message was constructed, it was Roth and his team’s job to communicate it to the company’s employees, which they did in early 2005.

“We began speaking to our mission statement, and every communication that we have, we try to refer something to the communication,” he says. “If it’s a letter from myself to our team members, I try to end that letter with, ‘Lead our community to improved health’ or work that into the communication in some way.”

The company sent out a letter to employees discussing the new mission and value statement and noting that everyone would have an opportunity to receive more information from their managers or executives. But, you don’t always need to create new ways to communicate a new message. The team at Aultman used its current pyramid communication process, which includes a number of ways executives, managers and employees can meet with each other.

For example, the company has management brown-bag meetings where, once a month, the whole management team is brought together, and executives began communicating the mission and values to that group.

Managers were given framed posters with the mission statement and values on them so that they could display the posters in every department within the organization.

“Commit to the process,” he says. “Get the leadership team engaged in the communication, and don’t move away from the process once started.”

Aultman also used employee exchange meetings, where an executive will take eight to 10 people to a breakfast, lunch or dinner and spend an hour talking about the organization and what is new.

Roth took the opportunity at his employee exchange meetings to talk about the new statement and ask them what they thought about it. He would then ask them how their department supports the statement and how they can relate to it.

“Then it starts connecting to the job that I do at the bedside,” he says. “Or at a radiology exam room or in our college of nursing. All of a sudden, it starts picking up some steam because people start seeing the connection between the mission of the organization and the job that I do every day. These things are connected.”

Roth would also start meetings by seeing how many of the company’s values employees could remember as a fun way of reminding everyone of the importance of the company’s values. He also attends each new employee orientation to talk about the mission and value statement, and the company also tries to mention something about it in the company newsletter.

“It’s just constant reinforcement,” he says. “The one thing is it’s not the flavor of the day. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘That’s what they’re on today down there in the hallway, and we’ll wait them out and see if this one sticks.’

“That’s not what it was. It was, ‘We’re going to do this, and we’re going to stick with it.’”

Remember, people will not buy in right away, so try to communicate your new message at every opportunity.

“Understand that this process will take time, and the larger the organization, the longer the time,” he says. “Reinforce your new statements through frequent communication at every opportunity along the way.”

Aultman has seen positive results with the new mission and values, along with the way they communicated it. Roth estimates it took about three years from when the process started to when employees grasped the results.

“I believe our team liked the idea of the new mission statement and RESPECT values statements,” he says. “These are simple, easy-to-follow statements about our attitudes and behaviors in our organization. We can see the difference in the way our employees communicate and interact with each other, their patients and customers, and visitors to our facilities.”

The company also measures commitment to the values through the annual Gallup Q12 Employee Satisfaction Survey, which uses 12 questions to measure employee engagement within an organization.

“Engaged employees are on board with the mission and values of the organization,” he says. “Aultman has been participating in this survey since 2005, and we have improved our employee participation and our engagement score each year.”

How to reach: Aultman Health Foundation, (800) 686-9373 or

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Listen up

One of David L. Parkyn’s keys to good leadership is for a leader to have a sense of place for his or her organization.

“By that I mean, understanding how my organization fits into the larger fabric of society on the one hand, and understanding how I fit into the fabric of the organization that I am leading, as well,” says Parkyn, president of North Park University, which employs more than 700 full- and part-time employees.

Smart Business spoke with Parkyn about how listening helps you get a good feel on where your organization stands.

Q. How do you know where your organization fits?

Story is important to me. Narrative is important. What I do is try to listen to people who are around me who are around the organization, to hear the story that they tell of the organization, of its environment, and try to understand that, both from a perspective that looks to the past, so I see where the organization has come from, and also as they describe the context for the future.

So, I do it often by listening, and listening obviously can take place in a number of ways. Sitting down with someone … and having a conversation is one thing. Gathering data that are important, as well, would be another way of listening.

Q. Does listening help you to know where you fit as a leader?

Yes, I think so. It’s sort of necessary for me in coming to North Park to walk into the organization and both be known by the organization, by those who comprise the organization and know the people here. In doing so, listening to them describe their place, describe this institution, describe where they want it to be, what helps them to cheer the place on and where they get a bit discouraged. That helps me to understand the place. So story is important there.

Q. Do you have to sort through what is important information?

Yes, I think so. In part because, it probably is true everywhere, but at least in context like a college or university, some people are keen on making sure that we remember this place the way it was when. While, on the one hand, that is important, it’s also important for us to lead the school into the future. So sometimes, for example, when one talks with graduates, they can express some level of disappointment that the school isn’t the same school as it was when they attended. In part, that’s because these are individuals who had a great time as undergraduates and want that same experience to be repeated for others.

So it can be a sense of, ‘Let’s make sure we maintain what was there when I was there.’ The problem is we are not educating students today for a world that is the same as what my undergraduate experience educated me for. So we have to adjust that perspective.

It’s important to hear and to know what once worked well but not to mimic that in today’s context either.

Q. What advice would you have to be a better listener?

When I have engaged in a conversation and then come out of that, I will often make a few notes for myself that talk about that, which helps for me to reinforce what I heard. Perhaps more important than that, I’ll often turn around and write a handwritten note to the individual and thank them for their time. But, in doing so, try to highlight something that I heard from the conversation that I found to be helpful. It’s a way of affirming, but it’s also a way of confirming or writing a little more deeply on my brain what that was about.

Q. How do you handle it when you can’t do what is asked of you?

Gently. At the end of the day, it’s better to be honest than to mislead. I think it’s important for the individual to know what my perspective is on it and not to be led into thinking I’m going to think about it and there’s a pretty good chance that it will come out the way that person is asking for.

Or to use another example, back earlier in my career, I was in a position that I was regularly in conversations with students who wanted to petition for a change in what the school’s expectations were for our curriculum. So, guidelines were you had to do this, this, this and this, and someone comes in and petitions for it.

If I could accommodate that, that was wonderful. But, if I could not, my goal always was not necessarily to make the student happy but to have the student leave my office knowing the reason behind my saying no.

They didn’t have to agree with it, but they at least had to understand it. In the case of a friend of the university, I’d want to try to explain as well as I could why, in our context here, what they were suggesting was not something we could go with. Better to make it clear than to let there be too much of a fog.

Q. What would you say is the biggest challenge in listening?

One of the challenges is if one listens, you can too easily communicate to the speaker that you agree with them, when, in fact, you may not always agree with them. You may not be intending to communicate that, but that’s what the speaker is picking up because you are intent in trying to understand what the perspective of the other is. Sometimes, if the person is not accustom to that, they may take listening as affirmation.

How to reach: North Park University, (773) 244-6200 or

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

A global solution

When Kevin McMullen looked at his company back in 2008, he saw a company that needed more consistency in the way it did business.

What a customer experienced in an Asian office of OMNOVA Solutions Inc. might vary from what a customer got in one of OMNOVA’s European or North American offices. McMullen, chairman and CEO of the technology company, also saw best practices that were trapped in silos within the organization and information needed for critical decisions that wasn’t making its way to the right people.

As a result, he and his leadership team set out to create a more unified company that would use the same integrated approaches across the globe. They dubbed it “One OMNOVA.”

The first steps were laying the foundation for change. SAP enterprise software was installed to facilitate the transfer of information across the organization and a Six Sigma approach was adopted that allowed the company to simplify, standardize and streamline common processes.

“Initially, when we rolled out the One OMNOVA concept, it was a way to leverage resources in a very practical way across functional areas,” McMullen says. “But it quickly took on a deeper and more significant meaning. I think our employees have embraced it as the ideal for working together across departments, across job functions, across business units, across what has become a more spread out global operation.”

McMullen wanted to remove any obstacles that hampered the $696 million polymer company from reaching its potential.

“In order for us to achieve our full potential, we have no room to really have boundaries get in the way,” he says. “So, it is helping support, I think, our growth strategies, as well.”

The concept would create familiar corporate values and get everyone working together across the world.

“You could be in Fairlawn, Ohio, or London, England, or Shanghai, China, or Bangkok, Thailand, and those core values are the same in every location in our company around the world,” he says. “So, this One OMNOVA concept of having unifying core values is very important there, as well, so that [when] you as a customer come to see us in Shanghai, you feel like you are treated and served the same way there as you would be in one of our facilities in Pennsylvania.”

Develop the vision

If you want to be successful rolling out a major change, you need to get input from all levels of the organization when creating it.

“A very important part of that is to get buy-in by the leaders and ultimately the entire organization of what that vision is so they are part of implementing it,” he says.

“It would be very common for me to touch base with a couple of people and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ We’d discuss it and debate it, and through that discussion and debate, we’d come to what we think is a much better product, if you will, a much better answer, and then we roll it out to a larger group and test the thinking and the logic with them, as well.”

McMullen and his leadership team would meet with a cross section of employees in small groups of two or three, which included plant managers, a few business product line leaders as well as general managers and those in human resources.

“It was not scientifically chosen,” he says. “It was kind of just a cross section of the organization to get a sense for, ‘What do you think about this? Does it make sense to you? What if it doesn’t? Let’s talk through that and see if we can help clarify or change to make it better.’”

When you get input from lower levels of the organization, pay close attention to it, and if that input is given directly to you, show that person you appreciate the input.

“Be open-minded, show respect and all the things your mother taught you when you were young,” he says. “They absolutely are critical here — show empathy. If it’s the first time you’ve met someone and they haven’t had the opportunity to interact at more senior levels of the organization, they are probably going to be nervous. If there are things you can do that will make them feel at ease, you’re probably going to get them more comfortable to share their thoughts with you.”

You can also phrase your questions to the employee so they know their input is needed, and they aren’t just being asked to reinforce what is already a finished plan.

“The foundation that you build with each interaction is critical and then kind of setting the stage of, ‘We readily admit this is not perfect,’” he says. “‘There are many things that can be improved on it. This is a start. It is a work in progress. Please don’t take it as cast in stone. What we would like in this discussion is to get your reaction to it and to get your ideas for how to make it better.’”

What McMullen discovered in this process is that the company was already practicing some principles that made up One OMNOVA, but the practices weren’t formalized.

He was able to get more buy-in by building off some of those practices, which helped others understand what the company wanted to accomplish.

“The idea of working together across the company was already happening in other areas,” he says. “So, I can point to that as an example of where we are already doing it as a way of trying to illustrate where we were trying to go with some of these other areas.”

He would have never discovered this advantage if he hadn’t sought feedback.

“If there was one thing I could say in terms of advice, it’s get a lot of people involved,” he says. “You’ll get more buy-in, and you’ll end up with something better than you would have had if you huddled in a room with you and one or two other people and tried to craft it just on your own.

“I’m convinced that we are far better having a group that is pushing and testing and asking what-if questions to help improve the vision, than if it was just me doing it on my own.”

Communicate with resisters

After rolling out any major change, you will still need employees to buy in to the finished product.

Inevitably, you are going to run into employees who won’t embrace it. You have to communicate with those resisters to find out what they don’t like about it, because they could have some valid points.

“The first step is listen and try to understand the source of the resistance because there may be some really good ideas that are embedded there that, if you just dismiss it out of hand, you will not benefit from,” he says.

“People are generally trying to do the right thing and are interested in the organization succeeding, so if they have a strong reason that they think this is the wrong thing, I sure would like to understand why that is. Now I may disagree on that, but I’d like to understand what it is because maybe we are about to drive off the cliff and we didn’t even know it, and this person has the great insight to tell us.”

Take the same open-minded approach after the vision has been rolled out that you used during its formation. Chances are, you didn’t get it perfect even if you received a lot of input from all parts of the organization.

“Give it a legitimate consideration and then follow what your best instincts are as to the direction to take,” he says. “If, after understanding it, you still disagree that that approach is wrong or that resistance is not well-founded, then I think you need to take some time to try to explain it to the areas of resistance as to why you think going this way is better.

“In many cases, people will then understand or give it a shot at least. They may not be the leader of the charge, but they may at least give it a shot to see how it works. If it’s working elsewhere in the organization, most people will come along with it.”

Find a common ground with the resister and explain to him or her that everyone involved wants what is best for the organization, and if plan A doesn’t work, you will try plan B.

“Try to get some buy-in from the stand point of, ‘Aren’t we all trying to shoot for the same objective here? Yes, we may have different ways, but let’s just find mutual ground that we are all trying to get to the same place,’” he says.

McMullen doesn’t have a hard and fast rule on how long to give someone to adjust.

“You use your judgment, but I think one thing I learned back in a prior life is you also have to keep in mind that you are responsible for the success of the entire enterprise,” McMullen says. “If there is some part of the enterprise that is really getting in the way of the organization moving forward, then it’s your responsibility to deal with that.”

But you should work to get the person on board because firing someone might cause more problems and take more time than trying to work with them.

“You have conversations like that before you come to a decision that we have to part ways,” he says. “Because if the person has other things to contribute to the organization, you don’t want to simply part ways because there’s a different point of view on this particular thing if there is a chance that you can get them on board with the idea.”

However, if an employee is really holding up the rest of the organization, you may have to let that person go.

“That’s the tough things that leaders have to do,” he says. “But I don’t think you start there. I don’t think you want to have a culture where ‘Joe, over there, disagreed with the path we were taking, so he’s no longer with us.’ That will be the last time you’ll get a dissenting view on something.”

McMullen says the One OMNOVA concept is still a work in progress because there is always room for improvement. But the sooner you can get people on board, the sooner you can work out the kinks and get the maximum out of the change.

“We spent enough time to get the concept right, and then we rolled it out and we will continue to improve it going forward,” he says. “Our view is, perfect is the enemy of speed. So the faster we can get it out there and work on it and make improvements from real-life situations and experiences the better, as opposed to spending months and months and months polishing it up before we kind of roll it out to the organization.”

And remember to keep spreading the message at every turn.

“Like a lot of things, you can never overcommunicate, and this is one of them,” he says. “Try to be clear on what the key concepts are. Try to simplify, and I don’t think you can repeat yourself too many times.

“I think continuing to stay focused on the same message is critical to getting that across to the organization. It takes more than once. It’s just human nature that they will not understand and embrace something by just one iteration.”

How to reach: OMNOVA Solutions Inc., (330) 869-4200 or

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 19:00

Walt Turner engages employees at Koppers Inc

Growing up on a farm, Walt Turner learned all about teamwork.

“One person can’t do everything,” says Turner, president and CEO of Koppers Inc. “One person does not have all the right answers. It does take teamwork. Absolutely, the foundations I saw happening were if someone needed help, you pitched in and did it. Or, you scheduled, ‘We’re going to do this job tomorrow. You come help me, and then the next day I’ll come help you.’”

In many ways, working on a farm mirrors what it takes for a company to succeed in today’s business world. Everyone works together with a common direction to get the job done.

That’s the attitude that has helped Koppers, a global integrated producer of carbon compounds and treated wood products, to 2008 net sales of $1.3 billion, an increase of $109.2 million or 8.7 percent over the prior year.

Turner enjoys visiting facilities and talking to employees at all levels of the company to encourage camaraderie and teamwork.

“I try to remember names from the last visit,” he says. “That’s what I enjoy the most. Hearing them talk about their work, talk about their job, their families, what’s going on, what they are doing during their casual time. That’s a part of my job I truly enjoy.”

Turner doesn’t view employees as people who work for him or below him. He approaches everyone as equals to create a team atmosphere.

“We are all equals,” he says. “They are out there performing a good job for the company just as I try to do for my job.

“It’s one common direction and making sure we are all doing what it takes to make the company successful.”

Here’s how Turner creates a team environment by engaging employees through communication, knowing his role as CEO and holding employees accountable.


Turner wants his employees engaged, and achieves that through open communication throughout the organization. He doesn’t believe in simply providing that message as lip service, instead showing it through his actions.

Since Turner leads with the idea that the company should work as a team, communication is a top priority to him.

“We are a company that I feel has a very, very open line of communication and also has a clear commitment that everyone realizes that that’s the direction we are going and that’s where we are all headed, and making sure we all communicate that very openly throughout our organization, all the way down through the plant employees,” he says. “And we have this clear commitment that we’re going forward with.”

You need to have all of your managers on board with communicating openly. While it may sound like you are just going in a communication circle, you need to communicate that message to managers whenever possible.

Along with monthly meetings, Turner and the managers at Koppers take part in daylong, quarterly off-site meetings with any issues that may be happening. Managers can use these meetings as an opportunity to communicate what is on their mind in an open setting, which also gives Turner a chance for some face-to-face time with managers.

“Really through the monthly staff meetings and through these off-site meetings, I think that’s a great way to get them to open up and communicate even further with me,” he says. “In addition to that, constantly picking up the telephone or going into someone’s office. I really show myself a lot, whether it’s here in the Pittsburgh office or even at the plants — either in person or by telephone just calling a plant manager.”

By keeping the organization flat, you will be able to engage employees more and rub off on your managers.

“Obviously, some areas you need protocol or certain subjects require protocol,” he says. “But, basically, on a daily and weekly operation, I really feel that it’s a flat organization where I can call anyone I want just to get a question answered or, ‘What’s going on? What’s on your mind?’

“I really try to keep that communication not just with my direct reports but sort of keep tabs on the pulse of the company that way, as well.”

Some managers may get a little paranoid if you are communicating directly with their direct reports. That’s why you also have to communicate openly with the manager about the topics discussed. Don’t keep your managers in the dark because that will disengage them and will discredit your message of open communication.

“A lot of times, after a phone conversation or if it’s an e-mail, I always copy that person that would have that responsibility under me,” he says. “I’m not trying to hide anything. I do that very openly. I think over the years people do understand that I do that and that’s the way I manage.”

You have to balance between when you can talk directly to someone a few layers down and when you need to talk to that person’s direct reports.

“If you are talking about employee issues or you are talking about something that’s somewhat confidential or something that needs the right attention, that’s when you utilize the protocol,” he says.

“But if it’s a normal business question where you are trying to improve what you are doing or performing your job, there’s no one here at Koppers that would get offended by going directly to get your answer.”

Know your role

In an open environment where people are engaged and can come to you with problems, you may find yourself burdened with issues that you shouldn’t be handling.

“If there’s an issue, I’m not going to get involved in trying to find a solution,” he says. “That’s not my job. My job is to really make sure that the situation is resolved or the problem is resolved, and if I can be of help, obviously, I participate or offer to participate. But I don’t try to micromanage or get down into the details.”

You need to know what to delegate and what to do yourself to be an effective leader. Turner doesn’t delegate requests from his board of directors, and you can’t delegate tasks that affect the overall direction of the company.

“In some cases, some people don’t delegate enough, and in other cases, people delegate too much,” he says. “But for sure, you really have to make sure that you are delegating enough where you can, at times, spend more time at the 30,000-foot level versus being at the 1,000- or 3,000-foot level. You’ve got to manage what you do and don’t delegate.

“Everyone has responsibilities obviously. Based on those responsibilities and the level of those responsibilities, that sort of helps you decide how you delegate then what you delegate.”

Don’t try to mark in your schedule how much time you want to spend at the 30,000-foot level versus the 1,000-foot level. That’s something you will learn with time.

“If I see certain things that need my attention, obviously I grab on to those,” he says. “It’s not a 10 percent or a 50 percent. You can’t really come up with a number that you spend at that higher level.

“You have to live through it. You have to live through several things when you are at least at the CEO level and try to manage t

hat the best you can.”

The better you are at delegation and knowing what you want to be involved with, the better you can rank your priorities.

“I try to focus on customer satisfaction and making sure that we are performing our goals,” he says. “I sort of know the importance of the growth of existing customers that we are involved with.

“So, I try to balance customer satisfaction with our internal performance and really that leads me to many things. It’s just trying to balance the day-to-day operations where I should or should not be involved.”

Hold employees accountable

While having an open environment and delegating will help you foster employee engagement, employees have to know what is expected of them if you want them active in your organization.

Setting goals and holding employees accountable for their performance will keep your employees engaged in their own performance as well as the company as a whole.

Koppers has a minimum of three goals set for salaried employees each year, and those goals are reviewed periodically by their supervisor or manager.

“Everyone is always aware of what their responsibilities are and what they are accountable for through these performance goals, and each business unit has their performance goals,” he says.

As a manager, don’t develop goals for individual employees on your own. Instead, involve the individual employee in the process because developing goals is a two-way street.

“This business, through its strategic planning, will establish annual performance goals for that particular business,” he says. “Those goals are shared with the individual and between the individual or his or her supervisor or manager will develop the personal goals for those individuals.”

Don’t always view goal setting as a top-down process.

“My direct reports, we review what we expect to do as a company and some of this starts at the bottom and works up, and then the performance goals go back down through again,” he says.

“You can’t create an annual program without knowing what the market conditions are or what your plant capabilities are. So, it goes up and then it goes back through. Once we establish the financial parts of the performance goals, then you can start to drill down into individuals within that business group who should be doing these particular things to achieve that business unit goal.”

If an employee is having trouble reaching his or her individual goals, you need to look into why that is happening.

“If they’re not performing, there’s obviously a reason,” he says. “They may be valid reasons or they may be just a weak employee.

“If it’s a weak employee, a few things could happen. One, is the person really capable or does that person need a developmental plan that would require some mentoring or require an education course that may help that person be a better employee?”

Turner and his team are more proactive in taking action with those not living up to the company’s standards, but they first try to work with the employee.

“Probably over a six- to 12-month period, you’re going to know whether to make a change or not,” Turner says. “Once you see a person having issues, then the six to 12 months would kick in.”

In the end, by openly communicating, delegating and holding employees accountable, you will be able to engage employees and, in the process, form a more cohesive group.

“Whether it’s a general manager heading up a business unit or a product manager, you’ve got to win the engagement of those people,” he says. “But at the same time, they know that they’ve got to be held accountable and responsible for their performance. You’ve got to show them that you are a good leader and you’ve got to make sure that you win the engagement of those people and that they are going to follow you.”

How to reach: Koppers Inc., (412) 227-2001 or

Saturday, 26 December 2009 19:00

Sitting pretty

Rebecca Boenigk admits she’s not good at hiring. That’s why she has someone else do it for her at Neutral Posture Inc. But she’s not afraid to admit that hiring at the company, which posted $24 million in 2008 revenue, is an area where she is weak as a leader. In fact, leaders who can recognize their weaknesses will be a lot more successful than those who turn a blind eye to their faults, she says.

“This is true whether you are an entrepreneur or somebody in the corporate world,” says the co-founder, chairman and CEO of the furniture company. “Most people don’t like to talk about their weaknesses. I think that is why some people fail at being leaders just because they don’t know when they need to delegate to someone else. Then, once you do delegate, you have to give that person the power and the authority to do the job.”

Smart Business spoke with Boenigk about how to delegate and create the type of culture to empower those whom you’ve delegated to.

Ask employees. I would think that most people can at least be honest with themselves to know where they succeed and where they don’t.

Usually the people around you will tell you if you are willing to ask and you can do it in a way that’s not confrontational or threatening to them. My office is always the worst place to have a conversation because there is something about walking into the CEO’s office that just puts people on edge. I’ve never yelled at anybody or screamed at anybody, but I think you just have that persona as the CEO.

I think that sitting in the break room having your lunch or even having a beer — sometimes you can ask, ‘Tell me who you think would be good at taking on more responsibility, and what do you think that they could take?'

It gives them the opportunity that they can include themselves in that conversation if they want or they could just recommend other people that they think are able to take on those responsibilities knowing that some of those responsibilities are yours.

Monitor what you delegate. If you delegate something that is huge, you have to follow up. But your follow up is more of a, ‘Why don’t you give me an update of where we are on that?’ One of the things I tell my staff is, ‘I don’t want a dissertation. I want the key things that are helping you or hurting you. Let’s fix the things that need to be fixed. Are you stuck on anything? Do you need additional help somewhere?’ But very nonconfrontational. More along the lines of, ‘Just give me an update.’ If you give somebody the job and responsibility, you have to let them do it. You have to let them fail and succeed.

Get other opinions. When we have any kind of project or even a process change, we get people involved.

One of my failures at this recently was I decided I wanted to be really green. So I sent an e-mail to my IT guy and said, ‘I want you to change all the copiers to automatically print on both sides.’ That’s the default. So if you don’t want it to print on both sides you actually have to click and change that you don’t want it to print on both sides. So he did that because I’m the CEO. I said, ‘Do it,’ and he did it.

Well, the uproar was huge because I didn’t think about the fact that when we get a chair order, it prints up what we call a pick ticket. That goes to the floor so they know what to build and that stays with the chair the whole time it’s being manufactured. Now you have two orders on one piece of paper. Invoices were printing front and back.

So it’s just one of those things I made a decision in a vacuum. I didn’t talk to anybody and caused complete upheaval.

(I learned) that I don’t know it all and that there are a lot of processes and procedures that happen now that I’m just not in that everyday part of the process. I made this change in vacuum without talking to anybody else and screwed stuff up. Within 30 minutes, we changed it all back. You really have to be a consensus builder with your organization.

Create an open culture. You really have to have complete trust. Your people have to trust you, and you have to trust them. As soon as you start second-guessing, then you go back to the nontrust situation and you’re not going to get there. For us, it started out with just me and my mom. As we added people, they became more like just a big, extended family. So it’s easier if you start that way than if you go into a situation where now you don’t have a great culture and you have to change.

It’s hard when people don’t trust you to earn their trust again. Most people walk in the door thinking, ‘This is good and my boss is good.’ It’s how you treat them and then they change their mind and say, ‘Maybe my boss isn’t so good. So maybe I don’t need to be quite as loyal.’ So I think that culture is a very hard thing to change. One person can upset that culture in amazing ways. Over the years, we’ve tried really hard to get rid of those bad apples as fast as possible.

What we’ve found out is that you get rid of one attitude and then another bad attitude kind of rises to the top. They’ve had a bad attitude for a while, but they weren’t as bad as the other one that you just got rid of. Sometimes it takes awhile to weed out those people, but it doesn’t matter how valuable you think that person is. If they are ruining the day of other people and you do nothing about it, then you are taking full responsibility for having a crappy environment.

How to reach: Neutral Posture Inc., (800) 446-3746 or

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

On the air

When Steven Santo started Avantair Inc. six years ago, he based the company’s culture on a foundation of employee empowerment.

The company, which was positioned to bridge the gap between flying privately and flying commercially, started off slow. But thanks to an economy that sent private fliers searching for better value, Avantair has taken off.

“Whenever there is a tough economic environment, the value players are always the ones that do well,” says Santo, founder, president and CEO of the company. “We are the value player in our market segment. Despite the fact that we have a high-end product, the people who fly privately are forced to look for value, which they didn’t really have to look for awhile ago.”

The company is booming right now with total revenue of $136.8 million for fiscal 2009 — an increase from $115.6 million for fiscal 2008.

While the company is growing, Santo doesn’t want to get away from what put the organization in the position to succeed — maintaining an open and fun environment where employees are involved and motivated.

“I have employees tell me all the time that the best thing about this company is that we stuck with what we believed in,” he says.

Here’s how Santo developed and maintained the culture that led to his success.

Make it fun

Santo is very clear that he wants employees to come forward with ideas. He wants their input and wants them to feel like a part of the organization beyond just their daily tasks.

But not everyone is going to take the boss at his or her word and start shooting e-mails and making phone calls about ways to improve the company.

You need to create a loose atmosphere where employees will want to come up with ways to help the company.

“You have to make it fun,” he says. “The work environment has to be fun. You never can take yourself too seriously. Then, you encourage people to do that. You can’t start saying, ‘That’s a really dumb idea. That’s not going to work because I am really smart and you’re not.’”

Sure, the company has the typical barbecues and gatherings, but Santo takes it a step further.

The company has competitions for people to create the most creative slogans for the company. Employees are also asked to create the company’s Christmas card as well as the company brochure.

They aren’t asked because Santo wants to save money or wants to give employees more work. By involving them in lighter and more fun and creative projects, employees will be more willing to come forward with ideas to help the day-to-day operations of the company.

“All of those things, they promote the fun side,” he says.

For example, the employees created the most recent company brochure. The company had about 50 creative ideas that were all good.

Santo got together everyone who contributed an idea, whether by phone or in person, and let all of them know that their ideas were terrific but the company couldn’t use them all. About 30 ideas ended up being used for the brochure, which gave those employees a direct and positive link to a companywide project.

“What’s neat about that, I think, anyway, is that person will look at the brochure over and over again and say, ‘That was my idea,’” he says. “But, you still want the product to be really good. You don’t just want to use any idea. It has to be a good idea.”

Keep it open

Though making tasks fun will help employees feel more at ease to come forward with ideas, you need to be available to actually hear those ideas.

Santo doesn’t allow closed doors at Avantair unless there is a good reason, like discussing nonpublic information with auditors.

“Closed doors promote a very poor atmosphere, because people think you are talking about bad things,” he says.

However, with that door open, you can be faced with a flood of requests, questions and complaints.

Santo says he does have employees come to him with trivial stuff, but that’s something he is willing to deal with because of the environment he wants.

“You have to just deal with it,” he says. “If you want to have the environment, a free and open environment that really promotes the type of growth that we’ve seen, you’re going to have to deal with some trivial stuff.”

However, you have to make sure other managers have their doors open because that will reduce the number of trivial matters you encounter.

“You really need good people around you to help you weed through that,” he says.

“I’m not talking about an extra layer, but you need everybody kind of doing the same thing in terms of the open-door policy.”

Of course, you have other duties aside from what employees bring to you.

That’s why employees at Avantair have to ask, “Do you have a minute?” before discussing their matter.

If the manager doesn’t have a minute, he or she has to let the employee know when he or she will be free.

“So, everybody understands it’s not insulting if I say, ‘I can’t do it right now, but hey, here’s a time when I can.’ As long as you give them a time when you can, then it’s OK,” he says.

You also want to be careful not to make it a common practice for employees to jump the ranks and come right to the top with an issue.

“You don’t want the manager to hold it against the employee that they came to you over their head,” he says. “You really have to use kid gloves with the manager. You have to just go to the manager and say, ‘Hey, my understanding is that you are aware of this idea. I didn’t hear about it. It was brought to me.’ In those situations, I kind of like to say, ‘This sounds like a pretty good idea that we should look into.’”

Before you come down hard on the manager for not relaying the idea, find out why he or she didn’t say anything to you. Sometimes, Santo finds the manager didn’t want to bother him with the issue or idea, yet something is actually being done about it.

Use those instances as teaching moments, and acknowledge that managers are spreading the open-door policy to their direct reports.

“I use it more as a tool to say, ‘Hey, you are doing a great job in your department; XZY came to me with an idea. So, clearly you are giving the company message to your department,’” Santo says.

“They will usually volunteer, ‘Well, they came to me with it, too. I’m upset that they came to you.’ I said, ‘Well, did you ever get back to them? No. Well, that’s why they came to me.’”

You may also run into employees who go to the manager, get an explanation of why an idea will not be used, and they still come to you.

You have to deal directly with the employee in that case and explain to him or her why the idea is not being used.

“In that case, you really have to go to the employee and not the department head, and just re-explain to the employee why,” he says.

Once you’ve established the open-door policy, you have to give your undivided attention when someone is in your office. Santo used to struggle with not listening when someone was in his office, which would dilute his open-door policy.

“You can get very full of yourself as a CEO, even of a small company like this,” he says. “And it’s not listening. People would come into my office all the time and I would be doing something else. I wouldn’t be giving them my full attention and they knew it. So, I would be picking up the phone or checking e-mail while they were talking to me instead of devoting my two or three minutes to them. I started to get the feeling that people were seeing that.”

Now, if someone is speaking with Santo, he turns off his computer monitor, holds his calls and takes notes, which his assistant scans into his laptop. He also communicates to the employee that it may take a week to get back to him or her because he is busy, but he will get back to him or her.

“I tell them, ‘Look, straight up. This is something that’s not going to happen tomorrow, but I guarantee you it will get consideration,’” he says.

Welcome them in

While involving employees in some of the lighter projects will keep them thinking of good ideas, you need to be available to hear those ideas, and you also want the employees to know their ideas are being heard and are appreciated.

As ideas filter up, Santo and four direct reports pick two or three ideas they like and ask the creators of those ideas to make a presentation at the end of management meetings.

In front of the 23-member management team, a front-line employee could be asked to present his or her idea.

That can be nerve-wracking for a higher-ranking official, so imagine the guts it takes for a front-line employee to do it.

Santo tries to create a more relaxed meeting atmosphere by inviting the presenters up for the lunch part of the meeting.

“What we do is we have them come up and they eat with everybody,” he says. “It’s very low key. It’s almost always pizza.

“Then, right after that, there’s a lot of joking around during lunch and they feel very comfortable.”

Santo, or whoever thought the idea was worth presenting, will introduce the speaker and explain why the idea is a good one before letting the employee begin.

“Rather than me say it like it’s coming from me when it didn’t, it’s, ‘I wanted her to come up here and take credit for what is really a good idea,’” he says.

The meetings are normally done on Fridays, which is a casual dress day at Avantair. You want to take every opportunity to make the employee feel comfortable making the presentation. Having him or her dress up and present to a bunch of well-dressed executives is only going to make the employee sweat even more.

In fact, Santo used to enforce a dress code, but he found that it wasn’t helping the business.

“I came from a background in law, where I wore a suit every day,” he says. “I thought that you had to have that to show a level of professionalism in the company. I learned that is really a big mistake.

“No. 1, not everybody can afford the Armani suits. So, you as the CEO coming (to work) in your $1,000 suit and then forcing other people to go out and buy suits, which are not cheap, it sends the wrong message. Then two, it creates a very (stuffy) environment. It gets rid of that whole kind of fun, go-with-the-flow environment.”

Keeping that fun, active work environment up is going to be a challenge for Santo as the company continues to grow. As he looks at the more successful, relaxed companies like Google and Apple, he’s noticing one common theme between them.

“I’m finding that it has a lot to do with communication — communicating with all those employees and keeping that level of fun and that level of input the way it was before without getting bogged down,” he says.

Using that type of communication to create an environment where employees buy in to your message and the culture will help your company take flight to its apex.

“The company is doing really well now, but it doesn’t happen without everybody being behind the story,” he says. “It just doesn’t happen.”

How to reach: Avantair Inc., (727) 539-0071 or

Monday, 26 October 2009 20:00

People power

J. Powell Brown never stops looking for talent. It doesn’t matter if the economy is up or down or even if there is a job opening or not.

“We believe that in order to be successful in recruiting and retaining high-quality people, it starts upfront in terms of you always are recruiting,” says the president and CEO of Brown & Brown Inc. “You don’t sort of do it when you need somebody. We’re always looking for people, and we’re investing in new people coming into our business in all cycles of an economy. So, my point is, in each community that we participate in, we are always trying to look for the most talented people.”

Everybody at the insurance company is a salesperson in some way, shape or form. If you can sell, you can succeed. Brown always wants producers, someone at the front end trying to develop new relationships.

That’s why Brown doesn’t limit himself in who he or his employees recruit for the company, which employs 5,400 people and posted more than $977 million in 2008 revenue, up from $959 million the previous year.

Talent can be found at the competition, from a similar industry or from out of nowhere.

“Not unlike many other businesses, it’s about the ability to take action,” he says. “Meaning, pick up the phone and go and see somebody or talk to somebody and set up an appointment to talk to them about their insurance,” he says. “(It’s) the ability you have to break an existing relationship because people are already buying insurance from somebody else.”

Always keep an eye out

Brown is so serious about recruiting the best talent that he allocates a portion of corporate revenue each year for new recruits. If a Brown & Brown office finds a recruit that it wants to hire but doesn’t have money in the budget, the allocated money can be used to solve that problem.

“Because when we come across really high-quality people to advance the company down the road, we want to invest in that talent,” he says.

Depending on the position, Brown and his staff devote 25 percent to 40 percent of their time recruiting.

“It’s a full-time job,” he says. “Meaning, in addition to all the other things, you’ve got to allocate a percentage of your time to recruiting high-quality people.”

Brown uses every opportunity to recruit. If he’s having a friendly conversation, he talks about his company a little and asks if that person knows anyone who might fit with the organization. If he or she doesn’t, then it’s no big deal for Brown. But if the person does, it can lead to finding a gem all from one simple question.

Brown will then pick the person’s brain about the potential candidate, and if he likes what he hears, then he meets with the candidate in person. However, there is always a chance that the person isn’t really in the market for a new job. Don’t view a meeting with a recruit that didn’t result in a hire as a failure.

“We don’t ever want to go into a meeting thinking it’s a waste of time, but sometimes you meet with people and they’re just not a fit,” he says.

While Brown & Brown allocates money for numerous new recruits, not every company can do that. Sometimes you might have two recruits that you really like but only have room for one. If that happens, let the second choice know that you really like him or her, but the candidate needs to be patient. You don’t want the candidate walking away with a bad feeling about your company.

“If you thought the second person was really good, I would be really open and honest with them and say, ‘Listen, we just don’t have the opportunity for you right now. We really like you. We’d like to stay in touch because we think that we have another opportunity in the next six months or nine months or three months, and we’d like to continue talking to you,’” he says.

Dig deep

There are essentially three layers of management at Brown & Brown.

There are managers who run the local offices around the country, and they report to regional executive vice presidents, who report to Brown and his team.

Since Brown & Brown is big on promoting employees, a lot of those managers have grown through the company. That’s why the interview process is so important at the company. If they find the right person at a producer position, that person can be molded into a manager.

“We have lots of opportunities for leadership in our organization,” he says. “If somebody comes in and shows they can sell insurance and, more importantly, they can help recruit more good people to our organization, which is what all of our leaders have to do, then we can find an opportunity for them.”

Qualified candidates are given a personality profile test. From there, they proceed on to the interview, while the test is graded after the day of interviews.

“We think the personality profile is a very important indicator of potential success,” he says. “If it basically says that we think there is a potential match, then you get significantly into the interview process. If the thing says we don’t think there’s a match, then we might basically say, ‘We just don’t think that there is a fit.’

“Remember, we’ve probably already interviewed them one time anyway. So, any personality test is not a surefire way in successfully hiring people. We think of it as a tool to help qualify potential talented candidates. So, it doesn’t say, ‘Here is a potential candidate and they’ll make it.’ It’ll say, ‘Here is a potential candidate that we think could make it.’”

That’s when you need to really get to know the person through the interview process.

You want the candidate to feel comfortable in the interview so he or she will answer questions openly. Ask candidates about some of their hobbies or what they do in their free time for starters.

“It’s good to not talk about the core interview questions upfront,” he says. “I like to just get to know somebody.”

You can also give some background on yourself, such as what you do in your free time or how you ended up with the company. This creates a more conversational feel, rather than you firing questions at someone.

“I want you to feel comfortable to say anything you want to say,” he says. “You’re coming in with your guard up. I want you to relax and basically say, ‘Look, the bottom line is, we’re just talking about our business, and I want to talk to you about your background and see if there is a potential fit.’”

Once you get to the work-related questions, don’t make a snap judgment that you like the person, letting him or her coast through the interview.

If an interviewer says he or she immediately liked someone right off the bat, Brown asks the interviewer if he or she really asked the tough questions. He wants to make sure the interviewer really dug deep in the interview.

“I always like to start at the beginning,” he says. “I mean the beginning is maybe high school. ‘Tell me about yourself, and what you did in high school, and why you went to the high school you did and were you involved in sports or were you in other extracurricular activit

ies? Did you work in high school? Where did you go to college? Why? Were you involved on campus?’ … and kind of go through it very systematically.”

If there are any gaps in the resume, ask about those, as well. There isn’t a specific answer that Brown has in mind. He just wants to find out about the candidate.

“I don’t have a preconceived answer that is bad or good,” he says. “I want to understand why the person is the way they are today. Quite honestly, we are looking for people who are long-term players. So, if you have somebody who’s had lots of jobs, that’s a question — I have a question automatically, in a short period of time, because I don’t know if they are going to be committed long term to any company. I want to walk through all of that very closely with them.”

Don’t do it alone

You can be entering dangerous waters if you think you can handle the interview process on your own. You need multiple people involved in the process to get a feel for the person and for the person to get a feel for his or her potential work environment.

You don’t want to give someone a false interpretation of the work environment, because if you hire the candidate, he or she will quickly find out the atmosphere is different than it was advertised.

“Different people read people differently,” he says. “That cross section of people gives a very good understanding and creates a clear picture to the candidate of the job expectations.

“So, it’s not just the leader or the leader and the sales manager creating the image of the work environment that they’re going into. The more the candidate understands about the company and the individual job, the higher probability of success.”

Typically, when hiring a producer, the local office manager along with a sales manager will talk to the candidate. Then the candidate will meet for about 30 minutes with two to four seasoned producers, who have been at the company a few years.

However, don’t forget about employees who have only been at your company a year or two or who are younger.

“They give the person a very real-time understanding of exactly what they do,” he says. “Many times that person may be more similar in age. So, if you are 28 years old and you are talking to someone who is 22 or if you’re talking to somebody that’s 26, you might talk to them a little differently and feel more comfortable than talking to me at 41 or somebody that’s 55 or 60.”

After meeting with a newer employee, the candidate would also potentially meet with one or more other team leaders, like someone from the marketing department.

“So, there’s no magic number. … It’s identifying a handful of people that are available on a certain day to meet with this candidate,” he says.

While it’s beneficial to involve others in the interview process, don’t just do it for show. You have to create an open environment, where people will freely give input.

“I want people on the team to be part of the success of the office,” he says. “People feel good about being asked to be in the process. I respect and want their candid feedback.”

One way to create that environment is to explain to an employee why his or her favorite candidate wasn’t chosen. It can be a discussion on why you thought the candidate he or she liked wouldn’t have fit. There could have been a topic you broached with the candidate that produced a red flag, which the employee didn’t think to ask about.

“We can agree to disagree on a candidate, but I want them to understand why I disagreed with their assessment,” he says. “They still don’t have to change their mind, but they understand why I made the decision I made.”

Don’t treat those decisions lightly. The better employees you recruit, hire and develop, the better off your company will be to face any challenge in the future.

“Recruiting and enhancing and retaining of high-quality people is one of the single most important things that we do as a company,” he says.

How to reach: Brown & Brown Inc., (813) 222-4100 or

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