Brains and brawn

Philip Alexander needs ideas, and he
knows how to get them — by making
sure employees understand that they won’t be cleaning out their desks if an idea
doesn’t pan out. He says CEOs need to
clearly communicate to employees that
they won’t be forced out the door if an idea
doesn’t pan out.

“As soon as you start firing people for trying something and making a mistake,
you’ve created the opposite environment,”
says Alexander, president and CEO of
BrandMuscle Inc., a 70-employee
marketing firm.

Smart Business spoke with Alexander
about how a leader shouldn’t have to
change his employees’ diapers.

Q: How involved in day-to-day operations should a leader be?

The leader makes all the big decisions but not all the small ones. You’re
going to get bogged down, especially
as the organization gets bigger.

You’ll find that your involvement
varies depending on what the project is and what you’re trying to do. It
may be an area of interest or expertise for you, so people may lean on
you more.

On the other hand, in those areas
where I know very little, I try to
participate as little as possible
because I’m holding them back. I
want those people to make those
decisions because they know better and have analyzed the situation
and looked at alternatives.

You’re there just to make sure that it
works from a business standpoint. Your
involvement should be as little as possible
because you’ve hired people who know
what they’re doing.

We have a saying that we don’t change
diapers here. If you’re hired to do something, we count on you to do it. From that
standpoint, it’s a great environment for
people to learn and actually do new things.
It’s a hands-off management style. Once
people know what the direction is, we
anticipate they’ll take it from there.

Q: How do you manage business growth?

In the early days of a company, you cannot staff up and prepare for your growth as easily as you can later. The challenge is you
anticipate growth, and you train people and
have them sitting there ready for the
growth. But if you don’t get the business,
you really can’t afford to keep the people.

That’s a challenge you have in the early
days; today, it’s no longer a challenge because
we have a base, and business comes in on a
pretty regular business. Now we train people
in anticipation of new business growth.

We have enough of a base that we can take
on the spikes, but we try to project what the
growth will be and hire accordingly.

For example, we are up almost double
our growth projections for this year. We
anticipated hiring a certain number of people, and we hired almost twice as many as

You try to anticipate the growth requirements, but you’re also balancing the financial requirements of the business. You
don’t go out and overinvest in potential
growth because it’s never guaranteed that
it will come in when you expect it. We have
the bend to stretch a little, so if you suddenly get a lot more clients than expected,
you can manage it.

Q: How do you motivate and empower

The empowerment comes from everybody getting together, determining what
needs to be done, and then actually letting
them figure out how to do it. Empowerment
is not actually by word but by action.

People know they’re empowered because they are allowed to go do things. It’s
OK to make a mistake. In fact, if you don’t
make a mistake, it’s probably an
issue with us because you aren’t trying something new.

People know we encourage new
initiatives. In fact, we try to highlight
those. Every Monday, we have a
morning meeting where the whole
company comes together over bagels
and doughnuts. In that 20 to 30 minutes, people talk about new things
they’re doing.

Everybody feels like they are part of
the organization because things they do
are recognized. Everybody’s encouraged to do new things, and if they do,
they’re encouraged to share with others.
It’s an overall sense of, ‘Hey, the company wants us to do something different
and new, within my area of responsibility.’ You have to create that environment
or nothing new happens.

Q: How do you create that environment
of creativity?

It comes from throughout the organization. I’ve created ideas that failed. I’ve
stood up before the organization and
said, ‘Yeah, I thought it was a great idea;
sorry it didn’t work out.’ But it was worth a
try, and I’m proud of our batting record. We
bat about .600, which is great.

If 60 percent of your new products succeed, you’re doing really well. A lot of
young people don’t realize that batting .600
is outstanding. They realize they are in an
organization that says if a new product or
idea fails 30 to 40 percent of the time, it’s
OK. You have to communicate that you’re
looking for ideas, and if they don’t work,
then that’s OK. The thing that doesn’t work
is not bringing new ideas.

HOW TO REACH: BrandMuscle Inc., (216) 464-4342 or