Bruce Leon has seen managers who work 12 to 13 hours every day who are not shy about telling others how overworked they are in their job. He’s also looked deeper into the way some of those managers spend their day.
“When you really dive into it, they are doing the same things all the time,” says Leon, president at Tandem HR. “They are dealing with the same sorts of customer issues and complaints.”
Leon tries to encourage managers who find themselves in this predicament to analyze their workday with the goal of getting to the root cause of the problem and coming up with a solution.
“I push them to find the core reason why it’s happening and see if they can get as much done, if not more, and have a regular eight-hour day,” Leon says. “Some of them can’t do it or they are unwilling to admit that there is a better way. They just think it’s a fact of life that they are overwhelmed with work.”
Those who are unwilling to adapt become a big problem for Leon in an industry that is changing by leaps and bounds.
“You can’t make a five-year business plan today with any real comfort that those will be the issues you’ll be dealing with over the next five years,” Leon says. “For many of us, that’s a scary thing not to be able to plan out that far ahead. But I think the critical thing is if you’re able to keep up with those changes, you can have a much better opportunity with customers than those companies that aren’t keeping up with the market.”
And so the key to being one of those companies that can keep up is having leaders who aren’t afraid of change and who see the opportunity in every challenge.
“Are they leaders or are they managers?” Leon says. “I want to know their ability to innovate and I’m really looking to see how much they are proactively looking at change and how much they are reactively looking at change.”
Find your problem solvers
One of the first things Leon wants to see when he’s appraising a leader is proof that he or she is a leader who can get things done.
“You try to find people who have been successful in many aspects of their lives,” Leon says.
“Family, extracurricular activities, philanthropy. What is their involvement? There is no fail-safe method and if there were, we’d all have an easier time of it. But one of the best things you can find is people who can communicate very specifically about how they’ve done leadership things in the past and how they were successful at them. I want specifics and even people I can call to verify it.”
When you’re assessing current leaders, observe how they behave in various situations.
“When a problem arises, they just look for issues where they will perceive to be involved and then quickly exonerate themselves at the expense of throwing other people under the bus,” Leon says. “You see managers who will not let some of their good talent go to other departments, even if it means a promotion to an area where the company really could use them. People who refuse to engage in cross-training and documentation of all the processes they do.”
It takes an effort on your part to get a good read on a person, but it helps you understand which employees you can count on in a tough situation and who doesn’t have what it takes.
“We’re trying to put the right people in place so that we can scale with only having to add lower-level people to build up for the growth,” Leon says. “But I do think the people who are running your company at 30 employees are not always the same people who are going to run it at 130.”
Some of the skills that you look for are a desire to grow, the ability to be self-critical and a willingness to accept constructive criticism.
“It’s the ability to not be threatened by hiring strong people beneath them,” Leon says. “Leaders also have a strong customer service aptitude. They really have a passion for what they do. It’s not a job.”
The ideal leader you are looking for is similar to the manager at Tandem HR who was feeling swamped by his workload and was willing to take an introspective look at what he and his team were doing.
“The ones who are good can step away, get their teams together and go over the core reasons for the problem,” Leon says.
“I had one of them that came up with a call center that has been solving 93 percent of 12 customer issues they were having. It previously took multiple phone calls and voice messages and now we solve issues in eight seconds through the call center. It came about from a manager taking his group out and looking at every customer issue that was coming in and figuring out how they could streamline it.”
Don’t allow silos
Silos are another pitfall for managers. Leaders who feel insecure about their place in the organization often create them.
“People artificially create silos in a way to build their own inner security system or to build a moat around their work,” Leon says. “I think it has to do with egos and peoples’ inability to be open, transparent and willing to share. It’s the perception people feel that if they are the only ones who can do something, they will have job security.”
Having insecure managers in your company is obviously not a good thing. But the bigger problem is created when you have a situation where a leader leaves the company or is unavailable for some reason to deal with an issue related to their department.
“Everybody has to imagine what their job would be like if tomorrow, they were hit by a car and someone else had to step in and do their job for them,” Leon says.
This is not just a mind exercise for Leon, however. He wants a real action plan in place in case such an unfortunate scenario happens.
“I want to see that documented,” Leon says. “I want to see that really existing. I want to see the results of it.”
One of the ways to prevent silos from forming is to occasionally move people around to different areas of your business.
“We switch around a lot of the administrative people in different departments so nobody gets locked into one unit,” Leon says. “It forces people to be cross-trained and it prevents that natural us-versus-them attitude in the company.”
Another step that isn’t always an option for some companies is to put more people under one roof. This was an option at Tandem HR as the company is in the process of consolidating from seven to two locations. The prevention of silos was not the main reason for the move, but it will be one of the benefits when the transition is complete.
“It’s building people to be more non-siloed and building recognition between the family of companies that we have,” Leon says. “We can also streamline shared services. We hope to save a fair amount of money on shared services with the relocation.”
Going forward at Tandem HR, new employees will be given the chance to spend time in different parts of the business.
“Even if they have been brought in as a benefits specialist, they are going to spend some time in payroll or HR or 401(k) or with risk,” Leon says. “They are going to have to learn those units as a new employee.”
The cross training is part of a six-month program where employees learn about other positions as they get up to speed on the job for which they were hired.
“We do monitor their level of competency by their performance,” Leon says. “They take tests along the way as they are learning just so we can gauge how they comprehend the material.”
Check your own ego
As much as Leon works on appraising the leaders in his company, he strongly believes that he needs to fall under the same microscope in terms of how he performs his job as president.
“Many a bad business decision and many a bad leadership decision came from unchecked ego,” Leon says. “Sometimes you have to put people in place, but that can also be you. Every CEO needs their own check.”
The person or people that you ask to judge your performance need to be able to do so with honesty and without concern that negative feedback will be met with hostility.
“Without that, the likelihood that you make ego-related bad decisions or you make bad personnel decisions or you get yourself involved in activities that hurt the company is too great,” Leon says. “It’s a critical point for me personally and one I try to share with CEOs.”
Fortunately for Leon, he seems to have a pretty effective team of leaders, including himself. The company hit $355 million in revenue in 2012 and Leon feels good about the future. But he’s not one to take a lot of the credit for making it happen.
“You have to be thankful every day for having the opportunity you have,” Leon says. “It could change very dramatically tomorrow.”
How to reach: Tandem HR, (630) 928-0510 or
The Leon File
What is the best business lesson you ever learned? Always hire ahead of the curve, both in terms of numbers and talent. There’s more than a 50 percent difference between a $100,000 employee and a $150,000 employee.
As you grow, you need to get better talent and go outside of your budget to get it ahead of time. It’s very difficult to do it after the fact. You often make bad hiring decisions because you’re pressured and then people walk into a situation that’s like a house on fire, which is not a good way to start.
By hiring ahead of the growth curve, it gives you a chance to find the right people, get them trained and not to have the house-on-fire first day. A lot of business people, myself included, say I’m going to wait until I hit those targets or until we get the revenue or our profits are up before we hire that senior level person. Sometimes, it’s too late.
What traits or skills are essential for a leader? Everybody has different leadership styles. For me, my leadership style is that I am very transparent. I admit my mistakes very quickly with my senior executives and let them know they will never get fired here for making a mistake. But they will get fired for withholding information and for not admitting when the mistake happened. I try to lead by example with that all the time.
What’s your definition of success? It’s to know at the end of the day that I did all I could to further the values of this company, and I was able to make an impact in the industry that I serve.
Study your current leaders.
Promote inclusive leadership.
Let people judge your perfromance.