At some point in the past few years, it hit Rick Dawson: He had hundreds of experts working in his business, but no one was really working on the business.
The president and CEO of Bal Seal Engineering Inc. had 450 employees around the world. Just about all of them were performing at a high level, helping to vault the industrial solutions company into an era of growth, while most businesses were dealing with the effects of the recession.
“That has been the good news for us,” Dawson says. “A lot of businesses have been struggling, but we have been growing at a rate of just over 15 percent per year.”
Last year, the company generated $75 million in revenue, up from $64 million in 2010. The sailing was smooth, there were no alarm bells ringing at the company’s headquarters. Bal Seal was in a rare place of peace amid tumultuous economic circumstance.
Yet, Dawson sensed trouble forthcoming if he let the company continue to ride on its own momentum. Specifically, he saw a company that could strain itself by growing too fast, and growing without a well-defined strategic plan.
“We have been expanding into new markets and new regions,” Dawson says. “That definitely puts a strain on your capacity and resources. So, working with our leadership team, it has been important to establish clear goals and objectives of what our on-time delivery expectations are, what our product development requirements are, what our sales goals are. Then, make sure everybody clearly understands the direction and measures those results.”
Dawson has worked with the leadership team at Bal Seal to formulate a strategic plan that could help the company better manage growth, but that is only part of the equation. He and his team have also needed to work tirelessly to create alignment on plan throughout the company’s associates, spread among offices in Colorado, The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong and Japan, in addition to the company headquarters in Foothill Ranch.
Start at the top
Like many businesses, Bal Seal organizes yearly strategic planning meetings. In those meetings, Dawson and his management team plot out the umbrella goals and objectives for the coming year. The companywide goals are then used to formulate goals for each division and team within the organization.
“We develop functional goals and objectives for our operations team, sales team, health and safety team, and so forth,” Dawson says. “Those are then put into even more specific goals and objectives.”
The goals and objectives are what Dawson terms “smart goals” — specific, measurable, achievable and realistic. Dawson wants his employees to stretch beyond their comfort zone at times, but not so far that they’re reaching beyond the realistic capabilities of themselves or the company at that point in time. Goals need to be ambitious, but still realistically achievable.
Dawson and his team monitor the progress of the departments in implementing the cascaded goals through a series of stoplight meetings, which got their name from the three-color system assigned to the progress level of each objective.
“It’s a two to 2½ hour meeting each month, and each department manager is responsible for reporting the progress on their goals,” Dawson says. “Green means there are no problems and there is nothing to really talk about. Yellow means you have a problem, but you have worked within your own departmental team to come up with a solution. Red means you have a problem and haven’t been able to come up with a solution. If you have an objective that you have classified as “red,” we can then schedule a separate meeting to assist in dealing with that problem.”
Though Dawson likes to limit the number of meetings throughout the company, he has found value in the monthly stoplight meetings, which have helped to identify and address problems before they become major issues that compromise the pursuit of a department’s goals.
“The operations team was working on an on-time delivery objective, and what they found was that they were struggling to get a specific order out on time,” Dawson says. “It was an aerospace customer, and we had lead time issues with getting materials in on time. Then on top of that, we were having capacity issues.
“But by communicating with the sales team, those of us on the management team were able to identify exactly what they were struggling with, and the history of the customer that were impacted.
“Once we did that, the sales team was able to step in and get some relief from the customer. We were able to explain the delay, which was resulting from raw materials that were delayed offshore. Once the customer understood, it provided relief to the operations team, which helped us get the orders ready on time.
“Because we were able to get together and talk about it, we were able to identify the customer and the problem, and the problem was resolved before the product was late to the customer.”
As the layers and locations within your company increase, creating and maintaining alignment on organizational objectives becomes a more difficult and more involved task to accomplish. With 450 employees, Bal Seal doesn’t face the communication challenges of companies that employ many thousands. But with locations around the world, the management team still had its work cut out.
To help strengthen alignment, Dawson does what a lot of CEOs do: he logs air miles, visiting each of Bal Seal’s facilities twice a year, and having in-depth meetings with the facility directors at each stop.
“It’s important that you’re promoting the message to everyone, from the machinists to the managers,” Dawson says. “I also want to reinforce the messages laid out in our plan at the start of the year. We know at the beginning of the year what the schedule is for Europe, for Asia, but it is a constant challenge to make sure the staff remains aware of it, and is kept up to date on what is going on.”
There is a limit to how far down in an organization a CEO can, and should, reach. If the company is large enough, your place is not managing the factory floor. But you still have to construct a system that allows you to connect with everyone in the organization, from the top to the bottom.
If you can keep your finger on the pulse of the mood and attitude of your lowest-rung employees, you are in a much better position to determine whether your messages are permeating every layer of the company. You are also in a much better position to cut off the rumor mill, should issues arise.
“For example, we’re currently building a second facility in Colorado Springs,” Dawson says. “When I said we were building a new facility there, what everyone in the company heard was,‘We’re moving the company to Colorado Springs.’ That wasn’t the case. We’re expanding there. That’s where having a means of staying connected to everyone in the organization is so important. I had to reaffirm that we’re continuing our growth and expansion, not relocating.”
Dawson didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time he presented the message to a new audience, but he did have to tweak it in a manner that addressed the questions and concerns of whichever group within Bal Seal was receiving the message.
“It’s important that you’re promoting the message to everyone, from the machinists to the managers,” Dawson says. “To the machinists, you’re promoting the idea that the expansion allows for more job security. You’re soliciting input from the managers, and on the executive level you’re promoting the vision for the overall corporate goals, and the deliverables in order to achieve those goals.
“The communication and interaction is something constant, something that you can’t push into the background.”
Another aspect of alignment centers on the widely-held business truism, “What gets measured, gets managed.” If you want to create alignment around organizational goals, you need to create universally-understood methods of measuring them. Usually, that means measuring the statistical categories most important to the success of your business.
“I measure cash, I measure sales, I measure on-time delivery, and I measure safety, which is my number one category,” Dawson says. “So you’re monitoring those on a regular basis, and talking with your managers about it.
“You are going to view your management team as something of a mouthpiece, since you can’t be everywhere at once. So you have to help them stay aligned on the plan, and monitor what they’re saying to their teams. You just continue to provide guidance.
“If you manage the relationships with your managers, you can better manage the flow of communication throughout the company. You oversee those relationships with your managers by ensuring that you are comfortable, and they are comfortable with the vision and direction, and thoroughly understand it.”
Build your team
Consistency is one of the biggest keys to maintaining a message for a large audiences over an extended period of time. That means consistency in how you communicate, when and where you communicate, but it also means maintaining consistency in the structure of your management team.
Turnover will occur. If a member of your team is talented and driven enough, and has reached a ceiling in your organization, that person will likely leave when a better opportunity comes along. So it’s prudent to develop new leaders from within.
When the time comes to fill a space on his management team, Dawson prefers to promote internally, looking outside the organization only when he believes there is a need. Internal candidates have proven that they can help promote and execute the strategic plan. But even when promoting from within, it’s not an exact science when looking for those who have the right competencies and right attitude.
“You break your people into quadrants,” Dawson says. “There is willing and able, willing and unable, unwilling and able, and unwilling and unable. Obviously, you’re looking for willing and able. If you have someone who is willing and unable, you have a performance issue. If you have someone who is unwilling and able, you have to see if you can educate them in the process. If you have unwilling and unable, you’re probably not keeping them.”
To hit for the highest possible willing-and-able average, Dawson wants to see prior evidence of accomplishment, creativity and integrity in the work experience of job candidates.
“A lot of people will come into an interview and say ‘I’ve been the manager of sales,’ but when you ask them how they ran their sales organization, when you ask them about their vision and direction, they can’t get down to specifics. If that’s the case, they’re probably not the right fit for the organization.
“After you hire someone, you’re continuing to assess them. You’re working with the person to set goals and objectives, and if they’re complying and conforming, you’re doing great.
“If you are seeing a continuous pattern of not meeting goals and objectives, then you have to be willing to be very honest and candid with the person, explain to them what the issues are, and from there, you can assess the next level of whether they’ll be a fit for your organization moving forward.
“But it is important to continue to work with the person to help them succeed. Building a team is a continuous process of communication and direction.”
How to reach: Bal Seal Engineering Inc., (949) 460-2100 or www.balseal.com
The Dawson file
President and CEO
Bal Seal Engineering Inc.
Education: Mechanical engineering degree, California State University, Long Beach; MBA, Pepperdine University
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
The No. 1 rule I’ve learned is that you can never run out of cash. You need to have liquidity in the business. You also need to have an ability to make strategic and tactical changes. If you have a strategic plan, implement it and then measure it.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
I think the No. 1 thing is communication. On top of that, you need perseverance, because things don’t always work out the first time. It is also important that as a leader you are willing to take the time to understand your people and communicate with them.
What is your definition of success?
To meet the plan you set out to accomplish. If you want to grow the business at a certain percentage, success is meeting that number.