How Tom Oakley established rapport at ChanTest

When Tom Oakley started as president and CEO at ChanTest Corp. last year,

Tom Oakley, president and CEO, ChanTest Corp.

 he quickly recognized his biggest challenge.

“I’ve followed founders before, but this is the first time I’ve come in to a company where the founder was hanging around,” Oakley says. “He’s a great guy — he’s a rock star in this space. He’s an incredibly bright scientific mind, so my challenge has been to come in here and establish this role, which is a new role for the company and forge this relationship with the founder while making substantive changes to how we do things around here.”

He had to make changes at the 75-employee company, a developer of ion channel services and products, while also respecting what had already been accomplished.

Smart Business spoke with Oakley about how he did that.

How do you lead change while also respecting the past?

You have to respect the past but have a vision for the future. But don’t be afraid to make changes. You have to respect what’s been accomplished. They didn’t get where they are for no reason, so it makes a lot of sense to understand what the best parts are and keep those and leverage those strengths. You have to get a feel for the company and the people in the company and understand what motivates them and then pull them in and make them understand what’s in it for them so we’re all rowing in the same direction.

I’m a finance guy, but I’ve run organizations that were over 500 people. When you come into a scientific organization, they really look at business guys and sales and marketing guys as lower life forms — ‘The science is science, and it’s special,’ or, ‘We have a great reputation, and we don’t need you guys because people just call us.’

The key has been to ask a lot of questions and listen to what the founder has to say and listen to what the scientists have to say and understand what they’re doing and what motivates them and work with them to communicate how what you think your vision is will help them get to that place.

It’s really about communication and building relationships and respecting what’s been accomplished thus far and finding a way to craft a message that ties together their internalized objectives with the objectives of the company, where you want to go.

How do you communicate in those situations?

I’ve spent a lot of time talking and a lot of time selling. You’re always selling, even if you’re not in the sales job, just helping to establish what we need to do to accomplish the objectives we have for the company.

Being a business guy without a scientific background — I’ve been in scientific industries a long time — these are really smart people, and I certainly don’t understand the depth. I understand generally what they’re doing, but I don’t understand the depth.

I’ll start out with, ‘What do you do? Tell me what are you working on and how does that relate? What do clients use this for?’ It’s just generally having a conversation about what’s going on, how does it work. I also like to ask things like, ‘What are three things that you do that you think are stupid and you would stop doing tomorrow if you thought that you could?’ It’s a variant of the ‘What can we do better question?’ If you’re looking at how can I make your job better, how can I make it easier, what are your challenges, it’s a lot of the same questions you ask.

You have to listen and understand, then obviously you need to take action. … Understand what the issues are. Try to incorporate their input into the solution. If you get a solution that’s team-based, you’re going to get a much better solution and you’re going to get much better buy-in.

How do you determine what things you can act on and what things you can’t?

I think it’s a question of balancing resources and understanding the biggest impact we have. Another way to prioritize is if you have a vision for the company and you have a plan … you need to follow your plan. It’s not rocket science, so if you have a vision and you have a plan, then the plan can act as the filter against those ideas. Anything that helps get you to those objectives, you figure out how you do. Anything that doesn’t quite get you there, that’s something you save for later.

How to reach: ChanTest Corp., (877) 828-1777 or