In the trenches

Hit the road

Like a lot of company heads, McGhan and Erwin often rely on e-mail to stay in touch with others in their organization. While e-mail is an effective way to stay in touch, it can’t take the place of other, more personal forms of communication.

“Unfortunately, we probably rely on e-mail too much,” Erwin says. “That’s why, most importantly, Mike and I spend a lot of time at our branch facilities, at safety meetings and other organized events within the company. That way, we’re sharing the future of the company so we have buy-in at every level.

“Communication engages employees. It makes them part of the strategy. That’s why we treat our people more like partners. We engage them more in our thought processes and how we want to grow the company. Our decision-making process is very disciplined, but we want to make sure that if we make a new decision and go down a new course, that our employees understand why. We’ve had great buy-in from our core people because we’ve made them part of the decision-making process and communicated it to them very early on.”

When employees are involved in the process, they take a greater level of ownership.

“An informed employee who feels engaged as the company grows is very important,” McGhan says. “As they buy in to our strategies and where we’re taking the company, they’ll be able to better execute on what we’re trying to accomplish. Employees will perform much better if they’re part of the answer, as opposed to having those decisions made solely on the corporate level and pushed out to the rest of the organization without their input.”

To have time to engage your employees in person and on their turf, you need to put communication time on your schedule and stick to it.

“We’ve been busy over the last couple of years, but we’ve put certain dates on the calendar,” Erwin says. “We try to stay on schedule as best as we can with our weekly staff meetings. Our vice presidents are engaged in a whole day of meetings once a month. Each one of our vice presidents has a direct line of communication two or three levels down in the organization, which they can use to communicate our priorities.”

By taking a proactive approach to communication, the corporate leaders at Valerus are demonstrating the type of behavior they want to see employees exhibit. They’re also developing a level of comfort and familiarity with workers who might occupy positions multiple rungs below the top management.

McGhan says that’s a critical element in building a corporate culture in which communication is valued.

“People need to feel comfortable with expressing their opinions, and we make it very easy and open for them to come into our offices, speak up in meetings, even stand up and disagree with something we say,” McGhan says. “We encourage that because it creates more involvement from all the employees.”

Years of observing how other top executives lead their companies has underscored to Erwin the need to get out, hit the road, take to the sky — whatever is needed for you to interact with your employees on a personal basis. At times, you might get lured into the trap of running your business solely from your office. But most of the time, your office isn’t where the action is, and it isn’t where your customers are.

“We’ve watched how our peers operate, both inside and outside our industry, and my advice would be simply to get out from behind your desk,” Erwin says. “Go talk to your employees. Go engage them in what you are doing. And on top of that, go talk to your customers so they know your products and they know what the timing and demand of those products are.

“Something we also do is spend a considerable amount of time with our vendors, as well. It takes all of the different facets operating together in order for a business to be successful.”