J. Jeffrey Fox, CEO and managing member of Source4Teachers, is constantly looking for where “the bodies are buried,” so to speak.
His staffing company is growing at a phenomenal rate. The revenue has been increasing at more than 100 percent a year for five years — and the skill sets required and managerial techniques needed for a $5 million company are vastly different than a $100 million company.
“Our goal is to try to promote from within, but when you have that type of growth you’re really looking at the ability to determine: Do the people you have on your team have the ability to have their skill set expand that much to grow with the business and get ahead of the curve?” Fox says.
Not only does he always need to stay plugged into the job market looking for outside talent with the right skills, but he also needs to know in advance when he must hire somebody so he can bring them on-board relatively quickly as the company grows.
“What I do is I’m trying to find where the bodies are buried. I’m looking for the quality management that I can bring on-board by knowing where people are and where I can find them,” he says. “I’m always evaluating outside talent skills versus the internal skills that I have.”
Fox wants to build the best overall team of quality talent, because as an owner, the one thing he has absolutely 100 percent influence over is who he hires.
Finding the right fit
If a company is having trouble developing leaders, the first step is to look at the hiring process.
Along with the desired skill sets, Fox says a fundamental part of hiring the right people is getting the right personality and cultural fit to what you’re trying to achieve.
You need to decide whether you’re looking for individual performers who are going to drive things, or if you will be more actively managing the company, then you need collegial people who can build consensus.
“The key here is knowing your organization,” he says, “and getting the right personality and leadership attributes within that organization so there’s congruence between your organizational culture and the personality traits of your senior management team.
“That is really going to enhance the ability for them to work together and to be successful within the organization.”
Fox also thinks you need to be very clear with new hires — and all employees — on their objectives and what you want from them, while making sure there’s trust and two-way communication.
Employees need to know they can make a mistake, but it won’t cost them their job. And likewise, if they want to ask for assistance, it shouldn’t be held against them.
Retaining existing employees
Once you have the right people on-board, you need to ensure they stay with the business as they grow in their career.
One of Fox’s biggest personal challenges has been stepping back to let them learn.
“I have to subjugate my ego and my natural urge to take charge and jump in,” he says, “to allow them to work through the problem — work it through, make the decisions and be the face of the organization.”
Fox says business leaders need to have the ability to sit back and ask: How critical is this mistake, and how much will the employee get from it?
For example, Fox says his staff was creating system designs as far as putting in Source4Teachers’ processes. Having experience in this area, he could see it was on the verge of failing.
He waited, however, until they came to him for advice, so everyone could work together to redesign the process and go forward, which helped his staff become better managers.
In addition, leadership has to make sure employees understand their value, even if they aren’t running a department or able to handle a huge job. Part of that is making them feel like a part of the organization through development processes and training programs.
Manage your talent, including the superstars
There are so many pieces to creating a successful company that you absolutely must get the right leadership team on-board. Building a strong management team takes time and effort.
Often, a company will promote a superstar performer into a managerial position, and then executives wonder why that performer is not doing as well as he or she should.
Fox says the problem is that you’ve taken that superstar performer away from the team. As a manager, the performer doesn’t have the support the previous manager did.
“That can be very devastating — making that kind of mistake,” he says.
If your superstar isn’t doing the job, it’s very difficult to demote them. They lose face.
“You end up losing your superstar and the manager, so you have nobody really helping out in this process,” Fox says
A better way to strengthen the organization is to bring in somebody from the outside and still keep that superstar player as No. 2 within the company or department.
“The challenge is making sure one, I find a manager who is significantly better than the superstar player and two, being in a situation of communication, education and other types of encouragement to make sure that superstar player stays within the organization and recognizes that next time as their skill set grows, there are other opportunities for them in the organization,” Fox says.
It’s also a good idea to sit down with your senior management team and evaluate and talk about people, including what skills they need to learn.
This is a good way to develop your talent because another department head might covet somebody in another department. Fox says this review process gives employees added chances to learn new skills, while you also get a more accurate assessment of employees.
An eye for talent
Everybody makes mistakes when hiring or promoting people, especially because people have a preference for promoting from within. So, it’s important to know when somebody is ready for more responsibility.
Give your people opportunities by observing them in different sets of circumstances multiple times, such as under stress or running a meeting. Put them in situations with planning and team building to see how they respond.
Also talk to their peers about their strengths and weaknesses.
“What I’ve done many times is I’ve hired an outside trainer and sent some of my managers to classes,” Fox says, “and then I use the outside trainer to evaluate my team based on how they perform within the meeting.”
He says if you promote someone too soon, you do him or her a disservice because the person can’t handle the responsibility. But if you don’t promote the employee on a timely basis, you run the risk of losing him or her.
“So, it’s a delicate balance, but I think the employees see how much effort you’re putting into the training and continuing education and the circumstances that you provide them,” Fox says.
“If you have an honest conversation with people on a two-way street — that they can talk to you, you can talk to them, which is a part of what that open-door policy really is — you know, they’re not surprised, but they know where they stand in the process.”
They may disagree with you, but the point is having that honest conversation, he says.
“I have found that people give me the benefit of the doubt and recognize that I’m an honest broker of talent,” Fox says. “There are people who have been promoted within and they’ve done well. There are people that I brought from outside and they have done well.
“But at the end of the day, people are working for people from whom they’re learning and have respect for.”
- Match personality and leadership attributes to your culture.
- Give staff space to make mistakes and learn as part of their development.
- Monitor your employees closely to ensure they are ready for more responsibility.
The Fox File:
Name: J. Jeffrey Fox
Title: CEO, managing member
Born: Anchorage, Alaska, where his father served at Elmendorf Air Force Base
Education: Bachelor’s in accounting from King’s College, a master’s degree in business administration in finance from Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I delivered The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer for four years. I got up at 5 in the morning and delivered newspapers on my bicycle in Westlake (a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio).
The Plain Dealer got delivered every day — rain, shine, whatever. People counted on me to get their newspaper, and I had people up at 5:30 in the morning waiting for me to hand them their newspaper. I think the concept of responsibility, being able to take responsibility and being dependable is something I learned at an early age.
I had very supportive parents, such that if there was a foot or 2 feet of snow, my father or my mom actually helped me deliver newspapers. I learned early in life also that in difficult times you can rely upon key people in your life, and that is a tremendous comfort as you’re going out and being a risk taker.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? My father.
This is an extremely personal story, but when I was in grade school, I was on the football team. I had a really bad day at practice one day — just a horrendous day — and I left in the middle of practice and went home. My father was sitting there and he said, ‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you at practice?’
I said, ‘I just had a bad day, kids are giving me a hard time, I can’t do anything right and so I just left.’
He goes, ‘Well, you got to get back there and show up. You can’t just quit or leave.
‘Yes, it can be painful and it’s going to be difficult for you to walk back into practice after you walked out, but the longer it takes you to do it, the more difficult it’s going to become.
‘There may be a time where you don’t ever do it; you don’t ever go back.’
And that was probably the biggest life lesson I learned: No matter how bad things go, and no matter how embarrassed you are, you have to face your fears.
So if I make mistakes in a management position or I embarrass myself, I have to face it and recognize that. You might have to apologize or whatever; you have to do the right thing. But you have to face it first and then do the right thing as part of that process.