The fantastic four

It may have happened about 15 years ago, but Martin Hillertells it like it happened yesterday.

He was on a plane with a man who was, at the time, a CEO ofa major grocery chain.

Hiller wanted to know why the CEO’s grocery store was better than other stores in which Hiller had shopped.

The CEO didn’t just give Hiller some stock answer; he illustrated it: “At that other store, that brand X you’re talking about,they tell their employees that they’re going to paint by numbers. You’re going to put paint A in this box, B in this box, C inthis box.’”

The CEO explained that while that method would guaranteeyou get a picture every time, it didn’t leave any room for greatness.

The CEO told Hiller: “You’re never going to get a masterpiece. Atour company, we believe in giving the team members the paint, thebrush, the easel and the platform to create masterpieces. We get alot of really bad pictures. But, it’s worth it for the couple of masterpieces.”

After hearing that, Hiller, now president of The Hiller Group Inc.,a provider of branded general aviation fuels and specialty carbonproducts, decided that’s how he wanted to lead his company. Hewanted to empower employees to make decision and create anenvironment where employees are free to come forward withideas.

“It was like, yeah, that’s the kind of company I want to have,”Hiller says. “I don’t want to have one that people feel like they’rerobots doing monotonous jobs where no one cares.”

As a result, he built a company with an open culture that wasmission- and vision-driven to maximize growth, and it worked wellthrough the years, including recently. Revenue increased from$135.3 million in 2006 to $157.4 million in 2007.

But earlier this year, Hiller decided to make a change. Being mission- and vision-driven was working fine, but it was time to takethe company to the next level. So he changed The Hiller Group tobe driven by four guiding principles.

“I don’t think we were broke before,” he says. “I thought it wasworking well. It was just wanting to raise the bar of expectations.By having four easily understood and deployable concepts, if youwill, or guiding principles, it became one where everyone wouldrally around it. There wasn’t tension, and concern and stress about,‘Jeez, next time I’m down and Marty’s in my office, do I have torepeat my mission statement?’”

Start with an open culture

Before even thinking about developing guiding principles to takeyour company to the next level, you need to have the right kind ofculture in place to succeed.

“If I had to change my title around from owner or CEO, I wouldpick manager of culture,” he says. “I think that’s the most importantfactor in business because it lays a foundation for everything elsethat you do.”

While each company can have a different culture, Hillerdescribes his company’s as a collaborative culture where peoplecan express their opinions. One way he established that type ofenvironment was by having, once or twice a month, Fun Fridays,which has each department rotating responsibilities for the day.They’ve done things like celebrated Chinese New Year as well ashired a masseuse.

“It’s just a little bit of time to sit down and meet each other,” hesays. “We have a real great lunchroom where a lot of the discussions go on and there’s a lot of sharing there.”

Hiller found that by having each department responsible for aFun Friday activity, it makes each department want to take pridein its idea and creates some competition between departments.

“They want to make theirs be the most fun for that time, and it’sworked out really well,” he says.

On top of being a reward for working hard, Hiller says the FunFridays also increase the company’s productivity.

“It’s kind of like, if you did a time motion study, how hard do youwork just before you go on vacation? You’re just cranking, tryingto get those e-mails out because you don’t want anything on yourdesk you can’t handle because you just want to go on vacation andjust enjoy yourself,” he says. “That’s the kind of momentum building toward a Fun Friday. You can’t operate at 130 percent of capacity all the time, but maybe you can operate that way ahead of thatFun Friday, and it’s really a pressure release valve on stress.”

When it comes to employees possibly taking advantage of a culture like Hiller’s, he says it’s always a possibility, but he wants togive employees the benefit of the doubt.

“I would rather live in the moment, than try to manage for theexception,” he says.

Overall, you need to look at your company’s culture with an unbiased eye before forging ahead with guiding principles.

“I think the first thing I would recommend anyone doing is makea serious assessment of their own culture, and I don’t know thatyou can go from a challenged culture to what I believe is a collaboration culture in one step,” he says. “It was easy for us becausewe were pretty close. So, my recommendation would be to reallydo a self-assessment of, ‘What culture do we have at the company.Is it optimistic? Is it pessimistic? Is it nurturing? Is it autocratic?’From there, that drives the other processes if you are trying to getto that kind of assistance.”

Involve employees in discussions

With the culture well established, Hiller didn’t just meet withhis management team and throw out four ideas they felt thecompany should follow. All employees were involved in theprocess through departmental meetings as well as full company meetings.

Through this process, Hiller found that every department wasin a silo and didn’t see other departments’ perspectives.

Involving all employees in this processallowed each department to see how different ideas for guiding principles affected each department.

“By pulling everybody back in, we startedto merge all that together,” he says. “Wewent in and said to each one of thosegroups, ‘Give us what are the critical success factors for guiding principles. Whatshould we do?’”

The answers came back differently fromeach department. Accounting would comeback with number-driven metrics; marketing would come back with all the greatideas the company should do, while otherdepartments came back with differentdynamics.

“So, when we took all those and put themall up on the board, the look on everybody’s face was like, ‘Wow, that’s not aguiding principle in marketing at all,’”Hiller says.

“Someone in accounting would look andgo, ‘I don’t see that as being a driver or away that we should conduct ourselves inaccounting.’ So, by molding them togetherand facilitating a lot of discussion, wecame up with some pretty cool ones.”

What they ultimately settled on weresafety, respect, reputation and efficiency.

Discussions also centered on driving thecompany’s current success and how togrow in the future. The answers could rangefrom products to sales training, but withoutguiding principles, none of that is possible.

“That future success breaks once you arenot safe, the minute you don’t haverespect,” he says. “You can have a greatstrategy that may make a financial return,but if it’s going to harm our reputation,cause that customer to not be respectful ofus, is
that really a future success?”

Hiller says the company started a lot further away from what ended up being thefour principles.

“You’ve got your personal perspective,then you’ve got a department perspective and then you have a managementperspective, and all those were a littledifferent,” he says. “So when we gotdown to the final ones, what we foundwas everyone goes, ‘Oh yeah, that makessense.’”

The company also flirted with havingmore than four or having subcategoriesunderneath the four principles.

“One of the principles thrown out wascompounded growth — we should alwaysgrow should be a principle,” he says.

“Well, look against those other fourand tell me where to put that in. Am Igoing to grow against respect? No. If Ihad compounded growth, but it affectedany of those four, would I do it? It gotdown to, anything else that you add tothis, at least in our minds, affects thosefour, and we think those four are themost important. Clearly, we’ve had abunch of growth. Everybody was looking at that and saying that’s success, andthat is true, but it’s not successful if it’snot sustainable against what we wouldbelieve to be our guiding principles.”

Implement the principles

After developing the guiding principles,Hiller needed to implement them throughout the organization and get buy-in.

He drafted a guiding principles document to be distributed to all employees.Because he is expecting his employeesto buy-in to the culture and principles,he stressed in the document he will bedoing his part, as well.

“I am going to always make my team-mates feel special,” he says. “I’m going totreat them as individuals, not as objects.We’re all part of the same team. We justhave different roles.”

Hiller also put in the document thathe’s never going to lose sight that thestrength of the chain is founded by thebond of the individuals.

“Meaning that I’m willing to work to fixthe process,” he says. “I don’t know anybody that comes to work that says, ‘I amjust going to not perform today. Today isthe day I’m going to do everything bad.’

“So, to our mind, which is clearly an optimistic viewpoint, we believe that whatwe’re going to do is we’re going to alwaysbelieve it’s a process problem until weidentify that it isn’t. We’re going to workto fix the process. If it becomes a behavior problem, then we are going to try andsit down and talk and identify what arethe drivers behind that. If the behaviorproblem works against our guiding principles, then it’s nonnegotiable. If it’ssomething else, then we try to workthrough it.”

To get buy-in for the guiding principles,you need to involve employees early inthe development process.

“The first thing would be to be able tohave the senior management or ownership team lay out a vision of where thecompany wants to go,” he says. “Then,lay out a success plan that says, ‘If wecan adopt some principles that help usget there, would you agree to help me dothat?’ Then you start to look at that andbuild that out.”

Leadership also has to be behind theprocess 100 percent.

“For me, the leadership has to committo excellence,” he says. “You’ve got to becommitted, you’ve got to be responsible,you’ve got to be inspired. For the teammembers, they’ve got to agree to be collaborative and have a culture of caring— supportive. Then you start workingwith your products and building that outand going with that. So, you say, ‘This iswhere we want to go; this is how wewant to be. What products can we represent or manufacture or sell that will helpus get to our vision against this set ofdynamics or guiding principles.’”

HOW TO REACH: The Hiller Group Inc., (800) 544-3835