We’ve all had days where we would rather not open the newspaper, turn on the TV or pick up the phone for the fear of learning about more bad news.
Unfortunately, there have been a lot more of those days for all of us lately.
The stock market is going through extreme ups and downs, capital has dried up, and key customers are cutting back. You start to wonder where the sales are going to come from to enable you to make this quarter’s budget. If things don’t turn around soon, you’ll have to consider drastic cutbacks yourself.
In times like these, what’s a CEO to do?
The answer: Get back to basics. Focus on the things you do best and do them as efficiently as you can. Use your strengths to exploit your competitors’ weaknesses and outhustle them.
It’s often the simple things that made you a success in the first place, and it will be the simple things that keep you afloat during the economic storm.
With that in mind, we’ve assembled the best pieces of advice garnered from Atlanta’s top leaders from throughout the year. We think you’ll find some great ideas to help you improve your business within these pages, and we encourage you to keep this issue as an ongoing reference to help you find your way through the trying times that lie ahead.
CEO, Lane Co.
When you want to change something in your organization, you first have to let people know what’s going on.
“First and foremost, you have to communicate what you’re planning, what this new change initiative is, and you have to be very straightforward,” says Bill Donges, CEO of Lane Co. in the October issue. “I watch people all the time. You get rhetoric, and the words don’t match up exactly in the people’s minds with what’s going on.”
One of the biggest mistakes that Donges sees is leaders who do not communicate the new vision.
“They just communicate, ‘These are some of the goals and objectives,’ and they do it in a way that doesn’t include data,” he says.
Providing data to your employees helps them understand the reasoning behind the change and helps them buy-in.
“The communication isn’t just verbal,” says Bill Donges, CEO of Lane Co., in the October issue. “It’s also data and performance information about productivity or customer satisfaction or financial performance. ... It’s not just happy talk. It’s not just having picnics and wearing buttons and having a lot of pep rallies.”
If you don’t provide the reasoning behind the changes, then employees will get nervous and start to question their jobs and the company.
“People are wanting to hear the truth,” Donges says. “And they want to know, to the extent that you can share with them, what the problem is — we lost a major client, our quality numbers dropped, our productivity dropped. A lot of times, managers or leaders hedge. They don’t really tell them the truth, and you have to face the truth.”
Even if you’re honest with people, they still may not understand or see the benefit of the change, so you also have to show them why they should change.
“They’re very skeptical when you start proposing these changes because most of them have been through change initiatives and might or might not feel positive about where you’re going,” Donges says. “If you feel you got to go to this new place, you have to present it as an opportunity or you have to present it as a crisis.”
Hire great people
CEO, Jackson Healthcare
CEO, Zaxby’s Franchising Inc.
Robert D. Hays
chairman, King & Spalding LLP
People are one of the most important parts of a successful business, and as such, you need to make it a priority.
“If anything is important in a business, have somebody’s livelihood depending on it,” says Rick Jackson, founder and CEO of Jackson Healthcare, in the April issue. “It amazes me how much companies will give lip service to this, but they don’t have people actually in charge of doing this. You have to have dedicated people on your staff that earn 100 percent of their income by finding good people.”
When recruiting and hiring people for your organization, be sure to take your time.
“(Companies) make the mistake of the first person who comes in and puts an application in, they hire because they want a warm body there,” says Zach McLeroy, founder, president and CEO of Zaxby’s Franchising Inc., in the February issue. “... Don’t just rush out and hire the first person. Continue to take applications until you find the right people ... and that will cut back on our turnover.”
In order to make sure you get the right person, you have to have a solid interviewing process. Robert D. Hays, chairman and managing partner at King & Spalding LLP, has a solid process.
“You need to have in these interview processes some skeptics — some people whose jobs are to ask hard questions because you want people to appear to be desirable — that will be the instinct,” Hays says in the June issue. “When you get into recruiting mode, it’s a groupthink mentality that takes over, and marry that with what if the people you’re interviewing are just telling you what you want to hear, and the next thing you know, you don’t really have the kind of rigor that you need to have to make quality decisions to grow that’s consistent with high performance.”
When asking questions in an interview, Hays says to ask people to prove rather than state. Lastly, if anything strikes you as odd or off, don’t ignore it.
Robert D. Hays
chairman and managing partner of King & Spalding LLP
Relationships are built on trust and communication, and you have to have both with your clients in order to become a stronger company. This starts with getting feedback. Robert D. Hays, chairman and managing partner of King & Spalding LLP, who appeared in our June issue, has a few guidelines for getting solid feedback. He first suggests not sending someone who is directly involved with the client.
“Let’s say I am the person who does principle work for your company,” he says. “If you and I are friends, and I go up and ask you to give me a candid review of what we’re doing and suggestions and how you perceive us and people who work for me, even if you were candid — and you may not be — if it’s not flattering, it’s something I don’t want to hear, I may delude myself about what I’m hearing, and that information is not high quality and doesn’t do us any good. People often hear what they want and then report it even more favorably than they heard it.”
It’s also important to talk to several people at the company.
“You’re more likely to get the honest feedback,” he says. “...What one person at the client may feel or know or see is quite different than another one, but they’re both right because they both represent a much larger enterprise, so you have to get reports from all corners of that enterprise.”
Once you get initial answers, you have to look at reasons behind them.
“In the courtroom, you always question all opinions because everyone has one,” he says. “As I used to tell juries, opinions are useless. The only things juries should listen to is reasons for opinions — what are the bases for those opinions? Then the people on the jury make a determination based on the validity of the conclusion.
“That’s not dissimilar to what you have to do here, to a degree. You have to probe constantly. Push to another level of analysis — why do you believe that? What’s your basis? You keep pushing and pushing. Often people are sincere in what they’re attempting to convey, but they’re just imprecise of their expression of it. In that kind of a dialogue, you often get to a better place than where you began.”
And once you begin to get to the reasons behind opinions, look for recurrences.
“Almost nothing will you get uniform agreement on, but you can find patterns,” Hays says. “If there are clusters of similar responses and similar input, be it favorable or unfavorable, you better pay attention to it.”
All of these things will help you get better feedback and build stronger customer relationships.
Focus on your core
CEO, Henry Medical Center
One of the problems many leaders face is straying away from their company’s core. Charlie Scott, president and CEO of Henry Medical Center, says you have to establish your core so you know if you’re straying from it.
“The first question to ask is, ‘What am I really good at?’” Scott says in the July issue. Then it’s a series of follow-up questions. “Where is my expertise?” he says. “What services do I feel I really have the intellectual capital, the expertise, the knowledge to do a really good job at?”
Once you ask those questions and identify your core areas, it’s important to ask what other organizations are good at or better at and identify their core strengths.
“What things have I gotten into that are really outside my expertise and looking at who else out there has more expertise than I do?” he says. “Where am I getting into services where I’m competing with somebody for whom that’s all they do or somebody who’s dedicated to that line of business?”
If you identify places that don’t help your core, you should consider dropping them.
“It’s a matter of trying to recognize as an organization — we don’t have to be all things to all people,” Scott says. “It’s not a sign of weakness if we pare some services. The way I see it, then we’re focusing our resources ... on fewer things that matter the most, so we can do a better job on the things that we do offer.”