Learning to trust Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

When Jo Kirchner became president and CEO of Primrose School Franchising Co. in 1999, she believed that the early childhood education provider could become a national player.

But to reach that point, she first needed to understand what was important to the people involved in the business. Franchise owners needed to trust that she would do what she said she would. Parents needed to trust that that their children would be safe. And staff members needed to trust that she would give them the tools and training that they needed.

“The vision comes from understanding the stakeholders in the business delivery model,” Kirchner says. “If you understand what is important to them, then you can define the vision based on that importance.”

By fostering trust with all constituents, Kirchner has helped grow the company from just 10 schools when she joined Primrose Schools as a vice president in 1990 to more than 180 today, which collectively garnered 2007 revenue of $236 million.

Smart Business spoke with Kirchner about how she fostered trust among all her constituents to help her business boom.

Foster trust. It starts with the vision of the company, and that vision is carried through with every person affiliated with this company. Trust is an intangible, but how do you make that become a reality?

It starts with integrity. If you’re not honest, people aren’t going to trust you. Second, it’s fairness — being equitable with all people. Third, it’s social responsibility. Then the last one is enthusiasm.

One of my favorite quotes is Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.’ When you have passion and excitement for what you do, people want to be around people like that.

We live in a world today that is very commoditized, so it’s the people and the values that differentiate a company from anything else. If you have those four traits, they tend to create a culture where the organization is known for trust. You have to define your vision and your core values, and then you have to role model and live it.

Hire the best. It’s listening. In the interview process, quite often people have a tendency to be interviewing and doing all the talking and not listening. Asking open-ended questions that will let the person talk and give them the opportunity to tell you who they are and what they believe in is a critical component for recruitment.

Probably the most important one would be, ‘What is the most important thing to you in making a decision to work for our company?’ If they say money first, they’re probably not the right person in our business. If they say, ‘An atmosphere in which I can gain more knowledge and grow,’ or, ‘To make a difference in the lives of young children,’ or, ‘To be an important member of a team with a common vision’ — those are the right answers. People in our business, while money is important, are driven by making a difference first.

Change. We’re living in a world that’s changing so rapidly, and you can’t just change for change sake. You can’t change every day and every week and every month, or people don’t have clarity, and systems lose their effectiveness.

When we understand that we need to make a change, we bring departments together. We look at the requested change and fully analyze it. Is it good for the children? Is there a return on that investment? Do you have the capability on a daily basis to implement this? Are we going to have to get new equipment?

Have we got the professional development tools developed to be able to launch it? Have we gotten clarity about why we’re going to do it and given people time to embrace it? Have we got ambassadors out in the marketplace who were engaged in the idea in terms of piloting and launching it?

Because we’re in the school business, and it’s very cyclical, every spring, we launch changes at one time for that next school year. Unless it has to do with the health, safety and welfare of the child, it’s done in a systematic way on an annual basis with a lot of forethought, research and communication processes to make sure everybody understands why we’re doing what we’re doing and how it will impact them.

Don’t expect perfection. Most people who are leaders are type A personalities. They’re driven, and they’re perfectionists. I am a reformed perfectionist. From day one, I’ve wanted to see excellence.

When you focus on the quest for excellence, people have a tendency to believe that you’re asking for perfection. Then you’re creating an atmosphere, since we’re human beings and not perfect, where people are disappointing themselves or others. Then they begin to work in an atmosphere of fear that they’re going to let you down.

During the first several years that I was president, I couldn’t understand why, with my passion for excellence, people were reacting negatively. At a conference one year, the light just came on. I didn’t plan this — I just got on stage to say, ‘I’m talking a lot about excellence here, and it’s really important for me that you understand that it’s not perfection. We don’t have a desire to be a perfect company — we just want to be the best. Being the best means that mistakes are acceptable, and that we learn from mistakes, we respect each other when we make mistakes, and we admit that they happen.’

That was one of the greatest learning curves that I had. It’s a very simple thing, but most of the things in leadership that are effective are simple.

HOW TO REACH: Primrose School Franchising Co., (770) 529-4100 or www.primroseschools.com