Sea of change Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2009

Jim Geiger could be kicking back and patting himself on the back for the success he’s seen. But he’s not.

As chairman, president and CEO of Cbeyond Inc., a VoIP-based managed services provider for small businesses, he’s watched the company grow from nothing when he founded it a decade ago to $159 million in 2005 revenue and then to $280 million in 2007.

Despite the growth his company has experienced, he wants to push it to the next level.

“I don’t know how common it is to found a company with the same group of people and organically grow it from zero to a billion [dollars] without any acquisitions, but I don’t think it’s terribly common, but that’s a really motivating goal for me,” Geiger says.

To reach that billion-dollar mark, Geiger is sticking to the same strategies that have helped him grow so far — creating a great culture, hiring the right people and providing them with direction. If he can do these things, then he’s confident in his people that they will hit that milestone.

“There are a bunch of cliches, but you just can’t do this stuff alone,” Geiger says. “We’re growing 25 to 30 percent per year organically and building a company with a platform that we hope will drive us to a billion dollars in revenue over the next several years — all organically from zero, no acquisitions — and we need a lot more people. ...

“We need a bunch more leaders, and they’re not going to fall in our lap. We need to grow them. We need to be developing the leadership of tomorrow today. That means making intentional investments in that process.”

Create the right culture

Cbeyond doesn’t have retention problems. Because it’s not a problem, Geiger realized that he took this for granted, so he’s rededicated his efforts to nurturing the culture.

One of the keys to creating a good work environment is to actually make employees a priority for you personally.

“I tend to have close personal relationships with the people that I work with,” Geiger says. “I’ve worked in many places where people felt that was foolish, but I happen to believe that it’s something that accelerates our success.”

Another aspect of creating a strong work environment involves trusting your employees.

“Give folks opportunities for growth, which involve, at times, stumbling a bit and maybe failing — and allowing people to be vulnerable,” Geiger says. “In so many business cultures, any vulnerability was viewed as a weakness, but here we try to stress that it’s not — it’s OK.”

He says when those moments of vulnerability reveal themselves, try to be sensitive instead of chastising.

“Don’t pierce that sensitive area when it’s exposed,” he says. “In any relationship, and these relationships are as important to me as my friends and family, we spend a lot of time together, and we trust each other for our livelihoods. I think that trust takes a lot of time to build and a very short amount of time to tear down.”

Another element of a strong culture is one that doesn’t look to point fingers at people when things don’t go as planned. Geiger says he and his team work very hard not to create the “culture of blame” as others call it.

“If people believe that at the end of any negative outcome, that the leadership is trying to find who’s to blame, they’ll take less risk,” he says. “What we try to stay focused on is not who’s to blame, but what did we learn. It’s a much safer environment.”

Geiger says this concept is similar to being a parent. With two children, ages 18 and 21, he’s learned a lot from those relationships that also apply to business.

“If you’re going to freak out when your kid is honest with you, you’re going to learn a whole lot less,” he says.

He says that in order to develop these cultural characteristics, you have to identify what’s most important to your company’s culture.

“It takes a lot of work,” Geiger says. “It takes sitting down and talking about what are the norms here. ‘Are we going to allow someone to sit here and talk to us about another one of our colleagues without them present?’ It’s a simple notion to hold up your hand and say, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. Let’s get that person in the room rather than allow foregone conclusions or gossip and cynicism to develop in the company.’”

And lastly, you have to recognize that your culture is always a work in progress.

“We don’t have the perfect culture, but we always work hard at moving it forward,” he says. “That’s painful. If you go looking, you’re going to learn some things that pain you. Areas that you need to personally change to be more effective. It takes a willingness and openness, and it takes a lot of trust.”

Hire the right people

As a potential investor, Geiger once met with an entrepreneur to learn about the man’s business. During the meeting, Geiger continually looked at his watch and checked e-mail on his BlackBerry, and he finally decided to get honest.

“Do you love this business?” he asked. “Well, of course I do,” the entrepreneur replied. “Well it’s not obvious to me,” Geiger said to him. “This is something that should be your mistress, your addiction. This is something that you should consume me with your passion and draw me in with your emotion and your love of this thing. You sound bored when you’re talking to me about it.”

The lesson learned is that if you want to attract other people to your business, you have to be excited about it yourself. The more enthusiastic you are and the more success you see, the more other people will want to get on board with that.

“There’s an allure there that you’ve been successful, and you’ve done it in the right way, and you’ve not detracted but attracted more people, so I like to think of it as an expanding tent and welcoming more and more people into the tent,” Geiger says.

As you welcome people into your company, you have to make sure that they will fit with the culture that you’ve created. For instance, Geiger says that across his senior leadership team, spirituality is important. While his team varies from Hindu to Catholic to Muslim to Baptist, the common thread is a spiritual rooting, so he feels it’s important to have someone who will mesh with that. Additionally, balance and prioritizing family is important to his team members, as is giving back to the community with their time, skills and talent.

“Those aren’t things that we don’t necessarily say, ‘If you don’t do that, you’re not going to be successful,’ but what we focus on is if those are things that are appealing to you, we think we’ll be more compatible and therefore work together as a team better,” he says.

While you’re looking to see if people will match with your culture, you also owe it to them to be completely honest about what your culture is like and what you expect of them as a team member if they were hired.

“I don’t think there’s any substitute for being completely open with people and spending time with them and letting them know it’s something that we’re intentional about and serious about,” Geiger says. “I’m always clear and say to every single person I interview, ‘We’re not trying to trick you in to working here. We’re trying to decide whether you’re good for this business and we’re good for you and your family.’ That’s a process we challenge people to go through themselves.”

Lastly, while you may be in one place with your business, getting to the next level will require expertise beyond what you currently have, so hire accordingly.

“I was at a presentation once where a woman said that she hired executives like she bought shoes for her children — one or two sizes too big,” Geiger says. “I thought it was a very cool metaphor, and when they came to me, I said I bought size 12s for my kids.”

Provide the right direction

The last element to successful growth is making sure to create goals for people to work toward.

One way that Geiger and his team do this at Cbeyond is to create a theme each year for the company to focus on. This year the focus is on team and developing the team.

By providing a theme for the year, it helps him and his employees prioritize how they spend their time.

“It’s a lens by which we’re doing things and the activities and the allocation of scarce resources,” Geiger says. “Does it meet the test through this lens? It isn’t necessarily the thing by which we decide all things. If I’m sitting here working on this and saying I have 15 other things to work on, why am I prioritizing this versus that?”

He says that the senior leaders help choose that theme, and they’re trying to represent the best interest of their direct reports, which is about the top 30 to 50 people in the company. They come together and establish the next year’s theme during the third quarter.

“It’s really getting after what is the most important thing, and where do I find the greatest resonance, where’s the energy?” Geiger says.

In addition to the theme, you also have to help people work toward meeting the company’s goals and prioritizing those associated with your theme. One way Geiger does this is by compensating everyone on the same team goals.

“That avoids a lot of suboptimization like, ‘I’m going to get more credit, therefore maybe more bonus or more money or more shares or whatever by optimizing my goals at the expense of yours,’” he says.

He says he focuses everybody except the sales team on the same goals.

“We very simply define success, and we’re careful to notice who’s pulling on what oars at the same time with the same pressure, and we try to be very synchronized in that way,” he says.

Paying attention to people’s performance is critical in determining who’s pulling on the oars and who’s kicking back for a pleasure cruise. Have metrics in place so you can gauge how successful people are.

“If you can talk a good game, it doesn’t help you if the numbers don’t show up,” Geiger says.

“We’re not big on rhetoric. We’re kind of from Missouri in that regard — show me.”

And as people move toward achieving the company’s goals, it’s important that you develop their talents and move them up in the organization. And it goes back to making your environment a desirable place to work. As he looks toward Cbeyond’s future, Geiger is well aware that promoting his people is going to help him reach his long-term goals.

He says, “This year as we build this platform, and I mean that with both our assets and our employees to build this company to a billion [dollars], it just becomes very obvious to us that that means an investment in the people that are here and helping them grow.”

HOW TO REACH: Cbeyond Inc., www.cbeyond.net or (678) 424-2400