Best of 2011: Guidebook to growth Featured

4:17pm EDT January 3, 2012

Processes

One of the most critical elements of creating a plan or vision is to make sure you have sound processes in place within your business. This starts with evaluating your products.

“You have to look at your product range and you need to ask yourself the question, ‘Is this the best product, or are there competitors that are better than I am?’” says Martin Richenhagen of AGCO. “American cars are not sold outside of America because they’re lousy cars — not because people in Europe prefer European cars. The technology isn’t leading technology and leading quality. Today, you need to be able to lead in technology and lead in quality and have a competitive cost position.”

It’s also important that as part of your processes you’re willing to take risks.

“A willingness to take risks and experiment is very important because the good ideas stop coming if people think there’s no chance it will ever get implemented because they’re viewed as too risky,” says Chip Perry of AutoTrader.com. “You have to be willing to experiment, make mistakes and iterate toward a better solution in order to promote an innovative environment where people feel safe to make suggestions that are outside the box, and then the company has to be willing to methodically test and evaluate them.”

And above all, you have to make sure you have measuring processes in place as well.

“Invest in data and metrics, not just metrics that your clients use but metrics internally, trying to make them simple but sort of poignant,” says Chris Krubert of ApolloMD. “You have got to understand what is the key component that determines success.”

Krubert says if you don’t have ways of measuring, it’s something you need to spend some time processing, as well.

“You have to come up with ways to measure it, whether its technology or simplifying your process, but then monitoring it and benchmarking it and having historical data, so you can do a trend analysis and when you’re pointing toward the worst direction, you can act,” he says.

Planning and vision

It’s hard for any business to know where it’s going if it hasn’t taken the time to do some strategic planning and analysis.

“You have to find a niche in the business,” says Mit Shah of Noble Investment Group. “I think that companies of the future that are going to be very successful will have a niche. They aren’t broad-based companies that do a lot of things. They’ll find a couple things they do really well, and they focus on those things, and they outperform the competition there. It’s way too difficult to be good at many different things.”

So how do you find a niche? You have to look at trends and what you’re good at.

“I encourage people to analyze the markets,” says Millard Choate of Choate Construction Co. “What’s the coming trends? What are the needs going to be not just today but six months to a year from now? Try to anticipate where to deploy your resources to produce the maximum return.”

Watch the wording that you use, as well.

“You can wordsmith sentences that become ambiguous,” says Jeff Bowman of Crawford & Co. “What you have to do is create a series of effectively executable plans that are then absolutely easily translated.”

For example, you might say something such as, “We’re going to increase sales around the world,” which is a very wide open statement.

“Increase is a good word,” Bowman says. “Sales is a good word. Around the world? What does that mean? It has to be more defined than that. What’s the marketplace? What is the product we want to grow? That’s where a lot of strategies have to be planned in the sessions that you do prior to laying those strategic plans out.”

No matter what you do, make sure you’re honest with yourself and aren’t being unrealistic.

“It’s important to be as objective as you can and gather objective facts and information,” says Chip Perry of AutoTrader.com. “One of the things we try to do is whenever it’s possible, to go out and do some research about the potential impact of an idea so we’ll go talk to consumers and dealers and manufacturers and ask them for their guidance on how valuable they think it is, so research is a very important part of it.”

On top of everything, make sure you don’t put your strategy on the shelf and forget about it.

“A strategy document is a living document,” Bowman says. “Events change, and you have to change an organization to implement the goals.”

Measuring

One of the other key elements to successfully leading is measuring the goals and processes you’ve created.

“You make your own metrics for what success is,” says Ted Turner. “You set up criteria and write down what you think would make you feel successful. Each person would do it differently. What success is for one person wouldn’t be success to another. If one guy said, ‘If I made $1 million, I’d be a success,’ but to another, ‘I wouldn’t be a success unless I made $1 billion.’ They’d be off by a factor of 1,000 to one.”

So what should those metrics look like?

“You have to have quantitative, objective measurements of your business results,” says Bob Puccini of Mizuno USA Inc. “That’s certainly an indication. You have to have a clear indication of (key performance indicators) — what are you trying to measure? What’s important to you? Therefore, if those things are important to you relative to achieving your business goals, these are the KPIs you ought to be looking on a regular basis. If we’re succeeding or not based on certain benchmarks, that’s one indication.”

And make sure you’re not trying to measure and hold people accountable to things they can’t control.

“Make sure you focus on things that you can control,” says Darrell Grimes of MAG Mutual. “In other words, you can’t control, and I can’t control, interest rates. You and I can’t control health care reform. You and I can’t control tsunamis and earthquakes that are actually affecting us today. Focus on those things that you can control, but remain flexible and keep your options open but have a mission and reason for being.”

2 Tips: Customer relations

“Ask probing, delicate questions to make sure that their vision is consistent with what our plan is and then updating it periodically.”

Chris Krubert, ApolloMD, January

“You have to understand what your client’s hot buttons are, what his interests are. It’s not just always revenues. Each client has his own nuances so just customizing your approach to that client and making sure you’re taking care of them and promote that you’re looking out for their best interest.”

Millard Choate, Choate Construction Co., September

4 Tips: Culture

“Let’s be honest, this is a tough labor market. People aren’t jumping jobs right now, so we get that. You can’t use that as a crutch because as soon as the market comes back, they’ll leave for a better opportunity once available.”

Mit Shah, Noble Investment Group, February

“Recognize the value in what the honesty can deliver for you. Create an environment where truth and bad news is accepted and used as a learning opportunity, which means you also have to check egos at the door. You have to build trust with your constituency — your employees — where it becomes safe to have those open discussions.”

Bob Puccini, Mizuno USA Inc., December

“If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customer. … It’s important that they understand that we’re all in the same boat and we’re all rowing in the same direction — that when times are good, they all get bonuses and when times are not so good, we may get a smaller bonus or no bonus at all. If we don’t all pull together and understand what the financial results are, we will not do as well as a company, and we won’t service the clients the way we want to be serviced. It’s an open-book policy.”

Darrell Grimes, MAG Mutual, August

“One of the hallmarks of successful companies is being open-minded and receptive to ideas for improvement from the employees, who are closer to the work than the executives are. It’s kind of built into your DNA. Either you are or you aren’t receptive. You have to be curious and receptive and then be willing to work with it. Then you need to set up a pattern and a tempo of consistency on this topic. If you do it once, and it goes away — a flash in the pan idea — it becomes not effective. If you do it every year, you’ve been doing it for 10 years, people come to expect it, and it becomes part of the culture.”

Chip Perry, AutoTrader.com, May

4 Tips: Communication

“Although you have to craft the format differently, I believe you have to be very consistent with the communications, whether it’s your employees or customers or suppliers or investors. You can’t have different messages. You have to have a consistent strategy and talk to them and adopt it to their viewpoint a little bit. You can’t create different ones for different people – it doesn’t work. … Making it a simple message is very hard. … You have to be able to communicate not only to your senior people but also be able to reach somebody who is working on a factory floor who may not speak English, and translate it and be ruthless and streamline the message down. When you do that, it means you have to be very clear about what you have to do. If you use a lot of words, you don’t have to be so clear. If you use very few words, you have to be much more clear.”

Jim Bolch, Exide Technologies, November

“I listen because no one person has all of the ideas,” he says. “It’s a collaborative environment.”

Darrell Grimes, MAG Mutual, August

“Make sure people understand what they’re accountable for. They do things that they understand much easier than things that they don’t understand. … The world we live in, you get swallowed up in the amount of data you’ve got. You have to cut through and say, ‘What is the important data that you’re going to measure people on?’”

Jeff Bowman, Crawford & Co., June

“If you ask someone their opinion, and you never follow it or you never use it, then why in the world would they ever want to give it again. But if you ask people their opinion and say, ‘To every extent possible, we’d like to take your ideas and make things better, and they see that we actually take ideas and implement it and use it to create a better work environment, it’s synergistic and it just grows.”

Michael Bass, Piedmont Newnan Hospital, April

4 Tips: Hiring

“It’s a disciplined approach to define the key characteristics of what you need in a person to do that specific job and completely severing the ‘I like, I don’t like,’ and then tapping into other people’s sort of ratings on the same scale. It’s pretty clear, hard work or not hard work. That’s almost a quantifiable type. There’s ways you can define that and then ask other people who are in a similar role.”

Christopher Krubert, ApolloMD, January

“The individual who is comfortable is relaxed. They pause, they think about their response. They’re inquisitive but yet they are knowledgeable. The cocky person is usually the person who you can’t get a word in edgewise. They just want to go on and on and on.”

Michael Bass, Piedmont Newnan Hospital, April

“What we always do is discuss it with the guy who has the job because I think it would be very bad if you have a job description, and the guy who’s doing the job would say, ‘That’s not me.’ That happens sometimes. If it’s getting too theoretical and you only have human resources involved or someone from the outside, this could happen. … You need to keep things simple in a way but also very pragmatic. This means don’t make it too long of details. The most important part of a job description is to describe the area of responsibility in the form of results you are expecting. Instead of describing what you expect somebody to do — he has to come into the office at 7 o’clock in the morning and open his door and start to make phone calls — describe activities and describe results you expect the leader to generate.”

Martin Richenhagen, AGCO, October

“If you have a business vision and a business goal and say, ‘Here’s where we’re going and here’s how you have to play,’ those kinds of things allow you to recognize the kinds of skills you need to do that. You have to have a clear vision — where you’re going, where you’re going to play, where you think you can win, and how you’re going to play in order to win. Then you step back and say, ‘Wow, what kind of skills do we need in order to do that?’ Then you do a gap analysis. Here’s where we are, here’s where we need to be from a competency perspective, and what’s the plan to either acquire or develop those competencies.”

Bob Puccini, Mizuno USA Inc., December

6 Tips: Leadership

“Sometimes you just have to be a smart guy growing up in New York to survive. That means knowing which alleys not to walk down. It doesn’t mean you walk down every alley and pick a fight and win them all. It means also being savvy enough to know I’m not going to walk down that alley — that doesn’t look right, that doesn’t feel right. It’s knowing where to play and where not to play, and again playing to your strengths. If you don’t have them, you better acquire or develop them. … That ability to be completely honest with himself was critical as a kid, and it’s just as needed as a leader looking at your abilities and your business. … Sometimes it hurts, but that’s part of being successful. You’ve got to be honest with your limitations.”

Bob Puccini, Mizuno USA, December

“So many people are trying to move up in an organization — step over someone else to get up the corporate ladder. Just focus on the company and just focus on the customer, and you’ll find that all those other problems go away. … Forget trying to beat the guy down the hall. I think there’s too much of that. If people will do that, they’ll see how much easier it is to move up the corporate ladder without doing it. Just do the right thing.”

Darrell Grimes, MAG Mutual, August

“Continue to do what the books say you’re supposed to do — stick to your core values during times of great opportunity and during times of crisis, take care of people, make sure that you continue to commit to things that are part of who you are and who you espouse to be.”

Mit Shah, Noble Investment Group, February

“How do you build trust? There are several ways. No. 1, you say what you’re going to do, and then you do it so that employees know that if I say that this is what we’re going to do or this is what’s going to happen, then I’ve got to make sure that that’s exactly what we do and we don’t deviate from that. Trust is being open and telling it like it is.”

Michael Bass, Piedmont Newnan Hospital, April

“The easiest thing is to do nothing, and then you’ll never get in trouble — and you’ll never get anywhere either, but doing nothing is an option, and that’s an option that most people avail themselves of in life. They do as little as they can, and they don’t realize what they could have done because they didn’t do anything. That’s most people. It’s just too hard, and it is hard. It’s extremely hard, and you’ve got to be — there’s an old expression I heard somewhere — smarter than a tree full of owls to do anything like create a Microsoft or a Google or a CNN.”

Ted Turner, Turner Enterprises, July

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“‘Trust, but verify.’ I think it is critically important to empower your team, but periodically you need to drill down to ensure that you are getting the whole story and you are comfortable with the direction.”

-Jim Bolch, Exide Technologies, November

“Don’t worry about those things you can’t control. Just try to manage through them. I see a lot of people worrying about things, but it’s just more stress in your life. Manage what you can control. Prepare for the worst; accept the rest. Don’t worry too much about what you can’t control. I think that’s important advice.”

-Darrell O. Grimes, MAG Mutual Insurance Co., August

“The best advice I’ve ever received is you’ll only get one chance to make your case for a change order, and only a fool would be willing to attempt to argue about the end result after that. That was my grandfather, who was the road-building construction contractor.”

-Chip Bullock, HDR CUH2A, March

“One of the original founder’s term: personal is best. That’s important. That’s the advice I use. When I’m trying to understand why someone is acting out or stressed or giving me a hard time, trying to keep it personal and trying to understand who they are as a person, whether it’s in a clinical setting or a business setting and that often times will give you the answer. That’s the best advice I’ve gotten to date.”

-Christopher Krubert, ApolloMD, January