Be nimble, be quick Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
Jay Reeder knew his business was really taking off when he got a call from Kuwait.

Reeder’s company, VoiceNation, offers voice communication solutions to its clients, and he was curious how one of Kuwait’s state-run companies heard of him. When he asked the caller who referred him to VoiceNation, Reeder got a simple answer.

“He said he asked Google who was the best at this, and we came up — so he called us,” Reeder says.

The company has taken off since Reeder co-founded it with Graham Taylor in 2003, reaching $22 million in revenue for 2006.

Smart Business spoke with Reeder, president of VoiceNation, about why it’s important for a growing company to have more chiefs than Indians.

Q: How do you achieve and manage growth?

In the early stages of explosive growth, it’s key to go top-heavy with management. There was a time in our company when three-fourths of the people working here were managers. They were empowered to hire, fire, make decisions without repercussions.

In a lot of companies you have a problem with having too many chiefs and not enough Indians. But when you’ve got this explosive growth, you need more chiefs than Indians.

You need people who can make a decision on the spot without calling a meeting and stopping everything. The last thing I want is a rigid management structure that gets in the way of growth.

It is counterintuitive because when you’re a start-up, you need to save money. It’s cheaper to get the workers than the managers.

But actually, you need thinkers who can come in and make decisions if you’re going to build a solid foundation.

Q: How did you learn to delegate and let other people make decisions?

Nobody likes to fail, and when you’re wearing all the hats and you’re making all the decisions, it’s not hard at all to pass that along. I knew I couldn’t do the job.

It’s like the old saying, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none.’ As a CEO, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades, but the key is having experts in each discipline.

Surround yourself with good people, and good things happen. With these experts around you, you can make decisions a little bit quicker.

Q: How do you empower employees?

There’s just times when you’re going to have an instinct or understanding of the bigger picture that nobody else will, so you always have to reserve that final say. But the organization isn’t an organization of one. You have to draw people in. Two heads are better than one.

Everyone in this company is important. Their lives are going to depend on the company, and the company is going to depend upon their performance. We communicate the vision from Day One and lay it out there.

Q: How do you communicate that vision?

We have periodic meetings where we do vision casts. Basically, we talk about where we’re going, we paint the picture. A lot of times when you’re in the trenches trying to solve a problem — killing the alligators, so to speak — it’s hard to grasp the bigger vision of where we’re going and why certain decisions are being made.

So a vision cast is almost like a storytelling, we frame where we are in the life of the company, and in the industry, against where we are in industry against competitors.

Q: How involved should a CEO be in day-today operations?

It’s critical to understand the nuts and bolts of your business. Without that understanding, you can’t translate business reports into the necessary changes you need to make. After those changes are made, you can rely on people. You can count on managers to handle the day-to-day operations without hands-on involvement. You really need that, so that you don’t become the bottleneck. It frees you up to focus on the bigger vision and strategy.

Because of the growth we’ve had I’ve had to develop a distributive management style — so we have microcompanies within our company. That’s how we’ve been able to stay nimble and react and adjust to opportunities while growing at a fanatical pace.

Q: How do you deal with a difficult person on staff?

First, take your time hiring. People are the key and having the right people is even more key. When you see a problem, don’t hesitate to fire. Because it doesn’t get any better and it’s not any easier if you prolong the agony. It sounds harsh, but it’s not really one-sided.

If you have an employee and they are a bad fit for the company, it’s not just a bad fit for you as the company, it’s a bad fit for them too. By firing them, you’re actually helping because they can go find a better fit for themselves sooner rather than later.

HOW TO REACH: VoiceNation, or (866) 766-5050.