Sean Feeney Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007
If you want to make an employee who earns $45,000 a year feel valued, hand him a check for $5,000 right before Christmas. President and CEO Sean Feeney does this annually through Inovis Inc.’s profit-sharing program, and he says that’s the definition of making employees feel good at the company, a supply chain communication solutions provider. With perks including profit-sharing, handwritten notes from executives and iPods engraved with the company logo or an employee’s name, Feeney strives to reward people for their achievements because he expects a lot from them. Smart Business spoke with Feeney about how he makes all of his 525 employees feel valued by rewarding them the same way he rewards his salespeople.

Don’t hire rock-star personas. It is difficult when you’re interviewing and hiring to determine whether someone can work within that environment, or if they’re just going to be an arrogant ass. It comes down to, can that person admit when they’re wrong, can they see other points of view, and are they open to that?

When I bring someone in to interview, I ask the first-level people, ‘Did you talk to this person? What were they like? Were they polite? Did they treat everyone the same, or did they have the rock-star persona?’

It’s amazing how many times you find out when someone’s the arrogant ass; it comes out in their dealings with the (administrative) assistants, the receptionists, the guy who may pick them up in the car. You get into that level, and you find out who’s real and who’s putting on a fake show for you.

It has a twofold effect. I’ll ask the receptionist, ‘OK Pam, what did this person act like when they came in?’ One, she’s flattered that you would ask and that you value her opinion enough to have input. Two, it shows those people that how they treat everyone in the organization is critical. It’s one of those things that filters down the organization that you don’t even realize it does.

Take your time when hiring. I learn more from the questions they ask. Do they listen when you ask them a question, or are they in such a rush to get to the answer and talk about them that they don’t really understand what you’re asking for? A lot of it is, ‘Am I dying to get this person out of my office?’ or, ‘Boy, I could spend another couple hours here talking with them.’

I try to see that person in two or three different situations. I love Waffle House because it’s the only place you can get breakfast and get a show often. I’ll have them go to breakfast with me at Waffle House. Some people are like, ‘Oh man. I can’t believe you even eat here.’

I’ll have them come to the office at a different time of day, and then I’ll have dinner with them at a very nice restaurant and see how they handle themselves in all those situations and look for those small tells that get you somewhere.

They are difficult to detect, and in an interview process, people are selling themselves, which should be the product they know best, so they ought to be in a position to do that.

Reward people equally. A lot of companies have an incentive trip for their salespeople, but we have an incentive trip for the whole company. Our top salespeople can qualify to go, and then we have an equal number of people that are nominated and selected by their peers to go on that trip.

We make it peer-nominated because those people know who’s doing the work and who’s going above and beyond, so we don’t get the person who everyone in the company goes, ‘That person is just a kiss-ass, and they don’t get anything done.’

It shows that everybody in the company is important, not just the salespeople, but also, we get our salespeople spending four days in a nice environment with our top people in other areas of the organization. We get a nice network effect of people talking to people they never talk to and understanding who our top performers and support are and making sure those people know each other.

Let people challenge you. There are a lot of people that say, ‘Hey, I make those decisions, and everyone falls in line.’ I’d like to think that I’m not that sharp. I’d rather hire people who are really sharp, and they’ll argue with you and tell you what they really think.

Part of it is making sure you have a culture that people know it’s OK and it’s expected that they challenge thinking.

Once we make a decision, we want a unified approach to aggressively accomplishing that, but while we’re getting there, show people that the free exchange of ideas and disagreement is all a part of the process.

One of the hardest things as a CEO is to get what people really think and what’s really going on — not what they think you want to hear or what I call the sunshine pump — everyone wants to tell the CEO good news. Build a culture in which people tell you the bad news and what’s really going on and on a regular basis, not just when they’re leaving the organization.

Make sure you tell them that’s what you want. Reinforce that behavior. After you have the discussion, send them a note or an e-mail and say, ‘I didn’t like hearing that, but that’s the kind of feedback we need.’

Humbly admit your mistakes. While you may be the CEO, nobody makes the right decision all the time. Show your team and your people that you’re vulnerable enough that you can admit that, ‘Hey, I think this is the wrong decision — let’s go in a different direction.’

Figure out when you’ve made a bad decision and change it. That’s hard because the longer you’re in this job, the more people are telling you, ‘You’re the greatest! Everything’s great!’ You start thinking, ‘I am pretty good.’ That’s invariably when you make that bad decision, and you have to figure out how quickly you can reverse that and take that forward.

If you do that, your people have the confidence to say, ‘Look, we made this decision; I don’t think it was the right one.’

HOW TO REACH: Inovis Inc., (877) 4-INOVIS or www.inovis.com