Staying on course

One of the biggest challenges of navigating today’s economy is to stay true to your vision and maintain a clear, consistent message for your employees, says Michael Chivell.

“It cannot be an out-of-sight, out-of-mind experience,” says Chivell, managing partner of Armstrong Teasdale LLP. “They have to feel part of the organization; they have to understand their role in the organization.”

To keep employees in the loop, you need to communicate your vision to them and build relationships to make them comfortable with that vision. Chivell starts that process by bringing all new employees — regardless in which of the company’s nine locations they are working — to headquarters for orientation. And he continues to convey a uniform message by building personal relationships with his 400 employees at the company, which posted 2008 revenue of $115 million.

Smart Business spoke to Chivell about how to clearly communicate your message to employees.

Maintain a consistent message through training. We do a very effective job of training and trying to make people understand who and what we are.

From the moment someone starts with our firm, in any area of the firm, they go through an orientation process that makes them understand what Armstrong Teasdale is all about, from how do you use the computer to what are our policies. Practice group leaders and management address people and talk with them about what our mission is, what our strategic plan is.

It can go for about a week or a little bit over a week before they actually sit down at a desk and start doing work. They’re indoctrinated early on when they start with the firm.

You have to start with what you’re trying to accomplish. What is your goal? The primary objective of ours is to make our people understand who we are, what we do and what we’re trying to accomplish.

You have to get the right people in place professionally to help you drive that message and deliver all of the different skill sets that are necessary in effective training. It’s not just one thing; it’s many things.

You have to sustain it, and you have to mean it, and you have to put the resources there to run an effective program.

If you don’t sustain it and put the right people there and give them the tools that they need to be successful, obviously, over time, you won’t be as effective as you like.

It’s taken a lot of time and effort. You learn from your mistakes. You learn from what perhaps didn’t work as well as you would like, and so, it just takes time and effort, like most things.

Looking ahead

When Mercedes LaPorta
co-founded Mercedes
Electric Supply Inc. with her husband, Victor,
29 years ago, she looked for
every competitive edge she
could find in the male-dominated field.

She began by building solid
business relationships and
certifying her company as
minority- and woman-owned.
Since then, she’s grown the
company — an electrical,
automation and data communications distributor that posted 2007 revenue of $25 million
— by creating a growth plan
and continuing to monitor and
modify it.

“A lot of people put it on a
shelf and don’t review it,
which is one of the big mistakes businesses make,”
LaPorta says.

Smart Business spoke with
LaPorta about how to give
yourself a competitive advantage and the keys to creating a
successful plan for growth.

Q. How do you find a
competitive edge?

When you’re starting to grow
your business, take a look at
all of the resources you have
available.

I’m Hispanic — I was born in
Havana, Cuba — when I came
here, started the business, I got
myself certified as a minority-owned business. I’m in a very
male-dominated industry, so in
order for me to grow, I had to
see what kind of advantages I
could give myself, and that
was one of them.

Look at all of the resources
that you have, and do
research. There’s so many
resources that you have at the
tip of your fingers right now.
Thoroughly research everything and see what advantage
you can give yourself.

Q. How do you create and
prioritize a growth plan?

When you write your business plan, write it for one
year, three years and five
years.

I recommend setting one to
two (goals) a year. If you
give yourself four or five,
you put too much on your
plate, and it’s not going
to succeed.

In every plan of
growth that you have,
there’s so many different facets that you’re
going to have to monitor. If you’re saying
you’re going to grow in
two areas, if you break
it down, you probably
have five, 10, 15 areas
you’re going to have to
monitor.

There’s a lot that goes
into this.

Say you have four
bullet points that you
need to achieve in
order to get to where
you want to be. What
is the No. 1 objective
that I need to reach first? Is
it financing?

There’s always a cost associated with anything that you
do. You have to be ready, and
in your plan that you have,
you have to look at, do I have
the financial capability?

That’s how you prioritize.
You take a look at what’s the
most important thing.

Obviously, you have to start
at the top and work all the
way down. If it’s three, four,
five points, the fifth one is
just as important as No. 1.