When Sean Callahan has a good idea, the light that clicks on over his head isn’t your standard 40-watt soft glow.
Callahan is president of iLight Tech- nologies, a Chicago-based manufacturer that develops and markets lighting prod- ucts that utilize light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, a more durable and efficient alternative to traditional neon lights.
Barely six years old, iLight has grown almost 1,000 percent since 2002, with revenue of $11 million. Smart Business spoke with Callahan about building the right team and the importance of letting customers make decisions for you.
Q: What is the key to leading a fast-growth company?
It’s all about the people. You have to attract driven, committed peo- ple and give them responsibility and authority and lead by exam- ple. I am almost always the first one into the office and almost always the last one to leave, so I’m not asking anyone to do any- thing that I’m not doing myself.
With a fast-growing company it’s even more so the people. With a slow-growing company, you can see if there’s a problem, you’ve got time and you can address it. But with a fast-growing company, things are much faster.
There’s a lot of opportunity that if we don’t have the right people, we could have grown rapidly. But if we could have grown more rapidly and still provided a quality solution to the customers, quite frankly, that’s a disappointment to me.
So in a rapidly growing company, you need good people around you to seize the opportunities and manage them effectively.
Q: How can a leader maintain growth?
It gets back to the people element again and how you attract and maintain quality people. I feel very comfortable with the people we have, but since we’re a growing company, we’re going to keep needing new people.
We have a human capital consultant that works with us in assessing the folks we’re considering for employment. It’s not so much of a, ‘Do we hire, or do we not hire?’ It’s assessing a person’s personal attributes and how they fit in to the iLight team and how we can help grow them and develop them with time.
We’re in a wonderful industry and we’ve got a great position within that industry, but it’s the people that are going to make it happen or not happen. The stronger each individual is, the easier it is for us to get another strong individual on board, and the more time I have to do other things that are productive for the company.
All this means customers that are very well-served.
Q: How would you describe your own role in the company?
My job is very simple. It’s to build the right team. That means getting the right people on board and having them in the right position, making sure they have the tools and support necessary to be effective in their roles.
I work for everyone, which means I’ve got to make sure they have the tools and support necessary to be effective, and to develop them so they become more valu- able and more effective. If someone is not in the right position, is there another posi- tion where they fit better, or does a change need to be made? Fortunately, we’ve been very successful in hav- ing key positive contributors.
However, sometimes you’ve got to change one or two people. There’s the clich that a few bad apples can ruin the bunch. Let’s say there was some meaningful change that we believed needed to be done. Presumably, we believed it needed to be done because of what the customer wants or because of competitive position.
You need all your people to be on board for that, and if somebody is not going to come on board, ultimately, you’re going to have to make a change. It’s going to be a heavy anchor slowing the whole ship down.
Q: How do you lead change?
There’s a quote from Charles Darwin to the effect that when he was studying animals and how they existed, it wasn’t the smartest that survived longest or those who worked the hardest, it was those that adapted best to change.
That’s a blanket statement, but when you add on the fact that we’re a rapidly growing company in a rapidly growing industry, we have no choice but to be very close to the customers and very close to change.
It all goes back to the customers. I might have some ideas on how I think things should be done, but if the customers are not willing to pay for it, if there’s not a meaningful market for it, then I don’t have any interest in pursuing it.
When people see that this is very much a customer-focused, opportunity-focused company, then we can meet with the customers, and in a sense it’s the vision of the customers that drives us.
HOW TO REACH: iLight Technologies, www.ilight-tech.com