Driving change Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

Ann M. Drake knows your pain.

The more technology comes into play, the more the business world gets itself into a big hurry, and now, you’re paying the price. Even in a tightened economy, people still expect products and services to be better and faster.

Drake’s empathy for that situation comes very honestly. She came into her role as CEO of DSC Logistics Inc. in 1994 and has watched the transformation. The logistics and supply chain industry has picked up speed in the last 10 to 15 years and so has the rate of change and adaptation she and her company have had to make.

“It’s unpredictable change,” Drake says. “When companies started saying, ‘We need a warehouse, and we need it to be up and running in 45 days,’ it was like, ‘Whoa,’ and it was hard to predict exactly what they were going to ask for, so it wasn’t just like it was faster but more of the same; it would be different.”

DSC had plenty of solutions, but the changing environment helped Drake come to a realization.

“We had to learn to be very responsive,” she says. “In other words, people weren’t just going to call you up and say, ‘Let’s talk about a long-term plan.’ They would say, ‘Hey, we just came out of a meeting, and we need this,’ so you had to learn how to be responsive. ... You had to realize that was the environment you’re going to live in, and once you realize that, that causes you to think differently, so then you say, ‘OK, how do I stay close to customers; how do I put mini-processes in place that can be put together in multiple ways?’

Here are some of the things Drake and her leadership team have implemented with the 2,000 employees at DSC to keep the company running ahead of the curve.

Create proactive processes
It sounds pretty basic, but it’s true: If you want your people to adjust on the fly, you better have people who have the ability to do so. Figure out what trait you need the most in your business and figure out what it means to you.

Don’t assume you know now. As Drake’s management style has changed over the years, one thing she noticed was she constantly interviewed almost everyone she met. In doing so, she started to think about the traits that made her people successful and how she was subconsciously looking for those in others.

Take a second and think about your best employees. What do they have in common that makes them adaptable to your business? At DSC, Drake sat down with her senior leaders and had this conversation, and they realized her most successful people are extremely flexible and have high integrity. Once you figure out something like that, Drake says you should put it on paper.

“We have actually formalized a process called ODR — it stands for organizational development review, which includes creating strategic criteria around which we hire and promote people,” she says. “And that includes flexibility and integrity so that we have a formalized written understanding and then we practice what we preach by using that criteria as part of our job evaluation for promotions or our evaluation of candidates.”

In all, Drake and her team came up with 12 criteria, then broke each down into workable definitions that could be explained to a layman. Flexibility, for example, needs to be not just something people practice in their project thinking but also in relationships with others. Now, every hire and promotion in the company is done by a cross section of people who work with the person and can individually judge those characteristics and talk about whether that person makes the cut.

“So we get some good cross-thinking because at times you can behave really well in front of your boss, but you go out there and don’t behave the same way, so it gives us good data on people’s behaviors, which is really what this is all about, and that’s how we decide on the actual promotion of people,” she says.

Using that process in everything is important. It’s one thing for you to hire and promote based on your criteria, but it’s far more important that it gets rolled out companywide.

“You have to always walk the talk, but that’s not enough,” she says.

“I always worry about people that say all you have to do is be a role model — you have to do a whole lot more than that. But if you walk the talk and are selecting people who meet these capabilities, then you’ve got a well-honed team that can act this way, which is what you need.”

And don’t think that once you’ve gone through this process that you’re done for good. You need to periodically look at the traits you value to see if they still fit your business.

“It’s a very flexible structure and yet it’s ‘planful,’” Drake says. “We think through what we’re going to need for the next year based on what our best guesses are so we’re not constantly reacting. You don’t want that, you want to do a better job thinking and feeling what’s happening.”

It can be slow going at first, but Drake notes that at DSC she sees the effect.

“Every now and then, I’ll take a snapshot and look back a couple of years and think, ‘Oh my gosh, these folks are really using their flexibility correctly; these folks understand what we mean by integrity,’” she says. “But you can’t just leave it completely up to culture and chance, you’ve got to have a process and formalization.”

Get things rolling and move on
Another part of leading a company that can adapt in an instant is, well, being a leader who can adapt in an instant.

“Given the amount of information we get through the Internet and the amount of change and unpredictability of the world we live in, you just have to be flexible,” she says.

This puts the onus on you. If you want to push your company, you have to be at the forefront of where the industry changes are happening. That means you have to learn when to let go of one project to tackle another.

“It’s deciding when you’ve accomplished something enough and it’s time to push in a new direction,” she says. “It’s interesting because you push, push, push and lead, lead, lead, and then someday, you need to say, ‘I think we got a lot of that done; it’s time to move somewhere new,’ and that’s an interesting challenge.”

This is a never-ending battle for CEOs, as it can be hard to give up controls. Drake recalls when DSC was emphasizing its focus on process management a few years ago, and it seemed like if she let her reins go, it might not take. How she learned to let go and tackle more pressing issues required a bit of abstract thought.

“It’s like you push this snowball up the hill, and until you get it over the crest of the hill, you’re not done, and it can go backward,” she says. “But once you achieve critical mass, then it quickly moves forward or sustains itself.”

In thinking of her work like that giant snowball, she says a leader will have a natural feel for who isn’t strong enough to hold up his or her weight. That’s the person you have to help first, and once he or she has that snowball to the crest — which means you feel comfortable letting the person manage that project — you can move on to the next project.

“Measurements help with that, but measurements are almost more outcomes and not necessarily focused on the pieces to get there, and so outcomes are what you want, but if you’ve got three good pieces and three more pieces to go to get to the right outcome, it’s helpful to be intuitive and figure that out and be able to say, ‘OK, I got this part accomplished, but the problem is over here,’” she says.

Act on the information you have
OK, it’s the oldest business cliche in the world: You have to trust your gut instinct. But the fact of the matter is, if you want to be adaptable, there will be times you’re going to have to run without all the information.

Drake’s father, an entrepreneur, taught her that there’s actually a bit of a system to the so-called gut instinct. She fleshed that idea out during her graduate work at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern.

“(My father) would say, ‘Follow your instincts even before you’re ready,’” She says. “Now, that also was manifested in a different way in business school. One of the things we talked about was how we were always making decisions before we were ready. When you had some data, you were looking at information, but it wasn’t enough, but then it was time to decide. So people who like to do things right and well sometimes aren’t good at quickly getting somewhere without all the data and information that they want.”

Following your gut means acquiring all the information you can and then acting on it.

“You have to make decisions and follow your instincts before you’re ready or you just won’t get anything done,” she says. “And your instincts are valuable, it’s not like it doesn’t count. And that’s something I’ve learned over the years — when I have this intuition about something, it’s usually right. That helps you move faster.”

Following your instincts doesn’t mean that if you have a hunch, you act on it. Instead, it’s taking the course of action that makes the most sense to you and doing your best to explain it to others.

“You have to articulate it enough to convince others if that’s part of what your game is,” Drake says. “The best is to give some examples, and even discussing it with people is a big move. I don’t think people do that enough. ... Even talking about these things to direct reports, or any level of employee, is a really good thing because I don’t think people get taught enough. Once you go to a job, it’s like you get a few training courses, but otherwise, you’re sort of on your own.”

The fact of the matter is, so many companies get so caught up on metrics that they are often slowed down because the idea of using the best information available and making a decision ahead of the market is almost looked down upon. But Drake thinks innovation usually comes from those entrepreneurs working on short information and high adaptability. In fact, she preaches going with an educated instinct to her people.

“I’ll often say, go with your intuition, go with what you think, decide right now,” she says. “It’s also one of those things that you can work on with younger employees, because they haven’t had the benefit of people talking to them about this, and it’s almost sort of expected that you know how and you’re really taught more about subject matter, but it’s these kind of things that help push you.”

HOW TO REACH: DSC Logistics Inc., (800) 372-1960 or www.dsclogistics.com