Maximum overdrive Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

Josh Johnson has plenty of tasks on his to-do list. As president, he has his own responsibilities at Fidelitone Logistics that transcend overseeing others.

But they all come second.

“First things first, you’re a manager,” he says. “You’ve got people working for you. Make sure that those people understand what they’re supposed to be accomplishing and that they’re doing it well and that you’re communicating well. So manage first, work second.”

It’s a tough balance to strike, because managing his 600 employees is a ceaseless task. Especially in this economy, things can change from one day to the next. So now, more than ever, Johnson constantly has to keep track of how his employees are performing.

He likens it to an ever-changing sports roster.

“Just because Jim Thome’s batting fourth as cleanup this year doesn’t mean he will be next year,” Johnson says of the former White Sox slugger. “People go through evolutions in their careers where they work better or play better. You constantly have to be evaluating your personnel. There’s no resting on what happened yesterday.”

Johnson hopes staying in touch as a coach now will help employees to be empowered later. When employees take their careers into their own hands, it makes his job a lot easier. He can move on to the “working” half of being a working manager.

Still, he’s always finding opportunities to empower and develop his employees — which, in turn, helps propel the company, which had 2008 revenue around $350 million.

“No matter what business you’re in, it’s about people,” he says. “They’re your greatest asset or they can be your greatest weakness. Our concentration here is to get them to be our best asset.”

Here’s how Johnson keeps track of his employees and gets the most out of them.

Keep communication rolling

Johnson’s relationship with his employees begins as a steady communication loop.

And that communication often starts as an outgoing message.

“You really have to outwardly communicate to everyone what we’re doing and how things are going so that they have a sense for the business in total,” Johnson says. “You’ve got to communicate outwardly in order to get anything back.”

Johnson has several methods for doing that, from webcasting town-hall meetings to Fidelitone’s 22 locations throughout the country to taking his senior management team out to lunch. There’s also the regular staff meetings and quarterly reviews. But as long as you find ways that work for you, the key is that you’re reaching your employees. How you reach them isn’t that important.

There are a couple of staples that Johnson’s message always includes. Basically, they boil down to two things: whether you’re making money and whether your customers are happy.

Johnson supports those points with statistics. So his messages usually circle around the “ultimate scoreboards” of net income and customer satisfaction ratings.

You can make that data more meaningful to employees by putting it into context. This could mean comparing metrics across time or simply breaking them down to areas that affect employees. For example, Johnson explains profit by comparing this year’s to last and makes the company’s fiscal status more tangible by putting it into terms of hiring or firing.

“You talk to each audience as to what’s important about them,” Johnson says. “You’ve got to know the goals of each department when you’re in front of them. You’ve got to tailor [your message] to what they do every day.”

For example, Fidelitone’s purchasing group is focused on improving customer service through proper inventory levels. So Johnson pulls data out for them about backorders and on-time shipments to help illustrate how their goals feed into the company’s overall mission. If employees understand their role, they’ll be able to make more sense of the company’s progress as a whole — not to mention have a stake in it.

Keeping employees up to date is an important part of establishing communication with them. But really including them in the loop requires silence. In other words, don’t dominate meetings without opening the floor for input.

“I try not to talk at my staff meetings,” Johnson says. “It’s really more of a presentation from the people that work for me to me about what’s going on. I think that’s how you learn how to listen to your business.”

Johnson extends the invitation for input in other ways, too. One of the simplest is his take on the suggestion box. It’s a bucket labeled Coffee Stains, where employees can submit observations of anything in the business, from the way the phone is answered to the way customers are billed to an actual carpet stain defacing the lobby.

While it’s good to have outlets like that for input, an open invitation often isn’t enough. You have to combine that with an active approach to seek it out.

“You’ve got to have a management style that you’re not just sitting on your butt all day behind your desk,” Johnson says. “Getting out and visiting them and shaking people’s hands and looking them in the eye is critical to building that rapport to where they feel comfortable talking to you about the good and the bad.”

Start building those relationships with employees early because it will take time. Johnson sets the foundation as soon as employees are hired by making a point to find out who they are and what they’re doing. When they know you at least know who they are, they’ll be more comfortable sharing in the future.

Johnson keeps information flowing through regular reviews with his department heads, and they, in turn, hold frequent staff meetings to keep their employees in the loop. Ideally, your town-hall meeting won’t bring the first mention of metrics. Employees should already know where they stand, as a company, a department and an individual.

“The interesting thing that I’ve learned about running a business is that it’s not rocket science. It’s about communication,” Johnson says. “You come up with game plans; you talk about how you’re going to do the things that you want to do. Communication is always the goal that you have to have: to communicate with one another what’s going on.”

Empower employees to act

Making the time to communicate with employees is one thing. But obviously, Johnson doesn’t have time to monitor every aspect of each employee’s performance. So part of managing his employees is preparing them to take their jobs into their own hands.

That empowerment process starts as soon as employees join the company. Johnson is always pushing down reminders of their responsibility, with help from Capt. D. Michael Abrashoff’s book, “It’s Your Ship.”

“One of the philosophies we try and hand out is that it’s your job, it’s your career. What do you want to make of it?” Johnson says. “You’ve got to put it out there and say, ‘You know what, it’s your ship.’”

Of course, before you set employees free, you have to clearly outline the goals they’re trying to achieve. That’s why Johnson puts so much effort into regularly communicating metrics with employees. Each meeting should be a r

eminder of the mission and which measurements are going to get you there.

Then you pair that message with some flexibility for how employees achieve it.

“It’s coaching the organization every day about what we’re trying to accomplish,” Johnson says. “It’s continually getting people to make decisions at levels below yourself.”

After you point employees in a direction, you have to step back and let them shoot for it.

“You can’t grow an organization by trying to do everybody’s job for them,” Johnson says. “You’re never going to have great people unless you empower them to make decisions and do their jobs.”

Without micromanaging, you can — and should — keep an eye on their progress. Johnson lives by President Reagan’s famous comment, “Trust, but verify.”

“While people are allowed to do their jobs, you trust them. But you ask them, ‘How are you going to accomplish [this]?’” Johnson says. “You get into that type of a dialogue with them on a regular basis to understand where they’re going.”

By staying in touch with employees throughout the process, you can act as a coach to keep them on the right path. But even if you’ve encountered a similar situation before, your challenge is to guide them to a solution without demanding your way.

“Have you thought about this perspective?” Johnson asks employees. “You challenge them with different ideas versus telling them, ‘I wouldn’t do it that way; I’d do it this way.’ You’ve got to lead them through the process.”

Even after their decisions are made, you have a pool of coaching opportunities. By discussing their performance in hindsight, you can hone employees’ insight for making better decisions in the future.

So Johnson meets with employees to debrief the highs and lows of certain decisions, discussing what went well and what could improve their performance next time.

“It’s that communication that empowers people to make decisions,” he says.

Check results against goals

As important as people are to Johnson, it’s the business results that matter at the end of the day. So he wants results-oriented employees who can actually meet their goals.

When you’ve been communicating all along what the goal is and slackened the reins to let them achieve it, all you have to do is measure employees against the metrics you’ve been preaching about.

“You really gauge [their success] by performance according back to goals,” Johnson says. “We tend to keep a tight eye on results and talk about results and talk about goals and whether we met them or not. It’s a lot of constant feedback.”

Johnson’s results-focused approach doesn’t mean he ignores other factors. That’s why he stays in constant contact with employees along the way to see how they’re tracking. Aside from being coaching opportunities, those meetings are also Johnson’s way of gauging what effort employees are exerting. Through that interaction, you’ll learn what employees are passionate about — or whether their job is just 40 hours and a paycheck.

Usually, if they’re not trying at all, they won’t reach the results that you are after. But what about the ones that are trying and just not getting the results?

“That really gets down to coaching, teaching and mentoring, and having bosses that are willing to spend time and explain, ‘Hey, here’s what maybe I would do differently. Have you tried this? Have you tried that?’” Johnson says.

He can’t do all of that coaching alone, so he also makes sure his managers are taking the time to guide their employees. Specifically, he asks his direct reports how much time they spend talking with their employees.

If employees continue to miss their marks despite coaching, Johnson looks even further for help, considering external education or training.

You can’t kick out employees the first time they fail, but you can’t keep them around if they keep failing, either.

“I don’t know that there’s a secret sauce or magic formula to know when you’ve reached that point,” Johnson says.

But he has come up with a couple of questions that help him make that decision when an employee is towing the line. Those questions, which usually get posed to the employee’s manager, are: Would you hire that person again? Would you be relieved if he or she left?

“If you don’t want somebody to be there and you wouldn’t hire them again, you kind of answer your own question,” Johnson says. “Or [if you say,] ‘I would hire them again, and I will be scared if they left,’ then you’re not ready to move on. You need to work harder at teaching them what they need to know.”

The extra time you invest in improving employees actually has a much bigger impact than that individual. You’re actually benefiting your company.

“To continually make your company better, you have to continually educate and train people,” Johnson says. “That’s why we’re successful, and it’s why we’re going to be successful tomorrow. It is having good people and continuing to work with them and listen to them.”

How to reach: Fidelitone Logistics, (866) 252-9426 or www.fidelitone.com