Dollars and sense Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

The next time you’re feeling a bit blue, don’t call Mitchell Feiger if all you want is to be cheered up.

Feiger is going to tell you the truth about what’s going on — even if that truth is quite bleak.

He’s not doing it to bring you down. In fact, he’ll be sure to put it in the appropriate context for you so that you understand where things have to be done and why. Take his feelings on the problems many businesses have in a down economy: “The mistake that a lot of small or midsized business owners make is they don’t reduce expenses fast enough when sales decline,” says Feiger, who is president and CEO of MB Financial Inc. “I understand, you’ve got a business, you’ve got 42 people working at your company … you know their families and now sales go down 25 percent and you’re losing money and your capital cushion is being eroded, and yet, you don’t want to release people. But they’re your biggest expense, so it’s really important to face reality and protect your company.”

It might be painful, but he says you have to own up to a resolution.

“I don’t think you do anybody a favor by keeping them on the payroll when you can’t afford it,” he says. “That may mean eight people out of that 42 you really can’t afford to have anymore, but if you decide for whatever reason you’re just going to keep them on and hope that something else comes along … well, what you’ve done is you’ve risked the jobs of the other 34 people.”

Partly because of that honesty, Feiger hasn’t had to deal with anything that drastic with his 1,400 employees at MB Financial, the holding company with $8.6 billion in assets that’s parent to MB Financial Bank N.A. MB Financial is holding strong — it reported net income from continuing operations of $15.4 million for 2008 — and Feiger is happy to share all the good and bad with his people. To him, it’s all about managing your company through communications. If you help employees understand where they can help the company, Feiger says they will.

Here are a few tips from Feiger on how to open up candid communications to push your company through good times and bad.

Create multiple touch points

OK, truth time: Have you ever skipped over an e-mail when you were busy? There’s no shame in it, and Feiger knows his people do it from time to time. The fact of the matter is, creating effective communications is more repetition than anything else.

So the next time you think about getting an important message out, consider a product advertisement that caught your attention recently. Feiger says the odds are you didn’t pick it up the first time you heard or saw it.

“To communicate with the most people most effectively, they need to receive the message in different ways,” he says. “A good analogy is multimedia marketing campaigns where you may see a company send a message in the print media and then send the same message on radio, TV, billboards and bus signs all at the same time, and that’s the most effective way to reach an audience.”

So MB Financial thinks like Nike or Pepsi when it has a message. The company uses conference calls, wall posters, an intranet, newsletters, internal e-mails, a company culture committee and an “Ask Mitch” e-mail option where people can send Feiger messages that are personalized or anonymous.

Plus, like any good campaign, MB Financial has a launch point everyone knows about that is short but sweet.

“Every Monday morning at 8:35, everybody in our company who is available is on the phone listening live to a conference call that I usually lead where I can bring everybody up to date,” Feiger says. “And it’s an amazing thing how you can convey so much information in just a 10-minute conference call.”

The call’s brevity is its strength. A brief overview will give people a starting point, and subsequent messages can flesh out details. A regular touch point allows you to be topical and gives you a chance to tie your messages around a theme.

“A lot of times, we’ll talk about things that we’re thinking about before we’ve made the decision so that they can understand where we are in the decision process, and that then makes them make better decisions for themselves and their clients,” Feiger says. “Then, oftentimes, we’ll try to coordinate the messaging that’s coming in those calls in newsletters or e-mails or in posters or in other ways.”

MB Financial has another way that these communications are similar to a marketing campaign: The calls are recorded so that the company can keep track of how many phones tune in live and later to make sure they’re making an impact. Feiger also tests message effectiveness from time to time.

“Every few months each year, I ask people to e-mail me back with some idea or some thought about some subject matter,” he says.

Now, you won’t have the time to sort through 1,400 ideas every time you need to make a decision, but Feiger has his people do it occasionally when he needs a good brainstorming session.

“Having 1,400 people ponder an issue is a powerful thing,” he says. “And if you have an effective way to solicit feedback from 1,400 people, which we do, you can get some really good ideas. It gives me a little bit of real-time feedback about our people listening to the calls — are they taking them seriously, do they consider what we’re talking about? And it’s remarkably effective, and to tell you the truth, I’m not sure why more companies don’t do this.”

Beyond measuring the effectiveness of your communications, you can also help give them a boost by being responsive. If you’re smart, you can address a commonly asked question to everyone at once and help ease some concerns.

“Every single person gets a complete response,” Feiger says of e-mails sent to his Ask Mitch account or responses to internal e-mails. “If somebody brings up something, good or bad, that I think would be of interest to more than just a handful of people, I’ll either talk about it in a Monday morning call or we’ll put in a regular newsletter or we’ll put an answer out on our intranet. I’ll give you an example: A week ago or so, I got an Ask Mitch about the safety of our people’s money in our 401(k) plans. So we responded the end of last week with a lengthy explanation of how we think people should be managing their money in this economic downturn and where they need to be cautious and where they may not need to be cautious.”

Put your message in context

Keeping up communications with your people has a tricky element to it — sometimes you’ll have employees reaching for antacid rather than calming their fears. But good, bad or indifferent, your people need to have the ability to properly place what you’re telling them.

“Look, sometimes by being honest with the staff, you can raise their level of worry,” Feiger says. “I think what you want them to have is an appropriate, realistic amount of worry, not an unrealistic one. In the absence of communication, people would fear the worst or worse than the worst, and we want them to understand what reality is. So I can’t say that we’ve lessened their anxiety, I think some days I’ve increased their anxiety.”

But while he admits to occasionally creating anxieties, he always does so in an appropriate context. He doesn’t just say things are bad in a market and the company is hurting when business is down, and he doesn’t say just the opposite when things are up.

“My general feeling is the more they can understand about what we do, the better,” he says. “Even in a public company, probably 99.9 percent — or 99.99 percent — of what I know and what the senior management knows, the rest of the company can know and probably should know. A lot of companies think that only the senior management team is capable of understanding things that are going on and making decisions; I feel the opposite. I feel that virtually everybody in this company is capable of understanding what we’re doing and why, and so the more they know, the better informed they are, the closer they feel to the company, the better they can understand when we make hard decisions why we’re making them. And I think frankly it gives people more confidence that the management team here at least has some idea that they know what they’re doing.”

And even though Feiger leads most of those Monday calls, he also brings in the appropriate experts and asks them to deliver commentary on things like the market, the company’s competitors and where they are against the yearly plan.

“Once a quarter, our chief financial officer, Jill York, leads the call to report to our employees about our performance,” he says. “And there will be times when we’re explaining a particular financial issue that she’ll dig down a little deeper and explain here’s how this works and why and its impact on us. Through those calls, I think we’re able to elevate the general level of financial intelligence or banking intelligence that our people have.”

Besides giving an overview of where the company is financially, Feiger thinks it’s important to put in place the context of competitors and the market. Talking about where you are gives your employees some context, but measuring it against your top competition shows people your highest and lowest point while also helping them see where the company can take advantage in any kind of market.

“The more knowledgeable they can be about our competitors and how they’re doing or what their weaknesses are or what our competitors are trying to accomplish, the better armed they are when they go to battle against those competitors for a client — be it a current client or a prospect,” Feiger says.

And whatever your message is, make sure you mark the beginning and end dates appropriately. Don’t just tell employees one thing is important for a quarter and then never go back and celebrate your success or comment on your failures.

“We tell it the way it is pretty much in any report that we give about our company, quarterly report or otherwise; we say, ‘Look, it typically goes like this in a quarter. Here’s how much money we made, here’s why, here’s the things we did well in the quarter, here’s the things we didn’t do so well in the quarter,’” Feiger says. “For example, in 2008, one of our high-level goals was to increase low-cost funding, low-cost deposits. So we report back to them, here’s how we did, and in the third quarter, we did incredibly well, and they were very interested in knowing about that.”

To Feiger, having all of his people understanding where the company is going, what challenges it’s facing and how it’s going to face those challenges is the foundation to keeping a company that can maintain in any economy.

“My thing is, the front-line people, they make more decisions than anybody else for our clients and the better that they can understand what we’re trying to accomplish as a group, as a company, the better decisions they’re able to make. So we’ve sent a very strong message that what we’re interested in doing is building a premier banking franchise here in Chicago. … I think that’s worked out pretty well,” he says. “The client base here is absolutely top flight, really strong companies, really good businesspeople and really good individual customers, as well, and a lot of that has to do with just trying to play it down the middle in good times and bad.”