Early in his career, Brad Eller was promoted to a position that, by title and job description, he didn’t have enough experience to have, and the new role opened his eyes.
“When that happened, what I realized very quickly is people do not think the same way that I think,” Eller says. “People do not do the same things that I do. People don’t approach problems or issues or conflict the way that I approach those things.”
At the time, he didn’t have the resources to hire a coach to help him, so he immersed himself into reading a variety of professional books to help him learn how to understand different personality types. What he learned still helps him today as president and CEO of LEVEL5 LLC, a construction management services company that has climbed the Inc. 500 list as a result of its growth from $1.5 million in revenue in 2004 to $47.5 million in 2007.
Smart Business spoke with Eller about how to understand personalities and build a strong senior management team.
Develop a strong senior management team. Everyone has to understand the need of a senior management team. One person cannot drive a business. It takes a group of people, and it takes a group of people that have alternative thoughts or different perspectives for a president or CEO to really get a read on any situation or issue or problem or actually to create a vision.
How I developed that is twofold. One, there’s going to be people in the business that you didn’t select — they’re in the business, so you have to understand those people and you have to understand what perspectives they bring to the table and what their talents are. I don’t want to go too far into psychology but kind of what is their personality profile? Where do they stand? How do they view life? You have to understand the perspective of who that person is and what they represent.
You have some of those people and then you have the ability or occasion to bring in other people. You have to bring people into your organization in areas where you’re lacking. Sometimes managers surround themselves with people who think like they do, and that’s a mistake. You have to look at the uniqueness.
Senior leadership, it’s like a stew; my job is to put the right ingredients in the stew — make sure that those ingredients complement one another. I can’t put the same ingredients in, otherwise it wouldn’t be a stew, and I have to make sure the ingredients bring out the flavor of the other ingredients and that it blends. Then I have to occasionally taste it and add ingredients. Sometimes my job is to stir it up a little bit. Then my job is to sometimes put the heat on and sometimes to turn the heat down.
Take time when hiring. From my perspective, I’m committing to someone for their livelihood. One of those fundamental leadership things that I have is I need to make it work. It needs to be successful, so I need to make the right decision.
I begin with a phone interview. Certainly we talk about experiences, previous work history, but we also talk about what do you want to accomplish in your career, what is the perfect job, how do you see yourself progressing, where would you like to be in 10 years, how much money do you like to make?
Then I like to bring the person into the organization, and I like to conduct an interview and meet the person. Depending on the strength of the phone interview and the personal interview, I’ll invite them back the second time. That second time, that’s the most rigorous of all because I try to have all of the other senior managers spend an hour with them — it can be a long, tiring day for the right candidate.
Then we meet and everyone provides feedback. Then, based on that feedback, I call the person in again. If you find a talented person, they may have other offers, and they’ve got decisions to make, and sometimes I have to accelerate through that, but I make it clear that we don’t want to rush through the process. It’s got to fit.
It’s like buying a pair of shoes. I go to the store, and I see a great pair of shoes, and I put them on and they don’t really feel right, but I buy them anyway and take them home and wear them into work, and my feet hurt and have a blister, and the shoes didn’t work. You don’t want to do that with people. You want to make sure that it works and make sure that it fits.
Mix everyone together. You have to make sure that your team understands that everybody is there to provide different alternatives and perspectives. So when we have a meeting, we want to have rules because I want power dialogue in the room. The main rule is you attack an idea not an individual. Other rules are there’s no rank in the room, and you have to be present, you have to be engaged.
Then what you have to do is you really have to teach your senior management team how to engage in conflict so that people can disagree and it doesn’t ignite emotional fire. It’s an education on how to engage in conflict. Organizations grow through conflict. If a conflict is resolved, they can stay on that growth curve, but if the conflict’s not resolved, you decline.
What you want to do is by heating up the fire or stirring the pot, when it makes strategic sense, have some conflict. You’ve got to check the temperature of your organization. If people are complacent and everybody just seems to be complacent, then obviously that’s when you need to insert a little bit of heat and conflict. If everybody is out there firing on all cylinders, and they’re working hard toward a common goal, then that’s when you need to turn the heat off, and you don’t need to stir the pot. Let it simmer. It’s a good tasting stew. It doesn’t need me doing anything to it.
How to reach: LEVEL5 LLC, (404) 761-0008 or www.level5.com
Tim Bentsen has been working at KPMG LLP longer than many of his employees have been alive.
After 34 years with the audit, tax and advisory service firm, one thing he recognizes is that he has a large group of generationally diverse people, which makes it a challenge to get everyone to understand him and the vision he’s communicating — and to buy in to it.
“We have so many smart, bright people that are out there trying to serve clients in a variety of ways — how do you keep them all aligned under the firm guidelines, processes, goals and objectives?” says Bentsen, the firm’s managing partner for the Southeast area and the Atlanta office.
He starts by setting goals for the 2,000 people in his region, following up to make sure they understood and then stepping back and letting them execute.
“That links into how do you get buy-in around things,” he says. “You can’t just tell someone, ‘This is our vision, and by golly, you just have to buy it, and it’s our way or the highway.’ You have to let them take some ownership of it. Say, ‘OK, this is the firm’s vision. What’s my piece of it? How can I influence it at my level? And how, at my level — even me as a partner — can I really influence what’s happening?’
“If you start to understand that piece and see how if I push in that direction or contribute in this particular area, it helps move the firm forward overall.”
You’ll never be able to get a group of people going in the same direction if you don’t set the direction for them, so the first thing that is crucial to keeping people aligned is to set goals.
“The key is just set a real clear set of goals and objectives and keep them focused on that, and you continue to say, ‘This is what we do, and this is what we will not do, and this is how we’ll engage with our people, and this is how we’re going to engage with the marketplace,’” Bentsen says.
When it comes to setting clear goals and objectives, it’s often more difficult than we’d like to think.
“We’ve all heard it for years — keep it simple,” Bentsen says. “That’s what we have to do because professional services, we can make it sound awfully complex, but it’s really fairly simple. If we understand our clients’ business issues and help them solve those, it’s not a whole lot more complicated than that. … We just have to keep in front of us a clear understanding of who we are and what we’re not, what we’ll do and what we won’t and how to engage with our clients in accomplishing that.”
Bentsen has to take a look at KPMG as a whole and then break it down from there. For example, as an international organization, the company has goals and objectives it wants to accomplish. From there, the U.S. entity also has goals that it’s looking to achieve. From those goals, Bentsen needs to look at how his regional area can fit into that puzzle of achievement. He then uses those tasks to create goals for his people.
“It starts at the very top with the firm’s priorities and strategies, and it transcends down into the businesses, be it geographic or functional, which then goes down to specific teams and individuals — what is my role, what are the things that I’m expected to do to help the firm accomplish its overall goals?” he says.
A lot of times it may seem overwhelming when you’re determining what goals to set for yourself or your people, but Bentsen says you have to choose the most important tasks to focus on.
“Don’t overdo it,” he says. “One of the real challenges is to keep it fairly clear. … Our leadership team might say, ‘Tim, here’s 47 things we need you to do.’ I cannot focus on 47 things, so it really needs to break down to, ‘Tim or Sue or George, what are the three to five things that you do that will move the business forward?’
“So I would say to keep it really clear, keep it somewhat of an ability to focus on priorities. What are the three to four things that will really make a difference?”
He says there are some ways to know how to choose top priorities.
“One, you have to use your own knowledge and intuition about what’s really important, but I’ll also play that back to my boss, and I would encourage people to play that back to their leaders,” he says.
For example, when you or your people are part of multiple projects, everyone thinks that the project he or she heads is most important, so how do you prioritize when different people think different things are most important? He says that’s when you have to go through those 47 — or whatever your number is — things and look at which items will most affect the business. Then communicate to everyone involved that these are your 47 things, but these are the four that are most important to focus on.
“I’m going to get to the other 47, but I’m going to address these four things first or keep them sort of the No. 1 priority as I work through the overall list,” he says. “Play it back to the people that you work with to get them to agree and understand what some of those competing priorities are.”
It’s all well and good to set goals for your company and employees, but they still won’t get aligned if those goals aren’t clear and understood by everyone, so you have to check back with them.
“When you’re communicating with someone, setting expectations, you do some follow-up with different groups and levels and say, ‘Did the message get through?’” Bentsen says.
He does this by having people summarize to him what they heard when he’s conducting formal reviews.
“You’re working with me, and I’ll say, ‘Here are your performance goals for this year, and I want you to summarize those and put them back in the formal performance discussion process that we have,’” he says. “So one, it’s your ability to turn around and articulate those in a formal and structured manner and then through ongoing and frequent communication and interaction.”
Bentsen also likes to sit in with his managers when they do this with their team members so he can see that they are doing the same thing and that their people are seeing how they need to contribute.
He also follows up with people after large group meetings.
“One of the things that I’ve learned — you kind of know it, but you learn it the hard way sometimes — is what you believe you say is not always what people hear,” Bentsen says.
For example, when he had a practicewide conference call for his region, where there were hundreds and hundreds of people on the call, he knew there could be misunderstandings. So the next day, he had a call with 15 of his senior associates and asked them what they heard on the call the previous day.
“I went through four or five specific areas that I had addressed,” Bentsen says. “‘OK, this is a topic we covered. Somebody tell me what I said.’ I think just to have that follow-up — and that’s the goal of having this sort of feedback process is to say, ‘Did my message get through, was it understood, how could it have been interpreted by others?’ If everybody is sitting in different contexts and experiences and different things, what they hear is going through all those different filters.”
Get out of the way
After setting goals and following up, for everything to work well, the next thing you have to do is back off.
“My role is to get out of the way,” he says. “We have some outstanding people, and if you set the goals and set the expectations, you want to empower them by having that clarity of expectations and then getting out of the way and then saying, ‘OK, you go do it, and what can I do to support you?’”
Bentsen knows how important it is to get out of the way because he’s seen his own frustrations through his own experiences with micromanagers and, on the other hand, his experiences with those who empowered him.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” he says. “I look at who have been great leaders for me over the years and know that they were there but they had given and they had instilled in me a tremendous amount of confidence — ‘Tim, I know you can do this. I’ve seen you do this before. We’re in agreement this is where you’re going; go do it and check back with me in two weeks,’ or whatever. But you learn from the people that you work with.”
While you may learn how to better let go by watching those who have led you, you’ll also learn how much to let go as you watch those you currently lead.
“As I’ve had the opportunity to work with others, you give more rope to different people,” Bentsen says. “That’s why you get to know people and you understand Samantha here can do some incredible things so I’m going to let her have almost as much rope as she needs, where Steve over here is maybe a little less experienced so we’re going to have a little more frequent touch points.”
Those touch points come in the form of evaluations and metrics. You have to have that follow through and look at how they are performing against those goals and objectives. One of the expectations he has of his people is to provide constructive feedback on someone’s performance in order to help them grow and understand the opportunities they have in the firm. He expects performance reviews of new associates after every project of more than 80 hours. For more experienced people, reviews are expected semiannually. He’s also quick to note that sometimes the best performance “review” is often the immediate and specific feedback that someone provides to a colleague.
“For a huge percentage of the population, they’re just going to do that anyway, but for everyone else, there is an expectation that what gets measured gets done,” Bentsen says.
Once you do all of this, you’ll have good systems in place to move the business forward.
He says, “You set all these expectations, and then you get out of the way and let them go do it and don’t micromanage and have your points of accountability and know that you’re there to support and encourage and help the teams going forward.”
How to reach: KPMG LLP, (404) 222-3000 or www.us.kpmg.com
When A. Ray Dalton used to work for Jack Welch, he quickly learned that he valued people far more than GE did.
“It was so painful to me to get another e-mail that said, ‘Get rid of 42 more people because all of your C’s had to be gone by November,’” he says.
While GE only grew about 5 percent a year, Dalton’s segment was growing 40 to 50 percent.
“I was struggling to hire people, and he’s telling me to get rid of people,” he says. “This doesn’t make sense.”
For all that GE excelled in, he knew it was missing out on more.
“(GE does) an amazing job,” he says. “But they forget a huge, very important part of that — how they got there. It’s the people that contributed to the number. I come from the inner city, where drugs and alcohol and a lot of things were going on. I saw the power of the people, and I saw that people survived that, and people contributed to things that were better.”
In 2001, he founded his seventh business, PartsSource LLC, which sells replacement medical equipment parts, and from the beginning, he’s focused on that power of people.
“Our growth is completely centered around that we’re customer-centric, but in order to be customer-centric, you have to be employee-centric,” Dalton says. “People say, ‘We really care about our customer,’ but the question you have to ask is, ‘Do you really care about your employee?’ What is the evidence that you can point to that shows that you value your employee as much as you value your customer because you can’t have a long customer without a long-term employee. It doesn’t happen.”
He says that in business, there are “yes” companies and “no” companies, and after his past experiences, he strives to be a “yes” company.
“‘No’ companies are like GE, who will tell you all the things you can’t do — ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t send this e-mail, don’t go over there,’” he says. “They spend so much time telling you all the things you can’t do that by the time they get done with you, you’re a little nervous that you might not have heard right because they didn’t tell you not to do something that you say, ‘I’m sure they don’t want me to.’ They miss out on all this opportunity of all these people who want to do great things, but they say, ‘They don’t want me to do great things — they want me to do this, so I’ll do this.’”
Being a “yes” company is important because it empowers employees to do things their way and try new ideas.
If you want to be a “yes” company, keep the rules to a minimum. Instead of telling everyone what not to do, Dalton instead says employees can do whatever they want as long as they don’t intimidate or offend other employees, customers or vendors. His reasons are simple — companies are like families and going to work is like going to a reunion. You may not like everyone, but they’re still family.
“They’re all people, and they will be respected, and they will all be respected with the same amount of dignity as the most popular person in the building because they’re all family,” he says.
Another way to be a “yes” company is to encourage employees to think on their own so they don’t depend on your ideas and answers.
“If you come to me and say, ‘I have this problem,’ I’ll say, ‘What do you think we ought to do?’” Dalton says. “You know it is impossible for you to identify a problem without identifying what you would do if it was up to you. I’d say, ‘You’re smart, tell me.’”
To avoid being a “no” company, don’t create uniform processes for everything.
“You have a style, and your style is different than people out there, … ” Dalton says. “You’ll never be me, and I’ll never be you, and you have so many attributes that are so amazing and so much better than me that if I try to make you me, then I don’t get them. … We’ll be a lot better company if you don’t try to make me you, and I don’t try to make you me.”
Doing these things empower your employees and ultimately take your company to new levels of success.
“The job of the CEO is to be the chief encouragement officer and not the chief execution officer, … ” Dalton says. “Don’t give up on your people. Your people are your strongest asset. It’s your employees that can get you to heights you can’t even imagine you can get to, but if you can imagine it, they can do it.”
How to reach: PartsSource LLC, (877) 497-6412 or www.partssource.com
A few years ago, when Mark Edmunds took the reins as vice chairman and managing partner for Deloitte LLP’s Northern Pacific region, he stood before all 4,000 of his employees with a single message for what they could expect of him.
“I wanted them to know that every day when I come to work, I’m going to focus on building trust,” Edmunds says. “Trust — when you think about it — it’s easy to say and it’s hard to earn. I told them that trust is the foundation of everything we do at Deloitte. If you build trust with your colleagues, you actually deliver better service to your clients.”
Over the last few years, Edmunds has lived out that mission of establishing trust by leading with a mindset that everyone matters, being straight with people and always listening.
“It’s all about living what you say, and it’s all about the actions that you take,” he says. “It’s providing leadership on it, so I really try to earn my colleagues’ trust every day when I come in.”
Here are some of the things Edmunds has learned about leadership through the years.
Growing up in southern Virginia in the ’60s and ’70s, Edmunds saw that his father, a successful lawyer, treated people differently than others in town. One evening, his father had a cocktail party, and he invited a black couple to the party. When they arrived, he’ll never forget how three couples left the party and how people treated his father after that.
“He always lived that everyone matters,” Edmunds says. “He really instilled that in me, and I’ll never forget how some of the people in town treated him after that — as if he didn’t matter anymore. My whole life — my professional and my personal life — I try to live by this mantra that everyone matters.”
One way to do that is to not discriminate with whom you engage in conversation. For example, Edmunds will talk to the people who park his car in the garage, to the security people at the desk when he comes in and all the way up to the senior managers in the company. But beyond that, it also extends to the various offices he oversees. For example, he has 1,800 people in his San Francisco office. But if he goes down to Fresno, he only has about 30 people there.
“I try to make sure (the people in the Fresno office) understand that they matter as much to me as leader of this region as the partners here in San Francisco that serve the biggest accounts,” Edmunds says.
Edmunds uses a five-minute rule for his meetings to show people that he respects their time.
“Whether there are supposed to be 4,000 people on a call or four, within five minutes of when it’s supposed to start, I start it,” he says. “That doesn’t matter whether my CEO from New York is supposed to be on it and he’s not on it yet, I start it. Within five minutes of starting time, we run. That’s how you show respect to the people who showed up on time.”
All of his employees are well aware of this rule and respect it, just as they do all of the other rules related to this, such as no do-overs.
“So you start the call, and somebody arrives 15 minutes late, you don’t debrief them in front of several hundred people,” he says. “You talk to them later.”
Doing this shows his people that while some people may have higher titles, they’re not more important than anyone.
“I respect their time, and they trust that I’m going to run things on time and run things properly,” he says. “No do-overs. The message that sends is everybody matters. It doesn’t matter if the senior partner shows up late. Everybody is the same.”
Be straight with people
Another lesson Edmunds learned from growing up in a small town is that you can always leave your keys in your car or your front door unlocked. There’s no crime because everybody knows what you’re up to and won’t hesitate to tell you when you’re acting out of line.
“One of the things that’s instilled in you is to talk straight,” he says. “People there didn’t even know what a political agenda was, much less have one. So growing up in something like that, that’s built in to your soul, so when you talk to people and listen to people, you’re straight with them. … Talking straight with people and having no agendas is a really important character and leadership (trait) that all great leaders have.”
You can start with not sugarcoating a situation.
“I have to define reality and say, ‘You know what, it is tough, we’re in a tough market, and that is the reality,’” Edmunds says. “But then you also have to provide hope and a vision as to where it is you’re going to go: Hope that we’re going to be OK as a firm, and a vision to let everyone know that I can actually see around the corner of this recession.”
And while Edmunds strives to be straight with people, he expects the same back from them.
“If I ever ask them to do something that doesn’t help them more effectively mentor and coach and develop their people or more effectively serve their clients, I ask them to push back on me and don’t do it,” Edmunds says.
Nearly every day he’ll get e-mails asking him why the firm wants them to do something. Sometimes he’ll explain why it’s in their best interest to do it, and they’ll understand and buy in, but other times, their questions challenge him to be a better leader.
“There are other times when I will challenge myself or the firm to say, ‘Why are we doing this?’” he says. “When you’re a big organization, sometimes you can become a little too bureaucratic, and sometimes you have to challenge yourself to streamline and do things more effectively.”
The last way to be straight with people is to back their decisions.
“There’s no more powerful a statement you can make to someone around trust than, ‘You have my proxy,’” Edmunds says. “It’s a business term, but it’s really powerful. … Use that word. There’s no more powerful statement from a leader to someone else to say, ‘Wow, he really trusts me and is going to encourage me to make a decision on a really big issue.’”
But this is also not something you just say freely. In order to trust someone to make the right decisions, you have to truly believe in them.
“Building trust takes awhile,” he says. “It’s through several interactions. Trust you’re trying to earn with a client could take months and months and months of doing things that are valuable to that client, and over time, they could trust that you’re not there to sell them something every time you have a conversation. It could be years. It’s the same with your colleagues internally.”
He says you can start with smaller decisions, and once you learn their decision-making capabilities, you can give your proxy on the larger issues.
“There are times when you need to let them fall down a little bit on a decision that might not be as critical, but let them learn from that,” he says. “I guess the bottom line is it just takes a little time to spend with them before you’re comfortable doing it.”
One other way that Edmunds builds trust with his people is by listening to them.
“I think listening skills are the best thing you can have as a leader,” he says. “A lot of times, when you move up in a very senior position, you lose some of that, and there’s a lot of pressure to perform as a leader and to steer the business in a certain direction.”
One way to build your listening skills is to set up venues to hear what people have to say. Edmunds has a series of advisory groups that he’s established to do just that. For example, one is a group of Generation Y employees to give him a fresh perspective from the younger staff. He also has a senior manager group of people that have about eight to 12 years of experience and are one step away from being in the partnership. Then he also has a group made up of young partners in the firms. Each group meets with him quarterly.
“Having different constituency groups giving me input outside the normal chain of leadership is very important,” Edmunds says.
If you want to form your own advisory groups, it’s important to choose wisely who will sit on each.
“You want to look at the top 10 to 20 percent of your folks, because you want them to have the opportunity to have access to me in this informal setting so they can learn more about the firm,” he says. “They’re the future leaders of the firm. Usually, it’s the top performers in each of those categories. You simply look at the evaluations over a period of time, and if they have sustained high performance, I pick from them.”
He said it’s also important to make sure that as you select people, you make each group as diverse as possible, as well.
“I make sure there’s a good balance of men and women and a good balance of diversity, … ” he says. “Whatever we think would create a better team. It’s clear to us that diversity of thought and diversity of background in any kind of meeting or gathering you have helps you reach better answers.”
As you interact with these groups or even in your more regular meetings, it’s important to recognize that you don’t have all the answers.
“People (need to be) willing to check their ego at the door,” Edmunds says. “There are many people that rise in an organization and have a lot of the experiences and believe that they might have the answer before anybody else in the room does. Those are people that need to lean back in the chair and let everyone else talk and listen to them to see if there’s a better answer than what you came in with. … There are times when you want to lean in and times you want to lean out.”
It’s important to recognize when you need to do either of those.
“When you’re with a team and you want the team to get to a good answer for our people and for our client, lean out,” he says. “Let people talk about it, and let the group come to a decision versus leaning in and saying, ‘This is what I think the answer is,’ because then groupthink comes to that (decision) because you’re the most senior person in the room.”
By doing all of these things, you’ll develop a strong trust between you and your team, and that will translate through to all you do.
“There’s a difference between leading and managing,” Edmunds says. “If you’re trying to manage other people, you’re trying to get them to do things because you’re asking them to do it or requiring them to do it.
“But leaders inspire people to go in a different direction. Leadership is about inspirations. You can’t inspire people to do it unless you’re believable, unless you’re trusted, unless you’re straight with them, unless you have good listening skills, unless you convey to them that, in the end, it’s not about me as a leader. It’s about us being successful — successful in our organization, successful serving clients, successful giving back to the community.”
How to reach: Deloitte LLP, (415) 783-4000 or www.deloitte.com
Tim Guertin has three questions he continuously asks his employees to answer to ensure that Varian Medical Systems Inc. continues growing.
“Obviously, growth comes from people wanting to buy your products in ever greater numbers, so the first question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Why would they do that, and how do you make them do that more?’” he says.
Next, he asks how to make the products more efficient and make people happier using them. Lastly, he asks how Varian can get more people who aren’t customers to buy its products, which are medical devices and software used to treat cancer patients.
If you can find the answers to those three questions, then it’s likely that success will follow.
“Do those three things well, I think you’ll grow,” says Guertin, president and CEO of Varian.
He has learned that in order to answer these questions effectively, he and his employees have to focus on their customers, be open to criticism and also be inspirational. As a result of doing these things, the business has grown from $1.6 billion in fiscal 2006 to $2.1 billion in fiscal 2008.
Focus on customers
When Guertin first started in the business, one of his managers made him go to a clinic for two days to watch patients be treated. It helped him better see what the problems were and what the customers liked and disliked.
“You should spend a lot of time talking to customers and having people in your organization talking to customers,” Guertin says. “You need to understand your customers viscerally and spend enough time with them [so] that you do.”
You have to be strategic about it though and make sure you’re spending that valuable time with different demographics.
“You watch new users and see how long it takes them to learn something,” he says. “You talk to the people who have to educate customers and ask them how it’s going and what things are the hardest for the customers to learn. You talk to experienced users and get their opinion.”
The problem with expert users is that they know so much that they often get on tangents, and you don’t learn what you really wanted to learn. Because of this, you have to also hit your intermediate users, who use the product but infrequently. These users may know how to do something but sometimes forget between usages.
“Intermediates represent the bulk of customers, and they’re the most easily frustrated,” Guertin says. “You have to talk to them and figure out how to design your products such that those people stay happy.”
When you talk to customers, open up the meeting by letting them talk. Guertin says that if he’s having a daylong meeting with a customer, he lets them talk for an hour before his first PowerPoint slide even comes up.
“You have to know where they’re coming from,” Guertin says. “Most people go into a conversation knowing where they’re coming from and not knowing where the other person is coming from.”
While listening entails using your ears, it also involves observations. For example, if Guertin sees a glimmer of distaste come across somebody’s face, he’ll ask what bothered him or her.
“There’s a little bit of detective work involved,” he says. “If you’re a detective and if you’re questioning a suspect, you can’t just have a planned interview. You have to follow things up.”
You also should reach out to people who aren’t your customers.
“You have to go talk to the people who aren’t interested in your product, and you try to figure out why and what’s going on in their head,” he says.
It may be your product or it may simply be the way you advertise your product, but you’re not going to know unless you ask them.
“You have to teach your sales force to do this,” Guertin says. “The sales force’s job isn’t just to talk. It’s to talk to people who don’t want to buy the product. It’s actually to talk to cold prospects and learn from that.”
Throughout all of these tactics, remember that you have to be somebody your team can emulate.
“You have to demonstrate the behavior yourself because people will watch the boss,” he says. “If I go into a room and spend all my time telling customers instead of listening to them, I’m not modeling that behavior.”
Be open to criticism
The second way you’re going to answer those three questions is to talk to the critics within your organization and customer base.
“Sometimes the best people to talk to you are your critics, which is no fun to do,” Guertin says. “You go talk to them and listen to what they have to say, and then you walk away feeling like you should kill yourself, but the next day you may have a better idea of how to make things better.”
For example, one of Varian’s customers decided to buy a different product offering, so Guertin called the customer and asked an honest question.
“I said, ‘I know we lost, but will you have dinner with me, and let’s talk about it?’” he says. “’I’m not here to change your mind. I just want to talk about where we went wrong. It’s my job to build a better Varian — can you tell me how to do it?’”
The customer said OK, so the two went to dinner, and Guertin was shocked when it lasted four hours.
“I spent dinner going, ‘OK, so we did this wrong. Good. What else?’” he says. “My job was to say, ‘What else?’ and extract a whole list from him.”
Guertin then wrote a letter to his team about what he had learned so they could fix themselves instead of being mad. It’s important that when you get feedback, you recognize what to listen to, so Guertin goes back to his three questions.
“If those are the goals, then when you get feedback, you sort of match them up against those goals,” he says. “If someone says your service organization screwed up, then you get details about how they screwed up, and then you ask yourself, ‘OK, how is this thing working against us in answering one of those three questions?’”
In addition to taking criticism from your customers, you also need to seek out the internal critics.
“In a lot of companies, the people who tell you all the ways in which something will fail are not welcome,” he says. “But you need to have those people.”
Guertin likes to seek out one particular person to run his ideas by.
“He’s one of those people who can see every possible and conceivable way it can fail,” he says. “If I can walk into his office and discuss an idea and survive the failure discussion, and at the end of it, he’s starting to smile and look interested, I know we’ve got something.”
It’s not easy to welcome criticism, but it’s something you have to train yourself to do. Guertin suggests an exercise that an organizational development person showed him years ago to help set aside your defensiveness. That person told him to take a group of employees into a room and ask them to finish the statement, “My job would be better if _____.” Then write down all the things they say, but you can’t change or argue with anything they say. When you’re all done, you may have 60 or 70 things. Ask people to vote by secret ballot for the top five, and then you’ll see where the consensus is for problems.
“Since you’re the boss, if you don’t react defensively, and if you just write it down, the longer the meeting goes on, the more you’ll get things that are crucially important to them and really are bugging them,” he says.
Guertin recently heard a quote from Bob Noyce, one of the co-founders of Intel Corp., who said, “Don’t be encumbered by history. Go off and do something wonderful.”
You have to keep looking beyond what your reality is to pull in people who don’t use your products yet.
“If you just pay attention to history, you’ve been misled about what the future should be,” he says. “Don’t automate the cow paths. Don’t look at the cow paths and decide where the roads ought to be. If you think originally about what customers want, you can sometimes see that an evolutionary step is the wrong step. You need to rethink what people do in order to imagine a new solution.”
Guertin points out the creation of the iPod as an example.
“Sony should have thought of the iPod,” he says. “They made disk drives, they made everything necessary to do it, but they missed it because they were encumbered by their own history. That’s one thing you don’t want to do.”
When you’re thinking revolutionary, your products will inspire people and get them excited. For example, the typical house has a kitchen, living room, dining room, bathrooms, bedrooms and a garage.
“A person who is not a designer can pretty much draw a house, but a great architect can draw a house that’s an inspiration to the person who lives in it every day,” Guertin says.
He points out Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater as an example.
“The houses of that day compared to Frank Lloyd Wright, you can see that he went to a place nobody had ever gone before,” he says. “That’s what great designers do.”
But often when you look at your own abilities, you realize that your skills are more preschool-like rather than Picasso-like.
“You have to hire people, who by their life experience, have learned how to do that,” Guertin says. “... You have to have those people in your organization.”
To get those people into your organization, you have to spark their passion in the interview process by asking what they’ve most enjoyed in their career. Their response doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you drill down by asking them to tell you more and to explain it in great details. You’re looking at what that answer stirs up inside of them.
“If it was, in truth, something that they really enjoyed and something that they learned a lot from, they’ll be able to tell me a tremendous amount about it, and the more they talk, the [more] enthusiastic they would be,” he says. “By the depth of knowledge they display and the enthusiasm that they show, I can tell what kind of person they are.”
If you can find that passion in someone, you know they’ll also find a passion for your business and products and work to make both more inspirational.
“People put on an interview face, but frankly, most people’s interview faces aren’t that good,” he says. “Passionate people don’t put on that face. … They show love and affection for doing a good job. If someone doesn’t show me love and affection and a good job in an interview, they probably won’t show it to me in the job.”
How to reach: Varian Medical Systems Inc., www.varian.com
Greg Muzzillo is a simple guy and believes business is the same way. He doesn’t want to waste your time and expects the same from you. So if you’re not going to buy from him, don’t give him the runaround.
“Just tell me, ‘I’m buying from the president’s brother, and he owns a print shop, so you don’t have a ghost’s chance in a ding dong of getting business here,’” says Muzzillo, president and co-CEO of Proforma. “Tell me that, and let’s get it over with.”
The same simple philosophy also applies to things like mission statements: Don’t make it long and drawn out with big fancy words that are impossible to remember.
“If they actually thought about the core element of what drives their business and the two or three or four things that they absolutely have to do well and that all of the other paragraphs and pages of their strategic plan hang off of and just focus on those two or three or four elements, then that would be simple,” he says. “Sometimes people don’t think in an outline fashion. They think in a paragraph and book fashion, and all those key elements are on page 45 and 83 as opposed to being a heading of two simple outlines.”
Case in point: Muzzillo’s mission is to make his franchise owners’ dreams come true. That’s it. Short, sweet and to the point.
“I think business is very easy, and I think business is very simple, … ” Muzzillo says. “If you make it simple and don’t make it complicated, then you can communicate that easily. They get it, and they get on board with it because it’s simple and easy to understand.”
This methodology has served him well. He started the print and promotional products supply company 31 years ago with just $200, and then expanded it with a franchising model in the mid-1980s to create a network of independent distributors who could work together to build stronger supplier relationships. His approach worked so well that Proforma has twice been named to the Inc. 500 list and today has more than 650 owners and sales of $350 million.
“We recruit great franchise owners and help our franchise owners’ dreams come true,” Muzzillo says. “That’s not complicated. It’s very simple, and there’s a lot of power in simple.”
Here’s how Muzzillo has grown his business through the years by sticking to the basics.
Get the right people
Muzzillo has given up trying to find every single right characteristic in a potential leader.
“You know, I quit playing God a long time ago,” he says. “I used to think I knew. Now I can tell you what we’re not looking for.”
Instead, when it comes to finding a new leader of one of his franchises, he focuses on what he’s not looking for — someone with a criminal background or someone with bad credit. That’s it.
Like most things with Muzzillo, it’s pretty simple. Taking the approach of knowing what you don’t want in an employee can often be more worthwhile than trying to make sure someone has every characteristic that you could possibly conceive.
For example, Muzzillo has been absolutely amazed by some people who have joined Proforma as franchisors, but he probably wouldn’t have given them the time of day had he been looking for specific characteristics instead of what he doesn’t want. One man in particular put millions of dollars of profit into Proforma’s pockets before he retired, but Muzzillo questions whether he would have made the cut with a different approach.
“If you would have said come up five key ingredients and if people don’t have these five key ingredients, they can’t come in — he never would have made it,” he says. “Give them a shot. I’m not smart enough to be God.”
When hiring employees, Muzzillo relies partially on personality testing.
“You want to make sure they have a good fit for the position, … ” he says. “It’s a little bit of intelligence testing and a little bit of personality testing to make sure we’re putting the right people in the right spots.”
The intelligence testing addresses different questions centered on math and reading. The personality profile asks questions to candidates to understand them more. Questions include: Do you prefer to work in a group? Does it bother you to work in a group? And did you steal from a previous employer?
Prospective employees also go through a couple of interviews, often with the entire team that they’ll be joining because that team doesn’t let just anyone join its family.
In addition to the testing process and interviewing, Muzzillo also says there’s one other way to get to the heart of a person.
“There’s nothing like a woman’s intuition,” he says. “You know you have it or you don’t, and I don’t have it, and I’m not trying to be sexist, but I think women have an intuition that men don’t.”
While he doesn’t do much of the hiring these days, when he did, he would ask the receptionist what she thought of a particular candidate and actually relied half on testing and half on his receptionist’s intuition to make a decision.
“She would know,” he says. “‘You should see how he acted in the lobby waiting,’ or, ‘You should have seen how arrogant he was,’ or, ‘He wouldn’t even wear the name badge,’ or, ‘Man, what a great guy’ — they knew.”
Above all, take your time in hiring and focus on one position and one person at a time.
“We can grow one good person at a time,” he says. “One good staff person at a time and one good franchise owner at a time can create a really big thing. Really, our focus is just one good person at a time.”
Trust your people
Back when the business was first starting, Muzzillo asked his franchise owners if they thought it would be a good idea to have some sort of franchise advisory counsel. They all liked the idea, and the first official thing that they did was kick Muzzillo out.
“They say, ‘Now, Greg, this is going to be our advisory council; we’re going to do it our way,’ and they kicked me out,” he says.
This was frightening and very hard for Muzzillo, who says that he was scared to even let them vote on what color the business cards would be.
While it may seem scary to let your people take over, it can also make life simpler for you, because they can handle things and make decisions that you otherwise would have spent time doing.
The key is getting the right people on the advisory council. He notes that sometimes you may have good intentions of setting a group for your employees, customers, vendors or, in this case, franchisors, but sometimes those good intentions are sidestepped by people who talk too much but don’t have anything to really say.
“Set up a formal network to listen to as opposed to random people,” he says. “Sometimes if you just want to listen to random people, the wrong people make the most noise, and it’s not necessarily the noise you want to hear. But if you set up a network of peers that elect and govern themselves, my experience has been that the cream always rises to the top.”
For Proforma’s council, it consists of eight elected regional representatives and then four elected officers, for a total of 12 people.
“When we hear from people that have been elected by their own peers and respected by their own peers, we’re not hearing the noise of people who would rather hear themselves talk as opposed to accomplish things,” Muzzillo says. “We’re hearing significant, meaningful talk from our top producers, who themselves know how to filter the good from the useless from the people that they represent.”
Council members are elected for two-year terms, but the elections are held each year, so that half of the council changes out annually. This helps ensure that it keeps running smoothly while still getting fresh blood involved.
Having a council of people that doesn’t include you also helps people buy in to your mission, vision, values and goals.
“The franchise owners proved to be loyal to the vision,” he says. “Not necessarily to my ideas but loyal to the vision, and at the end of the day, they’ve helped people become like-minded. They helped people who were rowing in the wrong direction start rowing in the right direction in a way that not even I, as CEO of the company, could get them to row. … Sometimes your peers can get you to see something in a different way that other leadership can’t get you to.”
For example, a while back, Proforma needed to find a new bank. While negotiating with one, the bank told Muzzillo that it thought it could make it work, but there was a certain wording in the franchise agreements that it wasn’t comfortable with, so the bank needed nearly all of the 120 franchise owners to change it.
“I remember thinking, ‘If we don’t get this done, I don’t know how we’re going to survive as a company,’” Muzzillo says.
Instead of trying to convince 120 people that they should do this, he instead went to the president of the advisory counsel and explained the situation. That person understood and convinced 118 of those people to change their agreements, which was more than enough to make the bank feel comfortable giving them money.
“To this day, that’s the franchise agreement that we have,” he says. “Those were the terms that helped us grow like a weed, and I know I never would have gotten it done without their peers telling them to.”
Focus on the best work
When you have so many different things on your plate, sometimes it can be hard to simplify and just focus on what you really have to in order to move the business forward.
“It comes down to what’s the value of your time,” he says. “All work’s not created equal.”
Muzzillo teaches a class about how to grow a business in his industry, and in it, he poses a question.
“If there are three desks in your office that you could go to, and one pays $400 an hour, one pays $40 an hour, and the other pays $20 an hour, what desk are you going to go to?” he says. “They all say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to the $400-an-hour desk.’ You’re all liars. I tell them right to their face — you’re liars because the $400-an-hour desk is the hard stuff.”
He says that the $400-an-hour work can be filled with failure, such as making a big proposal for a big company and losing, being rejected for sales, and other painful things.
And this is true, no matter what industry you are a part of.
“There are some things that are $400-an-hour work, and there are some things that are $40-an-hour work,” he says. “A lot of people don’t think that way. A lot of people just think there’s work, and a lot of people just think there’s their to-do list. It all mushes together in their head. … Some of it is really going to get you a return on your invested time, and some of it’s just really going to be a waste of time, and yet, it’s hard to discern which those are.”
Sometimes you may think that the $20-an-hour or the $40-an-hour work is what’s most important.
“Sitting behind your desk and being CEO of Me Incorporated, with your name out there, oh man, that feels really important, and sometimes it’s easy to fall into doing the $20-an-hour work, the $40-an-hour work, avoiding the $400-an-hour work all day, and going home exhausted but never doing anything that is the right stuff all day,” he says. “The key really is for every businessperson to figure out what’s the $400-an-hour work, and what’s the $40-an-hour work, and figure out how to get rid of the $40-an-hour work and to do more of the $400-an-hour work.”
One of the biggest $400-an-hour tasks is getting business that you don’t have yet. He says you can do this by getting business that your current customers aren’t already giving you, getting new customers altogether, hiring salespeople to get it or acquiring your competition.
“It’s not going and calling on your favorite customers and bringing them another box of doughnuts,” he says.
Muzzillo has a rule he lives by that is also pretty simple.
“You will eventually get paid for the work you do,” he says. “If you love doing accounting … then you’re eventually going to make $20 an hour. Good for you, right? Because you’ve chosen the wrong thing. You can. You own the business. Nobody can fire you. It’s a choice. Doing the right thing is a choice. Nobody can fire you over the wrong choice, but if you make the right choice, it will show up.”
While it may be harder to focus on the right work because it’s scarier and often attacks your pride, Muzzillo says you can’t let your pride get in the way when you have those feelings.
“If you let your pride run you when you’re running your business, you’ll never be proud in line at the bank,” he says. “But if you throw pride out the window, you’ll be very proud in line at the bank.”
For example, when Muzzillo quit his job as an auditor at what eventually became Deloitte LLP to start Proforma, he had a lot of rough days.
“It was kind of embarrassing,” he says. “Here’s Greg. He used to be this big important auditor, and now he’s running around, schlepping around a briefcase, begging people to buy printing from him. It wasn’t prideful, but I said to myself, ‘Greg, you’re going to be proud someday in line at the bank, and the only way to get there is to not worry about being proud from 9 to 5.’”
Today, Muzzillo accredits his success to that rule.
“If I didn’t have this rule, I’d be nowhere today or my head would be falling off my shoulders because I have pride,” he says.
He says that instead of focusing on the today, you should focus on what your dream is. For example, he tells his franchisors to make their goal visible to them by writing down on a business card how much they want to make and in what year they’re going to do it. Then put that card in an easy to see place in their wallet, so every time they open the wallet, they see that card and are reminded of what the big goal is. He had one franchisor do this for 12 years and that franchisor reached $100,000, then $250,000, then $500,000, and that franchisor is now working on $1 million.
“Focus on whatever the big dream is, that big goal, and then try to think of all those things that are going to get you there, and try not to do all those things that are going to get in the way, and it’ll happen,” he says.
Lastly, sometimes when no other motivation is forcing you to focus on the right stuff, it just comes down to a good old, suck-it-up mentality.
“When I was building my business, it was sort of like going to the gym, which I hate to do,” Muzzillo says. “But once you get started, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, now we’re going.’ Once you get into the groove of selling, you’re in the groove. Once you go to the gym, it’s kind of like half the battle — the rest is easy.”
How to reach: Proforma, (800) 825-1525 or www.proforma.com
When Dave Hitz co-founded NetApp Inc. in 1992, he went through the typical growing pains of a start-up. But when he grew to about 50 employees in size, things started getting really crazy. Revenue and head count were doubling each year, and he found himself buying a Polaroid camera and running around taking photos of every employee, writing their names on them and hanging them on the board because nobody knew each other.
These new challenges clued him in that a new era was emerging at his storage and data management solutions company.
“You start to see you’re doing things like that, and it should raise alarm bells in your head of, ‘Is this the early sign of a new era, and if it is, what might that mean?’” Hitz says.
Just like with a country’s history, companies have eras, as well.
“I would define an era as when the strategic issues are completely different from the things you focus on during the period before or after,” Hitz says.
Sometimes those eras are very clearly defined, and sometimes they tend to blur together, but Hitz says you have to recognize when eras are changing.
“If you can predict a future era, that would be awesome,” he says. “I’m not even sure it’s possible in general to predict future eras, but the next best thing to predicting one is to get an early hint that your era might be changing.”
Hitz has been through a few eras at NetApp start-up, crazy growth, tech crash, building back up to pre-tech-crash numbers and, most recently, the recession. Similarly, your company may be facing a new era right now. Hitz has survived it all, and last fiscal year, NetApp did $3.3 billion, but it’s taken tenacity and adaptability to weather the ups and downs of all the eras he has encountered. No matter the era, you have to always be looking for new opportunities and creating a new vision to ensure that your business will be around 10 years from now.
Look for new opportunities
When NetApp hit the tech crash, obviously people freaked out across the industry and went into safe mode.
“A lot of people look at a downturn and they say, ‘That’s the time to dig in. Whatever you’re doing, hunker down, and do it a little more efficiently,’” Hitz says. “I think that can be a big mistake. A downturn of the magnitude that we’re seeing now and certainly for tech companies, the dot-com crash, it’s almost certainly a new era. Whatever the key strategic stuff you were doing before, that has to be different.”
NetApp’s vice chairman, Tom Mendoza, always told Hitz that customers only open their wallets when they’re in pain, so while you may look out at the market and say people aren’t going to spend money right now, also remember that they’re in pain, so you have to find their pain and then show them how you can ease it.
“Downturns create a lot of new pain,” Hitz says. “A whole bunch of customers who whatever they were doing before, it’s not working anymore, and all of that pain they have is now opportunity.”
You need to talk to both your current customers and people you’d like to see as customers in the future.
“Hang out with them,” he says. “They’ll tell you. The interesting thing about customers is customers often will tell you what they wish you would do, and when they do that, I think they’re often wrong.”
He acknowledges that you’re supposed to say that the customer is never wrong, but sometimes customers aren’t quite sure what they need.
“They’re not necessarily the expert on how your product works or how your service should work, but dig behind the thing they tell you to do, and say, ‘I’d like to understand more. What’s the problem you’re trying to solve when you ask me to do X, Y, Z?’”
For example, when meeting with one customer who wanted NetApp to create a new feature for them, Hitz’s team dug deeper and discovered that the solution to the customer’s problem could be found in another product they already made. Had they not pushed, they would have wasted time and development efforts creating a whole new product.
On top of actively listening and probing deeper, you also have to learn to be persistent.
During the dot-com boom, about 70 percent of NetApp’s customers were Internet and technology companies, which made NetApp’s senior leadership very nervous. They wanted to find customers in other industries, so they kept calling up companies on Wall Street and explaining the cool features they offered and how they could do things less expensively than their current providers. They got laughed at. Things were good, and they had money, so they didn’t care about cool features or cheap costs. Enter the tech crash, and then things changed.
“After the crash, everybody we talked to said, ‘Oh my God! You can solve the problem for cheaper? Oh my God! You have features that let me do it a different way!’” Hitz says. “Suddenly a zone of customers that we had locked out of ended up being our key target.”
Now clients may not be willing to spend as much money as they were before, but they still have to run their businesses, so look for ways you can help them do that more efficiently and cost effectively.
“If you can help them do that in a different way, that can be a great opportunity,” he says.
As NetApp started to grow by capitalizing on new industries, the face of the company changed. When it reached the $1 billion mark the second time, only 30 percent of its business was in the technology and Internet fields, and it had expanded into all of those areas it previously wanted to be in. Instead of being a tech-heavy company, now it sells primarily to Fortune 1,000 companies.
“It’s tough in the downturn, because you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to do as much new investment as you want,” Hitz says. “You’re probably cutting it back, but what do you have in your portfolio of business that allows you to solve all the new problems that have just emerged out there?”
He says to spend time brainstorming and focusing efforts around that question in order to move forward during this hard time.
“It doesn’t feel like that’s the right thing to be doing, but at least spend some time saying, ‘Is there a group of people that suddenly have some pain that’s just what we know how to solve that never would have considered us before?’” he says. “It could be an opportunity for transformation.”
Create a new vision
After Hitz grew NetApp back up to $1 billion in revenue after it dropped during the tech crash, he was suddenly faced with a new challenge. When the company was doubling, he obviously just doubled the previous year’s numbers to create the new goal. When he was coming out of the tech crash, his goal was simply to get back to where he was before. This was uncharted water since he had never been above this mark.
“For the first time, I was very confused because for the first time, I didn’t have a good idea what our mission was,” he says.
He was so confused that he drew inspiration from literature to create a vision for NetApp. At the time, Hitz was reading Robert Heinlein’s “Future History” series, a story about what 500 years from now looks like and what happened in between to get there.
While Hitz didn’t go that far forward, he looked out a few years and saw NetApp at $3 billion in revenue, so he took a past-tense approach to determine how he would have gotten there in order to develop a new vision.
“Vision is describing as well as you can what the future should look like, but doing it in the, ‘How did we get there? What steps happened?’” Hitz says. “Talk to people from all different departments about what would have needed to work.”
Hitz did internal interviews and talked to every person in the CEO’s suite because a chief financial officer will have a different view than the chief operating officer. He walked people through his era concept and asked them to think about past eras. In defining an era, don’t be shortsighted.
“Think back as far as your company goes and just ask, ‘What are these big eras?’ not six-month things, but typically two, three, five years kind of things,” Hitz says. “That gets your head a little bit in a better space, and you get more of the right time scale. Thinking of long periods in the past can help your head explore longer periods in the future.”
He also asked them to think about key drivers in past eras and key drivers for future eras.
“Our CEO once gave me advice on strategic planning,” Hitz says. “He says the goal of every strategy should be to gain market share, and therefore, every strategy should begin with a market analysis. Who else are you competing with? What other products are there? That’s the starting point.”
He also asked them to picture who their customers were and what they needed. What products and services do we know how to develop or what do we need to do different? How will they reach those customers, and how do they like to buy? Do we need offices in India or do we need better HR systems here to support who we hire?
He used all of this input to help develop steps to reach that $3 billion mark, but there was another element to creating a vision that is important to him, and that’s to take a positive approach, despite any problems you face. Although he founded the company, Hitz stayed a programmer evangelist until it hit about 1,000 people and was asked to run all of engineering, which was about 250 people. Upon doing so, he realized that when he complained, people ran around trying to fix the things he complained about.
“My first lesson from that is if I’m going to whine, I should whine as accurately as possible because if I don’t whine accurately, they’re likely to fix the wrong thing,” he says. “So I’m trying to do management by whining accurately, which perhaps isn’t the most inspiring way a boss could be.”
Through this management strategy he had an epiphany though.
“Whining is the evil twin of vision,” Hitz says. “When you’re trying to whine accurately, you’re describing as carefully as you can how you wish the world was not. The whole point of vision is to describe as accurately as you can how you wish the world would become. If only you can flip it around from a whine of all the things that you don’t like into a vision of the way things would be different. It’s almost the same stuff, but I can tell you that the vision version is a lot more inspiring than the whining version.”
For example, take the proverbial glass half-full versus half-empty concept. Most would say you’re either positive or negative when looking at that glass, but Hitz takes a different approach. He sees the glass and says it’s twice as large as it needs to be to hold the contents, so how can he better make the glass.
“You flip it from, ‘Jeez, that glass is too big who designed it too big’ to, ‘Wow, we could save some glass if we made it smaller,’” he says. “It’s just expressing yourself a different way.”
How to reach: NetApp Inc., (408) 822-6000 or www.netapp.com
Every customer, every employee, every day.
That simple six-word phrase has proven quite successful for Pete Sinisgalli over the years.
“I’ve generally always believed that wherever I’ve worked,” Sinisgalli says. “It’s a rather straightforward formula. … You have to emphasize different parts of that depending on the specific business, but focusing on customers ruthlessly and focusing on employees passionately will always lead to a good outcome.”
This mantra helped him succeed at Dun & Bradstreet Corp., CheckFree Corp. and also NewRoads Inc. before arriving in the executive suite at Manhattan Associates Inc. in 2004. When he arrived, Manhattan had done $196.8 million in revenue the previous year and things were going well for the supply chain optimization provider.
So what do you do when you’ve already got a good thing going on? Sinisgalli wanted to keep growing and make it even better.
“The key challenge has been how do we continue to grow the company and drive improvements in customer satisfaction,” the president and CEO says.
He looked out at the good organization he already had and knew that his every customer, every employee, every day approach to business would also lead to success at Manhattan, so he decided to focus his efforts on taking care of customers and creating a great place for employees to work.
“It’s overly childish my ‘every customer, every employee, every day’ phrase, but I think if you do that and make incremental progress every day, if you look back a year later, it will look a lot more impressive,” Sinisgalli says.
Focus on customers
When it comes to focusing on every customer, Sinisgalli says it all comes down to one thing: frequent contact.
“We have a number of different prospective opportunities to touch our customers,” Sinisgalli says. “It’s important you take advantage of those opportunities. Too often, companies will suggest that the only time they hear from a company is when they’re sending them a bill. You certainly want to avoid that. … The more frequent and the more open the environment for customer feedback, the better.”
You need to have multiple ways to get feedback, and you can start with customer calls. Whenever customers call for help, make sure they not only have their question answered, but that they also rank their experience. Manhattan sends customers who interacted with the company in some way a link to an online survey where they rate the experience on a scale of 1 to 5 in a few keys areas, such as timeliness, quality and professionalism.
“That instant feedback is very valuable,” he says. “It gives you a firsthand feel for what customers think, and if there is an issue, before it becomes a big issue, you have an opportunity to respond to it.”
If the ranking is less than a 4, then a manager follows up with that customer by calling so he or she can better understand the situation and what needed to happen to improve the customer’s experience.
“The management will penetrate to better understand what didn’t go as well as the customer would have liked under ideal circumstances and then work with the people who provided the support to improve that going forward,” Sinisgalli says.
Last year, Manhattan averaged a 4.6 on these calls, so Sinisgalli is satisfied in his team’s ability to solve customer problems.
Besides taking customer calls, he also has found product councils as a way to get feedback from customers to help dictate the direction Manhattan should go.
“Developing a product council that has real power is a good way to encourage your customers to come forward with their thoughts,” he says.
Manhattan has a small council of about 12 customers for each of its products.
“Any more than that, it’s too hard, and any less than that, you don’t have enough input, but with a dozen on each council, it works out well,” Sinisgalli says.
Each smaller council has a president, and those council presidents — about 20 in all — participate in larger, overall product council meetings three to four times a year.
Lastly, provide a large-scale event for your customers to meet with you each year. Manhattan has an annual meeting with its customers. The last one brought 1,000 people to Orlando to gain more insight into the marketplace and get detailed information about Manhattan’s solutions and products. They have a couple of larger sessions for everyone and then smaller breakout sessions organized by products so people can ask questions and provide thoughts about how the products can better meet their needs. These sessions also help them gauge how prevalent issues are.
“Is this one customer request or were the majority of people in the audience making a similar request?” Sinisgalli says. “It’s a pretty easy way to assess the majority needs of the customer base in these meetings.”
The user conference is also helpful because when customers get around other people that they’re not necessarily doing business with, they’re more willing to speak up and bounce feedback off of each other.
“The most important thing to do is provide an environment that customers are comfortable sharing direct feedback,” Sinisgalli says. “A customer conference is a great mechanism when you have a dozen or more customers using the same product sitting around the table, they’ll tend to get more and more comfortable and feed off each other with suggestions of where to help move our products, so create that environment.”
Focus on employees
If you want to be successful on the people side of the business, you have to start by looking at your hiring process.
“You’ve got to hire correctly,” Sinisgalli says. “When you’re out going on campus or hiring people for midlevel roles, you have to do it with a profile in mind that’s consistent with your culture.”
Sinisgalli looks for someone who’s not only talented but also customer-focused, and he asks a lot of questions to see if candidates have both traits.
“If it’s a college student, it’s a little harder,” he says. “It’s somebody who’s not had work experience before, but then you can ask them questions about what they do in their spare time, how they spend their summer breaks, how engaged they are in outside educational activities, to get a sense for how they prioritize, how they spend their energy.”
If someone has work experience already, it’s a little easier to drive down into his or her core.
“Ask them about what things they were successful at, what wasn’t successful, and then penetrate those areas, and it will come across pretty quickly if they’re focused on customer success or focused on something else,” he says.
Sinisgalli says it’s also crucial to discover whether someone is more focused on personal success or company success.
“Most people are pretty polished and sophisticated,” Sinisgalli says. “It would not come across blatantly. You’d have to ferret that out. … It’s hard to fake more than five or six questions. You penetrate any one line of questioning, and you ultimately get to the core of any person you’re speaking with.”
Lastly, he typically does at least three to five interviews each time he’s hiring someone and also mixes up the location.
“Find more opportunities for the person to behave as they would normally behave,” he says. “Do an office interview, perhaps a lunch interview, a dinner interview, a sporting event. Go to a baseball game or play a round of golf. It’s a good opportunity to better penetrate someone’s true culture.”
Once you have the right people on board, then you have to focus on them.
“Having the right development programs in place is critically important,” he says.
Manhattan has technical training and general manager training, but it also has more elite programs to really hone the cream of the crop. Through the Manhattan Academy, the best of the best spend a week with Sinisgalli and other senior executives in a mini MBA program.
With about 2,200 employees though, it can be hard to figure out whom to invest time and money into, so Sinisgalli relies on his direct reports to help him. Through the semiannual review process, leaders identify team members that have exceptional potential.
“We define that as the ability to do their current job extremely well and the ability to move at least two levels further than where they are today,” he says. “Identify those folks that have exceptional capacity.”
To objectively identify people, he has a matrix with four quadrants on it. One axis is the ability to execute in the current role and the other axis is potential. Ideally, employees want to be in the upper right quadrant. If someone falls into that golden quadrant, then Sinisgalli puts more efforts toward training and developing him or her and ensures his or her compensation plan is strong to keep that person interested in growing with Manhattan.
Lastly, you have to make sure you stay attuned to your employees’ needs and desires.
“Keep an eye out to what’s important to the employees,” Sinisgalli says. “If you’re doing the things that make the employees feel good about working in your company, they’ll do great work.”
For example, if employees are interested in working in China, India, France or another Manhattan location abroad, Sinisgalli makes it happen. If people are interested in working in another department, he gives them the opportunity to try it, and if it doesn’t work out, they can go back to their former role.
“We prioritize that by the top, top folks get the first crack at those transfers, but we try to make that available to anyone who’s in our business,” he says. “It’s one way to expand their knowledge but also keep them excited about working here.”
If you really want to know how your employees feel and what they need though, you have to make them comfortable speaking to you.
For example, about twice a month, Sinisgalli has breakfast with 10 randomly selected associates. He provides doughnuts, juice and coffee and talks for about 15 minutes about the status of the company, and then he opens it up for questions and dialogue. He learns a lot about where he needs to focus his efforts just by listening to their thoughts and ideas.
Another way he connects with employees is by having casual events. During football season, they had a barbecue in the parking deck and encouraged employees to wear their favorite college gear. Sinisgalli sported his Cornell University apparel while grilling burgers and hot dogs and enjoying conversations with employees.
“Create that open environment, and talk to the folks in a relaxed way that will make them comfortable raising ideas and concerns,” he says.
The combination of doing all of these things helps create a strong company culture that encourages your employees to grow with you.
By combining his every employee efforts with his every customer efforts, Sinisgalli has succeeded in taking what was already a good company at $196.8 million when he arrived and growing it to $337 million the past two years. But despite the company’s success, he’ll continue his every customer, every employee, every day approach to ensure Manhattan continues to thrive.
“By making incremental progress on driving up customer satisfaction and making this a better place for employees to work, I believe it will continue to allow us to become an even better company than we are today,” he says.
How to reach: Manhattan Associates Inc., (770) 955-7070 or www.manh.com
About three years ago, Bonnie Curtis faced the challenge of merging Gillette with Procter & Gamble — no easy task considering that both companies had very different ways of doing things and both were very proud of how they did them.
“We usually integrate everything and say, ‘Do it the Procter way,’” says the vice president for Procter & Gamble Product Supply. “In this case, they had some stuff that was pretty good. The question was, how do we take the Gillette stuff that was really good and bring in to the Procter?”
To start, she created an integration team of 20 people — 10 from each side. This team was in charge of finding the middle ground. For example, in one situation, the team was tasked to cut millions from one area’s budget. She knew that neither side could do it alone, so it forced them to work together to create one way of doing things. It was heated at times, with one team member even petitioning Curtis to fire a woman on the other side. In the end, the team found common ground, the woman was actually promoted and the petitioner wrote a glowing note complimenting her on her work.
“That was telling for me,” she says. “We started in this extremely combative position and look at where we got by giving them a common goal that was stretching but deliverable.”
Even after the merger though, people were working 12- to 14-hour days, and Curtis knew that wasn’t right. They needed to become better information factories.
“We need to take information in, process it, and get it out,” Curtis says. “Just like you would in a factory with products, and getting that thing humming so we’re not reinventing the wheel, so we’re not fighting fires … so we can spend our time on improvements.”
She charged everyone to get back 60 minutes in his or her day so the employee could focus on the new work and also be home for dinner with his or her family.
“I don’t want to hear about HR or how someone’s screwing up your time,” Curtis says. “I want you to think about how are you screwing up your time?”
She had one-on-one meetings with her direct reports and asked them how they were doing on this. They sent out quarterly surveys asking people how many minutes they had gotten back. She also spearheaded the campaign by doing deliberate things to help them create more efficient meetings. She took the tables out of the conference rooms and banned computers, BlackBerrys and PowerPoint presentations in meetings.
“The meetings are shorter,” she says. “People are engaged.”
Because people didn’t need two weeks to create an elaborate presentation anymore, meetings could be set much earlier, and people weren’t sleep-deprived from making slides all night.
Now, if she walks by a meeting and sees glazed eyes, she knows someone isn’t doing something right.
“Either you have the wrong people in the meeting or you’re running a really boring meeting — fix it,” she says. “We don’t have time to sit in meetings zoned out.”
She also worked to create a safe environment so that people on the Gillette side or people lower in the organization felt they could speak up in meetings. To do that, you have to show that you’re willing to listen to people. For example, someone four levels below Curtis came to her and explained that when she moved a meeting, it didn’t just affect her and the people who had to be there. Instead it cascaded down, forcing others in the organization to change meetings and commitments, and it actually affected about 100 people. Curtis was floored.
“I said, ‘Holy cow!’” Curtis says. “I went over to my assistant and said, ‘We’re done.’ We’re going to fix things, and if something changes, I’m just not going to the other meeting. That guy had the guts to tell me that. It didn’t even occur to me how much disruption that was causing.”
The key is to do some introspection.
“If I’m classist, it’s going to show up in all of my behaviors,” Curtis says. “I need to think about who I am, what’s my positional power. What’s it look like? What does it mean to me? When I ask for feedback, do I really mean it or am I doing it because somebody told me to do it? The first part is introspection on my part about what culture do I want and what am I doing to help drive it.”
How to reach: Proctor & Gamble Product Supply, www.pg.com
Charles Lipman admits that he has limited skill sets when it comes to technical products. And that’s not an easy admission to make, given that his company, DiversiTech Inc., manufactures air conditioning condenser pads and supplies other technical components for the heating, ventilating, air conditioning and refrigeration industry.
But Lipman has found ways to overcome this weakness and has grown DiversiTech to annual revenue of about $150 million by trusting his 350 employees and knowing when they can help him with something he’s not as knowledgeable about.
“It’s, one, confidence in your capabilities and that of your people,” the president says. “Second is being unafraid of risk, and third, it’s understanding that every decision you make can be wrong and [having] a commitment to review and adjust.”
Smart Business spoke with Lipman about how to grow your company by trusting in people and being unafraid to take risks.
Don’t fear risk. It’s confidence in your people. Of course, you have to have the people to be confident in. That’s important. You can’t have confidence and have it be misplaced.
[You know that] by the results. They have to be placed in situations where they have options, and they have to illustrate the right choices.
You can gauge that even in the simplest of actions — someone who spends enormous amounts of time in critical situations and burns the midnight oil, as they say, is a person with energy and passion, and that matters. A person that will come to you and tell you that the situation is bad. That’s the person you want on board because you don’t have to wonder about it.
If you have people who have demonstrated their abilities to get stuff done and deal with difficult areas, then you shouldn’t be afraid of going into another one.
I have confidence in people because they’re here, first. Second, the review process is proportionate to the amount of trust and the amount of risk. If the risk is great and the trust is modest, then one would have to review fairly frequently. On the other hand, if the risk is low, then the review would be a very long period in between.
It’s very important to have metrics on anything you do. Even if it’s wild speculation, it’s important to put that speculation in writing and have a measurement of where you expect to be and when you expect to be there and milestones to that objective.
Involve people in decisions. You ask them the questions leading up to the ultimate question — what are we doing well, what are we not doing so well, do we have the resources we need to achieve the objective, what will we do if the results are no better in a period of time, what are the options, what option would you choose, what’s the reason?
I prefer not asking one question, and that’s, ‘What should we do?’ Then they don’t tell me what else they’re thinking about.
Many times, one of their other options is one that they really prefer but think you will not and therefore don’t present it.
Let people make mistakes; let them lose money from time to time. You can be wrong, and they can have a success with respect to an idea that you consider worthless, and second is the fact that they know they have your confidence that could cause them to come out with other ideas, some of which might be the game-changers, and they won’t do that if you’re going to be hypercritical of their ideas and not give them the freedom to implement them.
But there are exceptions. The two exceptions are it’s ethically inappropriate, and the risk is too great. That’s not a metric decision. It’s more of taking a look at what could go wrong and how much damage that event would cause. If that event would cause a catastrophic problem for the company, it’s unlikely that we should go forward in any circumstances.
Live your values. A leader has to articulate the values, and he has to do it on a consistent basis. Those values rarely should change. They should be constants. Refer to them at a time of decision-making, and make sure you live up to them, as well. If you don’t live up to them, anything else you do won’t matter.
It’s internal — how do you make decisions, how do you do the right things, how do you want people to deal with people and deal with situations. People use words all the time, but unless you think them through, they don’t have the full meaning that they could. Words like integrity. What does that really mean? If you give it some thought, that’s helpful. It can be as simple as working out what’s the right thing to do and then go from there to decide what we should do. Always keep in mind what the high road is — always know that.
Look forward. You have to have the attitude that you’re not too interested in history — you’re more interested in going forward.
No one likes to change. The only people who like to change are people who like to change others. It’s something that we all have a problem with, and very few of us acknowledge it.
Be persistent in terms of demanding it and rewarding those who do. Rewards are almost always monetary. People are paid based upon their results and the results of the company, and we tell them that.
HOW TO REACH: DiversiTech Inc., (678) 542-3600 or www.diversitech.com