You could ask Mark Symonds how he plans to grow Plex Systems Inc. Or you could just ask his customers.
Symonds, the president and CEO, relies on their feedback to spur innovation in the company, which makes software solutions for the manufacturing industry.
He builds feedback mechanisms into the software but also provides an option for more intimate interaction by assigning main contacts to each customer.
“The nature of our whole business model is that we’re in tight contact with our customers,” he says.
Symonds also gets involved in customer organizations — even serving on the board of the Precision Metalforming Association — to hear firsthand what his customers are facing.
To keep Plex Systems pointed in the right direction, he continually aligns customer requests with the company principles and initial project objectives.
“The customer is usually right,” says Symonds, who led 130 employees to 2008 revenue of more than $20 million. “But you have to make sure it’s an interactive discussion.”
Smart Business spoke to Symonds about how to get ideas from your customers.
Go where customers go. Customer needs change; the marketplace changes. So being able to listen to what customers need and then rapidly innovate, that’s what you need to do to grow. Not keep doing the same old thing but rather come up with new ways to address problems.
Find a way to stay close. It’s getting involved in industry associations so you hear the regulation issues, the financial challenges and so on facing your customers. Go where the customers go.
Don’t be trapped in your office. There’s so much to do that there’s a real temptation to be trapped in your office. Get out and visit customers and then follow up. When I hear about an issue, I dog it until it’s done, and I keep the customer informed of those issues. That builds trust and credibility. But it’s not easy. It’s getting out, driving a few hours to see customers. You can always think of something else you’ve got to do, but that’s absolutely critical.
Bring customers in. A customer advisory board [is] one way to stay close to your customers and ensure that they have a forum to be heard.
We put together a customer advisory board, a means of focusing the input from our customers. The customer advisory board meets every three or four months, and it tends to be more strategic issues, like how do we communicate to our customers. They’ve suggested improvements to our support process.
We had a lot of discussion as to what this one should look like. Should it be our biggest customers? Should it be a cross section? Should it be the most avid users? Should it be across industries or focused on one?
People are most interested in things that affect their industry. If they’re going to talk to somebody, they want to talk to somebody who understands their industry. So for instance, the first one we selected was automotive. We selected a cross section: our biggest customers and our oldest, big and small. But the people we invited are those that are passionate about their business, passionate about improving their business and about how [we] can help them improve their business. So that was the yardstick that we used to select customers to participate.
I bring in the key people [from our company] who need to hear firsthand what customers are saying. It’s really top-level involvement so our customers know we’re taking it seriously and they see the action and the follow-up.
Create an outlet for input. On every screen in our [software] system, there’s a button [customers] can click on and then fill out a user support request. They can direct it to anyone in the company or just into the general pool where it gets evaluated and triaged and scheduled. They can make it a critical/urgent, in which case it goes to everybody in the company. If the main people working on their account are on vacation, then somebody will jump on it because it goes to everybody in the organization.
It goes into a database with a priority — critical, nice to have, that kind of thing. Our team leaders get notified the instant those go in the database so they can continually look at the number of requests in a given area and start to draw conclusions about, ‘Boy, this topic is very popular and important to a number of customers. Let’s focus on that.’
Likewise, the sales team uses the same system to put in requests for changes to the product to support things they’ve learned about in the sales process. So we capture all those requests in a database and then our team leaders review those requests, determine which ones are most pressing and most valuable to our customers and then pursue those.
If a customer is willing to pay for an enhancement, that’s a good signal that it’s important to them. So that’s one measure. Then the sheer frequency and the priority of the requests from the customers are the next indicator. If 10 customers are saying, ‘It’s absolutely critical to my business,’ that’s a higher priority than two customers saying, ‘It’d be nice to have.’
Keep customer requests in perspective. The biggest reason for failure is a failure to manage the scope, meaning once people are into it, they say, ‘Oh, it would be a great idea to do this, this, this and this.’ If they pursue all of those ideas, they’ll never get done. That’s the most common failure. Our team is really focused on what are the business objectives and let’s stay focused on that. Get that achieved, then we’ll look at other opportunities for improvement.
Identify critical success factors at the start of a project. We try to manage expectations on how the project will go and what kind of pitfalls can come about. So addressing that upfront really helps down the road.
When you’re in the heat of battle, you’re midway through the project, you can fall back on those agreements and those guidelines that you laid out upfront. [It’s a] reminder as to what the implications are of not watching the scope, not managing the project carefully.
How to reach: Plex Systems Inc., (248) 391-8001 or www.plex.com
Marilyn Orr made a little change in her office that had a big impact on the environment at Beacon Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.
When the executive director first moved in, the placement of her computer forced her to sit with her back to the door — and her employees.
“I put the computer on the desk return so that I was facing the door,” she says. “As people would walk past, I wanted the opportunity to be able to speak to my people.”
It was important for Orr to be accessible and approachable so her 275 employees could bring her ideas for improving the company’s treatment and rehab centers.
She also trains her management team members to look for innovation outside their industry. They bring books and articles to meetings then dig up data to help translate the ideas to Beacon. Throughout the process, Orr relies on their input.
“It is all about building a strong team,” she says. “You can’t do this alone.”
Smart Business spoke with Orr about eliciting ideas and input to innovate your company.
Find ideas to innovate. You have to have relationships that allow you to forecast for the future and prepare your organization for what’s coming in your industry. You’ve got to get that information from somewhere, and I get that from my professional organization. [A leader] needs to draw heavily upon the professional organizations available to us. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You simply need to be open to what other people are doing.
You’ve got to be a reader. I have several listservs that I belong to that bring wonderful information. I’ve got at least one or two books at the bedside that I’m trying to read through.
I share magazine articles, Wall Street Journal articles [with my team]. That is very common within our organization, and it goes up and down, so I know that my staff are looking for those things, as well. We set aside a portion of each management meeting that we have to discuss things like that.
You have to build your team so that they actually are willing to share those things. A lot of it is done by praising people who participate in the process, letting them know that I appreciate their input and doing it publicly in front of everybody.
Learn from other industries. I’m looking for things that are pertinent to [my industry]. I’m looking for quality measures. I’m also looking for technology. Everything that we do, quite frankly, is done from the perspective of how does it impact the patient. You really have to keep that front and center. So we’re looking to talk to our peers to find out what do you do to make that experience different and better.
I think some of it is not to wear blinders. You can learn a lot about your own industry from others. I look at the banking industry and some of the technology gains that they’ve made for transactions.
I always look, as well, at who provides outstanding customer service and what do they do. So the Nordstroms of the world or the Marriotts, how they have trained their people to provide outstanding customer service.
You have to communicate what you learn, especially with the people that you directly manage. You’ve got to be able to share it in a concise way, and you have to be able to build buy-in so that everyone is all on the same page.
Get input in person. When you create a team, one of the core elements of that is trust. People have to trust that the information that they bring forward and that the information that I’m bringing forward is all of value to the team.
[Trust] comes about, quite frankly, because of interpersonal relationships. I like to have face-to-face meetings with each of my managers. I keep an open-door policy. I really need to know my people. E-mail just doesn’t cut it. There’s a lot that can get lost in an e-mail. It’s a give and take that you can have in a face to face. But you have to make time to make certain that those things happen.
You ask for [input]. I’m looking for everyone on the team to give me honest feedback.
The point is you have to have an environment in which [debate is] allowed to happen. You have to seek that because the last thing you need is a team that does not challenge. I need people to bring forward all of their objections, good ideas as well as concerns. You don’t think of everything. So you’ve got to have a team that feels that they’re empowered to do that and that they won’t be punished for doing that.
We talk it through. I want to know more about what it is that is bringing that concern forward.
Back up ideas with data. You have to have some way to capture data and present in a format that actually is compelling. I can’t just simply walk into a meeting and say, ‘I’d like to do this.’ They’re going to ask for the data as to what makes a good, sound decision for our company.
We’re in the process right now of trying to determine if we want to have a telephone software that contacts patients as a reminder that their appointment’s coming up. So some of the data that I’ve been looking at is talking about the number of patients that come for appointments, how many appointments are actually made for that particular week, how many people no-show for their appointments and how many people cancel their appointments.
We’re pulling our data to reinforce the fact that maybe we need to do this — that this is standard in the community and this is something that maybe our patients might want or need. [We’re looking at data from] within our company, but also I’ve talked with people outside of our company that have implemented different software packages to see what their experience is.
How to reach: Beacon Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, (513) 354-3700 or www.beaconortho.com
Robert White and Paul Kaplan are loyal guys. They both married their high school sweethearts, for one. And White was a CPA at the firm where they met for 10 years; Kaplan, more than five.
So when they founded KW Property Management & Consulting LLC together five years ago, they knew the first trait they would look for in their employees.
“The first trait that we’re looking for is loyalty,” says White, the managing director. “Whoever we hire, we want to make sure that they’re going to want to be with us for a long period of time.”
Since then, they’ve pretty well figured out who they’re looking for. And they’ve had plenty of practice, swelling to more than 400 employees.
“It’s not an easy thing,” says White, who led the property management firm to 2008 revenue of $17 million. “This is not an exact science.”
Smart Business spoke with White about how to interview potential employees to fit your firm.
Get involved. The way we control the hiring process is that myself and Paul both need to be notified when they’re going to hire somebody. What we’ll do is we’ll talk to the two people that are going to be doing the interview process about a few things: What’s the position for? What’s the job description? In that process, we’re determining is the position actually needed? Sometimes these managers will sit in with us on other interviews so they can hear our questioning and learn what we’re looking for.
[Leaders] should be intimately involved in the process, especially the higher up the ladder. Ultimately, the people that you hire below you are mini-leaders; they have to get the troops below them to follow them. It’s just important that you are intimately involved in that infrastructure.
Maybe if it’s a huge public company that hires thousands of employees, the way you do that is through your HR department. Just be intimately involved in the internal control structure of your HR department to make sure the company’s executing the way you want it executed. I would say, for a small- to medium-sized business, to be intimately involved and not just turn it over to your HR department. Actually sit in on the interviews. Meet the people before they’re hired. Ask your own questions.
Interview in layers. Normally in the interview process, you have two layers of management interview the person. You have the direct manager or supervisor and then that person’s manager or supervisor performing the interview. When it comes to executives in the company, then Paul and I are always involved. We’ll get in the interview process and we’ll ask specific questions on ... their experiences relating to banking. That’s probably a third of the interview process.
A third of the interview process is we go through why are they leaving their current job or why have they been dismissed. I don’t like to hear that there were disagreements with the boss. Usually what I’m focused on is that they liked the company and they’ve hit a ceiling as far as their career path.
In this third of the interview, we also focus on their resume and have they jumped around for a lot of jobs. We’re trying to see, are these people loyal or are they changing jobs every year or two? We really focus in and drill down on the reasons why they’re changing jobs. Let’s say they give the answer that, ‘I hit a ceiling and there’s no room for growth.’ Then I start probing later in the conversation. I try not to make it obvious, but I’ll start asking, ‘What’s the size of the company? What was the size of the company a few years ago?’ I try to see, was the company growing? Was that a true answer?
Get personal. The third part of the interview process is what I call breaking off track. Usually, that’s at the end of the interview, and it’s when everybody’s relaxed. You just start finding out what kind of person they are. Do they follow sports? Are they involved in hobbies? In that part of the conversation is where you get the true sense of a person, where you get to know a little bit about their personality. Usually during that I always try to explain to the person our culture as a company.
The worst question you can ask is a question that you’re not allowed to ask by law. In this part, where it’s kind of relaxed and we’re no longer in an interview-like mindset, those are the times where you might [ask], ‘Hey, are you married? Do you have kids? Where are you from?’ You’re technically not allowed to ask those questions, but in that type of discussion, sometimes you might accidentally say something. So you have to be very careful when you’re trying to get a feeling if they’ll fit into your culture or they’re your kind of person.
Step out of the box. As a company, we do not have a standard list of questions. [It’d be a mistake to] do an interview out of a box, to have a list of questions that you ask everybody and always do every interview the same way. We have a core set of questions like, ‘Why’d you leave your last job?’ but for the most part, it’s like each interview evolves.
We make the interview process with the different people individual. So I’ll meet with them, the manager below me will meet with them, Paul will meet with them. After the candidates leave, we have a meeting amongst ourselves and discuss: What did you talk to them about? What were their answers? Did you like them? Somebody will bring to the table something that they learned about the candidate that maybe I didn’t learn or I didn’t ask about. Then I’ll tell them something I learned about that they didn’t learn about and we’ll talk about that aspect.
At the end of the day, it’s a vote. It has to be unanimous. If one person feels strongly that it’s a no, we will move on to the next candidate.
How to reach: KW Property Management & Consulting LLC, (305) 476-9188 or www.kwpropertymanagement.com
Mike Koziara can empathize with the turmoil his employees felt during their company’s sale and acquisition. Even though, as Care Choices’ chief financial officer, he helped lead the process, he wasn’t sure what the changes would mean for him.
“I probably wasn’t any different than any other employee,” he says. “Although I was involved in the due diligence, I myself wasn’t certain, ultimately, as to where my career would end up.”
Fortunately, he landed with Priority Health, the health insurance company that acquired his, as the vice president of provider network strategy and East Region. He has more than 130 employees under him in the region, which accounts for about $200 million of the billion-dollar company’s revenue.
Throughout the transition, Koziara had to keep his employees informed of the changes and provide a support system as they made the decision to stay or go — all the while, keeping them focused on the business goals at hand.
Smart Business spoke with Koziara about how to guide your employees through a life-changing transition.
Be intimate. Before the acquisition, the leadership team made a decision to communicate what was occurring. The one key message was, ‘The company’s moving down a new path. That path might entail the sale of the company, it might entail the merger of the company, or potentially, it might mean the company will continue as it currently is.’
With a message that says, ‘Hey, we’re going down a path and it may take different forms,’ of course, the first question is, ‘Well, what form is it going to take? I heard we’re going to be sold and we’re all going to lose our jobs.’ All forms of the communication said, ‘When we know something definitive, you’ll be the first one to know.’ So there was a decision that says we will pursue a merger or sale. And when that decision was made, we let the staff know.
The communication was probably the most important thing through the whole process. It was at the company level, it was at the departmental level and then it was at the one-on-one level. The leaders spent quite a bit more time engaging throughout the company. We’d simply sit down and talk to any staff level throughout the company to gauge how they were feeling, were we connecting with them when we had the group communications, were we touching on the right points?
That built a sense of trust and openness, as opposed to proclaiming, ‘This is where we’re at. Send us an e-mail if you have a question.’ We had an open e-mail Q&A process that augmented it but most effective was the one-on-one.
Support employees’ decision-making. The other aspect of the communication was the straightforwardness: ‘We don’t know at this point what the final disposition will look like. But what we can encourage you to do is to take the information that we have presented to you and you need to make your own decision. You need to look at your opportunities in the marketplace, your opportunities with the probability of continuing employment if the company is merged or acquired.’ So we encouraged the staff to take accountability for themselves. That was a value we gave these people by letting them know early on what was happening.
[When the acquisition was announced,] the messaging changed and we said, ‘OK, we can’t guarantee any of you employment, but a substantial number of you will be hired.’
Even that’s a tough message. We again reminded them that we have a plan, we have to execute the plan and that our expectation of you is to accomplish these goals.
Encourage them, ‘We’ll provide you new tools. We’ll provide you new technologies, capabilities so that, in fact, you can even achieve those goals more effectively.’ It’s a constant reminder that you’re here to do a job and we’re improving your capability of doing it.
The choice to stay or go, we wanted that to be as informed a decision as possible. Through the entire process, from day one, we had increased the amount of human resources staff that were available. We had human resources staff on-site. We brought consultants in to help with career planning. So if somebody said, ‘I’m not sure what I should do,’ we had our own HR people to help them with the decisions. It’s emotional. It certainly affects them. So we actually gave them a resource to help them manage through this. So that’s part of the empathetic part, is helping them through this.
Keep employees focused. The leadership team continued to focus on the business goals — both before as well as after the sale. It’s easy to become consumed by the huge workload of the transition. So what we did was reminded our employees that it’s our mission that’s most important. We have a higher calling to serve our customers, our providers, our members. That was a strong motivator when things got difficult for people. The call to action was, ‘Remember, we’re serving our customer.’ And that was continuously stressed.
We tried to partition our focus. Every day, we had a meeting about the transition; we had another meeting about the business. I spent a lot more time on the pre- and post-transition activities, but some of my colleagues spent the majority of their time on running the business.
Another aspect of that is there was a business plan throughout the entire process. So instead of a lot of the staff’s emphasis on, ‘Well, what does the transition mean to me and my singular goals to go from one system to another system?’ you’re actually here to achieve business objectives from day one. That becomes the emphasis. The ‘what does it mean to me on a day-to-day basis,’ you can’t ignore it. But you can refocus people on the right work.
You do have to recognize that there is change. There will be change. And you have to expect change at the individual level, as well. I think the messaging is continuously, ‘We are going through change. There’s lots of it. It will affect you. You have to recognize to some extent you’re moving into a new environment.’ Be very straightforward and clear about that.
How to reach: Priority Health, www.priorityhealth.com
Chris Boue had a problem when he took over CH Mack Inc. last January.
The company didn’t have a strategic plan. It had about five.
“But day to day, those strategic plans weren’t executed on. What was executed on was what they needed to finish out this quarter or this year,” Boue says. “We had to figure out what our horizon was.”
So the new president and CEO rebranded the company, which provides health care technology solutions. As a result, it saw $5 million in 2008 revenue, a 140 percent increase over 2007.
To fully understand what the company had to offer, Boue had to start with a clean slate.
“It’s real easy once you’ve seen market successes to put those market successes on as sunglasses and miss a lot of things,” says Boue, who leads 60 employees. “But when I came here, I had to put some of those successes away because your biggest successes can also be your biggest downfalls.”
Smart Business spoke with Boue about how to assess your company with fresh eyes to uncover your core.
Do your research. The worst thing a leader can do is have all the answers. I had to clear myself of my history so that I could have a better future. I relayed this to staff as I was talking to them, individually and in groups, that I love success and I love to take a group with me, but we need to figure out our winning strategy. I talked to some of the customers and the board members and investors and even some of the key employees, before I started with the company.
Anybody that is looking at changing a company, whether it’s new walking in or they need to see it with new eyes, needs to look at three categories. The past performance was the first one — things like why were they successful in some areas and why were they failing in some areas. The answers to both of those, and particularly the failures, can usually lead to how you have higher leverage in the future. The second major one was present strategies, where they are now. The usual suspects in there are the people that are involved, the processes that are used and the technologies that allow you to leverage your people and your processes. And then the third is future challenges and opportunities — things like barriers to your success, resources that are going to be needed, what type of culture changes need to happen in order to promote success.
A fourth one, and it underscores everything, is you have to know what land mines are there. The reason the enemies use land mines is that people aren’t looking for them. So as a leader of a company, you have to be looking for the problems. In fact, we had a session where we told all leaders we needed to have on our doors, if not in our language, to ‘Bring me the bad news.’ It was that type of attitude that I’d recommend anybody start with because you can’t really know what to improve or what to change unless you know what’s needed.
Gauge employees’ visions. When I joined the company, I sat with every staff member. It was necessary to start at the staff level to understand people’s perceptions. And then [I sat] with the different groups to ask them some key questions from an internal standpoint: ‘What would you change if you were in my role? What things would you leave the same if you were in my role? And what things would you suggest everybody else do that somebody in the company’s doing?’
[The] staff had to know that what they told me stayed with me. I took a lot of efforts and a lot of time to make sure that people had time to spend with me and they got to tell me what their feeling was about the future. From an external viewpoint, like knowing the market, I also talked to the sales and marketing folks and then [our competitors].
One of the best things you can do is talk to the competition about the strengths and weaknesses of the company. We needed salespeople at the time. I was in the interview path of sales candidates, so I could talk to those from competition nationally about where the market was but more specifically where they saw our company.
Discover your core. To be successful, you have to know what your passion is, you have to be great at it and you have to be able to make money at it. So I was looking for what our company was truly passionate about, not only from internal [standpoint] but what the people from the outside saw. I was really looking for what we were great at on our best day and our worst day.
The direction was more about seeing the need in the industries that we service. And then after seeing the need, go back to all the feedback, both internal and external, to see what our real strengths and weaknesses were. I wanted to come from a place of integrity on what we could truly do, not what we wanted to do.
So I got the idea of where we were, which I think is one of a leader’s greatest strengths, if they can truly know where they are and then get a vision of where they want to go. The vision for our company is to make a substantial difference in health care through care management software. That’s a big vision. To do that, we can’t have just a local or regional focus. We have to have a national focus. That means that we have to step up and talk to large customers.
And then secondly, I had to figure out what the core was — meaning your strategic people, processes and technologies, the things that are really going to get you to what your vision is. If you can know your core, those are the things that you protect and grow relentlessly, without question. And then, of course, the last thing you have to execute, you have to figure out how you get your core things to be leveraged so that you can meet your vision.
How to reach: CH Mack Inc., (513) 936-6000 or www.chmack.com
Jay Woffington doesn’t believe in doors. Even if he had an executive office at Bridge Worldwide, he’d rip the door from its hinges to stay accessible to his 220 employees.
Barriers won’t come between the president and CEO and his employees at the digital marketing firm. Instead, Woffington sits in a cubicle like everyone else. He eats in the cafeteria with everyone else. He keeps the lines of communication open and the power spread across the organization.
That open interaction yields the input he needs to make the best decisions for everyone involved.
“Just because you’ve empowered a lot of people and just because you’ve asked for a lot of advice doesn’t mean that you are absolved from having to make decisions,” he says. “You just make more informed decisions. You know you have more potential pathways to go down as opposed to just what you would think of.”
Smart Business spoke with Woffington about leveling your organization by staying accessible to employees, interacting with them and giving them a voice.
Get out and interact. Maintaining a fairly flat, egalitarian-type approach helps keep you connected to the business but also doesn’t let you get too much of the ego. People are going to tell you what they don’t like, and you’ve got to love hearing it, as opposed to squashing that kind of stuff.
Being able to keep your fingers on the pulse by really touching a lot of people in the organization, it’s a little bit more [of a] hands-on approach. I think that’s a key.
Know everybody’s name. When everybody joins, they get a nameplate that’s on their wall in front of their cube with their name and their picture. That’s on our intranet as well, so you can go on at any time and look at every single employee’s picture and everybody’s name and know who they are.
If you see somebody and you don’t know their name, go look it up because it will mean a lot more the next time you see them.
Get out of your office — literally. If I had an office, I would never sit in it. I would rip the door off of it. In fact, I did that when I was [a brand manager] at Procter & Gamble; I took the door off the hinges. There are lots of artificial thresholds that people are going to be less likely to cross. If you make it easy, everybody will do it.
One of our clients, The J.M. Smucker Co., there’s a great story of how they do it: Richard and Tim Smucker just eat lunch at the cafeteria, just like everybody else. There’s not an executive dining hall. You just go to the same place; you do the same exact thing.
Be accessible. My calendar’s open so anybody can book time; literally, anyone can go into Microsoft Outlook and put a meeting on my calendar. And I accept it.
No. 2, we don’t have offices, so I have a cubicle. You hear a lot more, and it makes you a lot more accessible so people just stop by and say, ‘Hey, in two minutes I want to show you something,’ or, ‘I want to ask you a question,’ or whatever. Being willing to spend that time is really important.
Those are the more informal stuff. More of the structured stuff, I do what we call a share session every other month. Think of it as office hours from college, like a scheduled meeting, and I invite the entire company to it and there’s no set agenda. It’s kind of whatever’s on your mind, ask me any question.
And then on our intranet, I blog every other week: ‘Here’s what I’m focused on, here’s what I want you focused on.’ But it’s an open-feed so anybody can respond to it and chime in with ideas and thoughts.
[There are] a lot of ways to biopsy the organization. I talk about it as thread-pulling. You hear one thing; you just pull on it a little bit. As long as you’re getting enough of that, you always have a pretty good view of what’s happening.
Let employees find the answers. Too often, I think leaders are viewed as needing to have all the answers. And I don’t believe that I have all the answers. I have a much more collaborative leadership style and more of a focus-and-release as opposed to dictate-and-supervise or anything like that. We just need people to go ahead and explore and experiment and take risks, as opposed to wait for someone to tell them what to do.
First off, you can’t just say it; you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to give them the ability to make those decisions and live with the consequences of them. It can’t be me making all the decisions; they have to be able to make the decisions. And so you literally have to give up decision-making, and they have to be able to go off and do it.
When I weigh in on decisions, usually I say, ‘Look, I’m just giving you ideas. You have to make these calls, not me, because you’re ultimately accountable for it.’
Follow up on feedback. No. 1, if you actually take some of their ideas and you build it into your plan, that sure helps. And if you’re not, then I think you have the obligation to say, ‘Hey, look, I got a lot of this feedback, and I’m telling you why I’m not doing that, I’m doing this.’ That’s OK, too.
But there needs to be the feedback loop both ways. So just because you hear more doesn’t mean you’ve communicated back more.
How to reach: Bridge Worldwide, (513) 381-1380 or www.bridgeworldwide.com
Some things can only be taught through example — and that’s where Jack Elliott steps in.
The president and CEO of Cohen & Grigsby PC does train new employees as they come into the law firm, using orientations and mentorship pairings. But do-as-I-do opportunities go a long way, too. So Elliott takes employees along on his client visits so they can observe how he interacts with them, reinforcing the firm’s client-centric culture.
“You build a trust relationship over time with the constant communication with clients,” says Elliott, who leads 269 employees. “You build it every day with every interaction that you have.”
And when employees witness those relationships growing, the culture develops deeper roots than it might through training alone.
“It’s basically a constant reinforcement by leadership, by training and by just the sheer experience of interacting with a client,” he says.
Smart Business spoke with Elliott about how to lead by example in your client interactions.
Choose curious, involved employees. It’s very important that our people are attuned to the needs and issues of our clients, and so they need to be curious about the clients’ problems and be willing to listen. We look for the personality traits and the curiosity that would allow them to become that kind of adviser.
We’ve had a long history of giving and volunteering by all the folks in our organization, and we think that that’s important because it helps the community that we live in and the community that our clients live in. We believe that [volunteering is] very consistent with our client-centric focus. But it also is broader than that because we think we have an obligation to help and assist where we can.
You can get a sense primarily by what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished in the past. That’s a good indicator of the initiative that they have. We look at their background, what they’ve done in school, what outside interests they have, what charitable nonprofit volunteerism that they’ve been involved in.
Assign new employees to mentors. When they start, there’s an orientation program where they are steeped in the history and the culture of the firm.
They are also assigned mentors, either more senior associates or junior partners who are assigned to help them in terms of integration into the firm and helping them develop their skill set, both on the legal side and on the business development side.
[They are paired] by practice area, experience and personality.
Visit clients. It’s important that we understand the industry that they operate in and any sort of issues that the industry is confronting. With the Internet, it’s not difficult to try and identify whatever relevant information is about the industry or the client.
We have a very active library staff that allows us to proactively get highlights about issues that are affecting a particular industry or a client. There are services that would deliver daily updates on topics that might be of concern to a particular industry or client.
It’s talking regularly with the client and going out to meet with them in their place of business. That’s how you stay in touch with them, and that’s how you understand how their business is being affected.
Part of what everyone should be doing to develop those relationships is go visit the client, see where they live, see where they work, understand what problems are confronting their industry, their particular business and know how their product is made.
But the key thing is to just listen to them. Rather than having an immediate solution or a preconceived notion of what the answer is, really listen to clients and what their needs are and what their concerns are.
Take employees on client visits. One of the main things that we try and do is constant reinforcement of the fact that we are advisers to our clients. It’s training by example, taking people with us as we go out to meet with clients and go to where their headquarters are or their factories are and trying to understand their business.
There’s training. There’s one-on-one development of those skills. There’s just the training that comes with participation with more senior people that they see how it’s done.
These are ad-hoc relationships, where you have the trust of the client and you’re bringing younger lawyers along to have them be involved in telephone calls and have them be involved in client meetings where it’s appropriate, so they can see the interaction and they can see and understand the questions that the clients are dealing with. It is not necessarily a formal program; it’s just the natural mentoring process that needs to occur for people to understand what our culture is.
Reinforce the importance of client interaction. You have to reinforce that both by example — how you interact with client relationships — and talking about how important that is. Reinforce that message in your daily interactions and our monthly meetings.
We have meetings in which we talk about the business and how we’re doing, and we reinforce the importance of the culture in terms of the success of our client relationships.
There’s lots of anecdotal evidence from client feedback. I communicate with a number of our clients that I might not be involved [with]. I get involved in talking about how we’re doing.
What we tend to want to know is: Are we meeting their needs and expectations and making sure that we understand what their expectations are for the service that we deliver to them?
How to reach: Cohen & Grigsby PC, (412) 297-4900 or www.cohenlaw.com
Kim Tillotson Fleming might love her job a little too much.
“I love what I do; I have an absolute commitment to our people,” says the president of wealth management firm Hefren-Tillotson Inc. “That level of commitment that’s required, it can be all-consuming.”
So in order to stay accountable to her 140 employees, Fleming starts by finding a balance in her own life.
“Running a business is a very demanding thing,” she says. “Especially if you love it, it’s hard to separate yourself from it.”
She does that by complementing her work with outside involvements and having plenty of people keep her accountable along the way. As a result, she has earned her employees’ trust and maintained her sanity, all while doubling Hefren-Tillotson’s revenue in the past five years.
Smart Business spoke with Fleming about how to establish accountability and trust with your employees by finding your balance.
Build your employees’ trust. In order to gain the trust and keep your integrity, you have to be honest, you have to be fair, and you have to be consistent in the kind of things you do. [Trust is] certainly not an entitlement; it’s something that’s earned over time by showing the kind of skills they can count on.
In order to earn the trust, you have to set that example every day. Do it through your actions; you do it through your words. If we’re going to say, ‘These are our values,’ then a leader can’t earn their trust unless they follow those values.
You have to be accountable to other people. Make sure you have good people around you, that they can keep you accountable and you keep them accountable. We’re a flat organization in leadership because we count on everyone to take a leadership role in one way or another.
A lot of that comes through the interview process. Look for the way that they’ve approached difficult situations. We really look for people that have a good attitude and people that take personal responsibility for things.
I need people that can come to me and say, ‘Hey Kim, you messed up here,’ and I can know that there are people watching what I do if I’ve made mistakes. Part of being a leader is also having the humility to recognize when you’re wrong and acknowledge it.
Make everyone part of the company. When we worked on our mission, vision and values statement, we involved the whole company. We went through almost a two-year process of developing that based on what employees felt was important. We actually had different groups that gave their views and then we had a final group that wrote it and put it out so people could kick the tires.
A lot of it really goes down to, one person can’t do it all. It’s really instilling a certain culture in the firm. We say, ‘It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s important to learn from them and try not to make them again.’
From the time they come in, we spend a fair amount of time trying to give them the history and the culture and make them feel a part of what things were before they got there and let them know that it’s OK to bring ideas forward.
We really try to use those [values] in what we do every day. Everybody has a copy of them at their desk in a nice frame. That’s one of the first things a new employee will receive.
Keep your balance. Personally, I also have someone — I call him my coach — who’s outside of the firm. He helps keep me accountable. He helps me bounce ideas and thoughts about how to handle different situations and how to create vision and all those things.
It’s very lonely to be a leader if you don’t have someone that you can open up with. I’m involved in a couple different CEO groups, and those are great venues.
For me, having the coach is important. Having strong friendships and people or groups that you interact with outside of work, having your outside interests, will help keep your balance because those people will pull you into things.
Surround yourself with other leaders and learn from them because people have so much to share. You don’t have to learn it all on your own. You just make so much progress if you have the opportunity to interact with other people. If you do that, then most of them would probably have referrals that they could give you of people that could be coaches.
Most people who are in the management role or who would step into the position of CEO, they probably have been out in the community for a while. You have to be proactive, though, in getting out and getting involved in things in the community. I reached out and made phone calls to different organizations to say, ‘How can I get involved?’
It’s through people you know who can introduce you. If it’s not happening because of the kind of activities you’re involved in, then I think you do need to reach out and just ask people, ‘Can you make an introduction? Can you tell me about this organization?’
You really need to find things that you care about. There’s not much value in getting involved in something if you don’t really have an interest in it. I don’t think networking just for the purpose of networking makes sense.
How to reach: Hefren-Tillotson Inc., (888) 405-0990 or www.hefren.com
When Dan Neyer turned his attention toward a greener vision for his company, he knew a solo approach wouldn’t get him far. Even though he says a vision starts inside the leader, employees are vital to achieving it.
“Ask your employees and get input from them,” says Neyer, founder and president of commercial real estate and development firm Neyer Properties Inc. “Because ultimately, the ability to have a vision that comes to reality is not one person. It’s really a collective body.”
The key is to get input and secure a shared goal, which Neyer does this through individual conversations with his 20 employees. This personal attention continues through the vision’s fulfillment as he helps employees tie their goals to the corporate outlook, leading the company to 2008 revenue of $50 million.
Smart Business spoke with Neyer about how to get your employees’ input to gain their buy-in and achieve success.
Get employee input on the vision. What we have done in the past is we have involved every employee in the process. We’ve had a couple half-day exercises where we go through what we’ve accomplished to date, the typical SWOT analysis — the strengths, the weaknesses, opportunities, threats — where we see where we’re going. But then have an open discussion, which helps get the buy-in because they’re part of the vision instead of being told what the vision is.
We collectively come up with a vision that everyone can endorse and support, and it’s a vision further than most people want to accept initially. The goal is to convince them that we need to go beyond our own perceived limitations to achieve a greater vision than they could see themselves.
I can do that by myself, but effectively, I need buy-in from everybody around me because if you don’t buy in, it’s not going to happen.
Get buy-in by living the vision. Certainly communication is the key and making sure that vision is understood and realized by each individual. [Make sure] the individual knows the benefit that it ultimately provides for themselves and the company.
So very often I read vision statements and they’re just mounted on a wall, which, to me, doesn’t do a lot. You have to live, breathe, act and communicate your vision every day and explain how your decisions are based on reaching your vision. If you don’t have the cause-and-effect relationship, the vision is never thought of and no one knows what it means and no one acts upon it.
In our discussions for [going green] I said, ‘This is why we’re doing it: It ties to what our goals are, our mission and our vision, so we must follow that direction.’ There were certain people who said, ‘Well, it costs more money.’ Yes, it does cost more money, but really, it’s a long-term investment, and we will make the commitment because in the long term, we will receive the benefits.
You have to take the time as necessary for them to understand to their level, not necessarily your level. You have to meet people where they are, and it means different things for different people.
I think on an individual level, it’s good for a leader to talk to different employees and ask them what the vision means to them. But it’s better on a one-on-one level versus being in the middle of a group session, because that can [make] people uncomfortable.
For us, making the commitment toward the green building also means a commitment in our space. We have recycling programs. We have instituted a policy of … paper elimination. You can’t just talk the walk; you’ve got to follow it all the way through.
And you’ve got to keep it simple. If it’s complex, it’s not going to work. You need to energize them, giving them a sense of making a difference.
Tie individual goals to the vision. We ask each individual to set their goals for the coming year, and then they meet with their immediate supervisor and review the goals, agree to the goals and then tie them to the overall vision of the organization.
And then quarterly, the individual and the person that person reports to meet and discuss how they are reaching their goals or not reaching their goals and what tactics are important. So it’s better than a New Year’s resolution, which is forgotten about two weeks later.
A simple example may be, under the premise of ‘leading development solutions’ in the marketing department, part of marketing skills are to make sure that we’re not just the leader and no one knows about it. So part of the goals of marketing would be, ‘How do we enhance the internal and external knowledge that we are leading the area in our approach to things?’ and tie in to that.
There would be specific items that talk about quantity of articles, certain seminars or discussions we’ve had with outside parties, and other measurements. So it can’t be subjective. For it to be measurable, it has to be quantifiable.
[If] it’s more or less, ‘OK, here are your goals,’ if it’s not tied to the overall goals, then it’s not effective. We raise some questions such as, ‘How does this goal compare to last year? How does it tie to the vision?’
When we do the year-end performance reviews, we help set the stage of each individual, what their accomplishments were, what the hope and expectation is for the next year. It’s kind of like an ever-evolving approach.
How to reach: Neyer Properties Inc., (513) 563-7555 or www.neyer1.com
Twenty years after Jeff Battin founded his company, people have finally stopped asking if he sells fax machines for a living.
Communifax, the marketing company Battin founded, confused clients because the message wasn’t strong and clear. So last summer, Battin guided 82 employees through a rebranding process that restructured the company’s mission, down to the name.
Communifax became Communifx, with a nod toward the company’s “effects” on customers.
“Everybody is charged with part of the process,” says Battin, the chairman of the company. “That project is only as strong as its weakest link.”
Smart Business spoke with Battin about how to drive a change as big as rebranding through your company.
Q. How can a leader involve employees in rebranding the company?
I have to be out there listening. We’ve grown so fast that it’s hard for me to keep up with the new faces. I’m constantly out there, putting my hand out, introducing myself. I don’t introduce myself by title; I introduce myself by my name: ‘Hi, I’m Jeff. What’s your name? What do you do?’
I think it says a lot for the chairman and owner to reach out and learn a little bit about these people that are actually driving your business. I get a sense of whether or not that vision’s shared by keeping my ear to the ground as much as possible.
Every single employee was interviewed as a part of this [rebranding] process. We involved the associates so that they felt they were part of it. Every employee was interviewed for at least 15 minutes to half an hour through an independent company and so we learned our weaknesses our strengths. Based on that, we developed the brand personality, the brand pillars, the essence.
Q. What’s your advice for a leader during the change?
Commit yourself in a very passionate way. If you’re not almost to the point of overzealous about your position and your new strategy, then you’ve not sold yourself on it. And if you haven’t sold yourself on the new vision or the new strategy, then it’s going to be impossible to sell your associates. And if you can’t sell your associates, then you’re dead in water.
A lot of it starts with your passion. You can’t walk in the office in a bad mood.
You have to leave your frustrations — whether they’re personal or even if they’re business-related — at the door. Passion starts from the top, and it works its way down. If I show up to work with an attitude or I carry issues or problems around the office, it zaps their vision, it zaps their attitude.
They view me as the leader, not only for my strategic vision but as the one who started the company, who drives the passion. I have to articulate that vision not in what I say all the time but in my actions.
Q. How do you communicate the changes to employees?
It’s important for something as important as a rebranding effort to get your associates outside of the office. We opted for a nice hotel, the Marriott. We had cocktail hour and hors d’oeuvres, and then they spent about two hours with the presentation I put together.
We did this really cool [video] and everyone got our new brand standards. They got copies of all our literature. I went through the whole process of why we did the branding, what our new pillars were, what’s the essence of who we are, what’s our brand personality.
Then I started showing them some of the graphic elements of the brand and what they could expect to see. We handed out some really nice Under Armour sportswear with the new logo. You might not think that that’s important, but we want to be associated with quality so our sportswear company that we
picked is Under Armour ... as opposed to having an off-brand.
Q. How do you continue to drive the brand internally?
We’re adding to the brand. We’re not staying, and I think that’s important. Even though it’s only been a few months, I’m being asked a lot of questions like: ‘Jeff, can we do this, or can we do that?’ I’ve
assigned someone the main responsibility for brand continuity. She’s coming to me with questions on new ideas. Because when you develop it, you can’t think of everything upfront. You’re going to miss
Inevitably, associates are going to come up with ideas on how to present the company, which is the brand. I’m saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t think about it that way.’ So try and remain flexible.
If you think about brand, the brand is impacted by customer service, so as we add more and more associates in the account management area. There’s certain ways that we handle conflict management because that has an impact on the brand. When I originally started the rebrand, you don’t think of conflict management as a part of the brand, but it certainly is. The image of the company is impacted by the way your associates treat [customers], right down to Jane who answers the phone.
How to reach: Communifx, (866) 372-7272 or www.communifx.com