Larry Sheakley uses core values at Skeakley Group of Cos. Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2010

You can’t miss them. The words “a sense of urgency,” “respect of human dignity,” “independence” and “optimism” are strewn in front of you as you enter the headquarters of the Sheakley Group of Cos.

The words decorate department walls and occupy computer screensavers. The words make up the set of values by which Larry A. Sheakley, CEO, leads the 47-year-old company that specializes in business services, such as payroll, human resources solutions and workers’ compensation.

Keeping your values literally in front of your employees is essential, especially for the less tenured.

“In a company our size, you’re always getting new employees,” Sheakley says. “They need to see it’s important. If they don’t see it anywhere after their first day of orientation, then why would they think it’s important? It’s extremely important.”

Your values can be written over and over and over again. They can constantly catch your employees’ eyes. Your employees can recite them forward and backward.

Still, there’s a difference between knowing the values and living the values. You, as the leader, must be the prime example of how to live the values.

“It’s just a constant reinforcement,” Sheakley says. “It all comes back to leadership, whether it’s from me or the business unit leaders or anyone within the company. If they don’t show those leadership values every day, then the words on the piece of paper aren’t going to mean anything. Again, it’s living by those standards, believing in them, and showing people that that’s what leadership is.”

Dedication to the company values has led Sheakley to continual growth. The company’s revenue reached $122 million in 2009. In March 2010, it acquired the assets of GatesMcDonald HealthPlus Inc. and Gates, McDonald & Co.’s state fund workers’ compensation third-party administrator business.

Here is how Sheakley incorporates the company values of urgency, respect, independence and optimism when it comes to leading his 2,200 employees and meeting customers’ needs.

Get employees to believe

Sure, Sheakley plays a role in maintaining large customer relationships and he answers a client’s call when needed. But gone are the days in which he is involved with major customer contact.

“The CEO’s role when it comes to customers is setting the direction of your company so that your customers are being well serviced and their needs are being met,” he says. “The CEO’s role is always setting the direction of the business and setting the core values and what it is we’re going to do on a day-to-day basis.”

So how do you set the company’s direction and values? It’s more than just communication.

“The biggest key is whether they believe in you or not,” Sheakley says. “You as their leader, they need to believe that you’ve bought in. This isn’t just something that you put down on a piece of paper. These are really part of what your goals are and your ambitions and your core values. If they believe that, then they’ll buy in.”

You can’t make people believe anything. But you can show them you believe by how you act and what you say.

“If you have consistency and passion, then they’ll believe,” Sheakley says. “And if they don’t believe, then they’re not the right people.”

The consistency comes in your communication and reaction. With more than 2,000 employees, Sheakley can’t go to each one and explain the company’s values and his expectations — perhaps you’re in a similar situation. He specifically outlines his message to his direct reports and asks them to pass it along. In regular conversation with his direct reports and when he has a chance to directly communicate with employees, he touches on the essential topics, which to him are the company’s values, mission and customers.

While having a well-crafted, repetitive message is good, you need to make sure your values are being reinforced by not only you and your management team but also by the employees themselves.

Sheakley has lunches with employees for certain anniversaries. It’s an opportunity for him to make sure employees understand the direction of the business, and it’s an opportunity for employees to ask questions about the future of the business.

Not everyone is going to open up, but, as Sheakley says, if you get 10 people in a room, a few will guide the conversation. What the open and honest dialogue allows, though, is for employees to take that conversation back to their peers.

“Hopefully they’ll take away from those lunches a little bit more about how I think and I feel about the business, and then they go back to their department,” Sheakley says. “People ask them what was lunch like. They spread the word. They say whatever the conversation was at lunch, ‘Here’s what we talked about.’”

Sheakley has taken the ingraining of values one step further and created the Eagle Leadership Program. Three to four times a year, a group of about half-dozen employees is selected to join the Eagle class.

Supervisors nominate the employees whom they think show leadership within their own department and have potential leadership value for the company. The employees present to a panel why they’re interested in being in the program and they’re either voted in or voted out.

A series of leadership courses with lectures and books are taught by different management. For each group, the teachers, the employees and what is taught changes but the general idea of training on leadership and company values stays the same.

If you’re going to conduct leadership training at your own company, the essential element that cannot be overlooked is your core values.

“You are grooming leaders; people then see the value that you attach to it,” Sheakley says. “If you’re willing to spend this kind of time on them, they feel as if this must be really important to management.”

Live the values

Communicating the values and showing that you, as the leader, believe in them is only the first step. You have to make sure your employees live the values. And they live the values every day.

In setting the company values and direction, Sheakley is clear on his expectations and has systems in place to make sure they’re met.

“The CEO has to set the expectation, because everyone is looking at the CEO to set the expectation,” Sheakley says. “As long as it’s a rational expectation, then people are going to buy in. If you don’t get buy-in, then you have to examine what your expectations are or you need to find people who are going to buy in.”

A prime example of Sheakley’s expectations blending with company values is customer service. His client expectations include being up front and honest, making customers feel comfortable that the company is there to serve them and using a sense of urgency, basically answering the phone when you can and returning calls that you’ve missed as soon as possible.

What Sheakley sees as its standout difference in the industry is its ability to provide personalized customer service. To provide that level of service, the company relies heavily on feedback.

Every time a customer service or field person talks with a client, notes from the conversation are recorded. Details include whether the conversation took place on the phone or in person, who initiated the conversation and why, what was the resolution to the conversation and any other pertinent information.

The strategic nature of collecting data is informative for many reasons, including tracking customer trends and truly understanding whether management’s expectations are being heard at the bottom level.

“First of all, you understand your client better and what their needs are,” Sheakley says. “Second, it’s a reminder if a caller would call and if they want information on why did we do that that way, we can refer back to our notes and say, ‘Well, here’s what we talked about, and here’s what our notes were.’ We can also be very specific about why or why we didn’t do some action on a particular claim. It also helps us in our dialogue with the client. ‘Yes, we were on top of it, and this is what we did.’”

Having an open and honest dialogue with customers is really how you’re going to understand their needs and get the feedback you truly want to determine how your employees — in Sheakley’s case the customer service and field executives — are following through on service.

“We come back and gather a lot of that data and have conversations internally about what are the highlights and the things that our clients are asking for,” Sheakley says. “What is important to our clients and what is not, because what seems maybe what we do for a client or a group of clients (is important) is not necessarily perceived as valued.

“A lot of it has to do with listening. Not only listening but also accumulating the data, and then trying to do something with it so we’re not just thinking that, ‘Well, we’re providing a product here and this is what you’re buying so good luck.’ It’s more about listening to what the client is really asking for and trying to give that to them.”

It’s important in every customer conversation to ask questions like: Are there any other needs you have? Is there anything else we can do to help? By asking those basic questions and pausing to hear the answers, you’ll pick up on little things. It’s truly listening to their needs.

“Being a good listener is always predicated on being empathetic to the other party’s needs,” Sheakley says. “If you can listen with the idea that you really want to have empathy for what the other person is saying and you really do want to hear and feel the pain of whatever is going on from the other perspective, then you’re going to be a good listener.”

Sheakley’s supervisors and employees look over the notes taken from the customer conversations to understand whether trends are taking place. If a trend is identified, the information moves its way up to the direct reports and possibly on to Sheakley if a discussion needs to take place on making changes.

No matter what the outcome to the answer, you always have to follow up with customers and be honest about what you can and cannot do to meet their needs.

Using a system that tracks customer conversations and satisfaction has allowed Sheakley to retain customers and be better prepared to handle questions and concerns, it has also boosted employee morale from the standpoint that employees realize management takes customer service seriously.

“Leadership all comes back to whether your people believe in what you stand for and what you’re saying,” Sheakley says. “If you don’t actually live it out, then they’re not going to believe it. It all comes back to whatever goals and ambitions and core values you set for your business. You’d better be willing to live those yourself.”

How to reach: Sheakley, (800) 877-2053 or