Earning success Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
Chris Ohlinger is a big believer in using laughter to shake off the stresses of work.

“I believe that people rarely succeed if they don’t have fun at what they’re doing,” says Ohlinger, CEO of market research company Service Industry Research Systems Inc. “And I don’t think there’s anything so serious in business or in life that you can’t get through it.”

Parlaying that attitude, SIRS has grown to more than 300 employees and has earned the Impulse Survey Award as one of the top 10 market research companies in the world. Smart Business spoke with Ohlinger about keeping a loose atmosphere and finding talent.

Q: How do you keep the atmosphere relaxed and still get the job done?

You can take your work and the people and their dreams seriously, but you don’t take yourself too seriously. We have some interesting and fun things we do.

We have a Brain-and-a-Half Award for the person who has done something so extraordinary that’s it’s worth special mention. But if you have a Brain-and-a-Half Award, you also have a Half-Brain Award, and that’s for something mindless enough that it’s worthy of that.

It’s given to somebody that does something so over the top that you can joke about it. It’s to lighten people up and create a fun atmosphere. We’re willing to be a little goofy around here; this is our dress-down decade. A lot of people have dress-down days or something; this is going to be our dress-down decade.

Q: What’s the most important thing you have to do as a leader?

You have to be willing to do anything to help your people and your clients, but focus on what you’re good at and delegate as much as you can. Let’s say finance might be the most important thing here, but I’m not very good at it.

Well, if I’m not very good at it, I better get it away from me. You have to stay focused on what you’re good at and help make the most of your talents while leading others.

Q: What’s the best lesson you’ve learned as the company has grown?

Probably the biggest thing is that there is absolutely no substitute for hard work. I’ve never been cursed by an overabundance in intelligence but intelligence can be a lousy teacher. It can seduce smart people into thinking that they can’t lose.

I’ve seen a lot of people lose, so I’ve had to rely on hard work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very passionate about what I do, but it is still hard work. If you love what you’re doing all the time, then you’re probably not doing it hard enough.

I’ve known a lot of hardworking people that are not successful, but I’ve never known a successful person who didn’t work to the point of exhaustion. People who say work smarter not harder generally aren’t hard workers. Just showing up for work every day doesn’t make you a hard worker any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

Q: How do you find young talent?

When we look at the colleges, we look and see how someone got through. We’ll look at activities but we also ask, ‘Gee, did they work their way through college?’ Because those people know that it takes a lot of hard work to get through.

I don’t think we’ve ever even looked at a grade point average. But we do look at what type of work experiences they’ve had through college.

We’ve got special arrangements set up at colleges around the country and we bring in co-ops, and it really is a great deal for everybody. It gives them a chance to look at us, it gives us a chance to look at them.

It gives them a chance to make some money and it fits in with our philosophy of having people work through college, that’s a good indication that they hold in esteem what we hold in esteem.

Q: How do you address the big challenges?

Once we identify the problem, we’ll give a single person the responsibility to solve it. Along with that, we’ll give them the support mechanisms that they need.

But the thing I try to stress is don’t come to me with a problem; bring me a problem with a solution. I might not agree with it, but don’t just bring me a problem. We try to steer away from group committees.

Another thing we’ll do is the senior management will get together and say, ‘Who needs this challenge?’ If somebody comes in and says, ‘Here’s a serious challenge,’ and they want to tackle it, that will go a long way because we want people to attack challenges. We want them to learn how to deal with change aggressively; we think that’s about as important as any business skill you can have.

HOW TO REACH: SIRS Inc., (859) 781-9700 or www.sirsinc.com