Robert M. Winget Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007

When Robert M. Winget saw that TSC Apparel wasn’t doing as well as expected in its western market, he didn’t waste time pointing fingers. Instead, TSC’s co-president and CFO sat down with his people and did a candid appraisal of the market. Listening to honest feedback from his people in the trenches, Winget realized that what the company needed was more sales staff to improve customer relationships. With that change, the apparel wholesaler has continued to grow in a very competitive market. And that willingness to give and receive candid opinions is a point of daily business for Winget and his co-president, Jim Eaton, in dealing with the company’s 115 employees. Smart Business spoke with Winget about telling the truth and admitting his mistakes.

Encourage candor for perspective. It’s just a matter of trying to be honest. Everybody can look at the business through rose-colored glasses and see everything in an opportunistic way and say, ‘Hey, we’re not where we want to be, but maybe we’ll get there.’

It’s trying to get people to be more realistic around the business and more realistic about our expectations. For years, we would come up with kind of pie-in-the-sky plans and we weren’t listening to those people that are down in the trenches fighting it every day — people that know what the problems are.

But a lot of times they’re reluctant to share that information; they’re afraid it won’t be received the right way. What we’re trying to create is an environment where people can speak what’s on their mind and share information and not feel like there’s going to be any fallout from that.

That’s why I don’t mind at all telling people the mistakes that I make, because I make them every day and it’s just trying to encourage people to be honest and open. Sometimes it’s the stuff you don’t want to hear, but at least they’re getting it out on the table.

Don’t push the blame on someone else. Most of the time when things aren’t working around here, I look to myself and to the senior management team to try to be honest about why. Most of the time, we have to look to ourselves for the answer. We’re not perfect and we make mistakes and we have to be willing to accept candid feedback without letting it get to us or thinking it’s personal.

I tend to be a real straight shooter with the people who work for me, and I expect them to do that to me, as well. None of us want to hear that we’re doing terrible, but we have to be fair about it. I’ll tell them flat out, ‘I made this decision last June, and it was a mistake.’ I don’t want them to lose confidence in me, but at the same time, I don’t want them to think I’m afraid to admit when I’m wrong.

Prepare new employees for your candor. When someone is new here, there are a couple of key points that I hit on. One is the fact that they’re going to appreciate us being honest with them, and I always tell them, ‘You wouldn’t want me coming to you one day and saying you’ve been doing a terrible job here for the last six or 12 months, so we’re going to make a change and you’re out.’

By the same token, we don’t want to hear an employee come in and tell us that they’ve not been happy at the company and they found another job. We want them to tell us if they’re unhappy.

I always see it as a real failure on our part when we have someone that we feel good about that just comes in and quits for another job. The key thing that we try to communicate to people upfront is that we want to hear what’s going on.

Treat criticism as a building tool. I always tell people, ‘Nobody is perfect. I’m not perfect, the company is not perfect, we all need to be open and willing to accept criticism and feedback to get better.’

If at any time we do a review and we don’t tell people what they’ve done wrong, or what they could do better, we’re really failing them because then we don’t give them anything to work on to make themselves better.

We’ve got to give them feedback, or we’re not helping them any. Our job is to help the people that make a difference because, at the end of the day, I never quote an order, take an order, pack an order, I don’t do any of those things, so my sole purpose for being here is to try to help the people that do those things, and the only way to do that is through some sort of open and honest communication.

Listen to employee feedback. Sometimes I’ve gone so far as to take an e-mail and read it verbatim in a company meeting to say, ‘This issue has come up, and here’s what somebody felt.’ We understand what they’re saying, and we’re willing to say that in front of everybody to validate their comment.

With our people on the front line, who know where we’re winning and losing, if you hear a common theme from them, like a problem with our deliveries, we have to hear them. We have to acknowledge it internally and say it in front of our people and tell them we have these problems and we need to get them fixed, as opposed to just thinking that we do a pretty good job.

Use different opinions to spark new ideas. The director of operations may have the best idea about how to solve a sales problem. We all have our paradigms around how our piece of the business works and how it has to work, and you really need people to challenge that. Some of the breakthroughs we’ve had come from somebody outside of that discipline. They’re sitting there, a smart person, and they’re in the session and they come up with some different approach to solving it.

That’s what makes candor work. Otherwise, people tend to get defensive, and it can create a rift between people. But if our director of operations says something to our VP of sales, the VP of sales is going to listen, and vice versa.

HOW TO REACH: TSC Apparel, www.tscapparel.com or (800) 289-5400