Karen Carnahan envisions growth at Cintas Corp Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

Karen Carnahan’s responsibilities are really quite clear.

They all point to one conclusion: move Cintas Corp. from the No. 2 document management company in the country to the top position.

Carnahan was handed the responsibility along with her position of president and chief operating officer of the Document Management Division in 2008. With the charge came the objective of leading her 1,800 employee-partners under one vision to accomplish the feat.

“The most important key to being a good leader is building a team, a very effective, energized team of people who understand the vision,” she says. “A leader has to be able to inspire people to achieve that vision. But I think it comes down to … how do you set that vision to begin with?

“The key to setting that vision in the first place is getting the buy-in of your team of people understanding that it is an achievable vision. You will come out of the huddle, so to speak, understanding that that’s the vision that everybody agreed to, that it is achievable and that you’re all rowing in the same direction in order to achieve it.”

Carnahan, the first female division president at the $3.8 billion business services company, has followed that method in order to stay on track to reach No. 1 and achieve some of the division’s main goals, such as maintaining annual, double-digit revenue growth and venturing into new markets.

In fiscal 2009, the Document Management Division reached revenue of $213 million. The division recently expanded past the U.S. and Canada, opening two operations in Europe. And in June, Cintas was the first company in document destruction to become North American AAA certified by the National Association of Information Destruction.

Carnahan credits her success to watching and learning the importance of vision from a great leader, Cintas founder Richard “Dick” Farmer.

“Dick had the ability to paint a vision that was exciting and achievable,” she says. “Along the way, he provided the leadership, yet wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and get down with us in the trenches to make sure that vision was achieved.”

Here is how Carnahan develops and communicates the vision for Cintas’ fastest-growing business division.

Put the pieces together

Stepping into her role, Carnahan realized that if she was going to get her employees to follow her, the vision couldn’t be created by her alone.

“It’s a collaborative effort,” she says. “In order to be a really powerful, energized, profitable division, there are multiple constituents who have to weigh in on and contribute to that success. Again, I would go back to the word collaborative because you’re painting a vision for the 1,800 partners who are carrying out the business day to day. We’re only as successful as those who give us valuable advice, counsel, support in order to build that infrastructure and foundation underneath us to make us successful.”

To achieve overall collaboration, you need to pull from a cross section of functions within your organization. Truth is the details of your vision will probably offer a comprehensive overview of your goals from financial and customer expectations to developing products and services.

To cover all of her bases, Carnahan invited her regional business directors as well as partners from Cintas’ supporting services departments, such as accounting, procurement and administration to sit down and plot on paper what the vision should be and how to get there.

Carnahan says there are really two parts to a vision: quantitative and qualitative. Both need to be clearly defined, and both are developed by looking at different internal and external factors.

Every fiscal year, Cintas sets projections for its top-line, bottom-line and all of the expense-line items in between for each operation, e.g. document management, uniforms and apparel, facility services. Once the details are set, the Document Management Division then sets projections all the way down to the grassroots level that it can measure monthly against the actual progress toward its vision.

“It’s just like in sports,” Carnahan says. “You have to know what the score is, right? Those (measurements) are our scorecards about whether we’re achieving what we expected to achieve at the beginning of the fiscal year.”

When Carnahan thinks about vision in terms of numbers, from a financial standpoint, it’s usually setting realistic goals based upon market size and the potential of the market her division serves. As you go through the process to determine your ultimate goal for market takeover, she says there are specific company aspects you need to understand. First, where are you situated from a market-share standpoint? Second, what are your core competencies? After analyzing those questions, you’ll get a better understanding as to what the realistic market share is in the future.

For instance, the Document Management Division has 75 locations between North America and Europe. But it wants to continue revenue growth and it wants to expand its geographic coverage to 100 percent of the top 150 U.S. markets.

“You go about it in a somewhat very objective way so that people understand the way you came about the vision was very objective,” Carnahan says. “It makes sense in that it is something that can be achieved. That would be what I would say about setting a vision from a financial standpoint. Setting vision though from other aspects of what you’re going to do qualitatively is more based upon our corporate culture.”

Part of Cintas’ vision is to build inspired, energized, passionate teams, which directly links to its corporate culture and its belief of what makes a successful company. It’s taken so seriously that the corporate culture is taught to all of the new management hires coming into the company.

“We define it as a principle objective, we define it as a management system, and we define it as the characteristic that we want in our people as professionals and motivated partners who are, all again, achieving or driving for that vision of the company,” Carnahan says.

Once you’ve set your vision, you need to collaborate on the path or initiatives that will help you reach that vision.

“It’s primarily going back to what the primary vision of the division is and also then developing, what I would call, key initiatives that will lead us to being able to achieve that vision,” she says.

For the Document Management Division, it came down to priorities. One, naturally, is the security of customers’ information since its main solutions include offering secure document destruction, document recording and storage, and digital imaging. The second has to do with people — making sure employees are safe.

“Your goals must be milestones or realistic steps that allow you to get to the vision,” Carnahan says. “They’re financial as well as nonfinancial, but regardless, they are measurable milestones.”

Share your vision

You can’t fear sounding like a broken record. The only way to get your vision across to employees is through repeated communication and defining their roles in accomplishing what you’ve set out to achieve.

Carnahan doesn’t stop at just talk or even e-mail. All of the work that went into setting initiatives and benchmarks for the vision is u

sed to communicate the vision precisely and to get employee buy-in.

“The most important way is just communication,” Carnahan says. “It’s communicating the vision over and over again and measuring our results against the vision, key benchmarks, financials as well as qualitative benchmarks on how we’re progressing that vision.”

The first step in communicating the vision is making sure everyone at all levels understands what the specific goals are both in the long term and in the short term. Carnahan relies on her general managers to set the tone of the vision at the local level. Since Cintas has stringent measurements for performance, general managers are able to specifically outline the vision’s initiatives and give constant feedback to employees on how they are making strides toward the vision.

The process goes back to Carnahan’s philosophy that you have to inspire employees to achieve the vision and employees need to see the vision and believe it’s accomplishable. That only happens when people understand what the goal is and how close they are to achievement.

“People buy in to a vision by winning,” Carnahan says. “It’s just like coaching a football team. The players have to see the vision to score touchdowns in order to win the game. They need to visualize what must be done.”

The same goes for those managers. Monthly goals are set, and if they’re not met, then Carnahan and her staff revisit the goals to determine what fine-tuning needs to be done to get everyone back on track.

And fine-tuning will need to happen, especially when you’re trying to grow or venture into new markets.

“Sometimes you have to make changes because you may find what you expected would happen in a certain market, when you go into a new market, it’s not according to the timeline that you originally expected, so you’ll fine-tune,” Carnahan says. “You won’t fine-tune the vision; your vision will stay the same. Your timeline might change though. Again, it’s constant communication.”

Employees won’t connect with the vision by measuring results alone. While the general managers are charged with establishing the vision at the bottom level, Carnahan makes sure all upper management is seen and heard to ensure the message she sets from the top is being communicated.

“I’m out in the field a lot with people because the answers aren’t really in my office, the answers are out in the field,” she says. “I make sure that I’m out talking to my partners constantly.

“They need to see our leaders, not just myself but the other leaders in my division, all the time to make sure they’re getting the message.”

At the beginning of each year, Carnahan, along with her general managers and regional business directors, set a detailed calendar to ensure she is reaching every region and a good representation of her employee-partners throughout the year.

Sometimes that means meeting service representatives in the field before they start their daily duties at 6 a.m. The keys to making those conversations successful are talking to employees about what they’re seeing on the job, asking them about their lives and updating them on what’s going on in the rest of the company. In Cintas case, the Document Management Division’s 1,800 employees is a small number compared to the overall company’s more than 30,000 employees.

“We’ll have communication and interactive communication back and forth, and talk about what their challenges are, what they’re seeing in the marketplace, how we can help them be better at their jobs,” Carnahan says. “It’s really very just open communication. You talk about safety. You talk about security. You talk about, again, things that are on their minds.”

Being with your employees in the field, not only allows you to check on progress toward your vision, but it gives employees a sense that you care about them as an individual and you care about their work.

“The key for any executive to inspiring employees to buy in to the vision is engaging your employees — from the front-line employee-partners to your direct reports — and making every employee realize they each have a valuable role in the overall success of the company.”

How to reach: Cintas Corp., Document Management Division, (800) 246-8271 or www.cintas.com