Sasha Peterson keeps Hobsons EMT transparent Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

When your kids bring home papers from school, you proudly display them on the fridge. That’s the idea at Hobsons EMT, where Managing Director Sasha Peterson sends letters to high-achieving employees.

As the company grows, he keeps it personal with his 180 employees.

“The key is trying to have as close a pulse as you can, which I’ll readily admit will become harder and harder as we get bigger,” Peterson says. “That’s not easy, but it’s possible to make sure you talk to everybody during the course of the year.”

In 2007, Peterson took over the Enrollment Management Technology division, which accounts for about $45 million of Hobsons’ revenue by providing customized database management packages to help universities manage retention. He’s already had to adapt to the growth.

“If people believe in what you’re trying to do more broadly, then hopefully — as long as they know why you’re making those decisions along the way — change shouldn’t be a scary thing,” he says.

Smart Business spoke to Peterson about staying in touch with your employees.

Communicate goals. The critical job of any leader is to convey broad directionality and make sure that the themes that you’re trying to focus on are understood very thoroughly and deeply by everybody that’s working for you. It’s a constant refinement. It’s trying to distill a very broad vision into a couple of immediately actionable goals.

As far as how I distill that, the biggest challenge I’ve given myself is to be as transparent as possible. On a weekly basis, whatever office I’m in, I have a small lunch with people. I open up with just five minutes of stuff that I’m thinking about and working on and then the rest of it is pretty open. Sometimes it’s work-related; sometimes it’s very personal — but either way it’s a win. If it’s work related, it’s a lot easier to ask questions in a small group. And if it’s personal, it just helps build that rapport where people will feel more comfortable to come ask you questions along the way.

On a monthly basis, I do a companywide lunch meeting we’ve creatively named Snacking with Sasha because on the West Coast it’s breakfast. Continue to have that rolling dialogue with people, you know, ‘Here’s what we’re hoping to do next month,’ and then, ‘Here’s how we did on that.’ Continually keep people updated and continually trickle down that information.

Then on a semiannual basis I have a companywide in-person meeting with everybody that outlines the broader objectives. So the monthly ones are pretty operational; the semiannual ones are a little bit more aspirational. Tons of communication and as much transparency as possible are the key drivers of making sure that people are aligned to the same goals.

Plan meetings. I started doing an annual calendar that maps out where I need to be for meetings or conferences or important client visits and then where I want to be, which is a reasonably equal distribution across the offices. Just getting that on paper and seeing it in front of me makes me accountable to myself to say, ‘I really don’t feel like going to California next week, but I said that I would and so I’m going to go.’

The other thing is making vocal commitments about things I’m going to do. We do these semiannual meetings, and announcing at the beginning of the year when they’re going to happen, makes them happen. So I self-create some pressure to make sure that things will happen.

Make yourself accessible. It’s just being up and available. I spend most of my day just walking around, talking to people, trying to understand what they’re working on and making sure that if they know that I know what they’re working on, that it’s important. Make a very conscious effort to spend time physically in each office — and not just with the managers.

I’m very conscious about who is there, who I’ve talked to. Most of it I can remember, but I do make little notes from time to time about significant events in their lives — if they’re getting married, if they’ve got children.

As soon as somebody thinks of you as president of the division, then suddenly there’s this organizational chart that makes it really difficult for them to feel like they can come talk to you. When they know that I’m Sasha and I’ve got two daughters and I’ve got the same challenges they do in their life, that makes them a lot more likely to do it. I’ve tried to make sure that people know me not just as their boss but as a person, and that is enough to make them come talk to me.

Listen to responses. If an employee believes that they matter to the organization and that the organization is sincerely focused on empowering them with tools that they need to do their job more efficiently, that’s a pretty big driver and motivator, as well. But that also translates back into the communication, because if it’s just me talking my head off, then what good is that? It’s got to be a feedback loop so that they can feel like they can come and talk to me or their manager about ideas that they’ve got.

If you can create environments in which people can sincerely give you ideas and they see those ideas implemented within a month, that’s pretty powerful stuff.

One of the ideas that I’m introducing this year is asking people to have a hassle log. What’s making your life harder? What could I do to make it easier for you to do your job better? I said I want a quarterly list from people beginning in December. I told them to call me personally, e-mail me personally — it’s not anideaforyou@hobsons.com. They know I’m going to get them.

One of them was, ‘I don’t know everybody anymore. We have new people starting all the time. How about name plates to put on our desks?’ That’s a really good idea. We’ll have that in a couple of weeks.

If we can say, ‘Hey, Brian had this idea; it’s done,’ that’s a really quick and easy win. When people see those quick wins happening, then they’re going to say, ‘Well, this isn’t just lip service.’

How to reach: Hobsons EMT, (800) 927-8439 or www.hobsons.com