When Flemming Bjøernslev took over as president and CEO of Lanxess Corp. and head of the North American region, he gave himself 100 days to get to know the company and the people. This January, the time was up — and by then, Bjøernslev had visited all 14 major sites in the United States and Canada.
“In my first couple days, I went out and took the pulse of the company to assess where we stood in order for me to prepare myself and the employees to take the company to the next level,” Bjøernslev says. “As an international corporation, we have global targets and the board at headquarters expects us to contribute to that target.”
He felt strongly about getting to rub elbows with the 1,500 employees of Lanxess Corp., the North American division of Lanxess, an $11 billion leading manufacturer of more than 3,000 products in the areas of rubber, plastics, intermediates (such as alcohols, acids and higher olefins) and specialty chemicals.
Bjøernslev came to Pittsburgh after serving as CEO of Lanxess Central Eastern Europe in Slovakia and now has the task of taking the learnings from his prior CEO role and transferring them to Lanxess’ North American business to continue to push the company forward.
Bjøernslev is optimistic about the current opportunities in the U.S. and how that will contribute to Lanxess’ business domestically.
“We are seeing a lot of manufacturing returning to the U.S.,” Bjøernslev says. “That gives me great comfort that the U.S. industries are moving forward to a better, brighter future, especially in the areas of mobility, urbanization, agriculture and water.”
Lanxess caters to all those areas and the current outlook has Bjøernslev excited that the business in North America will pick up rapidly, helping get Lanxess on the path to the next level.
Here is how Bjøernslev has come into a new role and put himself and Lanxess in a better position to succeed.
Take first steps
While Bjøernslev isn’t new to the CEO role by any means, he was still entering a new geography and new division of Lanxess when he came to Pittsburgh in October 2012. In his initial three-plus months, he had to familiarize himself with the business.
“In those first 100 days, I had to get to know the company and the people here in North America, which is Pittsburgh and our other sites,” Bjøernslev says.
He started with a couple of town-hall meetings and round-table discussions held department by department to interact on a more individual level with employees.
“I consider that extremely valuable to get to know the individuals and for them to get to know me and listen to what my vision is as we move forward,” he says. “I also visited all the major sites we have in North America. Again, we did a mix of town-hall meetings and round table discussions.”
Bjøernslev had a two-fold approach to his new CEO role, both internally and externally.
“The internal approach best practice for me has always been to sit down with the people and have them present their roles and responsibilities within the company in order for me to assess where we stand from a corporate point of view,” he says.
“The external part is presenting Lanxess to the outside world — customers, business partners and other relevant organizations we interact with.”
It is crucial that a new CEO put himself or herself out in front of the company’s stakeholders and offer the chance to get to know and understand one another.
“The key is to just take the hurdle of getting out there, getting to know the people, introducing yourself, introducing the company, introducing the target and tell a little bit about yourself,” Bjøernslev says. “That has been the focal point, and it is the best practice based on my experiences in previous jobs.”
Bjøernslev has learned that listening to the people who help drive the business every day is vital to understanding what direction to go in next.
“You have to listen to the people you are going to work with in the new position,” he says. “You have to watch the environment very closely and most importantly, listen to your gut feeling and be daring as you move along and make decisions.”
The worst thing a new CEO can do is hesitate in making those crucial decisions.
“We are all human beings and when you make a decision, you normally base it on experiences,” he says. “If you’re somewhat uncertain, human beings have a tendency to avoid making a decision. If you want to move forward in a new position, you have to make a decision, because avoiding a decision is not going to get the job done.”
Get to the next level
Lanxess is driven by innovation and technology paired with people excellence, both globally and locally. What Bjøernslev has found is that the company’s production and product base is extremely quick with regards to innovation, technology and the right ideas to make new products that will propel the company.
“At the end of the day if you take the people excellence, the topic of safety and blend that with the innovation and technology driven culture we have here at Lanxess, those are the keystones in order to create success that will take Lanxess North America to the next level,” Bjøernslev says.
When looking at what opportunities existed in North America, Bjøernslev saw the automobile market as a crucial player in Lanxess’ future with the ability to offer new products in rubber and plastics.
“The U.S. market is still the biggest market in the world for miles per person driven,” he says. “What I have realized over here is that Americans love cars. With our product portfolio within plastics and the fact that we are the leading manufacturer of synthetic rubber in the world, more than 50 percent of our turnover is generated in the automotive and tire manufacturing industry.”
Lanxess currently has an initiative it calls Green Mobility. Green Mobility relates to two major areas — lightweight construction of automobiles and green tires — which Lanxess hopes will drive the growth of the business and improve the auto industry at the same time.
“Car manufacturers are continuously focusing and forced to focus on reducing CO2 emission, reducing fuel consumption and that’s why they have to reduce the weight of the cars,” Bjøernslev says. “By using our high-performance plastics, you can reduce the weight of a car up to 30 percent. That is something that the Motor City is very interested in.”
The second area of interest for Lanxess is what it calls the green tire. The company has been supporting an initiative within the European Union, Brazil and Korea surrounding tire labeling.
“There is a requirement to label your tire as a producer based on three factors: rolling resistance, noise reduction, and wet-grip capabilities,” Bjøernslev says. “We are convinced that Americans who love to have a choice will be embarking on this tire labeling issue because so far in the U.S. you have never had the chance to decide what kind of tire you would like under your Cadillac, Ford or Chevy.
“We’re convinced this will be a topic for the U.S. industry in the future and we will support that.”
Bjøernslev hasn’t wasted any time in making decisions about where to focus the company moving forward. That decisiveness has been a result of listening to what is happening around Lanxess globally.
“First and foremost, you have to listen to your customers,” he says. “Secondly, make sure that you assess the entire value chain. You want to make sure that you reach out and listen to the customers of your customers. You want to make sure that you’re integrated in the right manner in order to cost-effectively and profit-effectively cater your products to the market.
“You have to make sure that you read the signs of your time, meaning the trends in the marketplace. You have to live in a global world. Today, it would be very risky to only focus on the U.S. or North American market.
“You have to take into consideration what the drivers are internationally, in Asia and in Europe, because although we sell a lot of products here in the U.S., we export to other parts of the world and vice versa.”
Bjøernslev says as time goes on, he plans to continue to focus on having the right set up in the company to get Lanxess to that next level of growth.
“We are cautiously optimistic as to future development,” he says. “What we have to do now is make sure we have the right organizational set up in order to cater our products to the market.
“What I found here was an excellent foundation. What we want to do is capitalize on that and make sure that we participate in the new market dynamics within the North American chemical industry and beyond … with the advancement of our products.”
How to reach: Lanxess Corp., (800) 526-9377 or www.lanxess.us
Get to know your employees and understand your company.
Listen to key stakeholders and the business environment.
Take your learnings and make decisions about direction.
The Bjøernslev File
President and CEO
Education: Bachelor’s degree in international management, FOM University of Applied Sciences, Essen, Germany
What was your very first job, and what did you learn from that experience?
I was a shop assistant at a green grocer. It taught me that hard work and dedication pays off.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Never tell yourself that the target has been reached, because there is a big risk that you turn complacent.
You mentioned you are a car guy, what is your favorite car?
I am the proud owner of a 1969 Porsche coupe. I’m a Porsche guy but old Porsches.
Who is someone in business that you look up to?
I’m a great admirer of a man named Ferdinand Piëch. He is the head of the supervisory board of Volkswagen. Volkswagen is currently No. 3 in the world and the target is to be the No. 1 car producer. First with Porsche, then Audi, then Volkswagen, Piëch has continuously been building Volkswagen to be one of the leading car producers in the world and that’s been done with innovation and technology. I find it fascinating the consistency he has had in achieving the position Volkswagen is in today.
What has been your favorite country you have spent time in?
I have a bunch of favorite countries, but my takeaway lesson from traveling the world has been that the key is the language. I speak four languages fluently: Danish, German, English and Spanish. I speak half Slovak because my fiancé is from Slovakia. I have a couple of favorite cities: Vienna, Austria; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and I’m increasingly starting to like Pittsburgh, because it’s not a major city like New York, but it’s also not a village. It’s the right size and it has a lot of culture.
Staying relevant. It’s why companies close old divisions and start new ones, why they introduce new products, make acquisitions, diversify their portfolios and invest in R&D. And for IT companies like Groupware Technology Inc., it’s the reason to complete one transformation, only to pause, and do it all over again.
The need to change was something that IT industry veterans — owners Mike Thompson, Scott Sutter and Anthony Miley — understood well when they acquired Groupware, an IT solutions provider that was on the verge of going belly-up in 2005. They recognized from day one that the company’s survival was dependent upon Groupware’s ability to transition outside its roots of
“systems and storage” and make a name in for itself in IT’s fastest-growing segments: big data, cloud computing, virtualization and data security. It’s a process that’s taken involved two restructurings in seven years.
“It’s a brand-new organization from the company that we acquired,” says Thompson, the company’s president and CEO. “We took a company that was doing at the time of the acquisition $1.7 million, and we turned it into almost $150 million with our company. We injected life into the organization by creating relevancy within the marketplace … and within the customer base.”
Here’s how Thompson and his co-owners have taken Groupware from struggling IT reseller into a leading systems integrator.
Look for an opening
Groupware’s broad customer base includes SMBs all the way to Fortune 500 companies. This means the company’s IT solutions must meet a wide range of technology needs. Delivering solutions that are on the leading edge of today’s systems and storage technology is the only way to stay relevant for customers.
“At the rate that technology is changing — it’s pretty amazing the acceleration that it’s going through — we need to stay in the forefront in regard to what technology is out there,” Thompson says. “It’s having business conversations with our customers to understand what pain points they’re trying to solve for and where they’re trying to take their business.”
Nobody knows the needs of the market better than your customer base. So one of Thompson’s first steps as CEO was to ask customers, “What’s going on in the marketplace?” and “Where do you want to take your business?” to see where Groupware should be investing.
“Understanding what’s going on around cloud computing, big data, next generation data centers and having the expertise to be able to deep dive into those types of opportunities and conversations with customers has allowed us to remain in the forefront,” Thompson says.
“It’s having conversations with our end users in regard to what business issues they are trying to solve and then understanding how we can help them solve those issues, and not just for today.”
What Thompson and his partners realized quickly is that businesses buying IT products also wanted in-depth knowledge and advice from their providers. They began working on a strategy to transform Groupware into a services-led business, which could provide both products and support for its customer’s technical capabilities.
As it turned out, the challenges in the down economy — more companies began seeking IT workarounds to help them manage with more limited resources —gave the company an “in” to present its new solutions and services to the marketplace.
“Customers looked to us to offset some of the reductions that they had in place because business has to go on,” Thompson says. “You still have to solve these business issues. You’ve just got to find new ways to address the business models out there.”
While competitors scaled back, Groupware doubled down on IT investments, including its service segment, which Thompson and his partners believed would propel demand moving forward. The company also invested heavily investments in its labs and engineering capabilities — especially engineering talent.
“Where there is change and uncertainty, there is opportunity,” Thompson says.
“As we went through it, we saw that people were going to pull back. Our opportunity was to go invest heavily to have resources available to [businesses] and to create value out in the marketplace that our customers could leverage from us to continue to be successful in their operation.”
Start tough conversations
By the time the recession began bottoming out in 2010, Groupware had nearly doubled its business, a sign that new investments were paying off. Still, the business transformation also forced Thompson and his executive team to restructure certain areas of the company to make room for those investments.
It was important to engage people in “adult conversations” about why the changes were happening and what they meant.
“I think too often we let niceness get in the way of the truth. You need to have those conversations and not delay the hard conversations, acting decisively based on that and moving forward. I’ve been in situations where the executive team has been slow to make changes and it became irrelevant really quickly by not acting and not executing. It’s critical to have those conversations and then act on them appropriately.”
Groupware has now gone through two restructurings since 2005, a transformation process that’s involved rearranging certain departments, eliminating remote offices and consolidating operations. These strategic moves have helped drive the company’s investment in “rack and roll” solutions — complete technology solutions designed to be rolled into the data center and quickly put into production, generating higher returns for Groupware.
For Thompson, the ability to have honest conversations with team members has helped him keep the company accountable to progress, but also to earn employee respect. People prefer to do business with people that they like, but they’ll also follow a leader who they respect, he says.
“We need to have those hard conversations and get everybody on board with the investments that we want to make as an organization,” Thompson says.
“You can move too quickly, but if you set the goals and hold accountability level, you can make minor changes to that if you need to, or you can pull back.”
That said, building a dialogue with employees is also important in helping you monitor your investments. Strong internal communication gives you a continuous feedback loop to know where your investments stand and what kind of returns they are generating so that you can know when to pull back.
“It goes back to where you place your bets, making bets and then understanding the return, setting expectations associated with those bets and managing toward that,” Thompson says. “If you don’t see the return or you don’t see the return coming, you need to be able to take those resources back and double down where you do see return on those investments coming from or where you believe you can get a greater return.”
Share in excellence
Today, Thompson continues to invest heavily in the company’s core competencies — networking, security and storage — as well as its services practice, its fastest-growing division. Smart investments combined with open and honest communication are two building blocks in a foundation that helps Groupware stay relevant with customers, and the marketplace.
The third is collective ambition, or a shared commitment by employees to the company’s success.
“I’m a firm believer in building winning teams, having the right people in the right positions at the right time,” Thompson says. “Then you’ve got to empower them to go out and execute.
One way Thompson drives collective ambition at Groupware is by creating an environment where employees want to come to work.
“I’ve always felt that it’s our job from a leadership perspective to put our employees in a position to be successful,” Thompson says. “When they drive home that night, we need to give them a reason to come back in the office the next morning.”
What makes a great work environment? At Groupware, it comes down to living the company’s three core values every day.
“The great thing about this transition is that we’ve remained true to our core values of customer service, excellence and fun,” Thompson says. “My belief is that you keep those core values intact and you create an environment where employees can be successful and understand the consistency of the model that you’re bringing to the marketplace.”
An example is the fact that Groupware invites every employee in the company to its national kickoff — an event that many businesses limit to their sales teams.
“It’s customer service,” he says. “It’s the pursuit of excellence and it’s having fun. Those three complement each other.”
Getting employees together for the kickoff is about showcasing the company’s values and vision; but it’s also about “getting everybody to fill part of the success of the company,” Thompson says.
Driving this culture is also why Groupware expanded its focus on collective ambition in 2010, when it rolled out a corporate program around the concept. The goal of the program is to help employees understand their role in serving the purpose of Groupware and better explain to employees how all departments participate and work in harmony to help the company succeed.
“Once you have buy-in and you have collective ambition by multiple individuals in the organization, you can propel the business in the direction that you want to take it,” Thompson says.
How to reach: Groupware Technology Inc., (408) 540-0090 or www.groupwaretechnology.com
The Thompson File
President and CEO
Groupware Technology Inc.
Born: Mountain View, Calif.
Education: USC undergrad; MBA Regis University
Leadership philosophy: I don’t shy away from the fear of failure. That actually makes me work harder, and I take those challenges and adversity head-on. I’m a classic example of ‘productive paranoia.’ I’m always looking over my shoulder, always working hard and always trying to better myself to make sure that I can keep moving in the right direction.
What would you do if you weren’t doing your current job?
In some capacity, creating an environment and opportunities for others to grow. Leadership and mentoring have always been important to me.
What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?
When I’m not traveling, taking my kids to school in the morning. Discussing ESPN Radio with my son while my daughter tries to sing over the conversation and dance free of her car seat always starts my day off in perspective.
If you could have dinner with one person you’ve never met, who would it be?
Cassius Clay. I’m a huge boxing fan. The man who became Mohammed Ali was a personal branding genius and his endless confidence and brashness are endlessly fascinating to me.
What do you do to regroup on a tough day?
If I can, go do something with my son, shoot hoops, play catch and so on. It gives me a half hour or so away from my phone. Practice, form and fundamentals messages, repeated to him over and over, are great reminders for me as well.
What do you do for fun?
Get out on the water: wake surfing, boating, being out on the water with friends and family.
The view from Beth Mooney’s office on the 56th floor of Key Tower in downtown Cleveland overlooks Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Jacobs Pavilion and the Lake Erie shore — attractions that are part of what makes Cleveland special and reasons why Mooney loves this city and is proud that KeyCorp can call it home.
Mooney, chairman and CEO of KeyCorp, one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial services companies, with assets of approximately $87 billion and more than 15,000 employees, came to Cleveland in 2006 to lead the bank’s more than 1,000 branches. Her appointment to the CEO role in 2010 was a historic one since the move made her the first woman CEO of a top-20 U.S. bank. The announcement received national attention.
“I knew it was significant, and it wasn’t lost on me particularly from when I started in banking in 1978,” Mooney says. “It wasn’t lost on me that within a generation how transformational that was for our industry and within Key how significant it was, but it came with a degree of notoriety that I don’t think I saw coming. The world kind of took pause and noticed that banking, an industry that has long been heavily dominated by men at the top, promoted its first woman.”
While the move created big buzz, Mooney had to quickly focus on the job at hand since KeyCorp had been struggling to make a profit the previous few quarters coming out of the recession. One of the reasons she won the CEO role was her knack for developing and driving a strategy and her ability to get people to follow her. The company needed a new approach, and Mooney was ready to answer the call.
“Part of the process with the board when they selected me was to challenge me with what would be our strategy,” Mooney says. “How would Key differentiate itself? How will you make a competitive advantage? How will you know you’re winning with clients? There was a lot of dialogue around strategic vision. We just really need to stay the course, be rigorous, execute the strategy with focus and discipline and I needed to position us for that journey, reaffirm our strategic message to our employees, to our investors and find a way to capture that and bring people with us.”
Here’s how Mooney is focusing on building better relationships, providing great customer service and making sure her legacy as the first woman CEO of a top-20 U.S. bank leaves a positive and memorable mark.
Believe in your abilities
When Mooney started her career in banking, she didn’t think she would one day become a bank CEO. However, as she developed her skills and grew in the industry, she began realizing that the top spot could be within her grasp. She consciously sought opportunities in her career that would keep pushing her further.
“I was in it because I didn’t know that I would ever truly be a CEO, but that I wanted to go as far as my ambitions would take me,” she says. “I’ve made a lot of choices in my career and taken jobs, challenges and moves and very diverse opportunities in order to build what I call the best tool kit I could personally have and try to balance that with how far my abilities would take me.”
Throughout Mooney’s career, she has identified working well in a team environment, bringing out the best in others and accepting constructive criticism as some of the most important skills to have.
“One of the most critical skill sets is the ability to be effective in a team and work within environments where it’s groups of people solving problems, creating opportunities and driving business success that you have to think of yourself as a successful participant in a team and be able to exert pure leadership,” she says.
“As you get the opportunity to lead and get increasing responsibility, don’t lead with your differences; lead in a way where you bring out the best in others. You’re known for being a problem solver. You’re known to be somebody who is encouraging, coaching, mentoring, yet disciplined and delivers results.”
In Mooney’s career, there have been many role models and people who have mentored, coached and helped her get to this level.
“I have had a lot of bosses, both men and women, over the years who have invested in giving me opportunities — the stretch assignment, the difficult assignment because they believed I had a lot of capability,” Mooney says. “I tell people to take a tough job or take an assignment that’s outside your comfort zone so people can see you in a different light and realize that you’re scalable, nimble and can adapt to new situations. Never stop investing in your own abilities and your own learning.
“One of the things I’ve always said in interviews in my life whenever I was being considered for another opportunity … is I will always take the chance on my own abilities. If you give me this opportunity, I won’t disappoint you. Then work really hard to make good on that.”
Mooney says she is in her dream job, and as the company’s first female CEO she wants to make KeyCorp the best company she can.
“I want to do this well because I would like my legacy to be that this was a successful time for Key, for its clients, its communities, its employees, its shareholders — that it was transformational to our industry at a point in time and that it was a headline,” she says. “Hopefully by the time I’m done, it’s a footnote because there will be others who have risen to this level. Whenever you get that recognition and the spotlight is turned on you, I think it needs to bring out the best in you and that’s how I’ve internalized it as an extra obligation to do what’s already an important job well.”
Build better relationships
Mooney’s first steps to get KeyCorp back on track were to understand what would return the bank to profitability. She started with a focus on the company’s clients and consumers and sought to understand what they wanted from their bank.
“From a challenge point of view, what we were doing is still unique within the industry, which is a real firm focus on being very targeted about your clients and being disciplined about doing business with people that you had relationships with,” Mooney says.
“So staying very focused on our value propositions we’re going to build relationships, we’re going to do it in very targeted ways with clients who we know and appreciate our capabilities. We’re going to be clear about giving advice and solutions and not be product-pushers, and at the end of the day we have to give great service. So it was a little of back-to-basics, but with a whole new level of accountability and rigor.”
The best example of how Key showed its loyalty to its customers was when the Durbin Amendment was put in place in 2011. The legislation, which was part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, limited what banks could charge for debit card activity.
“It took a huge stream of revenue out of the banking industry,” she says. “In our case, it was $60 million in revenue that went away. The last time I checked that was real money. The different banks started talking about no longer being able to offer rewards programs along with your debit card and were probably going to have to charge a fee. So you had to make your plans for what you were going to do because it was a significant revenue difference.”
The company stepped back and ultimately came to the conclusion that it should ask its customers how they felt.
“We have been building this notion of listening to our clients, being insight driven, i.e. what do they want and need?” Mooney says. “What do they value and what will they pay for? When we [asked our clients] what we heard was don’t nickel and dime us. They feel that adding a fee was nickel and diming. What they wanted was for people to recognize and value that they have a relationship with us, and if we have a relationship that should be meaningful to the bank.”
Key decided to reorient its products around the notion of relationship building. The bank not only didn’t pull its rewards program, but expanded it, which was the opposite of what other banks ended up doing. It even landed KeyBank on the “ABC Nightly News.”
“When [ABC] listed the banks that weren’t charging their customers’ fees, Key was prominently displayed, and I got a sound bite where I said, ‘We asked our clients. They didn’t want to be nickeled and dimed. They wanted to be valued, and we went for reinforcing ‘Bring us your relationship and we will reward you’ versus going the fee route.’” Mooney says.
“That is value-spaced, relationship-based and that is a commitment to an extraordinary service. That is trying to find solutions that fit the needs of your clients and positioning yourself to be different in the market. I look at that as one of those examples that you can point to that says something is different at Key.”
In order to differentiate your business from others in your industry you have to be able to use your relationships to your advantage.
“I would start with the basic premise that the more you can understand about what your client wants, needs, values or what will differentiate you is an incredibly powerful strategy,” she says.
“The power of unleashing the ability to take that which you provide and build it, package it and deliver it in a way that really resonates with what your client wants, to me, is probably the only truly valid growth strategy over time.
“To the extent that you believe that you can build something — if you build it they will buy it — is a lost strategy these days because we’ve come to an age where choice and knowledge about choices, the rapidity of change and the ability to switch has probably never been higher.
“Retaining loyalty and building relationships takes a different value proposition and takes different work. It has to be rooted in what your clients want and need and finding proactive, robust ways where you find those outlets to listen and understand is a linchpin of a successful strategy.”
Form a strategy
The strategy of relationship building and customer service initiatives at KeyCorp go back to before the recession hit. However, as the recession increased pressure on the banking industry, those strategies gained importance.
“Even before the downturn we stepped back and said, ‘What are the things we want to be known for?’” Mooney says. “This goes back to 2007 and we said, ‘We better get really, really good at customer service because at the end of the day nobody truly stays loyal to a product, nobody really stays loyal to a location, a brand; they stay loyal to people and they stay loyal to how you make them feel.’”
KeyCorp looked outside the industry at how others were delivering service in order to better grasp how the company should move forward.
“We looked to Lexus and Ritz-Carlton and really calibrated how we trained our people, what we asked them to do and how we measured them,” she says. “We put in customer satisfaction surveys and all sorts of things to ask what sort of experience you received. You need to teach your people this is what service looks like, and this is how it feels to the client and then you call the client and ask them did they indeed experience you that way.”
Through that kind of training and initiative, KeyCorp got its customer satisfaction levels up to what most community banks experience.
“In the last two years, the slope of that line has accelerated to the point where the Holy Grail in service has always been the local community bank,” she says. “We’re right at the level of the service that community banks have give,n and we’ve really gapped out from our competitors.”
“You’ve got to decide what it is people want. Learn from the best in the industry, not just your business. Create a way to train people to it. Test that it’s happening and then recognize and reward so it becomes a virtuous cycle within your company to make giving great service part of how people get up.”
For any strategy to be effective, there are a few critical factors that you need to make sure you do.
“For a good strategy to be great, there is only one way and that has to be the consistency of execution of the strategy,” Mooney says. “First, you have to start with clarity of the strategy to the people who have to implement it. Your employees have to understand clearly what your strategy is. What’s your strategy and how are you going to differentiate? How are you going to compete and what does winning look like?
“Secondarily, it’s the consistency with which you execute that strategy over time and that your ability to focus on execution is done with rigor and accountability. Then make appropriate course adjustments, but do so with consistency.
“I don’t think there has ever been a great strategy that wasn’t executed over time with rigor, with accountability, with clarity, with buy-in, with recognition, with reward that is meaningful to the client. This whole notion of ‘It’s a journey, not a destination’ that you have to stay with it over time and people need to understand it and believe that it’s real and get up and know what’s expected of them and do it over and over and over again, to me, it’s that clarity and consistency and the disciplined, focused execution that makes a difference.”
The course of implementing a strategy takes a lot of hard work by everyone involved, but the CEO has to play the most crucial role.
“The trajectory, the pace, the rapidity and the tone and feel of [a strategy] is uniquely a CEOs role to help shape that, to help give it a face and something that your employees can follow, your clients can understand and your communities can appreciate,” she says. “Then ultimately create the shareholder value from those strategies that will make it rewarding for them to invest in your company. It’s kind of unique being the bearer of it as well as the driver of the strategy.”
No matter how good a strategy sounds or how good it looks on paper, it will not succeed unless you get buy-in from your employees who have to ultimately be the ones who do the work.
“The first cornerstone for how do you get followership in a strategy has to be the simplicity of the message, the consistency of the message and you can’t communicate enough,” Mooney says. “Every chance I get it’s here’s who we are, here’s how we compete, here’s how we’re going to be different in the marketplace, here’s how you help us win. It’s consistency of messaging. Then what I hope I do effectively is, ‘I hope I’m very authentic. I’m very genuine. I’m very down-to-earth, and I put things in terms people can understand and can see themselves as part of.’
“So there is this constant, clear messaging and consistency of communication that you have to get protocols and rigor around where the content is compelling and understandable and you see yourself in that strategy.”
Another way to get people to follow you is to truly show your company how much you care about its well-being and success.
“I think the other thing that is unique to my style is that people know I’m passionate and I believe in what we’re doing,” she says. “I value our employees. I believe in our clients and our community. I’m committed to our shareholders, and I think there’s a bit of a rising tide in the messaging that people want to go with that.
“It becomes something that they can rally around. The rigor around making sure those messages are done continuously and reinforced doesn’t happen by chance. There is a whole protocol and operationalizing of that messaging to make sure that it is not just ad hoc, that it is indeed consistent, clear and inspiring.”
Today, KeyCorp is continuing to leverage its relationships and devotion to customer service. Since the downturn, the company has reported eight straight quarters of profitability, and it has further plans to keep growing.
“The cover of our annual report captures it well; it says, ‘Strong, Focused and Building Momentum,’” Mooney says. “I feel like with eight straight quarters of profitability Key is solidly back to profitability and that what we need to do as a company from here is to build on our momentum and the sources of where we’ve been able to grow our business and return to profitability – and just be relentless around doing so.”
To ensure the continued success of your business, you need to not only focus on relationships and service, but on new opportunities as well.
“You need to do both grow your core and do the things you do well as well as seek to always do new things that are additive to your business model, but with a keen sense of prioritization,” Mooney says.
“If you try to do everything, you do nothing well. You have to be disciplined in what you prioritize, ‘planful’ in what you choose to execute, and then rigorous in how you measure and hold people accountable for what you’re doing. Those three stages of attributes need to be part of a constant vigilance making sure you answer those three questions and then it becomes a virtuous loop.”
How to reach: KeyCorp, (216) 689-5580 or www.key.com
- Never stop investing in yourself.
- Build relationships and leverage them to succeed.
- Use strategy to deliver a consistent, clear message.
Doug Tozour firmly believes that if you’re not really good at something, you shouldn’t futilely bang your head against the wall trying to do it out of sheer pride or a refusal to accept defeat.
It’s a lesson he learned after 10 years of unsuccessfully trying to build a new business unit at Tozour Energy Systems.
“I got into the residential air conditioning distribution business and tried all kinds of things to build that business,” says Tozour, the company’s founder and CEO. “By distribution, I mean you buy product from a supplier and you inventory it and then resell it. For 10 years, I bled trying to make it work. And in the end, I realized I’m not a distribution guy.”
Tozour Energy Systems was launched in 1979 and is now a leader in the heating and air conditioning industry for customers who have large buildings to maintain. The 190-employee company has done work for such clients as Comcast Center in Philadelphia, Ocean County College in Toms River, N.J., and Petway Elementary School in Vineland, N.J.
Tozour Energy has built a strong reputation by understanding its strengths and routinely devising innovative solutions to help customers solve their heating and cooling needs. Tozour’s past experience helped him understand the value of finding something that you’re really good at and then focusing on providing the best experience you can to every customer in that realm.
“When we leave a job and call the client or anybody asks the client how we did, if they say anything other than I want Tozour Energy Systems on my next job, we failed,” Tozour says. “That’s the ultimate measure of the job we did.”
Here’s a look at how Tozour built a culture that empowers employees to do great work and provides the motivation to continue reaching higher.
Get involved in hiring
You need to take a lead role in identifying and hiring the right employees to represent your company and provide exemplary service to your customers.
“You don’t delegate to your B and C players,” Tozour says. “You really make sure your A players are in the search, doing the search, talking to people. The minute you delegate hiring down below the top performers, you really do risk hiring more of what the interviewee is. The key is to get your best people involved in the process.”
Tozour works very closely with Kevin Duffy, the company’s president, to find those employees.
“We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what people are really good at and trying to get them to do more of that and then building teams around that,” Duffy says. “That helps us a lot organizationally.”
Testing is an important of the hiring process along with interviewing and feedback from references and referrals.
“If we’re hiring for a sales role, they go through the Sandler sales aptitude testing,” Duffy says. “We do testing of personalities to see how they will work in a team environment. We work hard to understand what their core personality is like. Do they have a tendency to make excuses? Do they step up and take ownership? It gives us perspective on what kinds of questions we should ask so that when they do come on board, we have a sense of what they are all about.”
Tozour says hiring the right people is about a lot more than just finding someone who can do a particular skill.
“People come in many stripes,” Tozour says. “The people we want are the people who in their heart, really want to be exceptional. Those folks live on challenge. They want change. You hear the cliché, ‘Don’t change. Leave it the way it is.’ That’s not who we hire.
“We tell them day one when they come into the orientation that we promise two things: Challenge and change. The day we don’t deliver on that challenge, you come see me because either we’re screwing up or you’re in the wrong place.”
In order to stay on top of your hiring, you need a strong HR department that can help you by understanding the kind of people you want to hire.
“We have a full-time human resources person whose main role in life is sourcing, finding, interviewing and developing great people,” Tozour says. “We want people who are creative, inquisitive and always questioning how we can do it better.”
You can also use your PR or marketing team to help make your hiring efforts more fruitful.
“One of the great things we’ve done in the last few years is get our PR engine working to get the word out about some of the great things we’re doing in our community and some of the great innovations we’ve got in the marketplace,” Duffy says. “We’ve got people knocking on our door constantly and the best compliment is we’ve got our employees inside that are constantly recommending and referring really smart people because they know we set the bar high.”
Be a leader
There is a big difference between management and leadership and those who fail to understand the difference will find it tough to grow their business.
“Management is the cold, hard facts,” Tozour says. “Here’s how many visits we made, how many proposals we made, how many orders we sold and how many solutions we provided.
“Leadership is the ability to inspire people to do stuff they might not do if left alone. Management is important because it’s all about measuring, quantifying and evaluating the results. But if you’re going to be a great company, it’s all about leadership.”
Effective leaders are proactively searching for both the good and the bad about how their organization works. Duffy says Tozour Energy spent time last year developing a dashboard system to help people understand how certain activities led to certain outcomes.
“Each of the business units developed a set of about five dashboard activities that we then meet about and discuss every Monday morning,” Duffy says. “We meet for a half hour to review how what we are doing will lead to results. Those activities on average resulted in close to 15 to 20 percent business growth in each of the business units for those who implemented it and followed it.”
One thing a dashboard does is provide tangible proof that people are responding to your leadership.
“Doug always says to me, ‘Look over your shoulder to make sure somebody is actually following you when you start these innovations,’” Duffy says. “It’s something we challenge all our leaders to do. Make sure it’s not just you, but that your team is following.
“This dashboarding activity was transformational for the organization. It takes everybody at every level to actually be implementing and doing it and utilizing the process to drive the results.”
There is another difference between leadership and management that effective presidents and CEOs need to keep in mind.
“I paint the picture,” Tozour says. “I paint it as clearly as I can about where we want to go, where we’re headed and a little bit about how we’re going to get there. Then I try to get out of the way. Kevin’s job is to get us there. Unlike a lot of companies, I’m trying not to reach down through the organization too much.
“I’m going to tell you where we want to be. Then I’m going to expect you to staff it properly and to be the one responsible for motivating and inspiring people to do the day-to-day things that need to be done if we’re going to get to this vision.”
Broaden your view
Tozour and Duffy value what their employees do on the job, but they encourage those employees to pursue opportunities outside the business that bolster their skills.
“About four years ago, we started reimbursing for MBAs and encouraging everyone on our senior leadership team to go back to school and start on an MBA,” Duffy says. “We put our money where our mouth is. What we started to see are people who were focused perhaps in a sales role then understood how they fit into marketing and all the business functions and the financial side.”
Tozour wants people who have the tenacity to pursue further education and training and the desire to get involved in leadership opportunities outside of the company.
“We’ve got guys who are coaching semi-pro teams and we’ve got people who are working in all kinds of nonprofits,” Tozour says. “It’s really exciting to see the involvement that you would never know about if you just met the person. You’d say, ‘Yeah, he is a salesman or a service guy.’ They are coaching teams and making stuff happen. Life is much broader than where you work.”
The lesson is that in order to get people to really give their all for your business, you have to be willing to do the same for them.
“If our individuals don’t have an opportunity to grow and develop, the company is going to be stymied,” Tozour says. “That’s going to go all the way through the company.”
How to reach: Tozour Energy Systems, (855) 486-9687 or www.tozourenergy.com
The Tozour and Duffy Files
Doug Tozour, founder and CEO
Kevin Duffy, president
Tozour Energy Systems
What has been your biggest leadership challenge?
Tozour: The biggest challenge, and it’s always the challenge, is finding really good people who can carry out the vision or can lead the charge. Everybody wants to claim that they have got expertise and what not. But finding expertise with leadership capabilities, that’s always a challenge.
What is your definition of success?
Duffy: There’s a quote that I live by: What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others remains immortal. That’s a real focus. When we can deliver financial success, it gives us the flexibility to do great things for other people.
Tozour: What is success to me? First of all, it’s being able to look back and see the results of our labor. To have the financial wherewithal to do whatever I choose to do going forward. To absolutely improve the life of others by giving back. And to have grown enough that I have wisdom that I never thought I’d be answering the questions you’re asking me.
How do you help your leaders grow?
Duffy: It’s common for companies to develop their vision for five years out. But we took it a step further. We analyzed what does that organization look like? What are the gaps? What are the leadership elements we’re going to need in 2015 to be that company? We went to about five different people in the organization and said we see you as a future leader here. We’re going to start challenging you with specific assignments to broaden your development.
As we grow, we have organizational leaders we’ve brought up and trained and developed so that they are ready to assume a leadership role.
Don’t delegate hiring.
Inspire people to do more.
Encourage continuous development.
A lot of people gave money to help Silverado Senior Living Inc. become a national leader in providing care to people with memory impairments. Fourteen years later, Loren B. Shook felt like it was time to give them a return on their investment.
“We made stock options to many staff members through those years,” says Shook, the company’s co-founder, chairman, president and CEO. “No one got paid anything. All of the money we made went back into expanding the company. At some point, we needed to monetize peoples’ investment.”
In addition to Shook, his co-founders, James P. Smith and Steve Winner, and those staff members, investments were also made by the private equity firm Riordan, Lewis & Haden. This funding was instrumental in building a company that has 2,800 employees and provides invaluable care to senior citizens who need it across eight states.
“A lot of people think it’s just about the money, getting the equity and the debt partners,” Shook says. “But money is just part of it. The bigger part is what kind of partner are they going forward with you?
“All of them understood the vision of the company, which was to give life to our residents in our assisted living communities, our clients in home care and our patients in hospice. The vision is to give life to their families and give life to each other as associates and colleagues in the company.”
Shook knows all too well that without money, none of it would be possible and that Silverado Senior Living would have never gotten off the ground. But the financials have never been his focus and he strongly believes that is a key reason why the company is so successful today.
And so it was through that prism that Shook and his team set out to find a way to provide a return on past financial investment while simultaneously strengthening Silverado for many more years of meaningful patient care.
Find your soul mate
One of the best options that the Silverado team initially came up with was to take the company public. But as they began to look at what that involved, they quickly soured on the idea.
“Every year, you’re spending $1.5 million to $2 million for accounting and legal fees just being a public company,” Shook says. “You’re taking up a lot of time for the CFO and CEO that could otherwise be providing service more directly to our customer base.”
Soon, their thoughts turned to Health Care REIT, a real estate investment trust that had been working side by side with Silverado since its inception.
“REDIEA is an acronym that stands for Real Estate Development Investment Empowerment Act,” Shook says. “It was very new. Health Care REIT had done one REDIEA with an LLC corporate structure. We’re a C-corp. It was a very detailed process. It took a lot of action to overcome a lot of hurdles that had never been addressed before.”
One of the biggest hurdles in any business deal is the relationship between your company and the financier you want to partner with. Shook flashes back to 1996, when he and Smith were looking for financial support to start Silverado.
“Whenever I started a meeting with a potential financial partner where there was equity or debt, I always started the meeting by telling them what the vision of the company was,” Shook says. “If they didn’t have an interest in the vision and the purpose, the meeting was over because we were not in alignment.
“A lot of experts in raising money would say, ‘Don’t do that. Go down the path of return on investment, the capital you need and the numbers.’ I never believed that was the right way to start a meeting because it’s more than just about the numbers. No one I met with was upset that I started the meeting that way.”
The fact that Silverado had built an established relationship with Health Care REIT over the years made it a lot easier to move the process along with the REDIEA. But that relationship only developed because Shook and his team took the time in the beginning to find partners who shared their vision.
One of the most important things you can do to help you find that kind of partner is to talk to people who have done business with the investor in the past and ask what happened when trouble arose.
“Tell me the hard times you went through and what it was like,” Shook says. “I want to know that I have a partner that has the experience and has been through the ups and downs and is going to be by my side when we’re going through difficult times.”
As Shook looked to finalize the REDIEA deal, he wanted to make sure there was alignment and a shared vision, just as there had been 14 years earlier.
Lean on your culture
As the REDIEA deal was being consummated, Shook was also very aware of his staff and the responsibility he felt to keep them appraised of what was happening. But he also felt confident he had established a track record of trustworthy leadership.
“The culture has to be there before big decisions come about,” Shook says. “You don’t create the culture at the time you have a big decision where you need people to be confidential and you need people to come to you and say, ‘I heard what you said in the conference call. But here’s what I’m worried about, Loren.’ You have to have that kind of open trust in the company. That has to be there before those issues come up.”
Shook shared what was happening with his senior leadership team and asked them to keep it from going public since the deal was still being finalized. He shared the good parts of the deal being discussed with Health Care REIT and the cons.
“There’s always a negative side to everything we do,” Shook says. “Here are the pros, here are the cons and here are other alternatives of what we could do to capitalize.”
Shook reiterated that there was no pressure being made to enter into this kind of deal from anyone.
“Riordan, Lewis & Haden wasn’t saying that you have to recapitalize the company,” Shook says. “They were very patient. It was just the right time and the right thing to do.”
Shook says finding employees who can thrive in your culture and have trust in the way you do things requires a similar approach as when you’re doing your due diligence on possible lenders.
“Our vision is to change peoples’ lives,” Shook says. “So people who work within a company like our’s, in order for the culture to exist, would have to have an alignment or purpose in life with that. Their individual purpose in life doesn’t have to be the same purpose, but it needs to be something that is compatible with the major purpose of the company.”
In order to stay healthy, a culture needs to be such that it can allow people to leave without creating a big problem. Even the strongest culture has people who sometimes lose their connection to the organization.
“Lives will change,” Shook says. “Where it was the right place to be before, maybe it’s not anymore. We want people who get more than they give out of working at Silverado. We want the company to get more than it gives out of having that person work with us. If both are positives, it’s a tremendous source of energy coming together. If one is negative, there is a drain on that energy and a drain on that company.”
Believe in what you do
With a strong relationship with Health Care REIT and a strong culture that trusted in its leadership, Silverado was ready to make a deal. The $298 million partnership closed in January 2011.
“Technically, we did sell the company,” Shook says. “But all of us investors, including Riordan, Lewis & Haden reinvested a great deal of money back into the company. I personally reinvested 50 percent of my proceeds back into the company.”
Silverado is poised to continue growing with seven new communities under construction, joining the 23 communities, eight hospice offices and five home care offices already up and running. Another hospice office and home care office are also in the process of opening.
“Before we started in this industry, people said the model we pursued would not work,” Shook says. “They said we would be bankrupt right away because they couldn’t connect the things we do. They would say it’s either a medical model or a social model and they couldn’t understand how both could happen.”
Shook is confident the results have proven those critics wrong.
“People who invest in business want to make a difference too,” Shook says. “If you get a good return on your investment and make a difference in peoples’ lives as well, then you will win attracting that capital to your company compared to somebody else who is just giving them a return.”
How to reach: Silverado Senior Living Inc., (888) 328-5400 or www.silveradosenior.com
The Shook File
Co-founder, chairman, president and CEO
Silverado Senior Living Inc.
What’s the best business lesson you ever learned?
One of them is to understand my own strengths and bring in people who have strengths that I do not have. In other words, I don’t want to spend my energy trying to do things that are not my strengths. I’m good at seeing things that can happen that are disparate or ideations, or seeing things that people don’t see and then connecting them.
I can put together the big picture deals like a REDIEA, but I’m not good at the details. Tom Croal, my CFO, he’s good with the big picture. But he’s also terrific with the details. There are enormous numbers of them and he’s very good at that. So I have a CFO who is excellent at that and I’m not.
Shook on value: People will pay for what they value, and I should not impose my financial limitations on them. I don’t know their means and I don’t know what they value. I couldn’t afford to have a person living at home 24/7 taking care of a loved one. So one would think, ‘Who can afford that and why provide that as a service?’
Well, nonsense. We have a number of people we take care of at home 24/7 and there are plenty of people who can afford that. It’s expensive, but it’s not a problem for them. If they can afford it, they should be able to have access to that service.
We’ve taken someone’s mother with Alzheimer’s on a cruise to Mexico. We staff it 24/7 and make that cruise possible and she has a great time. Don’t put your limitations on what other people want.
Vet your financing partners.
Stick to your culture.
Don’t give in to doubt.
Brennan Mulcahy likes to keep it both simple and smart when he thinks about his growth strategy at American Solar Direct.
“It’s about providing high-quality, photovoltaic rooftop solar systems for residential customers in California,” says Mulcahy, the company’s co-founder, chairman and CEO.
“That’s it. So we’re focused clearly on that. There is a lot of opportunity for our business in other states and other jurisdictions, but we’re very focused on getting that part of our business right. I’ve seen too many companies try to be everything to everybody.”
The measured approach that Mulcahy takes toward growth at his 170-employee company is an effort to get it right the first time and prevent unnecessary mistakes.
He wants to get the right people in place, build a strong culture of empowerment and have an operational process that everyone understands. That way, when the business does take off, there will be far less uncertainty about what needs to happen.
“You’ve got to grow in a prudent manner,” Mulcahy says. “Companies that try to do too much, too fast risk destabilizing the business. So it’s finding a balance between high growth and controlled growth. We strive for high growth, but we also want to achieve controlled growth so that we’re managing the business and our resources responsibly.”
Develop your team
As you seek to prepare your company for a higher volume of business, you need to take a good, hard look at the team you’ve got in place and see how it matches up with your vision and company goals.
“You need to take a formulated approach so you understand not only where your weaknesses are in the organization, but also your opportunities,” Mulcahy says. “Identify those high-performers who are likely going to advance in their career.”
Mulcahy holds a weekly executive committee meeting where his department heads talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the organization from many points of view, including personnel.
“We look at how we’re performing across the organization on a regular basis,” Mulcahy says. “You have to identify, as you’re growing, the key positions you are going to want to fill six months, 12 months, even two years down the road. You can’t just go out and hire everybody you want on day one. So we work together to create that prioritization based on what we need in order to hit the goals and objectives of the organization.”
You need to keep your team engaged in this discussion so that everybody is moving forward with the same information and the same goals in mind.
“You work together to set those goals and everybody on your executive team has bought in to them,” Mulcahy says. “You want to create an environment that allows them to contribute and feel that they really can contribute meaningfully.”
One of Mulcahy’s priorities with regard to personnel decisions is to see if a need can be filled internally. Just as you want your leadership team to feel part of the high-level decisions, you want your employees to feel connected to the growth plan at their level.
“I’m a big believer in growing organically and offering opportunity for advancement in the organization to the extent that you can,” Mulcahy says.
Keep the makeup of your company’s work force in mind on a regular basis and think about how the players could be moved as your company grows.
“Identify who your superstars are, those folks who are going to advance in their career in the short term,” Mulcahy says. “Understand each department and who you have coming up in that department. The way I look at it is very formulated. I look at each department and who the critical senior positions are and then I look at who in the organization is below that could fill it at some point. Who may need additional training or support to continue to advance? Where do you have gaps in the organization?”
When you have a clear understanding of what you’ve got, you’ll be able to make smarter decisions when you have to reach outside your own walls to make new hires.
Be a good listener
As you build your talent level or do a better job of maximizing the talent you already have, you have to make sure you keep your ears open to the ideas your people bring to the table.
“You have to listen to people,” Mulcahy says. “That is something that is hard for a lot of leaders who have their idea and just do it. If you bring high-performing people onto your team, you have to listen to their ideas. You may not always agree with them, but you have to listen and weigh and consider their perspective. Engage as a team and allow people to feel comfortable challenging and debating ideas.”
This kind of engagement makes people feel like they are part of the plan to make the business grow. It also gives them comfort that there is a plan and that the work they are doing is building toward bigger goals.
“If you respect peoples’ perspective and you respect their point of view, you make them feel valued,” Mulcahy says. “Then as a team, you come together and draw conclusions. At the end of the day, once you’ve had the discussion and the debate, it’s important that everybody gets on the same page to execute a decision. But again, you have to allow for that opportunity to be heard.”
It starts with you. If you openly demonstrate that you value the perspective of the people on your leadership team, they will be more likely to do the same with their direct reports. The result is a group of people that don’t just view your business as the place where they come to work and collect a paycheck.
“I want to have a culture at American Solar Direct where people feel like they helped build it, not just that they work there,” Mulcahy says.
This willingness to listen and consider other opinions is another opportunity for you to show that you want the company to be successful, but you want it to be done the right way.
“It’s a culture you have to embed in the organization,” Mulcahy says. “It’s not a process, not a policy you put up where you say we’re going to listen to our employees. It’s something you actually do and you start by doing it.”
Build customer relationships
Relationships are a key component of any organization, whether it’s between fellow employees, employees and management or a company and its customers.
“For our business, it’s not a one-stop sale,” Mulcahy says. “You can’t walk in, drop off the product and take a check. When we enter into a relationship with a customer, it’s a 20-year relationship because we lease them the solar equipment for 20 years.”
Customers make monthly payments for the equipment that allows solar energy to power their homes. In return, they expect responsive service if anything goes wrong.
“So when they visit for the first time and give them that presentation, it’s not just a quick in and out, see ya later,” Mulcahy says. “We have to come back and inspect the roof. We’re going to send installation teams in and put that system up on the roof. We’re going to have a long-term relationship so the salesperson has to do a good job in order to be successful.”
Whether you’re in the solar business or a different industry, you need to promote the philosophy that happy customers lead to confident salespeople.
“Salespeople who have a happy customer, they feel good about what they have done,” Mulcahy says. “That gives them a lot of confidence and helps them get more business because they feel proud of the job that they are doing. The second thing that happens is if you do a good job for a customer, you get referral business.”
Referrals have been especially strong in the past couple months and Mulcahy says that bodes well for the future.
“It makes their job easier,” Mulcahy says. “Anybody in sales loves a referral because you don’t have to go out and work as hard to get that customer. It indicates to them that we’re doing a good job with our frontline customers.”
Mulcahy wants American Solar to be viewed as a company that is reliable and committed to great customer service.
“It’s easier to get staff excited about doing a good job than it is going and doing a low-cost job or a mediocre job,” Mulcahy says. “We’re not setting out to be a high-volume, low-quality, low-cost provider. We’re setting out to be a high-quality, superior customer service product with a personal touch. We think that is something that makes everybody excited to be part of the team.”
American Solar Direct is expected to hit $60 million in sales this year and Mulcahy is confident that his team is in a strong position to satisfy the demand.
“We can educate the customer, provide the personal touch and make them feel comfortable with what they are getting,” Mulcahy says.
How to reach: American Solar Direct, (855) 765-2755 or www.americansolardirect.com
The Mulcahy File
co-founder, chairman and CEO
American Solar Direct
What’s the best business lesson you’ve learned?
Communicate openly and honestly.
Why is that an important lesson?
It just saves so much time and energy. So often people spend hours or days beating around the bush and not getting down to the most important issue. I think you’ve got to really drill down to the nitty-gritty of what is important. Just be open and honest.
There is never anything to be gained by beating around the bush because you just confuse other people around you. Be very clear in what you think about something and what you want to do and just really get to the point in a respectful way if you don’t agree with somebody.
What traits are essential for leadership?
No. 1 has got to be the ability to listen. That’s critical. You often hear communicate, communicate, communicate. I agree with that. But I think the first pillar of communication is listening. People often get that backwards. They think communicating means you have to be doing all the talking. To be a good leader, you have to listen to people.
You need to be able to make decisions as well. I’ve often seen people who aren’t good at making decisions; they often spin their wheels around in circles. At a certain point, you have to make a choice and forge ahead. That doesn’t mean you always make the right decision. But you do have to make a choice sometimes and hopefully get it right more often than not.
Who has been a big influence on your life?
My brother, Tim Mulcahy. He got me started in sales when I was very young, and we started many companies together.
Know what your team can do.
Engage others in decisions.
Get to know customers.
Trina Gordon looked at her company’s clients and could see that they wanted more. It wasn’t that Boyden World Corp. had done a bad job of meeting their needs. They just had more needs to be met.
“What we began to notice out of this downturn was challenges in the macroeconomic environment continued to persist globally,” says Gordon, president and CEO at the professional services firm.
“Clients, particularly global clients and emerging global clients all over the worldwide landscape were becoming more demanding about greater consistency and quality of service from their advisers,” she says. “What that meant was we needed to take a really hard look at what was an effective client advisory relationship.”
It can be a tough pill to swallow when you feel like you’re giving maximum effort to help your clients and then you find out that you could be doing it better.
“There’s a little bit of that in your psyche that says, ‘I want to hear the great things I’m doing,’” Gordon says. “I’m not sure I want to hear where I didn’t do as well or where I need to improve. But it’s the only way we’re going to get better at what they want us to do and deepen the relationship.”
Sometimes, you’ve got to set your ego aside, even when you’re a top 10 global executive search firm with 250 associates in more than 70 offices and 40 countries around the world.
“Sometimes partnerships tend to be more process-driven and internally focused and concerned with the practices and processes of how we do our work,” Gordon says. “In this case, we had to turn that perception completely around and push our organization facing outward at potential and existing clients. We had to build a foundation for how everything we did focused on what they told us they needed and how we performed against those needs and requirements.”
Get to the point
In the simplest terms, clients were looking for more bang for their buck with Boyden.
“Clients were no longer saying we have talent or human capital needs in emerging markets and anybody sitting in an emerging market can help us,” Gordon says. “What they began to say was we want real sector expertise, sometimes even deep functional expertise. You need to understand our business in a unique way. We began to see as a board, as a partnership, a real tipping point in how clients look at the professional services sector.”
Gordon wanted to respond swiftly, but methodically to this change in the marketplace. It needed to be done, but it needed to be done right.
“The challenge for a firm like our’s is how do you respond to those trends in a way that really adds differentiating value to clients,” Gordon says. “How were we going to uniquely stand apart from our competition and ensure that we could meet those client needs at an increasingly and more complicated demand level?”
One of the first things Gordon did was meet with all Boyden’s global partners and her leadership team. It would serve as a foundational meeting to begin developing a strategy to transform the firm.
“The message was we have this opportunistic window in our own retained search business to drive this concept forward and lead it as a premier global search firm, the first to do so,” Gordon says.
One of the next steps was a global conference in Asia where many of the firm’s key leaders sat down and defined the things that they felt the firm needed to represent going forward. These leaders had spoken with clients and gathered feedback. Now it was time to lay it all out there so Boyden could begin to shape its strategy.
“Part of what clients have shared with us is we want to have a singular kind of experience with you,” Gordon says. “That means you need to understand who we are and what our business strengths are. Understand our business. Get under our skin. Be sector specific with us. You have to demonstrate a genuine understanding of who we are, which meant the difference between a robust client relationship and one that isn’t robust.”
Know what you don’t know
There is a word of caution that must be addressed for any firm that is looking to adapt what it does for its clients. You better have a good idea of what you stand for before you begin the transformation.
“When we stray from our core expertise and we stretch out and try to do something we’re not capable of doing, we’re no longer acting with integrity and it ultimately will affect the client relationship,” Gordon says.
“We have to be able to know what our strengths are, be true to them and have the courage to say, ‘This is how we can best help you.’ We also have to be honest with the client and say, ‘This is what we can do and this is what we can’t do well.’ We’re not going to risk our relationship for the sake of saying we can be all things to a client.”
If you don’t know what your core beliefs and expertise are, then how will you know whether the thing you’re being asked to do fits in? You have to be clear about it so that you can give your best effort and performance on the project.
“It’s one thing to stretch in an area where we have done some work and there’s expertise elsewhere in our firm to help us and guide us and draw upon and bring into the client equation,” Gordon says.
“It’s another when it’s completely further afield from the core expertise of the firm. That’s where you can get into trouble with a client. And it’s very hard to recover a relationship that you’ve damaged.”
Boyden is a big firm and so there was a ton of information and data to sort through as this transformation took place. It was incumbent upon Gordon to not let it overwhelm her team.
“It’s important to take a step back, center yourself and think through what’s really important,” Gordon says. “Prioritize and move in steps. You’ll overwhelm the organization if you try to do much too soon without a coherent message, without responsible buy-in and without a very clear approach to staying true to who you are. “We’re still evolving as an organization because change is not always an easy thing. What I’ve learned is to take a deep breath and make sure you’re confident in the people around you and confident in what your clients are telling you.”
You want to please your clients and that’s obviously the most important thing. But don’t let it affect your work and force you into a pace that will result in a substandard final product.
You also need to make sure you’re cognizant of your personnel resources. What skills can your people jump right in and take on and which ones will require some level of training?
“You can’t just assume you have a completely homogenous organization that all can move forward at the same time toward this enhanced approach with clients,” Gordon says. “One of the things I tried to do very early with our leadership team was reach out to those key voices inside our firm who embody this work already and who are our greatest client advocates.”
You undoubtedly have some people in your company who can be trainers and who can help their peers grow. Tap into that resource and put it to use. And for other people who need to learn some new skills, do what you can to help them.
“There’s a lot going on inside a complex organization,” Gordon says. “Not everybody can drink from a fire hose at the same time. So you need to be able to call upon your leadership, those individuals that people respect and know that already embody this expertise with clients and utilize their knowledge base and their talent to train, teach and enrich younger partners or partners that are new to the profession. That is a continual process.”
It’s a process that will likely never be completely wrapped up. There’s always more to learn and more to figure out and Gordon says they’ll just keep on trying to do the best they can for their clients. But this process has already put the firm in a better position to serve those clients.
“Our dashboard is built, our metrics are built, so all of it is now launched,” Gordon says. “We’re at this exciting period where you’re diving off the board hand in hand with your client into this brave new milieu. I see it as a continual evolution that our own firm and each and every one of our partners will sort of continuously travel together.”
How to reach: Boyden World Corp., (312) 565-1300 or www.boyden.com
The Gordon File
Trina Gordon, president and CEO, Boyden World Corp.
Born: Alliance, Ohio
Education: Bachelor’s degree, political science; master’s degree, public administration, Auburn University
What did you want to be growing up?
From the time I was little, I always wanted to be an equine veterinarian. So my interest in Auburn, at least prior to going there, was they have one of the finest equine veterinary schools in the country. When I went there, I fell in love with the philosophy of the university, the campus and the people. But I found that the pre-veterinary program, I didn’t have the constitution for invasive medicine. So my dream of becoming an equine vet versus the leader of a professional search firm is quite different. So I switched majors, I stayed and I loved it.
What was your very first job?
In the summer, my brother and I ran a custom car detailing business part of the day out of my parents’ garage. Then in the afternoons, I ran a daycare nursery school for kids in our area. I had about 10 to 12 kids at a time and they were ages six to 10.
Who would you like to meet and why?
I love history, so if I had the opportunity to sit down with anyone, it would be Elizabeth I. I would like to know how a woman who was the first leader of a powerful, yet fledgling nation was able to bring a divided country together and bring them to global prominence. How she was able to unify them behind an individual who heretofore in their history, had never been a woman and reign long and lasting over a very respectful populace. She was able to gain the credibility of all the men around her and win respect around medieval Europe.
Be clear about your goals.
Understand your limitations.
Don’t rush just to get it done.
When it comes to attracting businesses, size alone should put Palm Beach County at a distinct advantage over its Florida peers. With 38 municipalities, the county trumps Broward, Pinellas and even Miami-Dade as the largest in Florida and third in population.
The problem is, although geography plays a role, it is not nearly the most important factor for businesses choosing whether or not to invest in your county, says Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO, Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.
“When you’re in economic development, one community can look like another community,” she says. “These CEOs are looking at 20 or 30 communities at a time, and it’s the communities that are going to roll out a much different experience and feeling of a corporate home that they are going to remember.
“We cannot present the same product as everybody else. So with everything that we do, whether it’s the message we deliver in a website, social media message, any printed material or their experience when they visit our community — it must make a lasting impression.”
Since taking the top role at the board in 2004, Smallridge has helped overhaul its economic development strategies to grow jobs and drive business investment in the county. Between 2011 and 2012, these efforts have helped create or retain 1,700 jobs and $166 million of capital investment into Palm Beach County.
In addition, Smallridge herself has been recognized by the South Florida Business Journal as an “Ultimate CEO” and by South Florida CEO as one of the top 40 business leaders in Palm Beach County.
Smart Business spoke with Smallridge to discuss what economic and business leaders can do to create make their counties attractive for businesses and why it’s an ongoing process.
What makes a county globally competitive for business?
Workforce has to be top notch, meaning highly skilled and available. Education K-20 has to also be more than excellent to attract families and corporations to this area — so workforce and education. The cost of doing business has to remain affordable … and the ease of doing business has to be far better than other locations, other competitive sites.
As CEO, what did you feel that Palm Beach County needed to change to be more competitive with other counties?
I saw a tremendous amount of focus on bringing someone in from other states, when really, a job is a job whether you bring it in from the outside or you create one here locally — it’s the same opportunity for our area residents.
I saw too much of a focus on that outside effort and not enough focus on nurturing those companies that already call Palm Beach County their home. So we traded more of a balance internally to grow what’s in our backyard. As a result, about 70 percent of our job growth in this county comes from companies that already have an existence in this county and 30 percent come from the outside.
How did you begin redirecting the county’s job growth efforts?
First of all, I had to build the best economic development team. Hiring great leaders that were well-experienced in economic development was No. 1. Two, I had to educate my own community — my own public and private leaders — about the value and importance of economic development and how to be well-versed in what CEOs are looking for when they are selecting a location for expansion, retention or relocation.
Starting with your internal leadership, what were the key steps in building a strong economic development team?
If you study economic development organizations throughout the county, the challenge is that a lot of these people are selling counties — they are very good at it — but they don’t know their county the way we know our county because we are products of this county.
Building that team of VPs here who are very passionate about what we are selling is No. 1 — hiring the best economic development professionals. Our average tenure in this organization is 10 years, very rare. … A quarter of our staff was either born or raised in the county that we are charged with selling.
No. 2, making sure that we subscribe to the highest levels of economic development principles. We went through what’s called an accreditation process. There are only two accredited economic development boards in the state of Florida, and we are one of the two. There are something like 25 in the United States.
We didn’t go for accreditation until we knew we had reached certain fundamental goals in this organization, a five-year strategic plan, the highest level of leader on our board, strong financials — most not-for-profits are strong financially — and more private support than public support.
So how did you apply those principles across the county’s 38 cities?
We created something called Economic Development 101. We started training our elected officials and municipal stakeholders on how to answer questions from CEOs looking at their city.
It was very surprising how much elected officials didn’t really understand about economic development and what would be the highlights of promoting their areas: understanding the major employers, the taxes, the cost of doing business, knowing what the strengths are of their cities from a business perspective and being able to speak very articulately about what makes their city one of the best business locations.
How did you develop the Economic Development 101 curriculum?
Once we did three municipalities, we really got a much better understanding of what the learning gap was, what they clearly understood and what they didn’t understand. We changed that accordingly and continue to build upon that. Every time that we go to an election we go back to those cities and re-educate those people. It’s made a very big difference.
Another key part is making sure that economic development is a top priority of the municipalities. If you have strong economic development, your retail thrives, your mom-and-pop businesses thrive and your residential does well because now you have people with expendable income who can purchase your homes and apartments and frequent your restaurants and your retail establishments.
We really try to get them to understand that it’s the high-end economic development that’s going to create the trickle-down and fuel the other types of business operations in their community.
Why is it so important for economic development boards to work closely with city leaders?
Too often, economic development boards focus on their organization and don’t understand that they really represent their entire geographic region.
They have to get out there and make sure that their entire geographic region has tax incentives, that they are moving quickly in expedited permitting, that they are cutting down on the layers of bureaucracy and they can speak the languages that businesses need to hear, that they put out a warm, friendly welcome mat.
Sometimes it’s not about the amount of money or incentives that you send to a CEO; it’s about how warm your welcome mat is.
I can only sell the product that I’m given by my cities. So if they don’t understand how to make their area attractive to businesses, it doesn’t matter how strong my organization is. I have to make sure that the product is strong, and the product is the comprehensive component of 38 cities.
Once you get everyone on the same page, how do you keep them there?
You form an economic development stakeholders council that brings them all together on a regular basis to communicate, share best practices internally, inform them of what new programs have come through the state that are available for all municipalities and that they can integrate into their respective areas.
Some of the things that we’ve brought to the table that many of our municipalities have taken advantage of are Ad Valorem Tax Exemption, passing that through their cities, and expedited permitting ordinances.
This is very large county, and one of the new things that I implemented when I became the leader is, ‘You are visible if you are present in their community.’ The county is about 40 miles long. It’s the largest county east of the Mississippi River and larger than a couple of states. It’s a very big, massive land area.
What I did was to establish satellite offices in the north, central, south and western part of our county. I went from one office, to one office and three satellite offices — big difference. Now you’re present in the community working side-by-side with your teammates and other city officials.
What results have you seen from PBC’s newest economic development initiatives?
Too many presidents of economic development boards are quick to get to that ribbon-cutting ceremony when really we’re in there to help them through the entire process until they turn the key and then for many, many years down the road. That’s why we’ve had companies come back to us five or 10 years beyond our initial relationship to help them with their expansion.
If you have an entire community that is working in the same direction toward creating jobs and you eliminate the competition internally and you get everyone on the same page, you end up with entire group of public and private leaders that are all working toward the same goal.
That may seem very fundamental, but it has taken years to get to that stage. If you look at other communities throughout the U.S., you will find very few where all public and private leaders have the same end goal in mind. ?
How to reach: Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, (561) 835-1008 or www.bdb.org
The Smallridge File
President and CEO
Business Development Board of Palm Beach County
Born: West Palm Beach, Fla.
Education: University of Florida
What would your friends be surprised to find out about you?
For the most part, I keep my private and professional lives separate. Therefore, my friends would be surprised to see what a normal business day is like for me. Every minute of every workday is usually booked solid with meetings, speeches, interviews, prospecting, traveling, deadlines, with absolutely no downtime until Friday afternoons.
How do you recognize new business opportunities?
I do not like to perform or develop a product or program that I’ve seen out on in the market. If I see it, then I tend to steer away from that and try to figure out what is really going to be the ‘wow’ factor in the way that we present a product. It distinguishes us among our competition.
What happens when you don’t close a business deal that you wanted?
One of the keys to any leader is that you’ve had numerous failures. Every one of those I’ve look at as character building exercises. We’ve lost some deals that I thought that we should have won. I don’t sweat over that too much, but instead, evaluate the situation very quickly, figure out what we did wrong and what we did right, and move toward developing some sort of resolution that ensures to the best of our ability that it won’t happen again. We’re quick to take a look at ourselves and be our biggest critics.
What do you do for fun?
I am a firm believer that in order for my mind to stay healthy and make good business decisions, I must find time for fun. As a mother of three boys, all of my free time is spent with them at football, basketball or family vacations. We love to cruise to the Caribbean a couple of times a year as a family. In addition, I am blessed to live within a few miles of my parents, my brother and my sister. Getting together at least monthly with the whole family, especially during football games, has been a source of great memories.
Luis Proenza has become somewhat of a poster child for efforts in leading change and driving innovation, collaboration and economic development in the Akron region. Under his leadership, the university has transformed completely, inside and out. UA’s campus has been renovated, as has the area around it. The university’s revenue and research portfolio has more than doubled during Proenza’s presidency, thanks to new community and corporate partnerships.
If Proenza were graded on fulfilling his duties as president of UA, he’d get an A. But if you take into account his decisive and sweeping approach to leadership, he’d probably get extra credit too.
After all, it’s this approach that has enabled Proenza to successfully lead the university to embrace innovation and change.
“We’ve just been used to defending and believing that the very best approach is one of a professor standing in front of a class,” Proenza says. “I happen to think that faculty will remain at the core of learning for a student, but it’s not necessarily the key to be in front of the class.”
They’ll need to be interacting with students in new and greatly expanded ways.
“What we’ve tried to do — and obviously, for any large organization, it’s something that has to be on the front burner at all times — is to be very relentlessly focusing on the fact that we need to innovate if we’re going to sustain our success and if we’re going to be increasingly successful in other ways,” he says. “In short, if we simply do what we’ve always done, we won’t get ahead.”
Smart Business spoke with Proenza to discuss how UA is changing higher education’s role in supporting regional economies and the advancement of “The Akron Model” — a platform for driving economic development in Akron.
SB: What are the goals of The Akron Model?
LP: It is inherently about the university’s role in economic development. Many institutions, when they talk about how they contribute to economic development, talk about what they do to license some technology and to occasionally start a company based on that technology.
We took a very different approach. We felt that we needed to apply all our resources and create what we call a broad-based and robust platform for economic development.
Many educators believe that the best quality is delivered when you have very small classes. And so the approach that I believe will emerge over the next few years is a model in which universities, either as institutions or faculty across institutions, will work to create new products that will be available to all.
It’s an approach to developing through a variety of partnerships and in a variety of connected ways a greater impact on our community. We summarize The Akron Model by saying that we are relevant, connected and productive across the full spectrum of the university’s expertise.
SB: What steps have you taken to lead this model at UA?
LP: The first thing that we’ve done is just make sure that we have the infrastructure to make this possible. So for many, many years we’ve been one of the most advanced institutions in terms of the deployment of information technology tools. We were one of the first totally wired for wireless institutions in the country.
We have also for many years had the lead in the number of our classrooms that are technically equipped to support online learning and distance learning, and we’re now in the process of finalizing ‘delivery to the desktop’ so that the student need not be in a similar classroom elsewhere but can access what we offer at a computer wherever they might be, at whatever time they might wish to access it.
The other piece that we’ve been doing is talking to a number of companies that we probably need to have as partners to make the model work more comprehensively. It’s not something that we’re likely to be able to do entirely on our own.
SB: Why is collaboration important in promoting economic development?
LP: We developed a framework here that we called ‘shared leadership,’ and it basically is the idea that two heads are better than one, that the more that our own employees, our own faculty, our own colleagues, our own students contribute to the process of thinking about our future and formulating that future, the more successful that we will be. A corollary of that is you can’t do that entirely in isolation from the rest of the community.
In the old days, universities used to be thought of as ivory towers. And clearly, if we insist on being isolated from our community, we become irrelevant. If you’re not connected, you can’t be productive.
So collaboration sort of begins to be the driving force of relevance, connectivity and productivity because it’s that way that not only will you succeed as an institution but your larger community will succeed. That’s important because if your community isn’t succeeding, guess what will happen to you as an institution? You won’t get very far. Collaboration becomes very, very vital internally — that’s shared leadership — and externally — that’s The Akron Model.
SB: What criteria do you use to evaluate opportunities for external partnerships?
LP: If we don’t have the strengths and it’s not something that’s of interest in Northeast Ohio, we’d probably just say no. So the two key pieces of where we start are, ‘Do we have some strengths?’ And, ‘Is it needed in Northeast Ohio?’ The programs that we have are very much aligned with the major industrial segments of Northeast Ohio.
So some key examples are the Timken Engineered Surfaces Laboratories that we inaugurated a few weeks back, the Corrosion program, which is a partnership between several companies, the Department of Defense and the University of Akron. Also through our research foundation it’s laying the groundwork for having some companies that will hopefully be revenue-producing and have a chance to feed back to the university in the long term some of that success.
SB: How did the economic downturn affect UA’s focus on economic development?
LP: What you see when there is an economic downturn then an economic boom is there’s a mismatch between how fast the new jobs are being created and how quickly the people who were displaced in the old jobs are able to rise to the occasion by acquiring new skills.
The important thing then is we’re concentrating on communicating to our students as well as to people that are displaced from jobs that the only way that they’re going to progress is to remember that they must acquire the new skills required for the jobs that maybe didn’t exist five or 10 years ago — or maybe even yesterday. It becomes very important to convey that to our students and to let them know the challenges that they will face both as individuals as part of larger organizations and our nation will face as part of the increasingly very, very, very global economy.
SB: What else have you done to make UA a more connected and innovative higher-learning institution?
LP: First is the almost complete physical transformation of the campus. We have built 22 brand-new buildings. We’ve made major additions and renovations to 18 buildings. We’ve added 34 acres of green space. We’ve planted an excess of 30,000 trees and other plantings. We have created walkways and terraces and plazas and gardens for people to enjoy. … We call that program for transforming the campus the New Landscape for Learning.
The other couple of things are what we call the New Landscape for Living … an initiative that has now become a standalone nonprofit to completely revitalize the neighborhoods that surround the campus. That’s moving along very nicely. The third is a partnership with the area hospitals and the nearby medical schools called The Austen BioInnovation Institute. It’s had some successes already, including its first start-up company. That’s all about bringing together our world-class strengths in polymer science and polymer engineering.
SB: What kind of results have you achieved with The Akron Model so far?
LP: We’ve created a set of partnerships with companies where we’re able to not only commercialize our own technology but to work with them to develop new technology and, if they have patents that are sitting on their shelves, to help them commercialize those that they’re not going to use in their own business. In other words, taking stranded technology and making it available.
In the last 10 years, we’ve started as many companies from other people’s technologies as we have from our own. We just celebrated the establishment of the 50th company and about half of those are from our own technology and half from others. We’ve started an angel investor network called the ARC Angels — Akron Regional Change Agents — and that’s met with significant success, reporting now nearly $400 million of follow-on funding for the companies that have presented. We’ve started a women’s investment network. We’ve started a student investment network.
SB: What advice would you have for other leaders about driving innovation in their organizations?
LP: I think it’s going back to three (terms): be energetic, be enthusiastic, be encouraging. Secondly, be relentless in that focus, but at the same time, understand the limits of people to embrace change. It’s got to come hopefully a little faster than we might have had otherwise. But you can’t push it too much or there will be significant pushback. So be relentlessly focused on the future but patient enough not to get so far ahead that you lose the connectivity with your old colleagues. ?
How to reach: The University of Akron, (330) 972-7111 or www.uakron.edu
The Proenza File
University of Akron
Born: Mexico City, Mexico
Education: High school at Riverside Military Academy; college at Emory University (BA), Ohio State (MA), University of Minnesota (Ph.D.)
How would you describe your leadership style?
When people ask me that, I tend to use three words, and that’s ‘energetic, encouraging and enthusiastic.’ Those three kind of characterize the core of my approach, … and I typically use one other thing. There’s a quote by the great German poet Goethe that says, ‘Whatever you dream or thing you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic to it. Begin it now.’ That’s sort of a much better way of saying the energy, enthusiasm and encouragement piece.
How do you set priorities?
The interesting thing that by virtue of being focused, just about everything that I do is very synergistic — one to another. So it that way, I’m able to do more. It’s related. It builds on itself. It doesn't detract and it doesn't distract either
What do you to regroup on a tough day?
Enjoy a glass of wine with my wife and our pets.
What excites you most as you look forward?
Probably the most exciting thing is how many different challenges present themselves every day. In short, I just don’t get bored. Something is different every day, whether it’s the fact that some company’s called us, or we've established a contact with somebody else or that there’s an international visitor. There’s a variety of challenges.
How do you help keep everyone at UA focused on new opportunities?
It’s beating that drum time and time again. We sometimes say that being a leader is like talking to a parade. No sooner have you said it that you've got to say it again and again and again.
There are a number of people who would argue that St. Louis’ slogan “Gateway to the West” could be updated to “Gateway to the World” — and Elizabeth Stroble, Ph.D., the newest president of Webster University, believes it more than most.
During the expansion of America, St. Louis was indeed a “Gateway to the West.”
“[Today,] I would say the slogan could be reversed as well; the world needs to see St. Louis as a gateway,” Stroble says.
As president, Stroble has been finding ways to continue to expand the institution’s presence globally in an effort to provide students with a more diverse curriculum that not only benefits them, but the businesses and communities that those students then work and live in.
Webster University is based in St. Louis, and has campuses in Geneva, Vienna, The Netherlands, London, China and Thailand. The college employs some 1,200 full-time faculty and staff members and has 21,000 students — 8,000 of them in St. Louis.
Stroble came to Webster in 2009, and with the university turning 100 in 2015, she has been evaluating where the college can grow and improve itself for the sake of its students, communities and business partners.
“What I learned since I arrived here was that Webster University has a tremendous history of being globally excellent with room to grow the global excellence,” Stroble says. “It’s highly innovative and entrepreneurial and its mission, going back to its founding, was to meet an unmet need.”
During the last four years, she has been assessing the university’s strengths and opportunities.
“The strengths and opportunities at Webster are to continue to connect the pieces and parts of that global network so that strength builds upon strength and that we stay connected, not only locally but globally,” Stroble says.
Here’s how Stroble is advancing the university’s strengths and opportunities.
Do a thorough assessment
Before coming to Webster University, Stroble was provost, senior vice president and COO at the University of Akron in Ohio. Wanting to find a presidency position, she came to Webster.
“The move to Webster University was about the presidency of an institution that’s local here in St. Louis but has a global reach and impact, and that was what was most interesting to me about it,” Stroble says.
With the school’s international footprint a big drawing factor, Stroble began to assess the university’s strengths and opportunities in that area and how Webster could benefit students, businesses and communities.
“I spent a great deal of time in the St. Louis community not only interacting with faculty, staff and students here but with local business and community leaders who have a global footprint in their own organizations and want to increase the global interaction in St. Louis, because that makes it a thriving community and a globally competitive community,” she says.
Stroble also began visiting every international location and many domestic locations of Webster University.
“Part of what fascinates me and continues to about Webster University is the diversity that comes from being located in different places,” she says. “While the location is different and the diversity of the students is different, the academic programs reflect local market needs.”
Taking that tour of various Webster campuses helped Stroble assess where the university could improve.
“You have to take plenty of time listening and asking for other people’s advice and counsel,” Stroble says. “One of my fundamental questions was, ‘What do you most hope that your new president will preserve about Webster University, and what do you most hope the new president will seek to change?’
“My sense in every organization is that there are these sacred traditions, values, habits and processes that people hope will continue. It’s always an assessment of whether you, as president or the new leader, will agree with those, but it’s important to know them.”
Stroble’s assessment left her with a sense that Webster University, like most organizations, had some ambition and pent-up hope and demand for change.
“If you don’t know what that is, you can’t help to fulfill the hopes and dreams that caused you to be the president who was selected,” she says. “That is an important learning opportunity, and you need to seize it to its fullest advantage, because when you’re new, it’s the greatest warning opportunity.
“Over time, it’s harder to see things with fresh eyes and … it’s hard to disabuse yourself of the notion that there might be better ways to do things.”
As an incoming leader of an organization, you have to take advantage of not knowing very much about the operation because you can ask the naive question and gain a lot of insight.
“Over the course of my presidency, it’s my role to listen to what’s going on in the external environment,” Stroble says.
For Webster University, that’s an external global environment and what’s happening in the world of higher education but also in the world of culture, diversity, politics, economics and the larger environment that we all live in and hope to shape.
“How do I learn about that and help to communicate that effectively to the university community so that we can truly not only be responsive but lead the change that the external environment wants?” she says.
“In turn, how do I learn well enough what the strengths are of Webster University so I communicate those well to an external environment to continue to attract students, high-quality employees, donors, external support, and local and global support partnerships?”
To help aid in that responsibility, Stroble has been investing in developing Webster’s talent around global diversity and knowledge and is focused on improving curriculum.
“We revised our general education curriculum to focus on global citizenship, and we have been building many more partnerships with international universities, especially in parts of the world where we are not,” she says. “That’s why it’s important for us to expand the campus footprint beyond Europe and Asia.”
Webster University wants to open global opportunities for its students and St. Louis businesses at the same time to bring an infusion of global talent to St. Louis and across the world.
“This focus on people, partnerships, curriculum and programs that help support student travel, more scholarship prospects for international students and raising our profile in terms of how well we communicate about the opportunities we can create at Webster University for businesses and other higher education institutions has been the work I have been doing,” Stroble says.
Develop global talent
True to Webster’s mission to fulfill a need, one of the institution’s goals is to build capacity in potential new geographies. These new international locations need to have a stable political environment, a stable and growing economy, and a need in that local community for American-style education taught in English in the degree programs Webster offers.
Globalization at Webster University is much more comprehensive than most other universities. Some even say that globalization is baked into the university’s DNA.
“It’s my job to help deepen this, broaden it, strengthen it, further it, but it certainly dates back to before I arrived,” Stroble says. “It was such a part of Webster University from its inception that we were ahead of the curve. Again, we’re an institution that prides itself on meeting a need and being entrepreneurial and naturally saw opportunities to do that outside of St. Louis well before it became cool to be global.”
Webster’s effort globally is much more about creating synergies and mutual benefit than it is about carrying the American message abroad.
“We’re much more about being truly global and figuring out how to live that through preparation of students, who we hire and how we think about the geography than we are about how we export an American education that might seek it,” she says.
While constantly looking at new international locations for the college, Stroble is also extremely focused on how that global diversity can benefit the local community in St. Louis.
“We have purposefully built a program with the state of Missouri called the Global Internship Experience that provides interns from international locations for companies here in St. Louis and sends Missouri students to international locations to do internships there,” she says. “We’ve been doing that for 25 to 30 years and it continues to expand.”
Another effort to broaden education and benefit businesses is the creation of a Confucius Institute.
“The point of a Confucius Institute is that you provide an arm for increasing knowledge of Chinese language and culture in your local community,” Stroble says. “Ours was founded in 2008, and it was the first in the state of Missouri. Our Confucius Institute provides resources to local businesses who seek to learn more about how to do business with the Chinese.”
This institute is a direct connection of Webster’s expertise and relationship with the Chinese Ministry of Education that opens up doors and opportunities for young people and businesses.
“It would be hard to know the world without knowing China,” she says.
All of these advancements to the global education of Webster’s students provide a platform for lifelong learning.
“It’s not only about the important topic of being a citizen of the world and seeing things in a large perspective or relating to people who have had experiences different from ours; it’s about creating an open point of view about learning, changing and responding to an environment that will continue to change,” Stroble says.
“If you learn how to navigate a different country, different language, a different culture, different politics, a different lifestyle, that positions you to learn about new technologies, new field development, new environmental challenges across your lifetime. You open up your world in more ways than globally.” ?
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The Stroble File
Elizabeth Stroble, Ph. D.
Born: New Castle, Wyo.
Education: She earned a degree in history and English from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. She has two masters of arts degrees, one in history and one in American and English literature, both from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. She received her doctorate in curriculum studies from the University of Virginia-Charlottesville.
Background: She spent time at Northern Arizona University-Flagstaff and University of Louisville-Kentucky. At University of Akron she was the dean of the College of Education and was promoted to provost, senior vice president and COO. She then sought a presidency and came to Webster University.
What was your first job and what did you learn from that experience?
I was a waitress. I worked my way through college waitressing. Serving the hungry public teaches a lot about communication skills and being attentive to detail and being pleasant to interact with. I learned a lot about customer service.
What got you into education?
During my next-to-last term at Augustana, I was in the student teaching program. I had this spectacular student teaching assignment and after about the second or third day I decided this was my life.
Who is someone you’ve admired in the education world?
I worked for the chairman of the history department at Augustana, J. Iverne Dowie, and I looked up to him greatly because he had been blind since he was three years old. My job was to read books and papers out loud to him, and he and I would discuss what I had read. I admired his intellect and how gentle he was as an individual and how accomplished he was to be the department chair. A lot of what I learned about teaching and university work was from his direct example.
What are you looking forward to at Webster University?
I’m excited about this institution continuing to live that mission of setting a distinct standard for global education and preparing our students to be individually excellent and citizens of the globe.