Michael Robb was prepared to be disliked on his first day.

Tough decisions would need to be made to keep the jobs of his 52 new employees and keep the organization, Center for Community Resources Inc., out of bankruptcy.

“You have to have courage that you’re not going to be liked,” Robb says about stepping into a leadership role in a turnaround situation. “You have to understand who you can trust, and put your faith and trust in those individuals. You have to know who the players are in the organization and assess that very quickly, because you can’t do it alone.”

Robb’s first days were spent talking to employees on all levels to determine the human services organization’s finances and problem areas. Connecting with employees early allowed Robb easier buy-in during the turnaround implementation.

That was 2005. Since then, CCR has grown its staff to 89 and has an annual budget of $4.5 million. Seeing the need to help nonprofit organizations, Robb and his team started Alliance for Nonprofit Resources Inc. and Nonprofit Development Corp. As executive director of the organizations, Robb oversees 130 employees and budgets of nearly $8.5 million.

Smart Business spoke with Robb about how to turn around a company.

Q. Where do you start in a turnaround situation?

What happens is sometimes you go into a situation and people feel like you should have all of the answers because you’re hired. You shouldn’t ask questions to be able to enact policies. People see asking questions as a sign of weakness or that you don’t know what you’re doing.

I always feel like you have to go into some kind of temporary incompetence. When you walk into a scene, you really need to understand what the culture and the structure is that you’re going to be working in. Those are two critical elements that you need to evaluate: How are things getting done? What is the philosophy behind which those things are done?

Q. To whom do you ask questions?

No matter where the company is at when you come in, you have to be open to everybody who might provide feedback to you.

Some do it willingly; they just come to you. They may come to you for a lot of different reasons and a lot of different motives. Others, you have to seek out. That’s where it gets difficult, because who is going to provide you with reliable information and who is going to provide you with information that is not necessarily in the agency’s best interest, but it’s in that person’s best interest, too. You have to evaluate that.

Q. What questions are you asking?

There is a double bottom line with nonprofits. The first bottom line that a lot of people focus on is good service provisions: Are we doing it well? The second bottom line is: Are we doing it at an affordable cost?

When you look at it that way, I carve out my questions really: What’s the finance process? Are we looking at our accounts receivable and our accounts payable? Are we managing our cash flow? Are we looking at a cash basis or an accrual basis? That dictates a lot about how an organization runs and can survive. Who is in charge and who is making the decisions on how money gets released? Who is making the decisions on how money is being sought? Once you find out who is doing those things, then you can start asking the process by how they make their decisions.

Q. How do you get staff buy-in on ideas and strategy moving forward?

On two fronts: Is it going to make their jobs better and how they do their work better? Is it going to make their overall experience of being within an organization better? Sometimes people look at coming into a place on two fronts: I like my job, but I hate my employer.

What are you trying to do to meet those two things? You have to understand what the employees want.

I always found benefit from meeting with staff over those brown-bag-lunch meetings. You sit down at lunchtime. I’d buy pizza. And I’d say, ‘Here are some of the things going on. What are your concerns? What are you worried about?’

I got a great amount of feedback, which I thought was really relevant. In those meetings, I would say, ‘I’m going to take your feedback, and we’re going to communicate back. If we can’t accomplish those things, here’s the consequence.’

If you can use not just words, but bring in some handouts to show the staff, ‘Here’s what it currently is. There’s our bottom line.’

Q. Are there other essential steps that must take place?

You have to be visible when you’re coming in on a turnaround. We had a couple of sites, and I made a point to always be at the other site on a weekly basis. Actually spend time working there. I didn’t have a designated office. I would pick a conference room, and sometimes I would get kicked out because there was a meeting.

People want to see that you’re there rather than behind some closed door. Minds start to race.

If you’re doing those one-on-ones, if you’re meeting with people on a regular basis, it really starts to help ease their concern. They can focus back on what they need to do be doing.

You have to give a time frame: ‘Within 90 days, we will have structural changes done or some process changes done.’ You may not know what those exactly are.

You have to understand where things are and pinpoint. Depending on where the cash is for an organization and where they might be in crisis mode will really delineate how quickly you have to react.

How to reach: Center for Community Resources Inc., (724) 431-0095 or www.ccrinfo.org

Published in Pittsburgh
Tuesday, 01 March 2011 14:06

Talent management

As a child, Lois Melbourne watched her mother run her business with a focus on people.

That lesson stays with her as an adult at her own business, Aquire Inc., a work force planning and management solutions company. As co-founder and CEO of the 64-person company, she uses those people skills to help business owners develop succession plans and work through mergers and reorganizations.

Smart Business spoke with Melbourne about how to effectively manage your talent.

How do you create metrics for talent management?

Every organization has different drivers, but looking at the measurement, some of them are subjective, yet they still need to be ranked — like readiness for another position. It has to still be a human intervention to say, ‘Is an individual ready for a particular role?’ But that decision is also hopefully based on measurements that have been going on throughout the year or throughout someone’s career as you look at what experience have they been through, what value have they brought to the organization, do they have the necessary training or hands-on experience with components in the company? Then, sometimes it’s very easy to check off the list and say maybe they’ve been to a university or they haven’t, they’ve gotten a certain certification or they haven’t. Those kinds of things are often part of the measurements, as well.

How do you prevent bias from creeping in with subjective measurements?

An important part of avoiding bias is there isn’t one individual making a decision about another person’s career. … Organizations will put in 360-degree reviews. That kind of quantification is there, and it gets a lot easier in a business to avoid bias if the organization is driven by results, and the goals are set for any given individual or position or department, so you can measure if someone has actually met the goal.

Let’s say a goal is 80 percent of the employees will have been through a global training experience in two years, because we want them to either do a global job or to have been through certain types of classes about global awareness. If that’s a departmental or corporate goal, then you start driving the goals down to the individual, so then it’s less subjective — that HR person who was in charge of getting people properly trained, did they do a good job? Well, did they reach the goal? Was the goal properly established? Those types of things help take out the bias.

How do you set goals that are challenging but achievable?

Part of it is looking at historical data. What has been done in the past? We’ll use the previous example — let’s say the goal is, ‘We want 80 percent of the people to go through training in two years,’ but we never could reach more than 50 percent. So why would we, this year, crank it up 15 percent? Look at some of the historical factors and see what’s been achievable in the past. Come up with a logical number for the future, as well.

How do you know when you need to lower a goal versus it’s a performance issue?

It requires a discussion with sometimes a lot of people — the stakeholders, the individuals involved — to figure out why have we not been reaching this goal? Is it because of the performance of individuals, or is it because of budget constraints? Why did we set the goal at 80 percent to begin with? Was that wishful thinking? Did we have to have that many for some reason, like compliance issues?

It’s finding out why the goal was set and finding out is there a consensus on why the goal hasn’t been reached. Are there conflicts as to why the goal hasn’t been reached? Is there finger-pointing? … It might have been something out of their control, and that might need to be notated.

If we have a goal of watching what kind of turnover we have in our employee base and we lose a whole lot of people, why does that happen? Did we lose people because we stopped a benefits program, and people had to leave because they needed to find health insurance? That insurance impact then affects other goals. Get down to why did we miss the target.

How to reach: Aquire Inc., (888) 674-2427 or www.aquire.com

Published in Dallas

Most people worry about adding space as they grow, but Mark

Trushel isn’t one of those people.

Mantaline Corp. Inc., the manufacturer of which Trushel is

president and CEO, made company processes so efficient it no longer needed two

Northeast Ohio locations. The company closed its Aurora facility, moving all

operations to its Mantua location. The feasibility study and planning process

took 11 months.

“The key is that you spend the time to make sure you’re

confident that you have a good plan,” Trushel says.

Smart Business spoke with

Trushel about how to develop a plan for a large company undertaking.

How do you put together a plan?

The plan needs to be built and challenged by as broad a

cross-functional team as possible. With truly a good team effort you’re going

to get better ideas, you’re going to get more concerns, you’re going to get a

more complete product than if one person tries to sit down and think of

everything that should happen or could go wrong.

That was certainly the case in this activity. We had a couple

of teams that were involved in different points in the planning process. The

planning process was done in pieces over a number of months so that people had

time to think about it and sleep on what we were doing, reflect on, ‘No, this

is a better way. No, we shouldn’t do this. Geez, should we think about these

kinds of things.’

The plan had a lot of challenge. I really think it’s that

challenging the plan that may be more important than managing the plan through

the implementation phase. If you have a bad plan to start with, the

implementation is kind of doomed even if you’re executing the plan well.

There are always things that will go wrong. You want to try to

minimize those, and I think the best way to minimize those is to make sure

you’ve thought about all of the failures and challenges that can go wrong to

make sure that more things go right than go wrong.

How do you identify who to put in charge of the plan?

People who take a lot of ownership in what they do and have a

high level of pride that will make sure they continue to push to get the

results.

We had a couple of different people that were involved as far

as leading the plan through different phases. I think every plan needs a

champion, a good project manager to manage the project.

As you look at your team internally and think about massive

efforts that are kind of only one time — everybody probably has good managers

who can lead this kind of project — the issue is will they be so overburdened

that the results may be that the normal day-to-day customer care and service

gets neglected or overlooked.

In our situation that didn’t happen, but in hindsight the

people we had leading at various points in time were all probably unfairly

taxed as far as what the expectations I put on them and probably, more

importantly, the expectations they put on themselves. While we didn’t use an

outside project management consultant, I don’t think that’s a bad idea. You

have to really look at the situation and decide that you’re not going to use an

outsider for good reasons.

Whom do you involve to get that broad insight for the plan?

It was cross functional so it was basically department

managers, certain operators were involved in various pieces of the plan, people

that knew their work area and understood what truly happens on a

minute-by-minute basis as well as production, engineering, maintenance. Everybody

in the company was really involved at one point or another as we worked on the

plan.

We had small group meetings. There was basically a planning

team and various people were added to the group during the process. People

could basically offer their thoughts and their insights in their own work areas

or the areas that played the most importance to them.

For example, before our tooling shop, where we build most of

our production tools, was located in the Aurora facility. In the starting point

in the plan, our engineering team and, most importantly, our tooling designer

they had the initial ownership for their piece of the plan. What kind of space

are you going to need? How would it be best to configure your equipment? That

changed over time, but they were definitely involved with both the planning and

the tugging and pulling that goes as you’re trying to meet everyone’s needs in

coming up with how the new layout is really going to work.

Then there’s ownership in the plan, and they’re responsible or

have a large stake in the implementation phase in their area.

What role should the CEO play in the process?

I use the CEO’s role pretty much from an internal perspective

as a cheerleader. Making sure we’re focused on the right things, making sure we

understand what the objectives are, how we’re measuring those objectives.

Things will not always go exactly as expected. You have to be

a cheerleader to push through those minor adversities and go to the next step.

It means how you interact with the team. Not focusing on what

went wrong, but focusing on what has gone well. If there are places where we’re

running behind, OK how are we going to adapt to move to the next level?

You pick people up and say, ‘OK we got beat up a little bit

here; let’s keep pushing on.’

How to reach: Mantaline Corp. Inc., (800) 321-0948 or www.mantaline.com

Published in Akron/Canton
Friday, 25 June 2010 20:00

Focusing on the keys

George W. Roth measures customer service by whether a client calls back for repeat service.

“There’s no better recommendation than a happy client who calls you back for more work,” says Roth, founder, president and majority owner of Augere Construction Co.

Roth and his partner, James L. Stewart II, pride themselves on customer satisfaction — a result of building relationships, good communication and quickly taking care of problems.

That process helped the construction company reach revenue between $10 million and $12 million in 2009.

Smart Business spoke to Roth about how to grow a business and keep customers happy.

Q. What are the keys to growing a company?

The relationships with the owners and clients — it is key. If you don’t do your job every time, you won’t get an opportunity to perform more work for them. We pride ourselves on most of our work is from repeat clients, whether they’re grocery store chains, churches, manufacturers or office warehouse owners.

It’s key because if you lose that relationship with that client, No. 1, you won’t be doing any more work for them, and then word-of-mouth spreads.

They will be one of your references that you can use for picking up other jobs, so it’s very key to have great client relationships.

It’s key to retaining the business level that you have and finding more and helping you expand.

We go above and beyond for all of our clients and leave them happy at the end. If there’s an issue, we make sure it’s corrected and fixed to their satisfaction every time.

Q. How do you handle issues when they occur?

Everybody is going to make mistakes, and the key when you make a mistake is not to make the same mistake twice. What you want to do is learn from your mistakes and watch other contractors, your competitors and other successful contractors that are in the area.

In Canton, a good friend of mine owns Beaver Excavating. They have done work for me in the past and we have done work for them in the past, and you can learn from people like Beaver Excavating. Their client relationships have been great throughout their career and then they take care of their employees. What we try and do is build on those same features. Put your clients first and don’t make mistakes, and if you make a mistake, don’t make it twice.

You have to get to know your clients. You know how they want things done. Everybody has their little quirks so you try and work with them. Really the key is communication with your employees and your clients so everybody knows what’s going on and there are no surprises. If you have a problem, everybody knows about it, so you can get it rectified immediately.

Q. How do you handle mistakes made by employees?

What you do is you lead by example, No. 1. If you have a presence — my partner and I have a presence on the job, maybe not on a daily basis but on a weekly basis — you help see what is going on and what a possible conflict may be.

You’re not going to be there all the time, so your superintendents are hopefully trained, they have the experience and knowledge to do what you have them out there on-site doing.

But they do make mistakes. What you do is you help them through that. Obviously, you get the mistake corrected first, show them what went wrong, and encourage them not to make that same mistake again.

That’s where the problem is. People make mistakes, and I don’t have a problem with people making mistakes. Where the difficulty is is making the same mistake the second or third time. That’s where the problem is.

A process we use with our superintendents is properly vetting them when we hire them. Initially when we hire people, we hire them on an hourly basis and see how well they can do, what they know, what they don’t know. Give them the directions that we need or they need to do the work for us. If they succeed and are successful at that on an hourly basis, then we will put them on salary with benefits and 401(k)s, company vehicles.

The people we have working with us have helped make us successful, and that’s key. You can’t do this alone. As an owner, you can’t do this alone. You have to depend on your partner and your employees in the field as well as your employees in the office. This is not a solo act; it’s a team effort.

Q. How do you communicate with clients to understand their needs and build trust?

The owners periodically come and visit the site whether it’s once a week or a couple times a week. You need to be there and need to show them around and explain to them what’s going on.

If you explain to them what’s going on, what’s going to happen next, show them any potential problems or conflicts, you can all work these things out ahead of time. By being proactive and communicating with your clients, you have a knowledgeable, proactive customer all the way through the process until completion. And I think that’s key.

You have to communicate and establish trust and relationships with your clients.

Regarding building trust, you need to be open and transparent. With open lines of communication, you must be honest with the information and give the best recommendations as proposed solutions.

The owner/client may not like the answer or solution, but you have given them the straight truth.

How to reach: Augere Construction Co., (330) 342-4287 or www.augereconstruction.com

Published in Cleveland
Friday, 25 June 2010 20:00

Vision quest

In order to set a vision, Mike Porter has to understand the business and the people he is leading.

“Not only from a historical perspective and what they’ve gone through but also where is this business trying to go and where’s the company trying to go,” says Porter, who oversees more than 500 employees as a regional general manager of Microsoft Corp.’s central region. “Then, you have to take into account the culture, the people — the appetite for change if you will.”

Smart Business spoke with Porter about how to create a vision and get buy-in for it.

Q. What’s the most important step in business?

Being able to set that vision, I’ve found, is the most important thing. It allows you to, stealing a (Steven) Covey term, ‘begin with the end in mind.’ Then you have to have that courage, conviction, that confidence piece. ... In my experience, that’s what allows you to put that vision, that stake in the ground out there because visions aren’t necessarily contracts that say you are assured that all are going to come true.

So you have to have some darn confidence as a leader in what you are doing so you can set the vision and get all the people, the entire organization to go with you in that direction. Because you are really only as good as your people and their ability to understand what you are trying to do. That’s a tough, tough set of different things to go through as a leader in this day and age given the disbursement of people and how many different moving parts there are.

Q. How do you get people to buy in to the vision?

Researching, getting insights, testing ideas, sharing my theories, and openly and honestly asking for feedback. Let’s say it’s a turnaround, versus a sustained success type of business. The difference is in a turnaround, I’m probably going to take a move to start making those changes much quicker than if it is a sustained success. In a sustained success, I’m going to spend a little more time getting more and more people’s input and sharing out my ideas and pieces ahead of time before formally saying this is a vision. Because in a sustained success, I’m going to make sure that by the time I set the vision most people can regurgitate it, if you will, as it comes out. They’re already in. They feel like they are part of it.

In a turnaround, I just need the top performers to confirm what I think I see because the appetite for change is usually so high in a turnaround anyway, that the key is getting the communication, the vision out there quickly because people want to follow something. If it’s a turnaround, they typically feel like they’ve been following a dead end if you will.

Q. What are the keys to getting honest feedback?

When you come in or when you are running a business already and whether it’s starting a business or being there already, the key is just to inspect the business. It goes back to creating a vision. As you inspect, you likely are going to find information, whether it’s looking though the numbers or business intelligence. (That) is something that our customers at Microsoft are asking us for and that’s what we use a lot. Show me the numbers, show me the scorecard, show me the things that are going on, and then, in turn, what that should show you is it should show you some trend data that says, ‘OK, I see some trends that I need to go and investigate more,’ and maybe that leads to the communication ... and then test that with the people you know that you can trust. They’re the honesty, they’re the historian-type folks that have been there for a long time.

They are going to give it to you straight and then you test that in a small group. Then after you are able to get close to confirming that your suspicions or your assumptions were correct in certain areas, then what I do is I go out and ask for feedback. But you have to ask for something specific, and you have to give them a safety place to go with their feedback.

For instance, you could, as a leader, say, ‘Do you think we need to be better at selling?’ And, of course, everyone would probably say, ‘Oh yeah.’ But they wouldn’t give you much to go on. But if you were to say, ‘Do you think we need to be selling to customers that we’ve had as customers for a long time that maybe have plateaued or they look like they’ve plateaued with us, and do you have any examples where you’ve seen that work or not work?’

Because then that is a safety net. You’ve given them enough where they know whatever they tell you, it’s going to be in line with what you are thinking about. Then based on the way that you react to their feedback, they’ll give you more is what I’ve found. You have to be open to feedback and to ideas and to sharing that out again. When I have those conversations and I get good feedback, I’m very quick to pull them in and show them how I took the notes or send that back out or give them access to where I’m storing all my thinking and data and try to be transparent with it.

Published in Chicago
Wednesday, 26 May 2010 20:00

Focusing on the keys

George W. Roth measures customer service by whether a client calls back for repeat service.

“There’s no better recommendation than a happy client who calls you back for more work,” says Roth, founder, president and majority owner of Augere Construction Co.

Roth and his partner, James L. Stewart II, pride themselves on customer satisfaction — a result of building relationships, good communication and quickly taking care of problems.

That process helped the construction company reach revenue between $10 million and $12 million in 2009.

Smart Business spoke to Roth about how to grow a business and keeping customers happy.

Q. What are the keys to growing a company?

The relationships with the owners and clients — it is key. If you don’t do your job every time, you won’t get an opportunity to perform more work for them. We pride ourselves on most of our work is from repeat clients, whether they’re grocery store chains, churches, manufacturers or office warehouse owners.

It’s key because if you lose that relationship with that client, No. 1, you won’t be doing any more work for them, and then word-of-mouth spreads.

They will be one of your references that you can use for picking up other jobs, so it’s very key to have great client relationships.

It’s key to retaining the business level that you have and finding more and helping you expand.

We go above and beyond for all of our clients and leave them happy at the end. If there’s an issue, we make sure it’s corrected and fixed to their satisfaction every time.

Q. How do you handle issues when they occur?

Everybody is going to make mistakes, and the key when you make a mistake is not to make the same mistake twice. What you want to do is learn from your mistakes and watch other contractors, your competitors and other successful contractors that are in the area.

In Canton, a good friend of mine owns Beaver Excavating. They have done work for me in the past and we have done work for them in the past, and you can learn from people like Beaver Excavating. Their client relationships have been great throughout their career and then they take care of their employees. What we try and do is build on those same features. Put your clients first and don’t make mistakes, and if you make a mistake, don’t make it twice.

You have to get to know your clients. You know how they want things done. Everybody has their little quirks so you try and work with them. Really the key is communication with your employees and your clients so everybody knows what’s going on and there are no surprises. If you have a problem, everybody knows about it, so you can get it rectified immediately.

Q. How do you handle mistakes made by employees?

What you do is you lead by example, No. 1. If you have a presence — my partner and I have a presence on the job, maybe not on a daily basis but on a weekly basis — you help see what is going on and what a possible conflict may be.

You’re not going to be there all the time, so your superintendents are hopefully trained, they have the experience and knowledge to do what you have them out there on-site doing.

But they do make mistakes. What you do is you help them through that. Obviously, you get the mistake corrected first, show them what went wrong, and encourage them not to make that same mistake again.

That’s where the problem is. People make mistakes, and I don’t have a problem with people making mistakes. Where the difficulty is is making the same mistake the second or third time. That’s where the problem is.

A process we use with our superintendents is properly vetting them when we hire them. Initially when we hire people, we hire them on an hourly basis and see how well they can do, what they know, what they don’t know. Give them the directions that we need or they need to do the work for us. If they succeed and are successful at that on an hourly basis, then we will put them on salary with benefits and 401(k)s, company vehicles.

The people we have working with us have helped make us successful, and that’s key. You can’t do this alone. As an owner, you can’t do this alone. You have to depend on your partner and your employees in the field as well as your employees in the office. This is not a solo act; it’s a team effort.

Q. How do you communicate with clients to understand their needs and build trust?

The owners periodically come and visit the site whether it’s once a week or a couple times a week. You need to be there and need to show them around and explain to them what’s going on.

If you explain to them what’s going on, what’s going to happen next, show them any potential problems or conflicts, you can all work these things out ahead of time. By being proactive and communicating with your clients, you have a knowledgeable, proactive customer all the way through the process until completion. And I think that’s key.

You have to communicate and establish trust and relationships with your clients.

Regarding building trust, you need to be open and transparent. With open lines of communication, you must be honest with the information and give the best recommendations as proposed solutions.

The owner/client may not like the answer or solution, but you have given them the straight truth.

How to reach: Augere Construction Co., (330) 342-4287 or www.augereconstruction.com

Published in Akron/Canton

Alex G. Sciulli isn’t afraid to ask questions, especially when it helps him get to know employees and customers.

“A lot of people think, ‘Well, if I ask a question, they’re going to think I’m really dumb,” says the president and chief operating officer of RJ Lee Group Inc. “It’s a good thing to be aware that you’re not going to know every answer.”

Through questions, Sciulli investigates people’s personalities — a mindset not far off for the $35 million company, which he calls an “industrial CSI” because his 250 employees are investigators in materials characterization and forensic engineering.

Smart Business spoke to Sciulli about how locker-room chemistry affects the game.

Q. What skills do leaders need?

What makes a good leader is not IQ but EQ, or emotional quotient. Let’s face it, Mr. Spock was a valuable asset on the Starship Enterprise, but he had no emotions, little empathy. Leaders need to exhibit a self-awareness of their skills and limitations. They must have the interpersonal and social skills to address the needs of the customer and the key staff providing the service.

You have to be a good listener. How does the customer differentiate your company from another company? The first way is through your interpersonal skills. You have to pass that test first. Then the second thing is that you have to take their problem on as your own.

Q. How do you teach employees to interact with clients?

When I’ve gone on sales calls with junior people, they want to say something about the company or something they’ve done previously. What the customer really wants is, ‘Tell me how you would solve that problem.’ You wouldn’t be sitting here if they didn’t think you were qualified. So at that point, you turn off the sales pitch and you’re on execute mode. Ask a lot of questions about how do you define the problem, what are the biggest issues that you face, what keeps you up at night, if you had a perfect world, what would you do?

You try to get [employees] exposed to how you approach a customer. Sometimes it’s as simple as when you’re in a client’s office, you have to be very observant. You have to look at the pictures on the wall. You have to look at the degrees. What did the client think was important to put on his wall: a hole-in-one certificate or pictures of the family? These things start conversations, and then you start to become a confidant.

… I tell [employees], ‘When the customer begins to talk, let them finish. When the customer mentioned the following, that was a good opportunity for you to interject about this.’ So it’s coaching done in a constructive fashion. You give them some encouragement and you say, ‘Here’s some things I would have done maybe a little differently,’ and then they grow.

Q. How do you interact with employees?

I get my cup of coffee and walk around, knock on your cubicle and start a conversation. Recently, I went into an employee’s cubicle and noticed a picture of Oprah Winfrey. I said, ‘Tell me what your connection is.’ Her sister works on [Oprah’s] staff. So it led to, ‘What do you like about Oprah?’

Or [it] might be a picture of kids with a soccer ball or something. I get to know the employees, what makes them go, what organizations are they a part of, why [they’re] involved. It just helps me get to know who they are and how I can help them in the everyday business environment.

Q. What’s the benefit of connecting with employees?

When I asked this one highly acclaimed CEO, ‘What do you attribute your success to?’ he said, ‘Lots of people wanted me to succeed.’ Sometimes one of the main benefits is people want to do this for you. They want you to be successful and, of course, they’re counting on you, that you’ll be looking out for them, as well.

Chemistry in the locker room has a great deal to do with how people will react on the field. If you care about your teammate, you have more of a tendency to work as a team.

Watch the interaction in meetings. You gauge how one person may propose an idea; what’s the reaction from the rest of the group? Does the rest of the group react, ‘Oh, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of,’ or do they react by adding to the idea?

A lot of people have learned over time to work very independently and sometimes very autonomously. I try to break that down through group discussions about a particular project; I always bring other people in to get involved.

People will watch how I react to a question, saying, ‘I don’t know the answer to that. What do you suggest?’ Sort of like follow the leader — ‘Oh, he wants to have a very open meeting; anybody can give a suggestion.’

Q. How do employee relationships affect client relationships?

You have to understand who’s best to be in front of the customer. You have to obviously understand who your customer is. Some customers are so technically oriented [that] they only want to talk to somebody who is on the same technical level. I have certain customers that wouldn’t know a test tube from a tire iron. They don’t want the scientist; they want somebody who’s going to be their account manager.

Part of the business acumen of how this all comes together is as you get to know your staff and you get to know the personalities, you can tell who you should bring to the meeting for a particular client.

How to reach: RJ Lee Group Inc., (800) 860-1775 or www.rjlg.com">www.rjlg.com

Published in Pittsburgh
Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Everyday actions

Chef is not part of Michael B. Weidner’s job description, but he doesn’t mind picking up a spatula now and then.

Recently, the president and CEO of ACRT Inc. was found flipping pancakes and sausages for an employee breakfast.

Similar events, including a chili cook-off, are a small gesture to keep employees motivated, but a leader’s real work is shown through everyday actions, Weidner says.

Communication and transparency are the two factors that Weidner uses to empower his 400 employees at the utility vegetation management consulting company.

Smart Business spoke with Weidner about how to motivate and empower employees.

Q. How do you keep employees motivated today?

The job can be stressful. We’re contractors; we’re always bidding on work. We have a lot of stuff going on and (people need) distraction and a sense of team outside of just pounding out numbers, trying to reduce costs, dealing with the economy.

The best way to do that a lot of times is to get people involved in doing something else, something as simple as making them breakfast. They can get a raise and a nice review and whatever else, but you need to say things during the course of the year that show them more than just tell them, actually demonstrate you care about them as people.

(Breakfast) that is just a little thing, it’s what you do every day. My grandfather always talked about doing what you say and saying what you do is the best means to gain respect.

People hear your words, but they watch your actions. What sticks more is what you do. We expect from our executive team, our leadership, our managers, to exhibit these qualities. The qualities of the company are honesty, hard work, respect, trustworthiness.

Q. What are the keys to empowering and motivating employees?

Personally, I’m a transparency guy. The more the people know, the better off they are.

If you give everybody the whole picture, then they can be engrossed in the whole story not just a little piece of it. Let’s say you’re the receptionist here, if you know exactly what’s going on, then in your job if somebody asks you a question, you have a better answer than if you just keep them in the dark.

We’re in a competitive environment so there are certain things, if they got out in our industry, it would take away some of our competitive advantage. What we share with (employees) is pretty much everything except for the secret sauce: how we do pricing, what are some of our key advantages over our competitors, how do we bid for work.

We’re having our annual shareholders meeting and all of our employees, because we’re employee-owned, have the opportunity to sit and watch. I just give them an overview of the last year and what our plans are for the next.

We provide all of our financial information to our middle management so that when they’re out talking to employees they can tell employees what’s going on, how we’re doing and why we’re doing the way we’re doing.

We have newsletters. We do a lot of things to keep people informed.

Our biggest challenge is communication. We’re about 400 employees spread across 25 states and our people don’t report to an ACRT office, they often just work out of their truck out in the field. Communication is really a difficult thing.

On an annual basis, I see probably 50 percent of our employees in person. I go out and visit customers, visit employees and just find out how they’re doing and how their lives are going.

Because we’re an ESOP company, if our employees know more, then they make better decisions that lead to a better line for the company.

If you don’t know something, you’re going to make up an answer. That’s what people do. We all do it.

If nobody tells you what the answer is, you’ll figure it out yourself and maybe it’s the wrong answer. By being transparent — ‘This is what we’re doing; this is why we’re doing it’ — people all have the correct answer and people can make good decisions on spending money, on how they work, customer interactions.

Overall, it’s a wonderful thing when everybody gets it. Now, that’s impossible because not everybody gets it every day. But the closer you can get to that, the better off you are.

Q. What is the best way to effectively communicate?

I would get out of my office and go and physically see the people and talk to them as individuals. Not from the role of CEO but from, ‘Hi, my name is Mike. I work at ACRT. Can you help me understand what’s going on?’ And tell them what you see is going on so they see your opinion, too; have a conversation.

I’ve often said we do a good job of providing information to our employees but we really don’t have an all knowing. We don’t have complete understanding until we have a conversation so we can ask questions of each other.

‘Did you understand what I said?’ And if they said no, ‘Well, what didn’t you understand?’

I can send you a list of all the things I think, and if you just take that and write that down, you have no clue what I really think because you didn’t get to ask me any questions. If you get to ask me questions, I get to answer your questions. I get to ask you questions. Then we have thorough understanding.

I would get out of my chair, and if I was in another company and I didn’t know the answer, I would go find the answer.

How to reach: ACRT Inc., (800) 622-2562 or www.acrtinc.com

Published in Akron/Canton
Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Run with it

If you work at SecureState LLC, Ken Stasiak wants to see what you can do.

A lot of executives say that, but Stasiak lives it. The founder, president and CEO of the 50-employee security solutions company tries to put as much responsibility into the hands of capable employees as he can, and he only intervenes when there is a problem or issue that needs to be solved from the top rung of the company.

“I kind of let them run a bit, see how they’re doing, and then offer guidance and input if I see that they’re struggling,” Stasiak says. “But if they’ve got it, I usually let them run with it.”

Smart Business spoke with Stasiak about how you can empower your employees to take charge.

Q. How do you give people the tools and resources to take something and run with it?

I like to have personal one-on-one meetings, so that there are no misconstrued notions about what is going on, like you might have with e-mails. What was said that wasn’t conveyed properly. So I really make myself available to my team. I like to do things via person because you can get a much more finite idea of what we want to accomplish. So really making yourself available to the team is one of the biggest things you can do to motivate them to be successful.

Q. What are some of the keys to staying accessible to your employees?

The biggest thing about staying accessible is delegating. If you delegate your tasks appropriately, you have time. If you take too many tasks on of your own, you obviously won’t have enough time. The challenge, from a management and leadership perspective, is to make sure that you have enough resources so that you have time to spend.

I’ve been in organizations where you can’t get even five minutes with your boss because he’s too busy doing everything else. Obviously, that’s ineffective leadership. It provides no guidance for the team. My role is really to jell — to make sure the team and all the players on the field know the calls, how we’re going to play, what we’re going to do. So a lot of times, I’ll get up, walk around and talk to people, ‘How’s it going, what are you doing, what are you seeing?’ and I correlate all that information back, so that when I talk to someone, I’ve already talked to three different people and can bring all those perspectives together.

Q. How do you develop a system for delegating?

Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, so I use football analogies a lot. If I have a wide receiver who is very quick, I would not put that person as a running back. They wouldn’t be effective in that role. I evaluate my staff and my team regularly about every three months. I try to figure out what they’re doing well or what they were doing well three months ago that they might not be doing well now or where they might have a strength that is better-suited for another role.

When I delegate, I try to give people what I believe is their natural instinct to be successful, and then I let them run with it. For example, if I find that some tasks or duties would be better-suited for someone else or it’s a task that only I can accomplish, then that’s the task that I’ll take. So the formal process as an executive, manager or business owner is that you always have to evaluate your team. We do profiles, so we do a couple profiling standards that rank people on their abilities. The personality profiles let me know if someone is capable of really getting after a project or really capable of managing other people or if the person might work well not so much as a superior but as part of a team.

Q. How can you get an accurate picture of what a person brings to the table?

One of the things I don’t do is I don’t look at the resume during the screening process when we’re looking for a new hire. When I screen people, it’s predicated on a conversation. I can get a pretty good vibe within the first few minutes of meeting someone of what they are. It’s in how they present, the way they come in the door, how they talk, the way they act toward me. I take that, and then I couple that with a technical interview with one of my folks. If I think they have a good personality and could contribute here, I want to know their technical skills. So I never really evaluate people outside of meeting them in person. From that, I can get a much better picture about how someone can fit here and the ways they could be effective.

The reason I don’t look at the resume is that people have had a lot of time to put stuff on the resume. It’s not a free flow; some of that stuff is canned. You can get a false connotation of a person if you just read a resume.

How to reach: SecureState LLC, (216) 927-8200 or www.securestate.com

Published in Cleveland
Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Listen up

One of David L. Parkyn’s keys to good leadership is for a leader to have a sense of place for his or her organization.

“By that I mean, understanding how my organization fits into the larger fabric of society on the one hand, and understanding how I fit into the fabric of the organization that I am leading, as well,” says Parkyn, president of North Park University, which employs more than 700 full- and part-time employees.

Smart Business spoke with Parkyn about how listening helps you get a good feel on where your organization stands.

Q. How do you know where your organization fits?

Story is important to me. Narrative is important. What I do is try to listen to people who are around me who are around the organization, to hear the story that they tell of the organization, of its environment, and try to understand that, both from a perspective that looks to the past, so I see where the organization has come from, and also as they describe the context for the future.

So, I do it often by listening, and listening obviously can take place in a number of ways. Sitting down with someone … and having a conversation is one thing. Gathering data that are important, as well, would be another way of listening.

Q. Does listening help you to know where you fit as a leader?

Yes, I think so. It’s sort of necessary for me in coming to North Park to walk into the organization and both be known by the organization, by those who comprise the organization and know the people here. In doing so, listening to them describe their place, describe this institution, describe where they want it to be, what helps them to cheer the place on and where they get a bit discouraged. That helps me to understand the place. So story is important there.

Q. Do you have to sort through what is important information?

Yes, I think so. In part because, it probably is true everywhere, but at least in context like a college or university, some people are keen on making sure that we remember this place the way it was when. While, on the one hand, that is important, it’s also important for us to lead the school into the future. So sometimes, for example, when one talks with graduates, they can express some level of disappointment that the school isn’t the same school as it was when they attended. In part, that’s because these are individuals who had a great time as undergraduates and want that same experience to be repeated for others.

So it can be a sense of, ‘Let’s make sure we maintain what was there when I was there.’ The problem is we are not educating students today for a world that is the same as what my undergraduate experience educated me for. So we have to adjust that perspective.

It’s important to hear and to know what once worked well but not to mimic that in today’s context either.

Q. What advice would you have to be a better listener?

When I have engaged in a conversation and then come out of that, I will often make a few notes for myself that talk about that, which helps for me to reinforce what I heard. Perhaps more important than that, I’ll often turn around and write a handwritten note to the individual and thank them for their time. But, in doing so, try to highlight something that I heard from the conversation that I found to be helpful. It’s a way of affirming, but it’s also a way of confirming or writing a little more deeply on my brain what that was about.

Q. How do you handle it when you can’t do what is asked of you?

Gently. At the end of the day, it’s better to be honest than to mislead. I think it’s important for the individual to know what my perspective is on it and not to be led into thinking I’m going to think about it and there’s a pretty good chance that it will come out the way that person is asking for.

Or to use another example, back earlier in my career, I was in a position that I was regularly in conversations with students who wanted to petition for a change in what the school’s expectations were for our curriculum. So, guidelines were you had to do this, this, this and this, and someone comes in and petitions for it.

If I could accommodate that, that was wonderful. But, if I could not, my goal always was not necessarily to make the student happy but to have the student leave my office knowing the reason behind my saying no.

They didn’t have to agree with it, but they at least had to understand it. In the case of a friend of the university, I’d want to try to explain as well as I could why, in our context here, what they were suggesting was not something we could go with. Better to make it clear than to let there be too much of a fog.

Q. What would you say is the biggest challenge in listening?

One of the challenges is if one listens, you can too easily communicate to the speaker that you agree with them, when, in fact, you may not always agree with them. You may not be intending to communicate that, but that’s what the speaker is picking up because you are intent in trying to understand what the perspective of the other is. Sometimes, if the person is not accustom to that, they may take listening as affirmation.

How to reach: North Park University, (773) 244-6200 or www.northpark.edu

Published in Chicago