Booking the best Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

If you’ve ever spent a long flight staring out of that tiny little window, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the world going on thousands of feet below. You see the houses and the cars, and everything seems so small and insignificant from up where you sit. But, the reality reveals another picture. The reality is that all of those people in those houses and driving those cars are doing just fine on theirown and lead pretty significant lives. Bob Sturm takes a similar view of his employees at Professional Travel Inc. Just as one would stare out that airplane window and know that each person is significant down on the ground, Sturm knows that every person below him in his organization is important. As president and CEO of the corporate travel management firm, he recognizes that he’s the pilot. But while some pilots may not recognize their reliance on their co-pilots and flight crews, Sturm makes no such mistake.

“Professional Travel realizes the importance of taking great care of its greatest asset — our employees,” he says. “While we, of course, value our external customers, in many ways, our most important customer is our internal customer — our employees, our co-workers.”

His employees are very important to him, as collectively, they bring in $230 million in total for the business, so he works hard to make sure he communicates with them, creates camaraderie among them and then develops their talent so they can advance in the organization.

“The better we treat and relate to our own employees and coworkers, the better they will relate to our external customers,” Sturm says. “What’s good for our employees is good for our customers and is good for our company.”

Communicate
Just as a pilot needs to communicate with air traffic control, a CEO needs to also communicate with his employees.

“Communication is key,” he says. “We’ve always felt that when change becomes necessary, we need to be as forthright as possible with our staff and explain it as completely as possible — why we’re changing, what the reasons are and what the ultimate benefits are for the company.”

In order to effectively communicate so his employees really understand what he’s saying, Sturm uses a variety of tactics. In addition to written messages, he and his team do weekly broadcast messages about changes to policy and what’s new. He also relies on his department heads to communicate information to the people below them. In spite of his attempts at successful communication, Sturm also knows there’s more to it than just speaking or writing.

“Communication is really a two-way street,” he says. “While we need to honestly and efficiently communicate outward, part of the communication problem (is we need to listen, as well). So sometimes it’s helpful to ask a few questions of key staff members and department heads before disseminating the information that we have to disseminate down to the rest of the company.”

In most cases, the people he’s asking for feedback from are his eight executive committee members. While he’s having those discussions, he’s not only looking for feedback to his ideas, but he’s also open to changing his own opinions if it’s best for the company.

“I’m persuadable,” Sturm says. “When we hire new people, one of the things we try to tell them that the only thing that’s set in stone here at Professional Travel is the fact that anything we’re currently doing is not set in stone. Give us your ideas. If they make sense, we’ll implement them. No matter how long we may have been doing something else differently.”

It doesn’t make any sense to meet with others and not truly listen to their feedback.

“The key to good listening is to actually listen and to keep an open mind about what you’re hearing,” he says. “There’s an old adage that says that companies spend fortunes bringing in outside consultants when, if they went down to their workers and employees where the rubber actually hits the road, those people actually know how to solve every problem. If we’d just listen with open ears and be receptive, I think that’s a huge part of communication.”

One way to make sure people know you’re open to listening is to establish an open-door policy complete with a calendar.

“Every employee should be comfortable and confident with the fact that they can go to their superior or direct report at any time with questions, suggestions, comments and complaints,” he says. “... A good idea is there can be a day a month where you set aside for anybody who wants to come in can come in and talk with the executives of the company.”

Doing this helps people know they’re not interrupting you or catching you at a bad time, so they’ll be more likely to come talk. The efforts that Sturm puts into communicating with his employees helps build camaraderie, but it’s more than that — it’s how he treats them and takes care of them on their birthdays, anniversaries and when they have problems.

“I think it’s fostered a climate where they’re not reluctant to come and speak with top management of the company.”

Create camaraderie
In the tight quarters of an airplane, you better hope that all of the flight attendants and pilots get along well so that your flight is an enjoyable and peaceful experience. In the same way, Sturm goes to great lengths to make sure he takes care of his 223 employees.

For example, when one woman, who was from overseas, lost her fiance to a heart attack, it left her with no family in the country, a long drive from Akron to Cleveland for work every day and feelings of suicide. It was in this time that Sturm and his team rallied together to help her. They bought a condominium closer to the office, moved her to Cleveland and gave her a rent rate for the condo that she could afford to help her get back on her feet. Beyond the financial support, employees emotionally supported her back to health.

In yet another situation, a couple had both parents die within six months of each other, and the family didn’t have enough money, so the company paid for the funerals to help the couple out.

“It’s stuff like that that Jack Welch at GE probably wouldn’t dig, but we do stuff like that,” Sturm says.

While Professional Travel has a lot of employees, they don’t go unrecognized on their birthdays. There’s always a cake,and everybody brings in food for lunch and decorates the birthday person’s office space.

“As you have happy employees, they’re happy in the way they treat our customers,” Sturm says. “It’s like the family that plays together stays together kind of thing.”

With so many people, it could be easy to lose track of someone’s birthday or overlook a personal struggle in someone’slife, but that’s where delegation can help. Sturm has a “funcommittee” of six nonexecutive employees.

“Have somebody that’s in charge of different activities,” he says.

When choosing someone to lead a culture committee, be mindful of whom you select.

“You need someone who’s outgoing and happy with themselves and happy with their lives and happy with the performan ce of their job function,” Sturm says. “Not that we have any people who are shy, introverted and sullen, but that’s who you pick.”

Within the committee, the team members delegate the responsibilities of different events, such as the annual picnic, and, when necessary, they bring in more people to help with a specific event.

“What other CEOs can do is, with an eye to your own corporate culture, you can be sensitive to what they do collectively to work together and above the performance of our job function to build unity and camaraderie and have a little fun while we’re at it,” he says.

Sturm gives them a budget to work within, and employees also raise funds for activities by having 50-50 raffles throughout the year. The key to all of this is allowing them to do their thing and stay out of their way.

“To be effective, you have to maybe watch stuff from 35,000 feet, but you don’t have to be breathing down anybody’s neck,” Sturm says. “If you have created a company structure where the executive and department heads and committees are well chosen and well qualified, you have to put your trust in the fact that they’re going to operate with the best interest of the company in mind and treat the people who report to them fairly and that the job will get done and get done right.”

Develop talent
A plane’s pilot relies on the talent at both his level — the co-pilot — and below him — the flight crew — in different ways, and the more talented the team, the more enjoyable the flight. While you may be the pilot of your organization now, at one point you were probably the co-pilot. In the same way that someone above you groomed you, you too have to build up a talented team around and below you.

To get the right people, you can either hire from within or bring people in from the outside.

While there are times you hire from outside your company, Sturm notes that, in many cases, it’s beneficial to hire from within.

“It’s better and perhaps wiser to hire from within for a number of reasons,” he says. “First of all, it shows that there is a path within the company for advancement, and, secondly, as people have worked in lower positions and moved up the ladder, they’ve had the opportunity to prove themselves.”

He says that hiring from within is safer and more rewarding for the company. For Professional Travel, it’s also important to develop talent internally because the business is so specialized that it’s difficult to find people with the knowledge and skills to be successful.

The key to hiring people from within is to spend time looking for the right people and develop their skills.

“You have to look for people who have the kind of character traits that we as a company want to have collectively, that we have people who are honest and have integrity and are loyal and dedicated, that have shown that they can be not only loyal but that they can persevere at whatever the job that is set before them,” Sturm says.

To identify those who have potential for advancement, look at how they’re currently performing.

“Some are obvious — the old ‘cream rises to the top,’” he says. “Really, we have to identify that through the evaluation processes by their department heads.”

Beyond just evaluations, Sturm also relies on his managers to recognize outstanding performance through its Spirit Coin program. If a manager or department head sees or hears of someone who went above and beyond for one of the clients, then the employee is awarded a spirit coin. The spirit coin entitles the recipient to a half day off, in addition to his or her current number of vacation and personal days. If an employee earns several of these spirit coins, that’s one way that a manager identifies someone who will go above and beyond and could potentially advance in the organization.

When standouts are identified, then you have to work to develop their talent to prepare them for the next level.

“We try to encourage them and pick people within the company that they can emulate,” he says. “If they’re moving into an area where they haven’t had particular expertise ... we’d send them to seminars for further training along those lines.”

For example, if someone was moving into a role in human resources, he would set that person up in the appropriate seminars and workshops to help the employee garner the skills he or she would need moving forward.

It’s important that you always work to develop the talent below you in your organization.

“We like to be training the No. 2 person in every department,” Sturm says. “We encourage every department head to train their next subordinate as fully as possible. In an ideal situation, every one of our department heads knows everything or could train everyone in their department to take over for them should the need arise.”

And Sturm doesn’t allow himself to be excluded. He’s been grooming his No. 2 man, who started as a salesperson years ago, and he’s now prepared to take over the company should he need to.

“If you can train all the people that work for you to become better than you are, you’ll become better in the process, and your entire unit or department will be way better,” he says. “My No. 2 guy in the company, I believe, is now better than I am, and he started off just as a salesperson. I taught him everything that I knew, and I think he’s teaching me a few things, and that’s a good thing.”

Oftentimes, as leaders, it’s hard to let go of the “It’s my company,” mentality, but if you truly want your business to succeed, this is something you have to do.

“Sometimes that becomes a challenge, but I think that if you as the CEO are really caring about your company and your employees, you’ll keep those things that you have to be responsible for and do those things, but you’ll be free to delegate out the rest of them to the capable and confident leaders that you’ve chosen and have proven themselves to be worthy of running the company,” Sturm says.

It all goes back to having strong communication between yourself and your team members. Sturm chooses to delegate everything he possibly can, but he maintains an overview of it all by requiring that his team report back to him about how those jobs are getting done.

“It’ll give you a lot more peace of mind, and it’ll give you a lot more time to look over the bigger picture, exactly where the company is going, where it should be going, and as long as you don’t tie yourself up with minutia and try to micro-manage every department of your company, you’ll have the freedom to be innovative and the look-ahead type [of] person that the CEO should be,” he says.

It’s this focus on the future that is needed if you ultimately want to grow your business.

“In my mind, the CEO is responsible for all of the functions of the company, but he doesn’t have to do them all,” Sturm says. “Almost as important or maybe more important is the ability to look forward, to look ahead and to plan to get the company to where it should be as opposed to where it is today. If you involve yourself in all the minutia of micromanagement, you never have time to be a visionary and look at the bigger picture.”

HOW TO REACH: Professional Travel Inc., (440) 734-8800 or www.protrav.com