Brains and brawn Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

Philip Alexander needs ideas, and he knows how to get them — by making sure employees understand that they won’t be cleaning out their desks if an idea doesn’t pan out. He says CEOs need to clearly communicate to employees that they won’t be forced out the door if an idea doesn’t pan out.

“As soon as you start firing people for trying something and making a mistake, you’ve created the opposite environment,” says Alexander, president and CEO of BrandMuscle Inc., a 70-employee marketing firm.

Smart Business spoke with Alexander about how a leader shouldn’t have to change his employees’ diapers.

Q: How involved in day-to-day operations should a leader be?

The leader makes all the big decisions but not all the small ones. You’re going to get bogged down, especially as the organization gets bigger.

You’ll find that your involvement varies depending on what the project is and what you’re trying to do. It may be an area of interest or expertise for you, so people may lean on you more.

On the other hand, in those areas where I know very little, I try to participate as little as possible because I’m holding them back. I want those people to make those decisions because they know better and have analyzed the situation and looked at alternatives.

You’re there just to make sure that it works from a business standpoint. Your involvement should be as little as possible because you’ve hired people who know what they’re doing.

We have a saying that we don’t change diapers here. If you’re hired to do something, we count on you to do it. From that standpoint, it’s a great environment for people to learn and actually do new things. It’s a hands-off management style. Once people know what the direction is, we anticipate they’ll take it from there.

Q: How do you manage business growth?

In the early days of a company, you cannot staff up and prepare for your growth as easily as you can later. The challenge is you anticipate growth, and you train people and have them sitting there ready for the growth. But if you don’t get the business, you really can’t afford to keep the people.

That’s a challenge you have in the early days; today, it’s no longer a challenge because we have a base, and business comes in on a pretty regular business. Now we train people in anticipation of new business growth.

We have enough of a base that we can take on the spikes, but we try to project what the growth will be and hire accordingly.

For example, we are up almost double our growth projections for this year. We anticipated hiring a certain number of people, and we hired almost twice as many as anticipated.

You try to anticipate the growth requirements, but you’re also balancing the financial requirements of the business. You don’t go out and overinvest in potential growth because it’s never guaranteed that it will come in when you expect it. We have the bend to stretch a little, so if you suddenly get a lot more clients than expected, you can manage it.

Q: How do you motivate and empower employees?

The empowerment comes from everybody getting together, determining what needs to be done, and then actually letting them figure out how to do it. Empowerment is not actually by word but by action.

People know they’re empowered because they are allowed to go do things. It’s OK to make a mistake. In fact, if you don’t make a mistake, it’s probably an issue with us because you aren’t trying something new.

People know we encourage new initiatives. In fact, we try to highlight those. Every Monday, we have a morning meeting where the whole company comes together over bagels and doughnuts. In that 20 to 30 minutes, people talk about new things they’re doing.

Everybody feels like they are part of the organization because things they do are recognized. Everybody’s encouraged to do new things, and if they do, they’re encouraged to share with others. It’s an overall sense of, ‘Hey, the company wants us to do something different and new, within my area of responsibility.’ You have to create that environment or nothing new happens.

Q: How do you create that environment of creativity?

It comes from throughout the organization. I’ve created ideas that failed. I’ve stood up before the organization and said, ‘Yeah, I thought it was a great idea; sorry it didn’t work out.’ But it was worth a try, and I’m proud of our batting record. We bat about .600, which is great.

If 60 percent of your new products succeed, you’re doing really well. A lot of young people don’t realize that batting .600 is outstanding. They realize they are in an organization that says if a new product or idea fails 30 to 40 percent of the time, it’s OK. You have to communicate that you’re looking for ideas, and if they don’t work, then that’s OK. The thing that doesn’t work is not bringing new ideas.

HOW TO REACH: BrandMuscle Inc., (216) 464-4342 or www.brandmuscle.com