Taking measures to promote employee wellness can save you money.
In fact, a comprehensive study showed that workplace health promotion programs resulted in a 25-30 percent reduction in medical and absenteeism costs, according to a report by the World Health Organization and World Economic Forum.
Kaiser Permanente, a leading health care provider and not-for-profit health plan, uses HealthWorks, a customizable work force health strategy, to help employers take advantage of their benefits and create a corporate wellness plan. Headquartered in Oakland, Calif., the organization added its 15th medical facility within Ohio last month.
“If (companies) make an investment in employee or associate wellness, they’re going to get a substantial return on their investment that not only helps their associates to be healthier but also improves presenteeism and improves the bottom line for their organization because they actually have happy and healthier associates,” says Joseph M. LaGuardia, vice president of marketing, sales and business development for Kaiser Permanente.
Looking to your health planner for guidance and resources is key in taking the first step toward creating a wellness program — identifying employee needs and setting goals accordingly.
For example, member companies of Kaiser Permanente can access a variety of tools such as onsite screenings of employees, worksite wellness activities and online educational resources with HealthWorks.
Also, talk directly to employees, says Carolyn A. Hodges, a HealthWorks consultant at Kaiser.
“Sometimes it’s as easy as polling them and really understanding who your population is,” Hodges says. “What are their health concerns? What would they be interested in?”
After evaluating the wellness needs and goals of your organization, create a committee to handle implementation.
“Developing a wellness committee is integral to the success of a wellness program because they are the ones who are passionate about health and wellness,” Hodges says. “They’ll be the ones to motivate their fellow employees. And if you can, draw on various departments so you have different opinions throughout the organization.”
Then begin enacting programs that further your goals.
“It doesn’t need to be a huge over-the-top initiative,” says Hodges. “Employers can take easy steps: posting hand-washing reminders or reminders to take advantage of free flu shots — just constant reminders. I think communicating to motivate is critical. (Use) different venues: in the lunchroom, through e-mail, making announcements.”
One of the most common wellness goals is weight management. In addition to fresh New Year resolutions, it’s a prominent concern because of its links to serious, sometimes chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia.
Instead of addressing the negative and often sensitive issue of obesity with your employees, promote positive activities and lifestyle changes that will combat obesity, such as physical activity and healthy eating.
“Instead of a weight-management program, launch a walking program,” Hodges says. “Launch a physical activity challenge. Focus on healthy eating by providing them with a healthy nutrition library and ask employees to bring in fun recipes. Throw a weekly salad bar potluck.”
Creating programs is not enough — you have to get buy-in from your staff. To encourage employee participation, senior management must also actively engage in wellness programs.
“If the employer sponsors a ‘lunch and learn,’ a walking program or a potluck, the employer needs to be there,” Hodges says. “Bring a healthy dish, join a team, show up at the presentation. The importance piece is being physical to the employees. Walk around and talk to employees about how they’re enjoying the program.
“Making sure employees know you care about them and their health will lead to them being engaged in their own health and wellness.”
How to reach: Kaiser Permanente, (216) 479-5547 or http://businessnet.kp.org
A mental note
There’s a mental side to health in addition to the physical, says Joseph M. LaGuardia. Maintaining good mental health will keep your workforce invigorated.
LaGuardia, vice president of marketing, sales and business development for Kaiser Permanente, says to create wellness programs that are fun to engage employees.
“Do something that’s tied in with some of the nonprofits in town,” LaGuardia says. “There are organizations that will give employers guidance on that, like Business Volunteers Unlimited. They’ll actually help you conduct done-in-a-day projects. ... That type of thing helps employers make it more fun to come to work and enjoy what they do.”
Carolyn A. Hodges, a HealthWorks consultant with Kaiser Permanente, says to also give employees timeouts from work during stressful periods.
“If there’s a deadline approaching and you know everyone is stressed out, throw in a potluck or a relaxation event — and be a part of it — so you know that your employees know you care about them, and that they can take time away from the stressful environment,” Hodges says. “That’s showing appreciation for everything your employees are doing.”
Steve Giacin has felt the pressure that comes with being the president of a business during a time of economic recession. But he doesn’t try to compare his challenges to those of the people he has had to lay off from Kaiser Electric Inc.
He doesn’t think you should either.
“One thing leaders say that they shouldn’t say to people is, ‘This is a lot harder on me than it is on you,’” says Giacin, president at the 150-employee electrical contractor. “I’ve heard people say that, and I don’t agree with it. Leadership isn’t a some time thing, it’s an all the time thing. If that’s what the task is and that’s part of leadership, you need to rise to the task. You have too many people relying on you.”
Giacin has been forced to let employees go who had put in more than 10 years with the company and he’s issued salary reductions for those who remained. He says the key to getting through these difficult decisions is decisiveness.
“It is important to try to look like you know what you’re doing in that situation,” Giacin says.
One way you can be effective at that is to keep cutbacks from being spread out over multiple occasions.
“If I saw a cut or two here and a month later, a cut or two there, it would make me wonder if the leadership of the company really had a handle on what was coming at us,” Giacin says. “When you make those types of cuts, if you guess, err to making another cut rather than having to cut someone else a month later because something changed.”
Giacin says his feelings have changed in this area based on the rising uncertainty that has plagued the economy of late.
“Before we were in the heart of how bad this situation is currently, the last thing you wanted to do was cut too much, too quick,” Giacin says. “I don’t think you can do that anymore. If your company is right-sized for what you’re faced with and you see that you have to reduce that, you better do your homework and you better be looking out further than a month or two when you’re dealing with people’s livelihoods and families.
“I think the status quo is over for all of us. I don’t think it exists anymore. If you’re not on your game every day, you’ll be eaten alive. You won’t be around very long. I believe everybody in the company has that same sense of vision. They are all looking at me for what direction we are headed and how we are going to get there.”
Facing that kind of pressure, Giacin says it’s incumbent upon any leader to take time for himself to gather his thoughts and think them over before making a decision.
“It’s impossible to do when you’re here in the fire every day,” Giacin says. “All leaders need some avenue to be able to step back. You’re never completely away from it. But like I said, you can step back and not be in the office. You can truly reflect on some things and evaluate what’s working and not working moving forward.”
Once you’ve taken that time to pause, report back to your people on what you’ve come up with.
“That’s part of the constant communication you have to have,” Giacin says. “When you have a company our size, it’s a very close, family-type culture. When you let someone go and there is no communication, I don’t feel that’s appropriate. We typically get everyone together and discuss where we’re at and what led to this decision and how we’re going forward with what we have in front of us and who is doing what going forward so everybody knows.”
How to reach: Kaiser Electric Inc., (636) 305-1515 or www.kaiserelectric.com
Stay in front
If you work for Steve Giacin, you better not be lazy about returning phone calls or e-mails. It’s a big no-no in the eyes of the president of Kaiser Electric Inc., particularly in tough times such as these.
“With all the mediums that we have at our disposal these days, I consider that to be unacceptable,” says Giacin, who leads the 150-employee electrical contractor. “Don’t let the day go by without returning a phone call or sending a reply to their e-mail. Just to say, I did receive your request and I’m working on it. I either have the answer and here it is or I’m looking into the situation and I will be back in touch with you tomorrow.”
Giacin expects a lot from his employees, but he expects even more when his company is going through a difficult economy like it is now.
“Everyone in our company is working harder than they ever have,” Giacin says. “We have fewer resources to cover the things we need to cover on a daily basis. So you have to maintain that consistency and have constant communication through the ranks of your company.”
And that has to start at the top with Giacin.
“I can’t have a lack of responsiveness to my employees or to our customers,” Giacin says. “That has to be transparent to them. If that means my work day and my work hours have to be expanded to cover that, that’s what has to happen.”
Joe Phelps had built much of his life around his business, but that was all about to change.
In Southern California and beyond, Phelps is known as a pioneer in the PR and marketing industry. He and his wife, Sylvia, took great pride in the steps they had taken to abolish the old-school department structure and create an organization in The Phelps Group that asks every employee to be completely centered on client satisfaction.
The firm was on a roll, adding new clients and being recognized as one of the best places to work in Los Angeles. And then Phelps learned that his wife, Sylvia, had brain cancer.
“I said, ‘You guys have to take care of the company, and I’ll take care of Sylvie,’” says Phelps, the 70-employee firm’s founder and CEO.
Sylvia Phelps ultimately lost her battle with brain cancer in November 2008. And while it by no means made her passing any easier to deal with, the fact that Joe’s team stepped up and kept the firm going while he was away provided him with great satisfaction.
“I wanted to have something that lives beyond me,” Phelps says. “When I was gone, they realized, ‘Hey, we’ve been doing it without Joe.’ People saw that this model actually does work. The key is to push the decision-making down to the front lines.”
When you choose to be more than the face of your company and become a magnet for every decision that needs to be made, you take away any sense of ownership and empowerment from your people. It’s why Phelps worked so hard to not be that and to make sure everyone at The Phelps Group understood how important their role was in the success of the business.
“They will relish the responsibility,” Phelps says. “They like to show how smart they are and how much they care. Like so many things in life, it comes down to trust. The more you trust them, the more they tend to trust you and the harder they want to work and care about the company. That trust has to permeate. You have to let people be as great as they can be. ”
Before you can do this, of course, you have to make sure you have people who can thrive in this kind of working environment. If Phelps had not initially identified and hired the right people to work for him, his time away from the firm could have produced much different results.
“I spend most of my time looking for good people,” Phelps says. “It’s staying out of situations where you have to hire someone right now. That means focusing on longer term planning where you’re finding people and putting them on the bench and slowly grooming them. Make it so you’re not starting at ground zero, because it takes a while to get to know someone.”
When you take a more methodical approach to hiring, you can take opportunities to see how compatible the job candidate would be with the people they would be working with. This is important at the hiring stage, but also down the road when you’ll be asking this person to then mentor a new crop of rookies.
“They have to demonstrate that they can trust other people and be responsible for the work and demonstrate that they can coach and help other people,” Phelps says. “It’s about putting other peoples’ needs before their own. If someone is really on fire to make the agency successful, it’s people that take themselves off the throne and are willing to help others, that’s what you’re looking for.”
Phelps feels fortunate that he’s been able to find those people and create a very successful firm.
“Once you find good people and you give them a good environment, then you have to get out of their way,” Phelps says. “You have to pry your fingers off the handle bars and let go.”
How to reach: The Phelps Group, (310) 752-4400 or www.thephelpsgroup.com
Share the spotlight
Joe Phelps does not have department meetings at The Phelps Group, because there aren’t any departments.
“If you have departments, you’re going to have department directors who feel threatened by some of their people,” says Phelps, founder and CEO at the 70-employee marketing agency. “You need to always be thinking about what the client needs.”
Phelps believes that when you take departments out of the equation and instead have your people center their efforts on the client, your activity is focused exactly where it needs to be.
One of the most effective things employees at The Phelps Group do to center on their clients is ‘The BrainBangers’ Ball.’ Employees meet once a week to talk about things ranging from new advertising campaigns to a new website design or a promotional concept for a new product or service.
Phelps is happiest when victories are celebrated throughout the firm and everybody feels like they played a part in helping a client.
“In most ad agencies, someone comes up with a big idea and they want to make sure everybody knows it was their idea,” Phelps says. “The norm here is for people to share the praise and give people credit for shining light on the idea.”
MorrisAnderson was a mess and it was largely going to be up to Daniel F. Dooley to fix the dysfunctional turnaround consulting firm.
“Historically, the firm had never had one clear leader,” Dooley says. “It was fractionalized into various geographical segments that didn’t collaborate with one another. A cynic would say they competed with one another.”
One of Dooley’s challenges was that while the then 25-employee firm was having problems, it was still profitable. So there wasn’t a lot of motivation to make big changes to a firm that many didn’t even think was broken.
“We hadn’t adapted to what was going on in our marketplace,” Dooley says. “The people we were competing with were much more professional and much more advanced in marketing and in their ability to convey what they did.”
Dooley needed to shake things up. So he led the way to removing three of the firm’s seven owners from power.
“We terminated two, and one we demoted, and he hung on for a couple years and then left of his own volition,” says Dooley, the firm’s principal and CEO. “We had to change out the management group to some degree and then the second thing we had to do was clearly unite behind one clear leader.”
Dooley was going to be that leader. And he was going to have to take drastic action to get everyone’s attention that change was needed. It wouldn’t work if he tried to tiptoe around the moves.
“The times people make really fundamental changes in their lives usually centers on a trauma,” Dooley says. “There has been something really bad that has happened. For example, a person who smokes cigarettes and they can’t stop. Perhaps when they have a heart attack and they almost die in the hospital and they have a quadruple bypass, maybe that’s when it becomes a little easier to quit smoking. They’ve had such a trauma, they have the ability to think things through and act a little differently.”
It was a major move. Dooley wanted people to know he was the leader, but he had to show it wasn’t just him ruling with an iron fist.
“We set up a board structure so I reported to a board and wasn’t a loose cannon doing what I wanted,” Dooley says.
With the board’s backing, Dooley went to work trying to create a culture that was more collaborative than competitive.
“I felt the best way to do that would be to take direct control of all the employees myself and to model collaborative behavior and to try to talk about it and preach and convince people that’s how we had to act,” Dooley says. “We had to work together and not against one another.”
There were some casualties as some didn’t like the new way things were being done. But Dooley needed to focus on those who were still in the fold and get them on board with his new vision.
“You can only work on a couple things at a time,” Dooley says. “One of the mistakes people make when they are in crisis or in trouble is they try to do too much too quickly. So they launch 25 initiatives. That ensures nothing will get done.”
So how do you get people to support you and buy into you with positive energy when you’re taking decisive action?
“You have to develop a strategy or a plan that is pretty realistic and not pie in the sky,” Dooley says. “It’s, ‘Yeah, we can do that. It makes sense we can do the following three, four or five things.’ Then you have to create some communication so people know what you’re trying to do and why you’re trying to do it so they can hopefully buy in or buy out of what you’re trying to do.”
Six years later, MorrisAnderson has 40 employees and reported 2010 revenue of $20 million. And while the tough call he made back in 2005 got the ball rolling on needed change, patience is still required.
“You have five or 10 or 15 years of history that you’re trying to overcome in two days,” Dooley says. “It’s kind of unlikely.”
How to reach: MorrisAnderson, (312) 254-0888 or www.morrisanderson.com
Answer the questions
Daniel F. Dooley has a lot of experience answering tough questions. He faced it in the remaking of MorrisAnderson and he faces it in the work that MorrisAnderson does as a turnaround consulting firm.
The key in both situations is not hiding from the questions that people have for you about what you’re doing.
“The more desperate you are or the more difficult the situation, the more you have to openly communicate with employees and give them the opportunity to hear what’s going on,” says Dooley, the 40-employee firm’s principal and CEO. “Try to craft a way that even though they are scared and nervous, they know they are getting the straight scoop from you.”
You do that by answering every question that comes your way with complete honesty.
“It’s more than just talking,” Dooley says. “You have to really listen to what they say. Those questions are important to them. Whether you think it’s important or not is irrelevant. If it’s important to them, it’s important.”
Many businesses — especially in this economy — would love to be in the position of Petplan. The pet health insurer has experienced explosive growth over the past few years, climbing to $18.7 million in revenue during 2010 and a debut on the Inc. 500 list (No. 123) in 2011.
But with explosive growth comes daunting challenges, and it has fallen on the husband and wife team of Chris and Natasha Ashton to lead the way. The co-founders and co-CEOs of Petplan — which is the DBA name of Fetch Insurance Services LLC — have needed to chart a course for the blossoming business and ensure that the resources are in place to sustain growth.
“We debuted at No. 123, but getting there sure wasn’t as easy as ABC,” Natasha Ashton says. “Managing that growth has meant taking our hands off the nitty-gritty and delegating. Bringing in the right kind of people to enable us to handle the growth and then accelerate it further is a constant thing. We’ve had to expand our office, pretty much double our head count and make sure the team members weren’t distracted throughout the construction. We also had to make sure the technology wasn’t going to falter and that we were able to maintain the same level of exceptional customer service that we have become known for.”
The Ashtons have been on a constant search for the best possible talent to aid in the company’s growth. But adding intellectual muscle to the work force is only part of the equation. The company’s employees have to be properly managed and motivated.
“We always have very lofty goals and ambitions, but one of the things we are very good at is taking those goals and breaking them down to manageable goals,” Natasha Ashton says. “Our aim is to become the first billion-dollar pet insurer globally. But when your long-range goals are ambitious, you know there are a number of steps you need to take before you can get there. So you break it down into manageable chunks, and delegate those, which ensures that we hit every goal along the way.”
“A lot of how you handle growth comes down to your core values as a company,” Chris Ashton says. “It drives who you decide to partner with as an organization, but it also drives the kind of people you look to recruit. You want people with a great skill set, who have relevant experience, but who also have the right personality. In our case, you want people who can thrive in a fast-growing, high-energy business like this, because it doesn’t suit everyone.”
A great deal of the Ashtons’ jobs revolves around communication. When the landscape is constantly evolving, new ideas are suggested by team members on a daily basis and maneuverability is important, management needs to define the company focus and communicate it consistently, while encouraging dialogue around new ideas.
“Part of it is cultural,” Chris Ashton says. “Do you really encourage people to speak their minds? We strive to reward people for having great ideas by publicly recognizing them. There are also structural things you can have in place. We have built an intranet that includes discussion boards, and we encourage people to contribute to the discussion boards along every aspect of the business. It’s key, because as you get bigger, nobody can be as involved in all areas of the business at once, like you used to. So you keep your finger on the pulse of what is going on, what the customers are saying, and continue to encourage the good ideas that are coming from our customers and our employees.”
How to reach: Petplan, (610) 595-3353 or www.gopetplan.com
Offices with adult-sized playground slides? On-site pet care? Table tennis in the lobby? Call it the Googleization of the American workplace, or whatever you want. Unconventional trends are becoming quite conventional.
It can mean you cultivate a more engaged, upbeat work force. But it can also mean that your HR questions just became a lot more vexing. Not only do you need employees who match the skills required for the position, they also need to be able to thrive in your unique workplace. One employee’s whimsical atmosphere is another’s irritating cacophony of background noise.
At Petplan, co-founders and co-CEOs Chris and Natasha Ashton are on the front lines of trying to answer the question of fitting employees to the workplace. The workplace atmosphere cultivated by the husband and wife team includes bright colors, animal figures positioned throughout the office and frequent visits from family pets.
For the Ashtons, the first question they often need answered from a prospective employee is “Are you an animal lover?” If you think dogs are too noisy or cats are walking lint balls, shedding everywhere, Petplan is probably not the place for you.
“We want people who believe that pets are fun,” Chris Ashton says. “There is a reason people have pets, and we want people who are also going to have that sense of fun about them. We want them to be able to bring that personality to work.”
Technology is a term often associated with advancement. In the realm of customer service, it has cultivated an expectation of increasingly innovative and customized service.
Michael Brunner, however, says that the opposite holds true for many companies.
“You’ve got this expanding gap there that the more technology advances, the greater the disappointment there is with the consumer as to what their expectation is and what they receive as it relates to their own experiences,” says Brunner, CEO and chairman of M.J. Brunner Inc. based in Pittsburgh.
As a full-service advertising agency, understanding customer wants and needs is paramount to creating and delivering effective campaigns for M.J. Brunner’s clients.
“The more we know about the mindset of the consumer — the way they think, the way they deal with technology, they way they use technology, the way they put technology into their purchasing patterns today — the more valuable we become to our clients,” Brunner says.
The 200-plus-employee agency uses a number of techniques to evaluate its clients’ customers, including shopper marketing to define consumer behaviors. Once a campaign has been created, the company implements a measurement analytics tool called Cricket to then review campaign metrics in real time to make decisions and changes based on ROI.
“We’re hired by our clients because they expect us to get results for them,” Brunner says.
“If we were to deliver that I think that’s all fine and good, but I don’t think that’s enough. I would define that as creating work or developing a campaign or a program that absolutely catapults a client to the top of their category — one that achieves dramatic results, one that fires up or rallies the organization, one that is built around a big or a game-changing business idea.”
One tool the company uses to think up big ideas is BHiveLab, an incubator focused on creating new ways to engage people on the go. By connecting to consumers through mobile devices and other emerging technologies, M.J. Brunner’s campaigns can influence consumer decision making during the actual shopping process in store.
“Almost every percent of purchase decisions are made in store. So that walk down aisle seven making a decision as you’re looking at cereals is not necessarily something that’s already decided before you get there.”
“We are able to connect the technology and the marketing and reach the consumer, give them a reason to purchase our client’s product rather than the competitor’s product.”
Brunner also uses technology to track and respond to consumer feedback through social media outlets.
“That negative experience that a customer felt or experienced today can be delivered to thousands of people (using social media) and creates an entire swell, if you will, of ill will or bad feeling or creates a bandwagon, which allows others to jump on and say the same thing,” Brunner says.
Responding to negative feedback quickly can prevent its rapid spread. Conversely, responding quickly to positive feedback can promote rapid spread.
“Perhaps you could use that as a platform and build a program or a campaign off that,” Brunner says. “It maybe becomes a starting point for future communications.”
HOW TO REACH: M.J. Brunner Inc., (412) 995-9500 or www.brunnerworks.com
As the flames engulfed Pitney Bowes Presort Services’ main Grand Prairie location last year, Darryl Cremer couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“When it was obvious that the building was going down in flames and it was going to be a total disaster, I was like anybody else and was in total shock,” the vice president and general manager says. “Everything was going through my mind like, ‘What’s going to happen here; what are the next steps that we need to do?’”
While it’s most businesses’ nightmare to see their building in flames, Cremer had a disaster-preparedness plan in place. After all the employees were accounted for, he could then get down to business.
They had a second site that had phones and fax machines and copiers, so they were able to set up shop quickly even though the main facility was destroyed. They also were able to route mail to this facility so that business wasn’t completely lost. As part of their disaster plan, they had tested that facility in the past and knew it worked well.
They were also able to use the facility to congregate all of their employees and use it as a central location for communications.
“You need to lead with a positive attitude and even though things look dismal at that moment. You certainly want to keep the employees calm and knowing that you may not know exactly what you’re going to do the next moment, but that it will be all OK, and that you’re all working for the same end results — get back to business as quickly as possible,” he says.
With employees on the same page, he then had to reach out to customers and business partners to make them aware of the situation and inform them of what the company was doing so they didn’t panic if they saw it on the news.
“Another huge benefit that we had was our customer information and contacts and employee information is all online, and we could get the clients’ information,” Cremer says.
As a result, within about six hours, the company had already contacted all of its customers and business partners.
At this point, Cremer knew that the company would be fine because of all the steps they had taken. He said that the other element that allowed them to move so quickly and respond so effectively to the situation was that their corporate office had set up a culture that empowered them to make decisions themselves.
“They empowered all of us to make decisions and not have to have a single source to make every decision,” he says. “We had good marching orders, and then we were able to go and make those things happen — no questions asked. We didn’t have time to review every decision that was being made, so empowerment of your operations team is essential.”
The company opened a new location last year and is in full swing again. While they don’t think a fire could strike twice, Cremer isn’t taking any chances. There’s more communication from the top down about the plan, the company is backing up information more frequently and having more regular fire drills for employees.
“We’re actually going through, step-by-step, our disaster recovery plan again and making fine-tuned adjustments to it and taking it much more seriously,” he says. “We are testing it. … We’re actually putting more emphasis on our disaster recovery plan and making sure people are aware of it.”
How to reach: Pitney Bowes Presort Services, (972) 352-5187 or (972) 623-3700 or www.pb.com
Create a disaster plan
When Darryl Cremer watched his Pitney Bowes Presort Services building going up in flames, he was in shock and never really thought it would happen to him. But just because he didn’t think it would ever happen didn’t mean he didn’t plan for it. Because he planned, they were up and running in a different location in a matter of hours.
“You need to plan in advance and always remember that even though you might not think it, it can always happen to you,” he says.
He says that every business needs to have a disaster recovery plan, but you have to think really hard on the logistics of how that would work.
“You may think you have a good recovery plan that would work for a short-term – maybe a week or two weeks — but take a look at if you had a total disaster, how would it affect your business if you were out for months and months?”
He says you also have to make sure your records are correct and accessible.
“Ensure you have very good, up-to-date client information and your employees and vendors and anyone else that supports you in your business,” he says. “And have it stored remotely because if it burns up, it doesn’t do you any good.”
Michael Benoit took a risk when he launched Total Hockey Inc. in 1998. He had torn up his knee playing basketball and initially chose hockey as a sport, one he could play with less wear and tear on his legs. As he became more intrigued with the game and less excited about his job leading a health benefits consulting business, he decided to take a shot at building a business that sold hockey equipment.
The 210-employee company has grown steadily and earned revenue of $18.6 million in 2010. Benoit, the company’s founder, president and CEO, has high hopes to keep it going in the future.
He discovered one of the keys to successful growth is to not take the entire burden of building the business on your own shoulders. Take the lead in that effort, but don’t be afraid to accept or even seek help.
“I’m just as likely to be putting a fixture together as analyzing financials as negotiating with vendors,” Benoit says. “So I’m involved with a lot of different things. That said, I try to give our staff a lot of rope. The worst thing somebody can do is overmanage people. The best approach is to find good people and let them run. I like mistakes.”
Benoit describes the state of the hockey equipment retail industry as “primitive” when he first started his business.
“You could easily imagine you were back in the ’50s doing retail,” Benoit says. “It was very fragmented with a lot of mom-and-pop, single-store operations. We’re part of this drive bringing a much more modern, much more disciplined approach to the business.”
Benoit relied heavily on his people to help develop a modern identity he hoped would be attractive to both shoppers and investors. He wasn’t afraid that these people might make a few mistakes along the way.
“If you expect people to work hard and innovate and you expect them to make mistakes, you’ll be OK,” Benoit says. “Eventually, there will be a mistake. There will be problems and there will be things that are done that aren’t done the way you would do them. But that’s OK. Most companies suffer from overcontrol on things.”
So if one of your supervisors wants to put a line of equipment in one part of the store and you think it should go somewhere else, you have to ask yourself a question: Is this a battle you need to fight? Or are you better off letting your people do their jobs and trusting that they know what they are doing?
“When you have people out there trying to make things happen, there are a lot of times where I don’t agree,” Benoit says. “Whether it’s before the fact or after the fact, I’ll say, ‘Boy, I wouldn’t do that.’ The thing that is very important to me and what I insist my staff be conscious of is a sense of integrity and a sense of doing the right thing. Beyond that, I’m all in favor of them taking chances and trying to create new things and experimenting.”
Benoit believes that many entrepreneurs lose that willingness to trust as the years go by. They start out as very bold and open to taking a few chances to achieve their dreams. But somewhere along the road to growth, they lose that edge and become more conservative.
“If you’re not moving and innovating and encouraging people to fail, your days are numbered,” Benoit says. “They might be numbered in years, but they are numbered. We’re kind of always living on that line. That’s the target. We want to be just safe enough.”
As you ponder the growth of your business and the wisdom of a particular risk, ask yourself a question.
“What happens if you don’t do this?” Benoit says. “If the answer is, ‘Everything is OK,’ then it probably doesn’t make sense to do it. But if we will lose ground to someone who is willing to take that risk, that raises the importance of it and maybe you need to give it some more thought.”
How to reach: Total Hockey Inc., (866) 929-6699 or www.totalhockey.com
Stay true to you
When you’re trying to sell people on your business, you can’t put on a show that isn’t true to what you’re all about. You may win them over that day, but it won’t work for very long.
“The biggest mistake I’ve seen is trying to act like what you’re not,” says Michael Benoit, founder, president and CEO at Total Hockey Inc., a 210-employee hockey equipment retailer. “Trying to mirror the listener or prospect too much. Trying to tell them what they want to hear as opposed to what you’re all about. If you’re true to yourself and true to your market, you should be OK. It’s not always an easy environment, especially in the last few years with respect to financing.
“The banks aren’t terribly imaginative these days. But that still doesn’t mean you can afford to try to be what you’re not.”
When you’re trying to expand your business, don’t be the only one talking to potential investors or customers you want to engage. Let other people in your organization represent you, even if they aren’t managers. And don’t give them a script.
“I would rather trust,” Benoit says. “It’s better that way and much more natural. People can read preparation. That’s hard to disguise that somebody has been prepared.”
Caroline Nahas doesn’t try to be intimidating. But it would be naïve to deny that her position has that effect on people. So when she speaks to employees at Korn/Ferry International, she works hard to be very approachable.
“People can be intimidated through absolutely nothing that you did other than you have the title,” says Nahas, office managing director of Southern California for the executive search firm. “I always think one of the greatest approaches is to sit down and say, ‘Hi, I’m interested to hear what you think.’”
Nahas leads about 150 employees that work in offices in Irvine and Los Angeles.
“Show them the respect and show them that you think their views and what they have to say is of value,” Nahas says. “There is bound to be someone, whether they come up with a right or wrong statement, someone is going to open up. And suddenly, you are getting into this dialogue and then you can ask some of the questions that you’re curious about.”
Korn/Ferry is going through a transition where clients expect the firm to have more intimate knowledge of what recruits can do and how they can address specific concerns in their business.
When your business is going through a major transformation, you need to get your employees at all levels of your organization involved in the discussion about how to address the changes.
“I might say, ‘We are going through this strategic change, and the people on the executive team are extremely excited about it for these reasons,” Nahas says. “I’m curious, what would you do if you were us to get this out to the population of the firm?’ What you have just done is show them a great deal of value. You’ve said, ‘I value your opinion.’ When you do that, you break down the barriers, but you also engage them and win them over and make them part of something rather than making them feel part of something that is being imposed on them.”
Keep in mind that just because you’ve been thinking about this change for a long time and have talked about it with your peers, others in your company may not be as familiar.
“If you’re a CEO and living this day to day and it’s sort of your overall vision, you’re very deeply steeped in the subject,” Nahas says. “Sometimes people can forget because they are so engaged in it and so enthusiastic and passionate about it, they forget that the people they are communicating to haven’t had the benefit of all that vetting, of the debating, the learning and the creating. So you just have to be more repetitive and consistent in terms of delivering that message and trying to put yourself in their shoes, three or four levels down. Make it real for them.”
Reality is another obvious but often overlooked component in communication. Just as you look for concrete evidence to see that your business is growing, your employees appreciate tangible examples to help bolster the case for whatever it is you’re telling them.
“If you tell people stories about why something has been successful, giving them real-life examples of clients who have integrated and used some of those services and how they have benefitted and how the partners or the people at Korn Ferry identified those needs within the clients is extremely impactful for helping people understand how something works,” Nahas says. “Telling them on paper or giving them theoretical ideas is not as effective as practical application and real-life examples.”
After you’ve had a good discussion with someone who you don’t normally talk to, follow up with a note to express your thanks for their time.
“Write back and say, ‘I truly appreciated the open, candid session we had,’” Nahas says. “’Your input was valuable and your active participation made a huge difference, not only in the meetings but obviously also in our company.”
How to reach: Korn/Ferry International, (310) 552-1834 or www.kornferry.com
Don’t act too soon
Caroline Nahas doesn’t face a lot of conflict in her role as office managing director of Southern California for Korn/Ferry International, where she leads about 150 employees. But when she does, she works hard to maintain a sense of impartiality.
“When you’re going to be involved in resolving conflicts with individuals, it’s very easy when the first person comes in and gives you the story; generally, that person is obviously editorializing,” Nahas says.
“It’s not that they are trying to do that. It’s just natural. They have their own view and they are very passionate about what they are raising objectives about. It’s very easy, as you’re listening to that, to get drawn into the story and to potentially show a reaction or to even prematurely make a judgment.”
If you want to maintain peace in your company, you’ll resist the urge to make that judgment before you’ve heard the other side.
“Listen, don’t render any kind of a judgment, don’t show any kind of expression that you agree or disagree,” Nahas says. “You’re just listening. This is such a great adage. There’s always two sides to the story. Often times neither one is right or wrong or they are both right and they are both wrong. But it’s absolutely critical you get all the information before you react.”
Daniel Adamany did not need to fix his business. At a time when many businesses were struggling to survive, Ahead LLC’s revenue had risen from $3 million in 2007 to $130 million in 2010.
But Adamany wanted to shake things up anyway. He looked at his 100-employee business, which provided IT products to its customers, and felt like he could be doing more to help them.
“We’re really changing the product we’re selling from a hardware product to a consulting-based solution,” says Adamany, founder and president of Ahead. “It’s been challenging. We’re getting through it and we’ve been successful, but it’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”
One of the toughest parts was convincing employees that even though what they were doing was working, they should jump on board his plan to dramatically change the business.
“When I come to them and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to change,’ a lot of them question why,” Adamany says. “Why would we do this when we went from zero to $130 million in 4.5 years? It seems like what we’re doing is working. Why change it? It’s one thing if we’re losing money and we have to do this or we’re going out of business. We’re the best at what we do and they feel great and they know what they’re doing. It makes it even more difficult.”
Adamany says he has made some mistakes in trying to fix a business that wasn’t really broken. The first misstep was when he brought in people who had expertise on how to build a consulting business.
“I allowed them to come in and communicate to the team, but there was such a disconnect between how they were used to running their business and how we ran our business that for the average guy, it was too much,” Adamany says. “They couldn’t process it. In hindsight, I would have sat down with them and understood the model better and then communicated it in words that my guys would understand because that’s where I came from. Prepare a little bit before you communicate. That was an error that I made.”
You may have a vision for your business. It may look like an easy path to achieve that vision. But you’ve got to remember that you have living, breathing human beings who need to be engaged with your plan rather than just blindly commanded to follow a set of directives.
“All of these guys know their vertical better than me,” Adamany says. “So for me, my goal is to understand what they have to say. I also have a broad perspective that they don’t have, because they run within their vertical. My job is to listen to them and then try to understand how that applies across the verticals.
“When people feel a part of what’s going on and what’s happening and they feel that they are contributing, then that also stimulates thought and creativity and ideas,” Adamany says. “They obviously need to be comfortable enough to share those with you.”
What Adamany has learned is that it’s OK to admit, as he eventually did, that you don’t have all the answers or prescient knowledge about whether something is going to work.
“I just told everybody, ‘I didn’t really get this, but now I do,’” Adamany says. “These are the principles and we’re still going to experience some pain, but ultimately it’s the right direction. Getting them in the boat with you seems to be the best way to get through it.”
Adamany’s efforts have accomplished what he wanted. The company is now an even more valuable asset to its customers.
“From a consulting standpoint, we’re going in much earlier in the cycle to determine if they need anything and if they need it, what they need,” Adamany says. “We develop a solution to fulfill whatever they want to get done.”
How to reach: Ahead LLC, (888) 992-4323 or www.thinkaheadit.com
Time it out
Daniel Adamany identifies two big mistakes he made trying to turn Ahead LLC into a technology consulting business. One was the way he initially sold the plan to his people. The other was in how he set timelines.
“I wanted it to change much faster,” says Adamany, founder and president of the 100-employee company. “I put timelines in place, but I think I was a little bit too aggressive because I really didn’t understand what it was going to take to make the change. I would have been better off saying, ‘We want to make this change and we will put a timeline together once I understand it more.’ We failed to meet our timeline. Maybe it’s not a big deal financially, but you don’t want to communicate something and then not hit it.”
Milestones and realistic timelines give your people a good foundation to take the steps your plan needs to succeed.
“We kind of dove in headfirst and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be successful at this and we’re going to be transitioned within a few months,’” Adamany says. “Reality is, it will take more like a year, because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. So it’s taking more time upfront, making sure we convey the right story and message and taking more time to put the plan together.”