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As we are coming out of this recession, companies are hiring again and staffing specialists can utilize their databases of qualified candidates to assist companies with filling critical openings with great candidates more quickly.

“The fact that companies are starting to hire again is a positive indicator for professionals, as well as companies,” says Andrew Devore, managing director of Skoda Minotti Professional Staffing. “For professionals, it gives them the opportunity to explore positions they wouldn’t have considered a couple of months or even a year ago. For companies, they can now look internally and externally for growth. Many companies have the financial resources to start growing their operations by adding new talent. They can add the professionals necessary to take them from where they are today to where they want to be down the road.”

Smart Business spoke with Devore about why a staffing firm might be the right solution for your company’s hiring needs.

Why should companies consider delegating their hiring to an outside staffing firm?

You can narrow this down to saving time, money and effort. Staffing professionals know who the ‘A’ candidates are in the market right now, and can best match them to the needs of a company. Through their day-to-day interactions with professionals, recruiters constantly have a pulse of who’s available and what opportunity will motivate them to make a change. Delegating your hiring can save the internal recruiter or internal HR department time and money because a staffing firm will already have a list of candidates. The firm can quickly identify a list through its own database and research, which helps the company get into the interview process quickly rather than going through countless resumes that came in through job boards.

What can a staffing agency add to the hiring process?

Recruiters have a pulse on what’s going on in the marketplace or within their niche. That is why they are truly subject matter experts in their industry. Many recruiters refer to it as The DIG model — discipline, industry and geography. Also, recruiters look beyond the resume. Often, companies will look at a resume and think a person isn’t a good fit. Staffing specialists understand that many professionals will use bullet points and provide general information in their resumes, so they look for their achievements and the potential benefits they will provide a company. A staffing specialist will ask the qualifying questions to gain a better understanding of what a professional’s daily tasks consist of and their real-life work experience so they can provide a company with a very thorough summary of that candidate’s background that complements their resume.

What should a company look for in a staffing firm?

Companies may consider a recruiter who is specialized in a particular niche, (i.e., manufacturing or IT), or by a certain position (engineer, sales, etc.). It is important for a company to understand how the recruiter conducts their search either through direct recruitment (phone or in-person) or via job board postings. Finally, the company could also consider other ancillary services provided by the recruiter such as background checks, education verification and reference checks.

What criteria should a company consider when selecting a professional staffing firm?

A company should look for a track record of success and ask a lot of questions. For example, ask questions such as: What experience does the recruiter or agency have in placing that particular type of opening? What have they done to successfully fill those positions? How fast have they filled them? What type of companies have they filled those positions for? How do they qualify their candidates?

Another criterion is how recruiters develop relationships with companies. For some companies, this may be their first experience working with a staffing specialist. It is important that they are comfortable with the process and their level of involvement. For example, some staffing specialists will meet with the hiring authority and the internal HR department, very similar to how a company would interview a candidate.

How can a company quantify a track record?

Some companies will send out a proposal or request for information, especially larger organizations. For smaller organizations, they may ask for references. Also, companies may ask for a list of hiring managers the staffing firm has placed candidates with.

How does a staffing firm differentiate great candidates from good candidates?

Staffing specialists look at the whole picture: credentials, real work experience, achievements and potential benefits. For example, if you are looking for a software developer, the recruiter can provide examples of some sample scripts or codes the candidate has written. When qualifying ‘A’ candidates from ‘B’ candidates, it often comes down to how engaged they are with the recruiter and how much information is provided. Have they provided the examples necessary to differentiate them from other candidates?

Staffing specialists look at certifications, degrees, and education. For some companies, a college GPA can make a big difference as they evaluate candidates. Companies often look for applicants with a particular certification, and where that certification was earned.

A staffing specialist can ensure that a candidate is reference-checkable by making sure a direct or previous supervisor can be contacted during the interview process. Timing is everything. The sooner a recruiter can get the candidates into the process and provide the hiring authority with as much information as needed, the sooner the recruiter can solve the problem or alleviate some pain for them.

Andrew Devore is managing director of Skoda Minotti Professional Staffing. Reach him at adevore@skodaminotti.com or (440) 449-6800.

Published in Cleveland
Wednesday, 02 March 2011 11:41

Refocus on customer service

Mark Kirschner is in the moving business. When people need to go from Point A to Point B, he wants Wheaton Van Lines Inc. to be the company that gets them to their final destination as smoothly as possible.

So when the economy collapsed in 2008, it created a problem for Wheaton. Fewer people in the residential market were moving, and those who were often weren’t doing so by choice. And when you’ve just lost your house through a foreclosure, you’re probably not hiring a moving company to get you to your next place.

“So with that, cash flow decreased for our industry,” says Kirschner, the company’s CEO. “Not just Wheaton but the whole industry. So we had to find ways to be sure our agents were diversifying and finding new revenue streams.”

Kirschner believed in the service that the $160 million company provided to help families move and assist companies with corporate relocations. He knew that the company also specialized in government and military relocations, logistical services and special commodity shipments.

But he came to the conclusion that the company wasn’t doing enough to let potential customers know about the diversity of Wheaton’s offerings.

He began with a mandate to the company’s 120 employees and 250 agents across the nation who are affiliated with Wheaton. The message was simple: We’re going to work together to make sure everyone succeeds.

“We talked to everyone,” Kirschner says. “We enlarged our circle. We looked for new ways to reach our customers. We started to make a focus on the social media aspect of reaching out to our customers. We were trying to develop as many sales channels or sales windows as possible so the customers have access to us.”

Wheaton clearly had the wherewithal to diversify and keep the revenue coming in. The company just needed to do a better job of promoting itself and put more emphasis on the quality of service it provided and the advantages that service provided over the competition.

Sell your plan

Kirschner needed to galvanize his nationwide network of 250 agents behind this renewed commitment to quality and service so that Wheaton could sell that package to potential clients.

“We’re letting our service providers and agents know, ‘We’re going to make our brand more powerful through the service offerings we’re making available to you,’” Kirschner says.

He wanted to work with his agents to develop ways to provide even better customer service and address more of their needs. This wouldn’t be a plan that he would just force on people and tell them to go do it. It would have their fingerprints on it, too, giving them ownership in its outcome.

“Let people know that you’re open, that you care and that you want to hear what they have to say,” Kirschner says. “Let them know that you’re not afraid to fail or take chances and you’re not afraid for them to fail.”

His hope, however, was that through thorough discussions with his agency network, the company’s efforts would answer any questions and keep failure from being an issue.

“Usually, when we have a new proposal, we do a good job of stating, ‘What if this happens, what if this happens, and what if this happens? What happens if this doesn’t succeed? What are the ramifications? How much of a risk are we willing to take? Are we OK if we do this and fail?’” Kirschner says. “As long as you have those kinds of discussions and everyone’s voice is being heard and it’s not being ramrodded through, you’ll be OK.”

Kirschner made it a point to seek out those who he knew had resisted change or new ideas in the past. He wanted to know what they thought of the customer service that Wheaton provided.

“Every group is going to have some naysayers,” Kirschner says. “We’ll say, ‘Here’s a proposal. What do you think?’ If there’s a hole in it, they’ll find it. Address the resistance head on.”

You need to recognize the difference between someone who is trying to help you by pointing out concerns and someone who is just trying to be an obstacle to progress. The person who is trying to help can be a big asset to the selling of your plan.

“Are they there to resolve the problem or are they there to create a problem?” Kirschner says. “You’re going to know that by having face-to-face conversations with them. The most important thing is to look at it from their eyes, not your eyes. Find out why they are so passionately disagreeing with you.”

Fortunately, at Wheaton, most of Kirschner’s team jumped right on board with the effort to reel in more customers through its renewed focus on great service.

“You have to listen to the people that are working directly with the customers on a day-to-day basis,” Kirschner says. “You have to have a dialogue where it’s open and they can come to you and have a two-way conversation about what are the needs of your customer.”

Don’t get too hung up on titles and territories and who is responsible for what when you’re having these kinds of discussions. If someone has a great idea, don’t spend a lot of time worrying about where it came from.

“Don’t pigeonhole anybody or put them in a silo,” Kirschner says. “Everybody has an equal voice at the table. And as the CEO, you speak last. Your job is to listen more than it is to talk. You just create that environment where it’s supportive.”

Don’t try to do it all

If you have a hard time gaining trust when you launch a new initiative, it could be because you try to do it all yourself. Kirschner made a concerted effort to constantly get other people involved in his plan to bolster customer service at Wheaton.

“You have to have the support team in place and peers in place to support the change,” Kirschner says. “You have to have transparency. I don’t think you can think about change if you don’t have that relationship or that trust that has to be there in order to implement the change.”

Delegation is one of the best ways to engender trust. Kirschner’s challenge was letting go of his duties from being CFO before he became CEO.

“I had to be able to delegate as quickly as possible,” Kirschner says.

But it doesn’t have to be that kind of delegation to be effective.

“Put simply, if somebody else is capable of doing it, let them do it,” Kirschner says. “They’ll have more time and they’ll do a better job at it. What it also does is develop an individual. People want to be challenged. As long as you surround yourself with the right people, they’ll rise to the challenge. You don’t want people bored in their positions. You want to continuously challenge them.”

Get to know the members of your management team so that you can figure out what buttons to push to get the most use out of them to help your plan succeed.

“Know what drives them,” Kirschner says. “Some individuals may be driven by security. They want a lot of information before they make a decision. Some individuals may be driven by personal rewards. Some may be driven by wanting a lot of change. You have to understand what drives each individual.”

These are the kind of details that help make your business better.

“What I enjoy about that is when I think we have it all figured out, we’ll ask our agents or service providers and they’re going to see things differently,” Kirschner says. “They’ll have a different perspective.”

Analyze your execution

The analysis doesn’t stop when you begin to implement your plan. If you don’t ever follow up or track the success of the execution of your plan, the benefits are going to be tough to realize.

Talk to your customers and see how your employees are faring in carrying out your company’s plan.

“We survey our customers after each and every move,” Kirschner says. “We send them what we call the customer service report. It allows the customer to measure our service from the moment we call them to the time we deliver their shipment. Once we have that, it allows us to get the analytics to determine our level of service as perceived by the customer and not by us. Once you have that, you can see where your strengths and weaknesses are.”

Make sure that you respond to any feedback that you get.

“We’ll call them,” Kirschner says. “That’s what has really surprised a lot of customers. When they didn’t give us the feedback we would have desired, we have a department that will walk through the process and see where we could have done better. You just have to stay in touch with them.”

In other words, if you’re going to have customer surveys, you have to follow up. You need to make those surveys worthwhile and put some effort into it in order to gather feedback from the process.

That’s true for any business, whether you’re helping customers move or you’re manufacturing widgets. You need to know what your customers’ experience is like if you’re going to continue to make that experience as good as possible.

“It’s not as important when you meet with them that you explain your offerings and what you’re doing as much as you look to understand their business,” Kirschner says.

In the moving business, you’re trying to understand what people go through when they are moving. But every customer has his or her own unique challenges and you need to find out what they are.

“What are their pain points? What are they going through?” he says. “You have to understand where they are coming from. What do they need? You just have to keep asking questions as to where they are. If you’re always going to focus on yourself, you’re not going to be successful. If you’re not aware of what’s going on in their industry, you’re going to put yourself at a disadvantage.”

Throughout 2010, Wheaton saw a number of new companies join its network and expand its reach. Kirschner credits the laser focus that his company has put on providing great customer service for that success.

“Any time you do have change that does occur, reflect back and determine why it was successful,” Kirschner says. “Any type of change is possible provided you have the right message and people understand it. As long as the decision is true to your mission statement and true to your customers, you’re ready to go.” <<

How to reach: Wheaton Van Lines Inc., (800) 248-4810 or www.wheatonworldwide.com

The Kirschner file

Mark Kirschner

CEO

Wheaton Van Lines Inc.

Born: Indianapolis

Education: Bachelor of science degree in accounting, Indiana University

What was your very first job?

Delivering the papers for the Indianapolis News. With an evening route, you knew you had to be on time to deliver the papers because they were expecting it. But you also knew if you smiled, you got a bigger tip.

Who has been the biggest influence on who you are today?

My father, Edward Kirschner. He taught me integrity and to be honest. He taught me early on, if you’re going to do a job, do it as best as you can to its highest level. He was a policeman and a very ethical person. He instilled that honesty and integrity to all of us at a very early age. If you do something wrong, admit it. If you make a mistake, own up to it. Give it your best every day.

What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?

My father told me, ‘You won’t know until you try.’ It was the way we were brought up. We were raised to be very independent and self-sufficient.

If you could have a conversation with anyone, whom would it be and why?

When you asked that, two people came to mind. One was my father. I’d have a conversation with my father on a lot of different things that are important to me. And Jesus Christ.

Published in Indianapolis
Wednesday, 02 March 2011 13:54

Stay connected

Susan Johnson is clearly a cut above her workplace peers. Her ability to combine technical expertise and product knowledge with an innate gift for connecting with colleagues and clients is exceptional. What’s more is that as talented as Susan is, she is always asking people what they need and what they think, and she is hungry to listen and learn. Unfortunately, Susan is leaving her company. Why? It has been more than two years since a single executive has asked her what she needs.

A crucial part of navigating the turbulent waters of these economic times is to be sure you keep the right crew aboard to keep your ship afloat. Organizations tend to focus on those they can part ways with to cut overhead. However, this can often come at the expense of retaining the talented individuals most vital to future success. Here are five tips to be sure your high flyers are flying with you:

Determine the motivations of top talent

How do you do this? Ask. It is important to be specific and be sure that questions like the following are being answered by your top brass: Are you happy with where your career is headed? What would you like the next step in you career to be? How can I/we help you get there?

Exit interviews are not the time to determine these motivations. Find out what your future leaders need now and feed those who feed your machine. A pivotal point here is to follow through to confirm that what your future leaders say is being heard. You are better off not asking than not following up. Both are high risk.

Make individual meetings a standard

Another common fumble by companies is that they don’t make individual updates a cultural consistency. They do back flips for their clients, yet they don’t look inward and pay special attention to those who drive business and pump oxygen into their organization. Meeting with your folks individually recognizes their importance and provides a wonderful forum for discovering what they may not disclose in a group meeting. An added benefit is that trust, the baseline for all business opportunities, is much easier to build through one-on-one connections.

Delegate and give responsibility

One of the biggest challenges for executives is to let go. It’s tough because everything that happens under their jurisdiction is their responsibility. Remember that your emerging leaders want to be challenged and be given assignments that utilize their talent. This is how they learn. So let go. Prove that you can trust young talent and you will be surrounded with a higher-performing team that develops confidence while increasing performance results.

Become a teaching executive

Even the brightest executives have never been taught the fundamental rule of adult learning: Teaching hasn’t occurred until learning is confirmed. Telling isn’t teaching. Execs must know that even the brightest talent may process information differently than you do. Be sure you are patient and aligned as you develop and confirm that this understanding has happened. Most organizations that claim to be learning and teaching organizations do not live this as a core value. Teaching young talent must be a designated initiative, not a drive-by occurrence.

Share knowledge

In the absence of feedback, people create their own, and it’s typically negative. Executives must keep their folks abreast of what’s going on, regularly. Provide knowledge, which is different from data. Data is merely “the what.” Knowledge is “the what, the why and the how they play a vital role to change and growth.” Keep your top talent informed and you will keep morale high and these key players passionate about sticking around.

Joe Takash is the president of Victory Consulting, a Chicago-based executive and organizational development firm. He advises clients on leadership strategies and has helped executives prepare for $3 billion worth of sales presentations. He is a keynote speaker for executive retreats, sales meetings and management conferences and has appeared in numerous media outlets. Learn more at www.victoryconsulting.com.

Published in Chicago
Monday, 21 February 2011 17:33

Unlocking performers

If Kobe Bryant played for Greg Ashlock’s team, the star wouldn’t get much coaching about the fundamentals of basketball. Nor would he need it.

Ashlock knows that key players don’t need specifics about how to play the game. As the market manager and president of Clear Channel Radio Los Angeles, Ashlock has learned how important it is not to micromanage his 400 employees.

“You still need a coach to direct that a little bit … and think more strategically,” Ashlock says. “But as far as the day-to-day activity is concerned, I don’t really need to manage that in the same way Phil Jackson doesn’t really need to manage how Kobe’s going to get to the basket and score. He needs to orchestrate some of the plays. He needs to orchestrate the strategy on how they’re going to play against the Celtics.

“However, from a tactical level, they’re performers. They’ve proven to be performers and they don’t need somebody overseeing their minute-by-minute or hour-by-hour decisions.”

Ashlock has adopted that hands-off philosophy across the eight radio stations in the L.A. market of Clear Channel Communications Inc. By staying out of the way of his employees, he unlocks their creativity and makes the company stronger with their innovation.

A recent success story comes from Dan Granger, an account executive in Ashlock’s market who broke the radio mold to make his clients more successful. He took some tactics that have been popular in Internet advertising, applied them to radio and created what he calls audiolytics — radio ad campaigns founded on transparency, accountability and analytics.

Granger will be the first to tell you it’s not just about taking the ball and running — it’s about the result.

“All the creative ideas in the world don’t matter,” Granger says. “It doesn’t matter how much buzz you create. It doesn’t matter how many people laugh at your ad and are entertained by it if nobody’s buying your product. This economy is reminding people that we should be as accountable as we can be for the results we produce.”

Identify self-starters

Clear Channel encourages autonomy, but don’t assume employees just do whatever they want whenever they want.

“If you want that kind of freedom, then you have to have the successes to warrant that,” Ashlock says. “That autonomy’s not granted to everyone. You really do have to earn the right to get that autonomy.”

Employees have to prove themselves capable of the responsibility. It starts with bringing people on board who are already autonomous.

“It’s critical that you hire the right people, because if you’re going to grant autonomy to somebody, they have to be competent,” Ashlock says.

He looks for candidates who exhibit initiative and have some success to show for it. You have to dig to find that.

“The way you’re going to know somebody’s a self-starter is based on past experience,” Ashlock says. “Whether it’s the work they’ve done or through the people that you talk to that they’ve worked for, there’s no better example or backup for somebody on whether or not they take initiative.”

Start by asking candidates to elaborate on what they’ve done. But they can say anything. The real test is what their former bosses say, so check references heavily.

“I would never rely solely on an interview,” Ashlock says. “It’s going to be based on past work, reputation, past employers and what they have to say.”

Ideally, the reference will say the employee didn’t come to them with problems but solutions. Look for indicators that candidates are driven by results for the sake of personal achievement, not just to please a boss. When Granger talks about his project, for example, he’s so vested he’ll tell you he’s spending his money, not Ashlock’s.

“Some people crave freedoms, but they know that they’ve got to produce results to maintain that,” Granger says. “Those people put more pressure on themselves than you could ever put on them. For one, they don’t want to fail themselves, but they also don’t want to fail the people who have given them those freedoms and those opportunities.”

Once you hire self-starters, they should prove their ability to drive results before you loosen the reins. Don’t set new employees loose until they have credibility.

“Once you know they’re going to make good decisions, then granting them autonomy and freedom’s not a stretch,” Ashlock says. “Managers that don’t grant the autonomy means they don’t have a lot of confidence in the people below them.”

Assign homework

Once you have employees with initiative, you have to give them opportunities to innovate.

“The biggest thing is, at the top, you have to be willing to take some risks,” Ashlock says. “If you’re willing to take some risks, it actually encourages stepping outside the box and entrepreneurship. If you’re only willing to play it by the game and nobody is able to add their creativity or anything outside of the norm, then that becomes a stagnant culture.”

It’s a balance of encouraging innovation while emphasizing the expected result.

“Everybody knows that it’s a place where they can thrive on creativity and pushing the envelope,” he says. “I don’t mean you push the envelope without vetting the process out a little bit. You do it with a good idea of how and what the result’s going to be.”

In order to vet ideas, you need background. Set the expectation that employees do homework to make their case. Fortunately, self-starters tend to do that without urging.

“It started with just trying to answer the question: What works?” Granger says of his idea. “So many people spend money on radio and walk away and say, ‘Radio didn’t work.’ I wanted to find out why they would end up feeling that way when I knew that there was a way to make it work. So it came from a frustration, and it drove me to just start picking up books.”

Granger dug into “Tested Advertising Methods” by John Caples and “Confessions of an Advertising Man” by David Ogilvy, to learn how industry predecessors produced results. That research taught him about direct-response advertising and provided case studies for proving his idea to management.

“What it really required is just, No. 1, reading anything and everything that provides case studies — whether that’s from a recent online company that posts information about what they find or it’s reading a book from 85 years ago about what was done,” he says. “We’re all trying to accomplish the same goal, which is sell products for businesses. And it occurred to me that we could take all the same principles that are used in any form of advertising and apply them to our industry.”

Employees should have a plan for translating their case studies into your industry and your company specifically. To do that, they need a keen understanding of your core and future goals.

“We’re here to innovate, have fun and, at the end of the day, move product,” Ashlock tells managers. “And the way we move product is through the innovation and the encouragement of taking educated risk.”

Granger can recite the vision Clear Channel has had since it first began strategically purchasing radio stations in Texas to reach decision-makers in industrial regions — it’s about reaching advertisers and helping them sell. And he could tie that to his new model of tracking results to optimize advertising success.

“Dan, over time, took a very big-picture approach to not just getting an order on the air but, ‘How do I move somebody’s business?’ which is always the right way to approach any client,” Ashlock says.

Because Granger’s idea aligned with the corporate goal and he could illustrate how it would improve a service he already provided, Ashlock’s decision was easy.

“If it’s part of their core business model and they’ve come up with a plan to help with that, then nine times out of 10 they’re dead-on because they know their business so well,” Ashlock says. “If it’s an area that they’re looking to branch out into — maybe it’s something in the digital space that’s not as much part of their core business at this point — I’ll bring in other people more knowledgeable in that area for us to vet out some of the possibilities and some of the concerns.”

Once the pros and cons are on the table, it’s an evaluation of risk versus reward. Think of it as a seesaw where you want to maximize the reward — whether in terms of revenue or customer satisfaction — long-term while reducing risk.

“If the risk that they’re wanting to take is not going to reap that much of a reward, then (we say), ‘Hey, go back and revise your plan a little bit where there’s a stronger chance for us to benefit greater, whether it’s from a ratings standpoint or revenue standpoint,” Ashlock says.

The key here, from Granger’s perspective, is that managers don’t bluntly turn down ideas. Give employees a chance to make them better.

Then consider whether the idea lines up with your core. Ashlock relies on customers for that barometer.

“If there’s some kind of huge revenue potential, but it would damage a brand, I wouldn’t do it,” he says. “If it’s going to compromise our integrity, if it’s not going to resonate with the listener, then we won’t do it. There’s plenty of things that we’ve decided not to do, because they don’t fit what the station’s about and it would seem like a sell-out or a disconnect with our listener.”

Measure success

A great idea could have all the potential in the world, but that has to actually materialize.

“It’s not autonomy without some kind of measurement,” Ashlock says. “That autonomy … would be short-lived — and when I say short-lived, not a month or two (but) over a nine-month period — if there weren’t successes attached to it. Successes back up that autonomy.”

Ashlock gave Granger’s idea a thumbs up along with a timeline. When you give approval, you also give checkpoints that must be met to validate the proposal.

Those milestones will differ with each project, but obviously you’re looking for growth and improvement — whether that’s with your revenue or customer satisfaction.

“It really had to do with new and repeat business,” Ashlock says. “Are you able to sustain clients better under this model? Are you able to bring more new business on? [It’s] quite frankly talking to the clients and asking them about their experience. Is (the service) better than what they’ve had in the past? Are they getting better results? Are they moving more product? Is their return on investment better?”

When he got emphatic yeses across the board, Ashlock considered the model a proven success. That was easy to back up with facts because, due to the nature of audiolytics, Granger had built-in metrics. Along with a team of three others, he sets up unique phone numbers, landing pages and discount codes to track responses to clients’ ads. They also look at before-and-after trends, such as increases in overall Web traffic.

Legalzoom.com, for example, launched a pilot program with Granger in 2004. There was skepticism from an online company trying radio for the first time, but thanks to the success it has seen through audiolytics, it has grown to be the largest advertiser on the largest news/talk station in the country.

Now, Granger’s team grosses nearly $4 million annually in local radio spot sales.

He couldn’t have done it without an environment that supports innovation while stressing results.

“The biggest indicator whether something is working is if the client comes back,” Granger says. “There’s so much money wasted in the name of creativity, it makes me sick, when this is about performance. At the end of the day, if you perform, if you make (clients) profitable through their investment, they’ll give you more money.”

How to reach: Clear Channel Radio Los Angeles, (818) 559-2252 or www.clearchannel.com/radio/; Dan Granger, (818) 566-6419 or www.talkradiospecialist.com

The Ashlock file

Greg Ashlock

Market manager and president

Clear Channel Radio Los Angeles

Born: Dallas

Education: Undergraduate degree from Northwestern State University, La., and USC-Annenberg, for graduate school

What was your very first job, and what did you learn from it?

L.A. Dodgers PR department. It’s important to love what you do, and that still holds true today. As I look at business peers across multiple industries, those that are excited to go to work each day are the ones that are performing the best.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.’ John Wooden

Describe your favorite radio station to listen to.

Hot 92.3 (old school and R&B). It just doesn’t get any better than Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye when you’re looking to kick back and unwind.

What’s your favorite stress relief?

Hanging out with the kids, either in the pool, in the game room on the Wii or playing cards on the patio.

Published in Los Angeles
Monday, 21 February 2011 16:43

Get out of the way

Jeff Ready learned a valuable lesson about overcoming failure when he was 16 and had his first car accident.

“I was terrified of driving after that,” Ready says. “But the next day, my dad filled up the other car with gas and told me to go drive it until it was empty. The lesson was, ‘You screwed up, but too bad. Move on and get back to work.’”

Ready is not quite as blunt with his employees at Scale Computing, but the idea is the same. He wants them to always know that if they make a mistake in the pursuit of a worthy goal, he’s not going to jump all over them if it doesn’t work out.

“I would rather see people trying things and screwing it up than not trying things at all,” Ready says.

It’s an approach that has helped Scale grow quickly and become a solid presence in the data storage industry.

“Mistakes are a sign of progress,” says Ready, the company’s founder and CEO. “You can always do what you’ve always done and make very few mistakes. But if you’re going to go out there and advance, do something new, take some risks, there will be mistakes.”

Fear of mistakes leads to a situation where every decision is agonized over through a series of committees and meetings, without ever taking action.

“So you end up taking very few risks and making very few mistakes but also making very little progress,” Ready says.

In order to make progress, your primary function needs to be to knock down barriers that get in the way of your team’s ability to do its job. Beyond that, you need to stay out of the way and let them do what you hired them to do.

“Pick something that is a significant chunk of responsibility,” Ready says. “Take something that is meaningful, something that you as the CEO feel personally responsible for, something you would be concerned to give to somebody else and give it away. Just do it.

“Pick somebody in the organization that you feel is capable and give them full control of that. Your job is to knock down barriers that get in their way. But you are not going to dictate how they do it, when they do it, etc.”

When you insist on being in on every last decision your company makes and taking part in every key meeting that occurs, you place a limit as to how much your company can grow. That limit is your personal capacity to get things done.

Ready uses the example of his company’s search for partners to illustrate his point.

“We sell data storage,” Ready says. “We’ve been looking at partnering with key companies in networking and switching to bundle products with us. A company like us is probably going to look at partnering with a much larger organization.”

A micromanager would have no choice but to take the lead on this kind of initiative out of fear that his team would screw it up.

“I’m the CEO, therefore I’m going to go out there and run this initiative,” Ready says. “The problem is, your business marches on while you’re jerking around with this other thing. You can’t juggle all of the tasks required for what you’re already doing plus all the new stuff. If you think about the whole top-down approach, you inherently have a situation where your ability as an organization to grow and expand is limited by your own capacity to handle these things.”

You may be surprised by the results when you let someone else take the lead on a project.

“They’re probably not going to screw it up any differently than you were going to,” Ready says. “You just have to start somewhere. It’s like ripping the Band-Aid off.”

How to reach: Scale Computing, (877) 722-5359 or www.scalecomputing.com

Study your successes

It’s probably in the first chapter of any leadership handbook. It’s a prevalent theme in the main story on this page. But Jeff Ready says it takes more than just learning from mistakes to be successful.

“The greater lessons can come from trying to learn from your successes and trying to analyze, what was it about that success that made it successful?” Ready says. “The natural tendency is if something works, you just keep doing it. That makes sense. But is there room for improvement within that particular process?”

If you have a successful marketing program, was it the message that stood out or the medium you used to transmit that message?

“Let’s say you believe that it was the message of that ad that was effective,” Ready says. “Then the risk you might take is to take that message and apply it in a different venue. Maybe it was a print ad that worked and you’re going to take it and apply that same messaging online or in a telemarketing application. If that fails and you’ve got this culture, it made perfect sense to try it. The failure is not that big a deal. We know it works in print, but it doesn’t work in telemarketing, so we’re going to try something else.”

Published in Indianapolis
Friday, 18 February 2011 11:51

Getting help

Tired of answering business phone calls, checking e-mails or responding to text messages all hours of the day and night, on weekends and even when you’re on vacation? You might be surprised to learn that the person you see in the mirror could be to blame for those constant interruptions. And you don’t have to shut off your phone and unplug your computer to regain control of your life.

I’ve often been asked how I was able to balance my personal life and my work life while carrying the responsibilities that come with being a CEO in an industry as dynamic as automotive.

My answer: I made sure that I could comfortably delegate many of my responsibilities to my direct reports.

You can’t just go to work tomorrow and start delegating. The hard part is getting to the point where you really are comfortable delegating decisions to others while your superiors hold you accountable for the results.

I’ll explain what it took to get me to that point.

Let me start with something I learned after having been exposed to many different organizational structures, work teams, individual jobs and workplace situations. I consider this as gospel: All company employees, regardless of job level, have at least one thing in common. They want to feel valued for the skills and capabilities they bring to the company and want to be recognized for the contributions they make to the company’s success.

When this is the case, they will come to work every day engaged and motivated to help the company achieve its goals.

In my experience, nothing destroys that motivation faster than a supervisor who micromanages every situation, insisting on getting the work done his or her way and being involved in all decisions. The consequences of this — however well intentioned — can reach beyond simply slowing down the decision process, particularly if those exposed to this behavior have already achieved a level of success in the company.

In your role as coach, you need to begin by challenging staff members to think more deeply about how they should handle a certain situation, gradually allowing them more latitude to decide on a course of action. It will be difficult at times to resist telling them what you would do, but you must. You must also expect (and tolerate) the inevitable small mistakes they will make as their capabilities grow. Recognize, too, that some individuals will require more of your time than others, but in the end, this will prove to be time well spent.

I must caution you that taking on the role of coach does not mean that you must abdicate your position as the leader of the department or company. You must be very clear about the personal and organizational behaviors you expect, such as honesty, integrity, fairness and risk tolerance, and you need to model those behaviors in your daily work.

As you grow more comfortable and release the reins on your staff, they will assuredly do likewise with theirs, and the benefits to the company will become more and more apparent. Fewer and fewer unresolved problems will reach your level, decisions will be made more quickly making customers happier, and business results will improve at a faster rate because employees will feel more ownership in driving the results.

And, of course, you will be able to enjoy your life outside of work without being constantly interrupted by business phone calls, e-mails or text messages.

Try delegating. It may take some preparation, but I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

George Perry has more than 40 years of experience in engineering, operations and executive management. He retired as president and CEO of Yazaki North America Inc. in December 2009.

Published in Detroit
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:01

Delegate authority to become more effective

Imagine for a moment that you are on a plane flying at 30,000 feet. As you cruise along, suddenly the door to the cockpit opens and the pilot walks back into the passenger compartment and starts getting drinks ready for the passengers and then leaves to deal with an unruly person in row 23. What would you think? First, you need to fly another airline. Second, why in the world is the pilot out dealing with things that are clearly the responsibilities of others?

There are two possibilities to this exaggerated example. Either the pilot isn’t very good and can’t focus on the task at hand or the people working with the pilot can’t get the job done on their own, so he has to come out and help. Either way, the plane doesn’t have anyone at the controls and the ramifications of that are very serious for everyone on board.

The answer is, probably no one, which also means your business is probably going nowhere fast, except maybe into a nosedive. The fact of the matter is, you can’t keep your business pointed in the right direction and navigate around hazards if you are distracted and forced to deal with issues that really belong to someone else. You have to have the right team to make your business ascendant.

Much like our mythical pilot described above, either the problem is you or the people who work for you. Either case requires you to take action. If the problem is you, then your management style needs to change. The only way you are going to be successful is if you start piloting your plane and leave the details to the people below you. At some point, you have to trust that they will get it done — maybe not the same way you would have done it — but done nonetheless.

If you talk to any successful CEO about what his or her average day looks like, it typically is all about strategic planning, meeting with investors, advisers or checking in with direct reports on key initiatives. Successful CEOs will not normally mention things like going on sales calls, troubleshooting a minor project or game planning about how to improve workflow within a department.

Why don’t they mention these types of activities? Because they aren’t doing them. If they were “down in the weeds,” dealing with details, who would be piloting the company from a strategic standpoint? The moment they started getting lost in the details is the moment the company would start to drift off course, because no one was there to steer it.

If the problem is your people, then that’s another issue. If you’re trying to pilot the plane but you have no choice but to go back and remind someone for the third time that you need some key piece of information or something else that should have long since been taken care of, then you may have a people problem. If you can’t trust the people below you to get the job done and they are doing poorly enough to where it’s a distraction to you, your only choice is to make a change.

That might mean training, it might mean moving someone to a different position better suited to his or her skills, or it might mean parting ways. But you can’t jeopardize the business by wading out into the weeds while the strategy goes on autopilot.

Being CEO is never easy. It’s up to you to decide whether the problem is the pilot or the crew, but one thing is for sure, you are never going to be able to pilot a plane if you are stuck in the weeds.

Published in Akron/Canton