An open ear Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

Several times a year, the employees at Columbus Fair Auto Auction Inc. stop working for a couple of hours to enjoy lunch and each other’s company.

These lunches also provide an opportunity for them to share ideas with Keith Whann, CEO and general counsel, and the company’s other top management.

Whann says the nearly 700 employees are sometimes surprised that management wants to hear their ideas on how to improve things at the wholesale auto auction company.

“We’ve had some of the best ideas, including how we park cars to routing traffic in and out of our recon shop, come from employees who say, ‘Why do we do it this way?’ ‘Because we’ve always done it this way.’ ‘Because it would work better if you did it this way,’” Whann says.

Listening to and acting on employee ideas has helped the company prosper and grow, and in 2007, it posted revenue of $38.5 million.

Smart Business spoke with Whann about how to really hear employees’ ideas and how to get the right people in the right positions to succeed.

Get the right people in the right positions. Experience is not the most important thing; the most important thing is to get a good person. You want someone who is a good person, somebody who wants to treat people right, wants to be nice to their fellow employees and customers and wants the job.

I’d take that any day over somebody who’s going to be a problem child and have a load of skills and talent, because you can work with the person who wants to learn more ... where as the other one is going to be destructive.

Make sure you get them into the right job. Give them the training and support on a dayto-day basis to be able to grow in that position and develop within that role. When possible, you promote from within. Then they get the team concept and think they’re part of something bigger.

You’re more efficient; you’re more effective at everything you do. If the right people are in the right positions, they tend to do better at their jobs; therefore, they like their jobs better, and there’s more satisfaction.

Remain open to employee ideas. You realize rather quickly that you can’t possibly do it all — or even most of it. You have to be accessible. You can’t just say it. ... You have to actually act that way on a day-to-day basis.

Let them know no matter what job they have that you know they exist and understand their role in the success of the company. You’re going to have people with different levels of expertise and responsibility, but no matter what level they’re at, you have to trust them to do their job and do that correctly.

That doesn’t mean you don’t manage them, you don’t have oversight, but you have to believe that you’ve hired the right people and trained them well enough to do their job. If you haven’t accomplished that, then as the management team, you’ve failed. You’ve got the wrong people for the job, and you’re going to have problems regardless.

Recognize employees for their good ideas. The most basic thing is just going up and telling them, individually and in front of their peers, recognizing them for the job they’ve done.

Everybody wants a pat on the back and to be recognized for what they do. All too often in business, you focus on the problems or the areas you need to improve and don’t stop to take the time and recognize the things we do well.

For companies to succeed today, you have to do a lot of things well most of the time. What you have to do is not take that for granted. We’ve all seen situations in departments where you may have 20 people who work there, and one is the problem, and you’re constantly talking about the problem and coming up with rules or situations to deal with the problem, but you’ve got 19 people who are working hard and doing a great job. Make sure that you stop and recognize a job well done, thank those people and make them feel good about the effort they’re putting forth.

When you have the problem, you have to deal with it. It’s not fair to the people who show up every day on time and work hard to let people slack within the company and not have to work; that sends the wrong message.

Lead by example. It starts from when you show up to work to when you leave, what you wear, how you act and how you treat fellow employees. You can’t expect people to do things that you don’t do, and the easiest way to let them know the things you think are important is to do those things.

When you have 700 people, you can’t know them all by name, but you know as many as you can — you stop and say hello to people. It’s not just a perfunctory hello, because that’s what you do as you walk by, but you stop and talk, find out about them, what’s going on in their life and what’s important. If they have a problem, issue or concern, you stop and help with it, even if it’s not your responsibility.

If they see the boss is out there helping a customer or taking him to find something ... if it’s important to me to do, it’s important for them to do. If you start breaking down the barriers between what is and isn’t someone’s job, and you’re leading by example, then everyone realizes that the job is to get the total job done, and we’ll succeed or fail as a team.

HOW TO REACH: Columbus Fair Auto Auction Inc., (614) 497-2000 or