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Making connections Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2009

If you ask Dan Rooney to tell you the last time he completely unplugged himself from his role as the leader of SCI Engineered Materials Inc., he’ll probably just start to laugh.

“I don’t think a CEO ever has a break,” says Rooney, who holds the title of chairman, president and CEO at SCI. “If you go away for a week or two weeks and shut off communication totally, there is such a pile of communications and e-mails waiting for you, you’ll just never get caught up.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that Rooney doesn’t trust his people at the manufacturing company, which has 25 employees and 2008 revenue of $9.6 million.

Smart Business spoke with Rooney about how to develop a sense of trust with your employees.

Q. What are some keys to reaching your people?

Have a fair amount of face contact with your direct management and management at least one level under you. I usually have a few prepared notes and some bullet points. I’m not a great person at speaking off a sheet of paper. That, for me, doesn’t work. For me, it’s bullet points and then talking to those bullet points.

When you talk to your people, take a fair number of questions. If I’m not getting any questions, my gut tells me I haven’t communicated very well. A lack of questions is more a lack of understanding than anything else. If you’re getting questions, you have people probing and looking for clarity of some of the things you brought up.

When I’m not getting questions, I’ll start to ask questions. I’ll ask questions starting with senior people, then moving possibly down a level to begin getting their input into things in some of the more difficult areas. Then that starts to generate more questions from the audience.

Q. How do you deal with difficult topics?

Communication is a key. When someone screws up, and we all have, we get it up on the table in a hurry, we deal with it, and we put corrective actions in place. Hopefully some of those things never happen again, and we move forward.

I’m not going to say we don’t hold people accountable, we certainly do. We do understand that there is some level of error made by everyone. We like to deal with it and not punish too severely. If you do that, any time there is a mistake, all that is done is people try to hide it, which is really detrimental.

The key is when you make a mistake, be the first to admit you made a mistake. That’s one of the things I do. Everything I do sends signals to other people in the company about what’s the appropriate behavior.

If you begin to identify that you have people who are trying to blame other people, you have a very serious conversation with them about why that’s not appropriate. Or you determine that they do not fit in with the group dynamic you’re trying to develop and you replace them.

Q. How do you keep everyone moving forward?

That’s one of the biggest problems in management is dwelling on what isn’t done right or what’s done really badly in the company. Not that you don’t have to focus time on that, but there’s usually key issues on those. So fixing those problems quickly is key so you can get back to what you do well.

It’s a case of identifying them early on and then making decisions. Revisiting the same HR problem 12 times in the course of a year because it comes up every single month is not a benefit to you.

That’s not moving you forward as a company. If you have a piece of equipment that has chronic downtime and you’ve brought in outside support and you’ve done your own maintenance and it doesn’t perform the way you want it to be performing, you have to make a decision what to do with that piece of equipment.

Every item has to be analyzed on how it contributes to the company and moves you forward or not.

If you have weak product lines or weak employees, you have to make decisions fairly early on whether you can bring those product lines up to speed or those employees. Make those decisions and then move on.

Q. How do you help your people to get better?

We reward our people appropriately and give them positive feedback, not just negative feedback but a fair amount of positive feedback. If all you’re doing is measuring them and beating them up to a set of numbers or using the numbers as a stick, that’s exactly what people will feel like they are.

Numbers are out there and they are a measurement tool, but they are not designed to be a baseball bat to beat you over the head and shoulders with.

Anybody who comes into an evaluation without a fairly good idea ahead of time of how they have performed or if they go away with a surprise from the meeting, the managers have not done a very good job of communicating to the employees how they were doing all through the year.

It’s more a matter of ongoing communication and dialogue. What are your expectations? How have they changed from quarter to quarter? What are folks doing well? What are they not doing well? It’s an ongoing effort in communications.

How to reach: SCI Engineered Materials Inc., (800) 346-6567 or www.sciengineeredmaterials.com