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Tom Feeney helped Safelite succeed by focusing on its people Featured

8:01pm EDT May 31, 2011
Tom Feeney helped Safelite succeed by focusing on its people

Tom Feeney did not agree with how employees were being treated at Safelite Group when he became president and CEO in July 2008. He was confident this mistreatment was one of the things holding the company back from achieving greatness.

Now to be clear, Feeney is not saying that employees were being abused or treated badly. But they weren’t a priority at the company and that was a problem.

“While we have been really good in the area of providing good customer service, we have done so at the expense of our people,” Feeney says. “We haven’t invested in our people. We asked ourselves the very strategic question: What are we focused on? Companies historically have to focus on one thing. They can’t focus on three things.”

The three things that you can choose to focus on as a company, in Feeney’s opinion, would be your employees, your customers or your stakeholders.

“When I looked at Safelite, we had never selected,” Feeney says. “We were doing things erratically and trying to serve all three masters.”

As a result, customer service wasn’t as good as it could be at the 10,000-employee auto glass repair company. Employees didn’t feel as attached and as valued to the company as they needed to in order to give their full commitment to their work. And stakeholders didn’t feel as connected to where the company was heading.

“We debated and concluded that it was our people that came first,” Feeney says. “Once you make a decision like that, it causes you to make changes in your strategy, changes in your direction and changes in your decision-making. We simply concluded that if our people truly came first, all of our investments had to be toward making our people feel good about working at Safelite.

“We had to train them, invest in them and give them more tools and evidence that people first really meant something. It wasn’t just words.”

You need to begin your quest for a more focused direction by asking yourself why you’re in business. Why did you launch the company you’re now leading? Why did you agree to become a CEO?

“Many people say, ‘I’m in business to make money,’” Feeney says. “Well, yes, of course, but that’s oversimplification. You make money because of the actions you take. You have actions to take because of those strategies you have in place. So it really starts with that very basic question: What am I in business for? Who are you serving? You’ve got to know where you’re trying to take the business.”

Feeney believed the vision at Safelite needed to focus on what was best for the people who worked there. He was confident the result of such a focus would be happier employees and more satisfied customers.

Make more connections

You need to make real connections with your people in order to get them to believe in you and believe that you care and value their role in your organization.

“It does start at that point with some words on paper and some visuals to help bring the words to life,” Feeney says. “But it’s much more important than that to take this vision down to the very lowest levels of the organization with passion, with believability, with credibility and with an explanation of how this fits them. What is their role in achieving this vision?”

As you think about vision, keep in mind that it’s not your employees’ responsibility to get inside your head and figure out what you want them to do.

“In fact, it’s our responsibility as leaders of the business to understand it from their perspective,” Feeney says.

In order to gain that perspective, you need to get out of your office and meet with people, employees on the front line and not the district manager or vice president who runs that particular office.

“I’m not sitting in a room and getting a presentation from the general manager,” Feeney says. “That’s the last thing I want to do. If I believe the leader sets the vision and must communicate the vision and must inspire others, I have to figure out how to connect with people on a personal level.”

Get out there and explain the changes you want to make, but allow just as much time for questions that employees are going to want to ask. You need to appreciate the impact of change on their world.

“As you go through a cultural transformation in your company, the reality is each person must go through a personal transformation,” Feeney says. “I have said publicly that in order for the company to achieve a cultural transformation, each of us has to change. What that means is the things you did yesterday to make you successful in the company are not going to be the things you do tomorrow that make you successful. You have to change. I put myself out there.”

Show them the work that you’re doing on your own skills and abilities as their leader and help them understand that you have work to do as well.

“I share examples of things I’ve done well and things I haven’t done well,” Feeney says. “So when I get a performance review or a 360 feedback or I participate in the same leadership development tools that we provide for all our management, I share my results. I put them right out there so people can see, ‘Holy crap, he ain’t perfect.’ I’m far from perfect. I’m on the same leadership journey of the leaders in our company.”

Value your people

You may think you’re the big cheese at your company. And if you’re on local commercials or advertisements or you frequent the banquet circuit in your community, you may have a pretty visible presence. But it’s your employees who have the greatest impact, good or bad, on the image of your business.

“Our customer service reps who answer the phones, they are the voice of our company to the customer,” Feeney says. “They are the first impression. When a customer calls on the phone and we answer the phone, immediately that customer has an impression of our company.”

The point is you need to value those people and give them a reason to be proud to be part of your company.

“If my phone rings and it’s an associate, I take that call,” Feeney says. “I don’t have a mechanism to filter this stuff. Some CEOs put mechanisms in place. I have an open-door policy. Anybody in my office can walk up and interrupt what I’m doing and I’ll talk to them. They know that. I’ll walk around and see them. You can’t say one thing and do another.”

Of course, it’s not just enough to say you have an open-door policy. If nobody comes through your door or if you scowl at people who do come through your door or forget what they told you 30 seconds after they leave your office, it doesn’t do any good.

“They have to respect you and feel that there is an openness to listen,” Feeney says. “That has to do with style and approachability and sincerity and follow up. If you hear things and if you listen and then you do nothing, you will stop being told things.”

Think about the way you present yourself to your people. Does it give off an air of approachability?

“If you walk in with a posse or you drive up in a stretch limousine and fly in on a company plane, you’re going to come off as a bit standoffish,” Feeney says.

You play a key role in the evolution of your culture and its ability to continue pushing forward.

“If they sense you’re moving right or left off the vision, it’s almost permission to stop believing and go the wrong way,” Feeney says. “You have to be true to that vision and the strategy and the path you’ve laid out for the journey.”

Expect results

Here’s another important thing to keep in mind when reworking your culture: You have every right to expect some results from your efforts.

“When we put things in place to make our people better, I expect a return for that,” Feeney says. “We expect a return for that. Your people are your greatest asset. As you invest in them, you should expect them to do more. It’s not about productivity. It’s more about attitude. The term I used before is ‘qualitivity.’ You get quality and productivity, which is the best possible outcome. When people are really engaged about coming to work, and they know what their role is, and they know how they fit into the puzzle and what their job is and how important their job is to the ultimate prize of the company, it’s unbelievable what can get done.”

So once you’ve opened your arms and instituted systems for employees to share their concerns and ask questions, it’s OK to expect that their performance will get better.

“If you have an employee that’s been with you for 10 years and they were really successful in the old days, but they are just average today, you have an obligation as a leader to tell them that,” Feeney says. “Show them what they need to do to become above average again and provide them the tools to do it. But in the final analysis, it’s that individual’s responsibility to take action. If they don’t, you must upgrade talent.”

Cultures aren’t fixed or built in three easy steps. It requires a constant commitment by you to make adjustments when needed.

“It’s a constant drumbeat of sharing and communicating on a very frequent basis what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong and have we deviated from the long-term vision that we created,” Feeney says. “We’ve picked up the pace on communication. We’ve been more visible to our organization, meaning we go out to the field on a quite regular basis to hear from them. How are we doing? What’s going right? What’s going wrong? What can we be doing better? Make every leader responsible for the future and make sure they understand their roles in it. It’s easy to use the words. It’s hard to walk the talk.”

So don’t just talk about how your people are important. Take actions, and support actions, that reinforce that importance.

“My job is to role model the kind of behavior I want all our leaders to pursue,” Feeney says. “I’m constantly amazed and proud when I hear stories about somebody who did something. Maybe they took a risk and they sent someone on a weekend trip because they did something really well and they sent their family away and we paid for it. I love that. That says it’s permeating the organization.”

Feeney’s efforts have paid off financially as sales topped $1 billion for the first time in 2010, up 70 percent from 2007. But the work will continue to make sure the company gets even better.

“Leadership is a journey,” Feeney says. “You’re never done. It’s a work of progress that is never completed. It’s a work of art and the people who get to judge it are your employees and the customers you serve.”

How to reach: Safelite Group, (877) 800-2727 or www.safelite.com

The Feeney File

Tom Feeney, CEO, The Safelite Group

Born: New York City

Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting, La Salle College (now La Salle University). I thought I was going to be a CPA and then a CFO. I took that path and then branched out.

What was your very first job?

Sweeping the floors at a music studio where I took music lessons. They needed someone to clean the floors. I played the trumpet. Our parents always encouraged us to be involved in music and sports.

What is the best advice you ever received?

I got some really good advice early on in my career. If you’re very serious about your career, you’ll be walking a tight rope most of your life. There will be days when you lean to the right. Maybe that’s your career. Then there will be days when you lean to your left. That’s your personal life. If you lean too far, you’ll lose your family or lose your career. It’s that balance you have to find.

Keep your family connected to your career and keep your career connected to your family. If you choose that path where your wife stays home, you have an obligation to keep her current.

What one person would you like to have talked to?

President Ronald Reagan. He was truly an inspirational leader. He led the country through a transformation and then the world. At the same time, he was a bit of a strange person. He didn’t seem to have a good family relationship.