Ira Sharfin Featured

12:28pm EDT June 29, 2006
If you take care of your employees, they will take care of you. Ira Sharfin received that advice several years ago when he was new to the consulting business, and it’s stuck with him as the key to a strong company. In fact, it’s a philosophy he tries to live out every day as president and CEO of Continental Office Environments, an $84 million regional business furnishings provider. Brought on board a year ago, Sharfin was enthusiastic, but he also respected the foundations on which the 245-employee company was built. Smart Business spoke with Sharfin about how he manages his two Ohio and two Pennsylvania locations by allowing associate teams to take calculated risks in a positive work environment.

Glean good ideas from your employees.
One of the things that I’ve been doing is to form small working teams that can address a particular issue, not try to cure world hunger but focus on a process issue, a structural issue or something dealing with our roles and responsibilities.

I like to give that team of three to six people a set of expectations but then really let them come up with the creative ideas and recommend a solution to me and the other executives so that they take ownership. Otherwise, everything’s going to be handed down from me as the CEO, and I really don’t want that.

I want people to be self-motivated to come up with ideas, and I want to give them an environment where risk-taking is OK. I really want people to take some calculated risks and to be as creative as they can in coming up with solutions that they’ll help implement.

Make mistakes and learn from them.
If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not making decisions. I don’t want people to feel that they can’t stick their neck out or try something new — we’re not going to try things that are so crazy it hurts a customer or is detrimental to our business — but I like people to test different ideas in a safe environment and not feel that they’re going to get their hand slapped.

Create a positive work environment.
You really have to create an environment where people take initiative and aren’t just coming to work to get a paycheck. They really believe that there’s a sense of belonging and that they want to be at the company.

Not every day is going to be fun — there are going to be issues that you have to deal with — but it’s an environment where people feel there’s a lot of teamwork and collaboration. Life is hard, work should be easy, and I tell my folks that all the time.

Establish clear expectations.
CEOs need to focus much more on defining clear processes and how work gets done, especially when you have multiple locations. People will come up with the best way of doing work, but if you’ve got multiple locations or business units, you can create common business processes, and then it’s much easier to plug in people if someone goes on vacation or if they’re sick.

Most companies struggle with that because they’ve got so much variability in their process. Oftentimes, that’s one of the greatest opportunities for improvement — defining clear processes and flushing the waste out of their system.

Emphasize human resources.
Many companies and CEOs work around people and don’t necessarily put the right people in the right positions. It’s important to recognize what people’s strengths are and where they can add the greatest value.

Sometimes you have to move people into new roles so they can have more enrichment and personal development. If one of our associates is not learning, it’s not fair to that person or to our company.

I don’t think anything should ever be permanent; companies should always be a work in process. We should always look to improve our business and never be satisfied.

Look for ways to reinvent yourself.
It doesn’t mean that you have to completely change everything that you do, but it could be one or two things a year that you implement, that your customers look at and say, ‘Wow, you guys really are a valuable partner, and I’m really glad we’re working with you.’

Or, if they’re not working with us, they would say, ‘I want to work with those Continental guys. They’re really doing some cool things.’

Avoid complacency.
Complacency is when executives look at their business and say, ‘This is as good as it’s going to get. I’m pretty satisfied,’ when they don’t look at the market dynamics, when they don’t continue to ask their customer what they’re looking for and what problems they need to solve.

When you become complacent, you don’t bring in new talent and fresh ideas from the outside and help elevate everybody’s game. You don’t want to walk away from your current people, but if you’re going to grow, you need to bring in fresh ideas. You need to understand that other people outside your industry have different paradigms, and they can help you look at things differently.

Redefine the markets you serve.
For a lot of companies, there are adjacent markets in which you could get involved. Do a lot of research inside and outside your industry. Ask a lot of questions of your customers and suppliers as to what’s going on in their business.

Look at all the forces that are out there. Ask your own management team and employees what they’re seeing, what ideas they have and on what other opportunities the company could be capitalizing.

Seek out new information.
I’m a voracious reader. I read a lot of business magazines, books and publications, and I talk to a lot of people outside my industry. You need to balance the time in your industry [with] seeking out mentors and contemporaries outside your industry to understand what they’re going through. It gives you fresh ideas.

Probably 75 percent of the issues that CEOs and other executives face transcend industries because the issues are common — trying to maintain low-cost operations, having efficient distribution, having a high-performance sales force, making sure that your cost of quality isn’t too high.

People get locked into their own industry, and they have blinders on, and they don’t look out and say, ‘Boy, I could learn a lot about how other industries tackle their issues.’

Establish a culture of success. I define success through our customers’ eyes, through our associates’ eyes and then through our company, in terms of profitability.

HOW TO REACH: Continental Office Environments, (614) 262-5010 or