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High achiever Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

Pamela Springer has always aimed high. Her history of success goes back to the early ’80s, when her college basketball team at Franklin University made it to the NCAA Final Four. Since then, she’s succeeded in leadership positions at a number of tech companies.

Today, she is CEO of ECNext, which builds and manages commerce stores.

“When I joined ECNext in 2003 as VP of sales, we only had four customers; we now have 55,” says Springer of the 40-employee company.

Smart Business spoke to Springer about why every company needs irritants and why CEOs need mature egos.

Q: What leadership qualities are essential?

Accountability is at the top of the list. Great leaders operate more as coaches than dictators.

They are clear with their direction and concise when it comes to explaining goals. However, they allow flexibility within parameters.

Ego maturity is also vital. Smart leaders are not infallible, but they know how to ‘fail fast.’ In other words, they are not afraid to make a mistake, learn from it and move on.

Our business, by nature, involves lots of experimentation before we discover what really works. So, if we do not periodically miss the bulls-eye, we are not operating aggressively enough.

Drawing on the expertise of others is another sign of ego maturity. I am by no means the smartest person, but I can be resourceful enough to tap into others’ strengths. I am not afraid to make decisions, but I am surrounded by people who are very capable of helping me make them.

I am not afraid to lean on others, and that takes a certain amount of humility.

Q: What mistakes does a CEO need to avoid?

One of the most costly mistakes any leader can make is not filling positions with the right people. The saying ‘hire slow, fire fast’ is so true.

You have to really evaluate the trade-offs if you bring someone on board who has never done the job before, regardless of how talented they might be. On-the-job training is expensive and risky.

Another mistake is what I call creeping logic. This involves putting effort into justifying solutions and decisions that no longer work. It is important to put your ego aside and change with the times, rather than become emotionally attached to an idea whose time has come and gone.

Cash flow is of paramount importance. You can never have enough cash. I put a lot of energy into aggressively managing and monitoring our cash flow.

Q: What advice would you give a brand new CEO?

Take a look at your constituents and evaluate who has priority. For example, we have three in our business — our employees, customers and investors. While they are all vitally important, there can only be one No. 1.

There are times when the primary focus needs to be on the employees. Perhaps the job market is tight, and our primary concern is retaining talent. There are other times when customers are the main focus. You must be able to identify the cycle you are in, determine what’s a win and know what it will take to get you to the next cycle successfully.

Q: How do you motivate and empower employees?

Motivation comes from within, but we can set the right environment to help our staff flourish. I believe every company needs irritants. By that, I mean employees who challenge the status quo.

It is dangerous when you drink too much of your own Kool-Aid. Group-think does not propel companies forward. It is dangerous to get too comfortable and complacent.

You need irritants to keep everyone sharp. I strive to communicate to my staff that it is okay to disagree. This behavior needs to be rewarded rather than punished or discouraged.

Q: What qualities do you look for when hiring?

I look for employees who not only can do the job but will do it. Many are capable and competent but lack the drive to push their limits.

The most desirable employees have prior exposure to the business we are in but are not stuck in their ways. They are open and adaptable to our company’s culture and vision.

Ego maturity is something I always evaluate when making hiring decisions. Can this person receive input? Are they going to be interested in the company’s success, or self-absorbed or self-focused?

Finally, being a team player cannot be overemphasized. If someone else comes up with a great idea, will they embrace it or react in a competitive manner?

HOW TO REACH: ECNext, (614) 682-5103 or www.ecnext.com

The Women in Business series is presented by Smart Business through the support of Fifth Third Bank.