Every moment he is on the job, Andrew Roth carries two of his best communication tools with him.
They’re called shoes.
Roth, the president of 180-employee Notre Dame College, says there is no substitute for getting out of your office and interacting with your employees as often as possible. In-person engagement of his employees is central to his communication strategy.
“You need to be accessible to the people you serve, however briefly,” Roth says. “You need to get back to them with an answer to their problems. You need to respond.”
Smart Business spoke with Roth about how you can use your feet to become a better communicator.
Q. What are some keys to effectively engaging employees?
There are two big ways of doing that. One is to stay on message, not having a flavor of the month. We’re constantly looking at our vision as building one of the finest comprehensive baccalaureate colleges in the Great Lakes region. A component of that is as a Catholic institution and as a residential college.
I said that in my inaugural speech six years ago. The focus changed and is now slightly different, but in every opportunity I get, every speech I give on campus, we come back to the vision. The message might be tweaked as times change, but the core message doesn’t change.
The second way I try to do it is every group I meet with, I try to talk to them about this in terms that would be of interest and appropriate to them. So when I’m talking to the faculty, we’re talking about education and classrooms. When I talk to the maintenance guys, I talk to them about how it’s important to maintain an institution that is worth what we charge for it, that our facilities are up to snuff. When I talk to our coaches, I talk about the need to recruit competent students, responsible campus citizens and athletes who can compete in that order.
So the answer is two parts: one, stay on mission, and two, when speaking to different constituents, articulate the mission and vision in terms that are appropriate and focused on their needs and interests.
When you know what you stand for, you don’t really have to give a lot of thought each time you’re called upon to talk. Make sure that you understand your organization’s mission and vision, so that you’ve internalized it and can articulate it. You want to internalize it to the point that you don’t really have to think about it. Then, take every opportunity, no matter where you are, to talk about the mission and vision. Every setting is a chance to reinforce the mission and vision.
Q. How can a leader take proactive steps to engage employees?
I’m a firm believer in getting out of the office and walking around among your people, because of all the clichés you hear. It is lonely at the top, and it is very easy to get caught up in your office. You can always find a ton of things to do as the organization blithely goes on around you. So you have to make it a point to get out and walk around. I walk to the coffee shop every morning and get my own coffee. I stop at different offices along the way and just kind of wander about.
There is nothing more valuable than walking around, seeing things with your own eyes and asking questions. When people give you ideas or suggestions as you walk around, give them feedback. Do whatever it is you said you would do, assuming the request is meaningful and appropriate.
That’s the great advantage of getting out of your office. It gives you a breath of reality and a realistic vision of what your people are accomplishing as well as what they’re struggling with. Sometimes, even when you’re in a position like mine, you lose perspective on how good of a job and how comprehensive of a job the people at your organization are doing. It is re-energizing for me, particularly during the school year, to walk around. It can be astonishing walking into a nursing lab to see what is going on there, going to a choir practice, the academic support center, the gym, the dining hall, and all of it gives you a tremendous sense of the breadth and scope of what you are doing. It also gives you the opportunity to have a real appreciation of some of the issues your people face. Their problems and challenges become real, not something abstract.
Q. If someone says he or she doesn’t have time to get out of the office, how would you respond?
If someone were to say to me, ‘I just don’t have the time to get out, know and understand my own organization,’ I’d ask them, ‘Are you managing your calendar or is your calendar managing you?’ Because what could be more important than knowing your own organization, what is going on and how it’s happening? I understand that there is a perspective that a leader has to have versus the perspective of someone down in the trenches, so I’m not saying that you should spend all day in the trenches. But you do have to spend some time down in the trenches so you get a sense of what those folks are up against.
You really need to take a look at your calendar, and take a good, honest look at whether every item on your calendar absolutely trumps getting to know what is going on in the organization. For most people, the answer should be self-evident.
How to reach: Notre Dame College, (216) 381-1680 or www.notredamecollege.edu
Mike Mountford continually promotes his vision and culture throughout the facility at AllAmericanDirect.com, which is the DBA name of National Programming Service LLC. Sometimes, he even finds ways to promote the culture through the most ordinary of tasks.
“It’s kind of funny, but I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to get out and talk to people is on the way to and from the restroom,” he says. “I don’t have a restroom adjacent to my office, which is good, because it means I have to go down the hall, say hello and meet people.”
Mountford, the founder and CEO of the Internet-based electronics store — which generated $30 million in 2008 revenue — says the lesson is to treat every venture outside of your office as an opportunity to engage employees and promote your culture. Even walking the halls on mundane trips like coffee and restroom breaks presents an opportunity to get in front of your people.
Smart Business spoke with Mountford about how you can use everyday opportunities to promote your vision to employees.
Get out of the office. I try to make it a point to get out and mix with all the employees several times a day. It’s key that they see you out there. They like seeing you out there. I also do individual meetings with employees. I start hammering that home with our training classes for new employees. When I speak to them, I stress to them that if they ever want to meet with me, send me an e-mail and we’ll make a time. Even if they come knock on your door and you’re busy, tell them to send you an e-mail and make a time that works for both of you.
Developing that level of familiarity, that sort of business friendships, with employees is a matter of getting them on board with what you’re trying to do. It’s easier to sell the vision and sell the story. That’s the difference. It’s the ability to communicate the vision and the purpose a lot better when people know you’re there and they can work with you, associate with you.
Make the time. You need to be sure that you’re making the time to engage people on a more personal level. It’s just like anything else in the world of business. You just make up your mind that you’re going to do it and find a way to make it happen.
Every time you’re walking the halls, it’s a chance to talk. When I’m walking down the hall just doing my everyday tasks, a lot of times, someone will stop me and ask me a question.
On top of that, if I find that I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for too long, I start to feel like I need to get out of the office. I make a reason to go and talk to someone, mixing with people and saying hello along the way. There just is no substitute for walking among the cubicles once in a while. It’s not like you want to be looking over their shoulders all the time, but you want to show everyone that you’re there and supporting them as they do their jobs.
Believe in what you are communicating. Be true to yourself. That is the primary thing to remember. Be true to the vision. If your vision is not something you believe in, your employees will know. It’s really important that you live the vision every day, that it’s something that you are working toward every day. Your employees need to know that the vision is something to which you are committed, and they need to know that you are not just making a halfhearted attempt to achieve it.
Being true to your vision means that every day, you’re trying to get a little bit closer to your goal. Goals are not met all at once — certainly not big company goals. Our goal is to make $250 million in e-commerce in the next five years, and we know we’re not going to get there next year. But one of the pieces was bringing in an e-commerce manager. So, one day, you come in and say that you need to take this step, you size up how you’re going to take that step, what resources you need, and make that step happen. You put that piece of the puzzle in place. It’s really just keeping the goals of the company in mind over the long haul and tackling them step by step.
Foster unity. You set the vision and point toward it, and get everyone in the company understanding that we’re all working together toward the same purpose. For example, I talk to every training class as they come through, try to give them a little bit of the vision, try to get them to understand that we should be on the same page. The company is here to prosper, every person is here to prosper and we should be able to put those two things together. If those things aren’t going hand in hand, if the company goals aren’t meeting your goals, you need to find out where that is going wrong and see if you can reconcile that and get that corrected.
Everybody needs a sense of purpose. You can say in our organization that we take phone calls to sell a certain product but what does that mean? You’re selling five TVs, so what does that mean? You get a bonus if you sell 10 TVs in a month, but what does that mean in the larger picture? That extra $20 bonus for selling those 10 TVs means the company could go public in five years. You’re working for the profitability of the company, and that’s the mindset you need to instill in your people.
How to reach: National Programming Service LLC (DBA AllAmericanDirect.com), (800) 249-1063 or www.allamericandirect.com
Even if you founded your company and have overseen its growth every step of the way, you can’t possibly have all the answers as you pilot your business through choppy economic waters, a competitive market and a host of other conditions that have caused more than a few experienced business leaders to lose some sleep.
It’s a lesson Michael Carbone has taken to heart. The regional president of TD Bank’s metro Philadelphia market has placed a strong emphasis on identifying, grooming and promoting new managers and executives in his 4,500-employee division of TD Bank, a banking giant that employs more than 23,000 people in the U.S.
Carbone has a team of six direct reports, who in turn oversee scores of managers working in the levels beneath them. He says his leadership team has had a mostly harmonious existence, working through challenges and adhering to the principles that have built the company. But building and maintaining a cohesive team is a constant project, and Carbone is always on the lookout for construction material in the form of new recruits.
“You have to have leaders who are academically smart but also have good street smarts and common sense,” Carbone says. “You need people who are willing to make a decision, but if it doesn’t feel right or sound right, are willing to bump it up to the next level and ask for help. The people who are the best leaders are the people who aren’t afraid to acknowledge that they could use a hand with something, reaching out to both superiors and peers for help in a given situation.”
Building those kinds of leaders takes a keen eye for talent and management potential and an ability to cultivate a collaborative, team-focused mentality in your people.
Build a team
The first step in Carbone’s team-building path is to identify goals. Before you can find people who can help you reach your goals, you need to identify what those goals are.
At TD Bank, the goal is to build a continuously growing company with a reputation for excellent customer service. All decisions that cascade down from the head management team are based on those foundational principles. From there, you have to identify what characteristics you want in team members.
“First off, establish what are the goals and objectives of the company,” Carbone says. “Second, you want your core group of people to have a positive, can-do attitude and be willing to figure things out without negativity creeping in. You want feedback and you want constant communication. You don’t want procrastination. You want visions done, and you want to execute on them, and you want people who can make those decisions and execute on that plan. If you can do those things, you will have a successful business and a successful team.”
To begin building the team, you need to build a pipeline of management candidates. Carbone keeps an eye on candidates both inside and outside the TD Bank organization. You can’t have control over the development of people outside your organization, so all you can really do is stay connected to the industry grapevine and keep yourself in the loop with regard to the best management candidates.
Internal candidates provide a much better opportunity for growth and molding in the ways of your company. At TD Bank, Carbone and his core management team assess the management potential of internal candidates and help construct career path programs for the most viable ones.
“Our company is very good at developing career paths for people,” Carbone says. “We go through a review process and career planning for people. We look at what your aspirations are, where do you want to be, and we will train them based on the assessment of their skills and try to get them to a place where they want to be.”
Internal candidates will exhibit initiative and a desire to move up and will demonstrate the skill set to perform and produce at an executive level. Carbone says that skill set can vary among organizations, but it is a constant characteristic of future managers.
“Saying you want something is one thing, but are they willing to sacrifice and pay the price and do the things they need to do to move up?” he says.
Even if you feel comfortable with your leadership team, you can’t allow yourself to become too comfortable. Market competition and an uncertain economy can combine to create upheaval, and today’s firmly entrenched young executive can become tomorrow’s open position.
“You always need to have a pipeline,” Carbone says. “You’re always looking at the worst-case scenario. If somebody were to leave, who steps into that role? If you don’t develop a plan to groom new leaders, chances are you’re not going to make the best decisions.
“If I get struck by a bus, I don’t want to leave this company in a lurch. There has to be somebody who can step in. I’m fortunate, because I have several people who I think could step into my role. But that’s also the challenge I pose to my leadership team: If you got hit by a bus, who would step in for you? That is part of the development of leaders, that they can identify the people who could step in for them.”
Give leaders responsibility
Once you have put new managers and executives in place, you need to give them the tools to perform their jobs. At TD Bank, one of those tools is autonomy.
Managers still have to make plans and decisions that fall in line with the overall goals and objectives of the company, but how they approach achieving those objectives falls largely into the hands of the individual leader.
Carbone says it is one of the essential ingredients in engaging team members.
“When you’re talking to them, you explain to them what you’re trying to accomplish and you ask them for feedback on what they would do, how they would handle this, what are some of their ideas,” he says. “If you do that, immediately the person becomes engaged. They now feel like part of the process. That is opposed to telling someone ‘OK, here is what I need you to do, do it and report back to me on your progress.’ That is not good leadership. That is a dictatorship.”
You need to create a balance between giving managers freedom and structure. To do that, you need to continuously find opportunities for dialogue, both on a one-to-one basis and in a group setting.
Through discussions and dialogue, Carbone attempts to steer the decision-making process just enough to ensure that the company goals aren’t lost in the process. Beyond that, he lets his people flex their creative muscles.
“What you need as a leader is to get Joe or Cathy or whoever into a room and tell them, ‘I need your ideas and I need your thoughts. Why don’t you go over this and get back to me with some possible solutions,’” Carbone says. “Then, you have a dialogue on how to go about it. They’re definitely going to feel more engaged and they’re going to work with more freedom in their thought process.
“If you just dictate to people, they’re not going to feel good about it. Mostly, they’re just going to feel the pressure to get something done. If you create that kind of atmosphere, you’re not going to get the most thought-provoking responses. You’re going to get what they think they need to tell you, what they think you want to hear. I don’t want that. I want honesty from people. Even if it’s not necessarily the route I’d take to a given solution, I want to hear other people’s ideas and opinions.”
If you’re used to your own specific approach to ideas and problem solving, it might be difficult to accept other approaches. But Carbone says you need to trust your people and trust your hiring process.
“First and foremost, you’re not going to give autonomy to just anybody,” he says. “You’re going to give autonomy to people you have faith and confidence in, people who you know have grown from some of the decisions in the past, people who you know wouldn’t make a decision they’re unsure of without consulting people further up the ladder. If you’ve done this right, people should earn that level of responsibility over time. It’s earned; it’s not just something you hand out.”
Trust is a two-way street. You need to trust your managers to seek out help on difficult decisions, but they need to trust that you won’t yank authority away from them the instant you become uncomfortable with something they do. That is a recipe for destroying morale.
Carbone says it comes back to the fact that you don’t have all the answers, your way probably isn’t the only correct way, and you should be willing to admit that, even though you’re in the company’s top spot, you’re still just a cog in the machine.
“Someone might ask me, ‘What do your people think if you don’t have all the answers?’ My answer is, ‘What if I give my people the wrong answer because I really don’t know and I didn’t take the time to find the right answer?’ You can’t let ego get in the way of doing what is best for your people or your company.”
Deal with discord
By giving people the autonomy to come up with their own decision-making processes and solutions, you also give them the opportunity to disagree with each other.
Differing opinions can pave the way for active dialogue and ultimately better solutions to the challenges your company faces, but sometimes disagreements can become disruptive or even destructive, so you have to have a method for dealing with it.
Consensus is always the best outcome, and after that, compromise. But when team members dig in their heels and won’t budge from a position, you might need to get involved on a deeper level.
“You’re always going to have people who don’t buy in to what you are saying, and you have to manage through it,” Carbone says. “That’s only going to make you a better manager to have gone through that. I recently had a conversation with one of my market presidents who was having trouble getting her message through to maybe one or two people on her team. We sat and talked about what we could do, and sometimes you find out that maybe you need to change a team member. We don’t want to have a person who isn’t buying in to what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Generally, your managers’ attitudes will be an indicator of whether they’re willing to work as part of a team or whether they’re fixated on their own ideas.
“You’re going to have problems if you have someone who always wants to dig in, doesn’t want to find different ways to work through something and you always find yourself at a point where that person is butting heads,” Carbone says. “If you run into problems like that, one, it stays in-house, and two, you get everyone into a room and work it out. You set the ground rules right away. It’s OK to have a difference of opinion, but it’s not OK if your opinion has to be the right opinion.
“We haven’t had a lot of scenarios like that because our people recognize that it’s good to have differences of opinion. If you don’t, that means no one is thinking independently. But when you do have those situations, you get everyone into a room, talk about all sides of the issue and come up with the best possible solution for the goals and objectives of the company. If you can do that, most of the time you’re going to be able to solve the problem.”
How to reach: TD Bank, (888) 751-9000 or www.tdbank.com
Constructing your company isn’t all that different from constructing a building to house your company: You need to begin with a strong foundation.
At The Cimarron Group, that is exactly what Bob Farina strives to do.
The co-founder, owner and CEO of the marketing and advertising firm — which generated more than $30 million in revenue in 2008 — says a strong foundation starts with the principles set by the head of the company. A leader must give employees the resources to perform their jobs, a sense of purpose within the organization and mediums through which they can communicate their thoughts and concerns.
“You have to believe in the team, trust them to do what is necessary for success, and you have to give them the support and the resources to get the job done,” Farina says. “I like to give people an idea of what the goals are and let them figure out the best ways to accomplish it.”
Smart Business spoke with Farina about how you can lay a foundation that supports your employees.
Get your people involved. The more people are invested in a plan, the more they put their heart and soul into it, the better the results will be. It is really important to be decisive. I tell my staff that you may not always get the answer that you like, but you’ll get an answer immediately. Leading a person to not have an answer or to just sit around and wait for something is never helpful.
Simply stated, it’s communication. You have to sit down and talk to them. You have to listen to them. It’s not a matter of telling. It’s a matter of describing your ideas, what the goals are and working with them to get there. If you just dictate things, people don’t care. You have to get them involved.
Face-to-face communication is the most important form. I walk the floors twice a day. I see people and talk to them. I ask them how projects are going, are there any issues, are they getting enough support, are they getting enough help. It is always good to get their opinions on things. You don’t always have to agree with them, but you do have to listen. As I said, if you listen to them, they become more invested.
Make communication a dialogue. Don’t lecture your employees when you communicate. Always engage your employees in dialogue and solicit feedback from them. Listen to what people have to say. Good ideas sometimes come from the most unlikely places. When you talk to people, collect your thoughts, and it’s always important to be sure that when you talk to people, that they understand what you’re talking about, that they understand what you are saying. Sometimes you can shortcut something in your head, you think the message is clear, but they don’t get it. In a face-to-face dialogue, you can sit down, look at people’s faces and tell whether or not they are understanding something.
A lot of my ability to read people comes from 30 years of experience. I know what is required to get the job done in many cases. If someone is sitting around, they’re at a roadblock and can’t get to where they need to be, you know there is a problem. That’s when you sit down and ask them what is the problem. It all comes back to good communication, asking people what they need to get the job done.
If you ask them, listen to what they have to say and respond to them, they start to build trust. If you give them the tools they need, they don’t feel like they’re out there floundering somewhere. They know that they’re supported and that they can trust you, which is really what it’s all about.
We have regular technology meetings here at the company, where every division comes in, sits down and tells us what they need on a weekly basis. So we engage in that kind of dialogue on a regular basis. We look at the projects and work that is coming in and we come right out and ask them if they have the resources they need. So we try to stay a step ahead of them.
Set a positive example. Focusing employees on your company goals starts with a strong corporate culture. When you get people to understand what the goals are and you ask them to participate and you get them invested in it, they’ll come along with it. If they have a problem, they’ll tell you, but they’ll come along with it. If we’re going to do something, I’m going to go around and tell everyone exactly what we’re doing and why I’m doing it and what the benefit to them is, how they will become part of something bigger and better. When we successfully launched the agency, I had a party here and thanked our entire staff for the success of traffic.
When people feel like they’ve contributed and they’re being thanked for it, they’ll do it again. Public acknowledgement is a great motivator. We have ways that we bonus people, but when someone is singled out in front of their peers, when their work and success is acknowledged, that is probably the best motivator. I think everybody likes to feel like they’ve contributed to the success of something. When their supervisor or boss or the owner of the company singles them out, it makes them feel good. Great motivation techniques really add to someone’s personal feeling of accomplishment.
How to reach: The Cimarron Group, (323) 337-0300 or www.cimarrongroup.com
The old adage says an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In business, an ounce of prevention saves a lot of headaches and lost productivity later on. Especially when it comes to employees.
It’s a concept that Dr. Jim Spahn has taken to heart and tried to live every day at EHOB Inc., a health care products provider that generated $20 million in revenue last year.
Spahn believes that daily engagement of employees, learning their ambitions, likes and dislikes, and what makes them tick, is an effective way to not only build meaningful, productive relationships with his co-workers but also stave off potential problems and conflicts at the pass.
“We show our people respect,” says Spahn, EHOB’s founder and CEO. “We listen to them, we know them, we talk to them. It’s a friendly, nonadversarial environment. We have controversies, but we don’t tolerate the inside fighting and such. It’s the culture that keeps people happy.”
Smart Business spoke with Spahn about how you can stay involved with your employees.
Listen first. The biggest thing is to take time and go listen to your employees. I’m trained as the physician, and it might be kind of the same as bedside manners. Take your time, sit down, listen to them, get to know them, but don’t just become one of them. You’ll have to make tough decisions, but take the time to tell them when things are going good. And when things are going bad, you ask for their help. It’s surprising how everybody pitches in. If a machine goes down, I’ve never had anybody tell me that they have to go home. Everybody is willing to stay around and do whatever is necessary to get stuff done.
It’s kind of like preventative medicine. If you take the time upfront, you save a lot of time at the end. So you make a point of going around, walking the floor, asking everybody how it’s going, asking them if it’s going all right. You can sit down and talk with them, as long as you don’t talk too much. Obviously, you still have to get work done. But you just act like you’re not in a hurry, talk to people and listen to them, smile when you pass them.
To wait until you have chaos on the floor or in the business to try to correct the problem is probably about 20 to 30 times more time-consuming than being preventive, talking with them upfront and catching a problem before it gets too far.
To put it more simply, it’s good time management. You can accomplish a lot if you just spend 5 percent of your time going around talking to people. That can save you a lot of grief down the road.
Focus on what you can do. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. You don’t have to get personal when you have an opinionated discussion. That is to a great degree what our culture is, working together and getting along, even if there are situations where you disagree. You can disagree, but don’t let it get to the point where the interaction becomes adversarial. You do it with respect, and if respect isn’t occurring, maybe you need to ask people to leave, because if people start getting personal, that can be very disruptive in a business.
Stick to the facts of what you are talking about. Stick to what is happening and how you can help the situation. We give people chances to correct themselves, talk it out, give them action plans for correction. From there, a lot of people decide if that is what they want. People do sometimes leave on that basis, but at least they know why they’re leaving. You have your rules to enforce.
You have to know what the issue is. Really, it’s Problem Solving 101. Here is the problem. Let’s understand it first, then make the solution to it. A lot of people will jump from the problem to what their personal solution is. But if you don’t understand the whole thing, that is a very one-sided approach. What we say is that everybody has their opportunity to discuss either the good or bad in a situation as it is occurring. Once it is evaluated, only then do we go toward making a solution. Hopefully that solution will benefit both parties.
Practice problem solving. People understand 95 to 98 percent of the concepts, rules and culture of the company. You don’t have to have a whole lot of people in the room when you’re discussing problem solving, but we’ve discovered that when there is a conflict between two employees, be it high or low on the ladder, you need to have a third party talk to them, and ultimately, you have to get everybody into a room. It doesn’t have to involve a ton of people, but ultimately, you need to have the involvement of a third party that is willing to sit and listen. Then you have to have someone who has the ability to make the decision of what is right and wrong, so that if people can’t comply or won’t comply, you can take corrective action to make sure people on both sides understand that this conflict can’t and won’t continue.
Sometimes, both people in the conflict decide to leave the organization. But at least you know they had a chance to talk about things.
Take early steps. Another thing is you try to recognize problems that could lead to conflict early on. We do a lot of counseling and helping people get stuff done as they might be working through stuff in their personal lives. That is just doing the right thing. Fortunately, we haven’t had a whole bunch of those issues. We don’t have a ton of instances where people are leaving or being asked to leave. So a lot of it gets resolved way before it gets to the level of a serious problem, which is key.
How to reach: EHOB Inc., (317) 972-4600 or www.ehob.com
Warren Harris has seen a lot of change in more than 20 years with Tata Technologies, much of it coming within the last four years. Harris, the president and chief operating officer, was among those charged with first piecing together a newly combined company in 2005 and then rebranding it under the Tata name.
That’s two major changes in less than half a decade. It’s required a lot of work on the part of Harris and the company’s other leaders, particularly in the area of communication — both outgoing and incoming.
“Over the last three and a half years, what we’ve learned is that it is very important to have long antennae that stretch into the organization,” Harris says. “They allow you to pick up the issues, challenges and feelings of the employees and the various teams that you have assembled throughout the organization. In terms of messaging and communications, it has been just as important for me to listen and to collect input as it has been to package communications and deliver them.”
If you don’t communicate during a time of change, both in terms of disclosure and seeking feedback, your culture will suffer and you risk allowing your company to lose its focus on your mission and core values.
Rebranding, mergers, acquisitions and other foundation-level changes can have many advantages from the standpoint of resources, financial clout, culture and a host of other variables. But it doesn’t make the process any easier to endure.
It’s something Harris has had to continually deal with as Tata Technologies has continued to evolve. Here’s what he learned along the way.Manage change from the top
Any kind of organizational transition is easier with buy-in at all levels of the company. In order to get buy-in from the employees on the front lines, you and your management team need to come up with a plan that appeals to employees logically and gives them some form of incentive for buying in.
At Tata Technologies — the $300 million U.S.-based arm of Singapore-headquartered business conglomerate Tata — reasoning and incentives were two of the first elements Harris helped put in place before presenting the 2005 acquisition strategy to employees.
“As part of the change management, we really looked at all distinct things,” Harris says. “One is explaining the rationale. Two is ensuring that the appropriate incentives are in place. Three, we try to make sure that competency is there to live up to the expectations. Four, we try to position and establish role models and objectives for the things that we’re trying to put in place.
“If we look at those four groups, I personally spent a lot of time communicating the rationale, being the cheerleader for the change and reinforcing the ambitions of the organization. You need to spend a lot of time on the rationale, communicating why you believe the change is necessary and why you believe it’s important for the market and, by association, your future success.”
Incentives were tied to a balanced scorecard program instituted with the help of outside consultants, which helped Tata Technologies’ leaders measure progress against set objectives. All executive compensation was awarded through the scorecard system.
The competency objective was tied to an educational support initiative, which helped coach people within the company to become example setters and role models for the acquisition initiative. Those people were then strategically placed within the Tata Technologies structure to keep fertilizing the seeds initially sowed throughout the company by Harris and his leadership team.
“That’s been the case particularly in areas of the business we’re looking to build,” Harris says. “We’ve brought in a lot of educational support from the outside, working with outside companies. When we were able to jettison some of the conscripts in the early part of the two companies coming together, we were able to backfill those positions with people who have the right type of capabilities and are committed to what we are trying to achieve.”
Once the initial communication strategy is rolled out, the burden falls on you to keep the communication cascading. You need to constantly reinforce your initial messages, or the change culture you’ve planned for will never grow.
Harris says the daily and weekly reinforcements have to be delivered in an easily digested form so the message doesn’t become garbled or lost as it cascades through the ranks.
“You need to continue to focus on your values and what you stand for as a company,” he says. “In our communications, we tell everyone that we are committed to building one company, committed to positioning the parochial interests of the different regional organizations as secondary to the interests of the organization as a whole. We are a services organization, so, of course, exceeding customer expectations is a critical success factor for us.
“I will talk about the nuances associated with the different messages in different regions when I visit them, but there is never an attempt to confuse or try to distract the message at all.”Cascade communication
If you run a large organization such as Tata Technologies, daily communication might not be as simple as walking the halls or pulling people aside for spontaneous chats. With a 4,200-employee worldwide presence, Harris’ communication methods are more formalized than might be necessary for a smaller company. But Harris says formalized communication methods, in any form, can help a company through a transitional period.
After the acquisition, Harris says, “I spent my life on a plane.” He traveled the world visiting Tata Technologies’ locations, getting a personal feel for the questions and concerns employees had about the acquisition. In the ensuing years, he’s kept the communication pace through a quarterly video he produces, which all regional managers must play for their employees. After playing the video, which updates employees on the progress of the company and any alterations in goals, the regional managers are asked to communicate Harris’ message in the context of what it means for that particular region.
As your company grows and changes, so will the communication needs of employees. Harris says you need to develop a communications strategy that is scalable with growth, and in order to do that, you have to put the pieces in place soon after you’ve announced a major change.
“What I would suggest is that you need to emphasize communication early on in the process,” he says. “That is one of the things we did. We spent a lot of executive time on it. We made sure the processes were formalized and understood. We made sure the processes that support communication are formalized, and we measured the effectiveness of communication forums.
“The thing to remember is that it is first about conditioning the importance of communication. The second thing to remember is that you need to make sure you have institutionalized processes. Third, surround those processes with metrics and make sure you have appropriate feedback loops.”Listen to feedback
When you’re communicating before and immediately after a major companywide change, you’re probably trying to disseminate a large amount of information and keep it in front of people. It’s an environment that doesn’t offer many opportunities for listening to your employees.
But Harris says it’s a necessity. If you don’t set up channels for employee feedback and listen to what others in the company are saying, you might miss a correctable problem in its early stages. If you miss a problem early, it will find you later and probably in a far more menacing form.
The amount of employee feedback you receive goes hand in hand with your willingness to listen to feedback, seriously consider it and implement the ideas that fit your overall goals. If you don’t use the feedback you get, at some point you won’t get any more.
Again, it’s a process that starts in your office.
“One, you need to consistently communicate the importance of employees having ownership over what you are trying to accomplish,” he says. “You do that through giving them a feeling of attachment to objectives, by showing them how they are helping the company reach its goals.
“You also need to be critical and be complimentary when necessary, which is why we’ve really reached out to everyone and communicated our desire for feedback. The other important element is that when you get feedback, you hold yourself accountable for doing something about it. How we do that is that in all of our quarterly communication sessions, our executives are responsible for communicating progress against the feedback they receive directly. That is part of the agenda for every session we hold each quarter.”
Giving employees a voice within the organization is a critical element in stimulating their interest in the change process. Employees are your company’s face to your customers, so if they are engaged, the picture painted for your customers will become far brighter than if employees are asked to follow orders and otherwise left in the dark.
“People want to earn money, but they also want to be involved in exciting objectives and initiatives. They want to be a part of something meaningful within the industry,” Harris says. “We want to get our employees to think of the big picture. There is no question that big-picture thinking is critical to our objectives as a company. When we rebranded the company earlier this year, the whole exercise was really focused on exciting our employees about what we were trying to build — not just in the context of the individual business units or the customers they are supporting, but in the context of the overall market we are looking to serve.”
Between 75 and 80 percent of the rebranding budget was spent on internal rollout. Harris says it sent a message to employees that, just like the acquisition scenario of four years ago, their buy-in on the rebranding initiative was essential.
“A lot of it goes back to having those antennae within the organization,” he says. “Developing those presences really allows you to engage people and tap into what is going on in the different areas of the organization. And there are many ways to do that. I make it a point as I go through our different geographies to have many town-hall meetings. I spend a lot of time on the road with different business units, different lunch and dinner meetings. There isn’t one particular playbook to follow. It’s a collection of things that aggregate up, providing those eyes and ears within the organization.”
How to reach: Tata Technologies, (248) 426-1482 or www.tatatechnologies.com
Two things immediately stood out to him: The organization had a lot of talented employees, but management was unable to leverage that talent to improve the organization.
“When I came here, I sort of did my assessment after 45 days, and what I saw was a group of employees that felt unempowered at all levels,” Covert says. “I saw that I had good people here who believed in what they were doing individually but not necessarily as a team.”
Palomar Pomerado was suffering from a lack of a central, unifying focus. Though the system had a stated mission to provide its patients with the best possible service, it was not a concept that drove employees to raise their collective performance each day.
In short, Covert had a good organizational philosophy and good employees, but the communication aspect of the organization needed work.
“That was our challenge moving forward — to get people to believe in themselves by focusing on a vision and a mission,” he says. “Early on, I tested out whether people knew our mission and vision, from the board, to the medical staff, to employees, to community groups associated with us. Truthfully, everyone was sort of all over the map, and when I started down this journey, I talked to our employees every three weeks about our vision and mission. I wanted to make it come alive — what is our purpose, and what values do we want to represent in the organization.”
But refocusing the health system was about more than just Covert speaking to employees every few weeks. It involved a great deal of brainstorming, asking questions, soliciting input from employees and putting their ideas into action. Once that was put into place, continuous rounds of mission and vision reinforcement from management became a top priority to make sure the more focused vision and mission stuck.
Ask employees what they want
Covert says that there are few things more powerful to employees than to see their words integrated into the company’s vision and mission statement. With that in mind, Covert engaged employees by soliciting their feedback, gaining their perspectives on what the vision and mission meant and how it should be interpreted moving forward.
Covert engaged his 3,800 employees in small groups, and on a grassroots level, they began to develop a picture of how they viewed and interpreted the vision.
In each meeting, Covert made it a point to not discuss the feedback derived from other meetings, avoiding the possibility that the power of suggestion could influence the opinions of his current audience. By meeting with small groups, he was able to view trends as they developed.
“For example, we spent a lot of time asking our staff what should be done if we’re recruiting people into this organization — what should we be looking for with regard to individuals,” Covert says. “The same five or six things kept popping out all the time. Our people kept talking about wanting people like themselves who are caring and compassionate. They talk about having people here who want to be here and do a good job, not people who you’d have to help carry. They wanted people who believed in the concepts of teamwork and trust pulling together. They wanted people who valued each other.”
After numerous sessions, Covert and his leadership team met with Palomar Pomerado’s medical staff leadership and board of directors and began to develop a plan for communicating the mission and values. Based on the positive response to Covert’s meetings, management made it a priority to continue engaging employees in a dialogue about the vision, mission and culture of the organization.
Covert says that listening is, in many cases, a more critical communication tool than speaking.
“You have to actually walk the talk, be able and willing to listen to people’s ideas,” he says. “Bottom line, in order for people to listen to you, they have to know that you are willing to listen to them. That is what builds trust and a willingness to work with each other. Walking that talk starts from you and your people at the top. When people see you communicating and listening, that creates the right kind of environment throughout the organization.
“We have a program here that we do for all of our new leaders as part of their on-boarding process. We talk about five or six things related to communicating the right way. We talk about modeling the right kind of behavior. We talk about inspiring others, about challenging the process, about enabling others to act and encouraging the heart. That is what good leadership is about. Power shouldn’t be controlled; power should be shared.”
In a short period of time, you’ll likely find out who is willing to be held accountable as a leader and who isn’t.
“What you find is that those who are not comfortable with that kind of leadership style do one of two things,” Covert says. “One, they hunker down, or two, they end up leaving the organization.
“I’m a big believer in treating people as adults. If you function as adults, if you involve them in the management of the organization, you will be successful. I do not believe that the higher a decision is made means a better quality of decision, especially when it comes to the operations of the organization. That might be true for strategy in an organization but not when it comes to operations. You get out of the way of your staff, you give them that opportunity, and they’ll do a great job if they understand your mission, vision and what you’re all about.”
Reinforce the message
As the leader of your organization, you want your vision and mission to become items that can remain in place and continue to serve as guiding principles after your departure. Making that happen takes reinforcement on a daily and weekly basis, even after you believe the vision and mission have taken root with your employees.
“You have to understand that you want your organization to keep growing whether you’re run over by a bus or not,” Covert says. “I don’t want my people to have confidence in Michael Covert. I want them to have confidence in themselves, confidence that they’re going to achieve our vision no matter what. When you can get an organization to that point, that is when you can become very successful.”
A key element of reinforcement is recognition. Many companies recognize the top sales performers and others who drive profits, but Covert says you should make it a point to recognize those who continue to help drive your vision, your values and your culture.
At Palomar Pomerado, employees are recognized for their service to patients and their service to each other. One employee-developed program, “Cause for Applause,” allows employees to write a note to Covert about a co-worker who has helped them. Once he gets the card, Covert writes a personalized thank you and it goes down to a supervisor who can recognize and celebrate both the nominator and nominee.
“You do need to have formal awards to recognize people for these kinds of contributions,” Covert says.
And recognition needs to have specific qualities in order for it to serve as a reinforcement mechanism for an organization’s mission and values.
“Recognition has to be meaningful to the staff,” Covert says. “Recognition doesn’t mean what we in management think it means. It’s a lot like mentorship. It needs to be frequent, accu
rate, specific and timely. You need to reward people at the time when good things occur. Maybe you can still give someone an award six months later and it will still mean something, but it won’t have the same effect.
“When you’re putting together an awards or recognition program, you need to have some large awards that people can shoot for, but you also need to remember to give them smaller awards that are meaningful to your people in areas in which they work.”
Reinforcing the mission of a company doesn’t entirely fall on the shoulders of the person at the top. Covert relies on his direct reports and managers farther down the ladder to keep reinforcing the messages that start in his office. Covert expects each manager at Palomar Pomerado to sit down with his or her respective staffs in regular discussion meetings.
“This type of communication happens at each level of the organization,” he says. “We’ll do our own employee engagement activities to test where we are, and then we have the expectation of our managers to sit down with the people on their staffs, talk about the issues they have and how management can go about supporting their efforts to do their jobs better. That happens on a week-to-week, month-to-month basis.”
The meetings are supplemented by periodic electronic communication via the health system’s intranet.
“Each week, we’ll have on our intranet the ability to communicate via a blog,” Covert says. “People can use that to come back to us with issues and ideas. But our managers are also meeting with our people face to face on their daily rounds. I’m meeting with people in the town halls that I put on. So keeping those messages about mission and vision in front of people comes back to being responsive to them and their questions and input regarding communication issues.”
Covert’s approach to maintaining the vision and mission for Palomar Pomerado has helped the health system grow in spite of the struggling economy. The system generated $1.4 billion in gross revenue in 2008, up from $895 million in 2004.
Covert says that, at the end of the day, building an organization focused on a uniform mission, vision and set of values and keeping that focus over the long haul is hard work. But the ability to do so is a common quality shared by many successful executives. Ultimately, success is driven by the organization, not the people leading it.
“General Electric was successful long before Jack Welch,” Covert says. “He did things to help them become better, but a lot of success comes from the inherent workings of the organization. We’re building a new hospital with all kinds of cutting-edge facilities and equipment, but when I meet with my staff, I remind them that building new facilities might be helpful, but it’s like plastic surgery. It doesn’t necessarily make you better for any length of time.
“In the end, it’s all about the people. It’s about passing along your vision, mission and values every day. That’s what will make the difference.”
How to reach: Palomar Pomerado Health, www.pph.org
As the founder of Angie’s List, Angie Hicks not only runs her own business, she gains valuable insight into how other leaders run their businesses.
Hicks, who co-founded Angie’s List in 1995, has grown her company from a Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood to an Indianapolis-based nationwide forum that provides reviews on consumer services. About 750,000 consumers use the information collected by the company, which generated $36 million in 2008 revenue.
Along the way, Hicks has learned that there are some common themes among successful businesses that consistently provide good service for their customers. Namely, successful businesses stay focused and communicate well. Those qualities are even more critical in light of the current economic downturn.
“Now is really the time to stay laser-focused on your core business, really understand it and grow it,” Hicks says. “That comes from direction at the top of the organization, and that needs to move down as you communicate with your employees.”
Smart Business spoke with Hicks about basic business principles and how they can help you succeed in spite of the economy.
Connect with your customers. The key here is to really keep in touch with your customers, stay abreast of all the metrics in your business. One of the things we’ve heard a lot from the service writers on the list is that now is a time to really improve your game on customer service. It’s something that customers are looking for.
Work with your customers on payment terms and things like that. The service companies on our list have been doing things like that to improve receivables. It’s really kind of homing in and focusing on your core business. This is a time to really go back to basics. What I always advise people to do is make promises that you can live up to. If in a typical turnaround time, you promise to make a callback within 24 hours or less, do that. Always make sure you can exceed their expectations. That will certainly win you favor with your customers. You also need to be in constant conversations with your customers to be sure that they’re satisfied with the project that you’re doing for them. Any time you can focus on a project like that is a time that you can really hit a home run with regard to customer service.
Don’t complicate things. One of the things that is challenging when running a business is staying focused on your core capabilities. A common theme you hear is don’t drown in a sea of opportunities when it comes to directions you can take your business, especially in an economy like this. You need to stay focused as a business. Employees need to clearly understand the key objectives of the business and where you want to take it at this point in time.
One of the biggest factors in success goes back to having a clear understanding of your business, the metrics and how it works. You have to be very rigorous in how you’re marketing, the expense side of the business, understanding receivables and understanding all of those basics that are so important in a business. It may not seem as important in good times, but as the economy has slowed down, you quickly see that the difference between companies that are struggling and companies that aren’t struggling is the attention paid to those details.
Build a foundation of communication. The foundation for good communication with employees needs to happen in the good times, too. You can take action when times are tough right now, kind of right the ship, but having a culture where you’re talking to employees regularly, sharing the direction of the organization and encouraging feedback, it’s going to help your business continually improve. That’s a habit that will carry over and help you during difficult times, as well.
Share as much as you can. That helps front-line people understand why decisions are being made. If they don’t understand why decisions are being made, sometimes the interpretation and implementation can be fuzzy. Employees understand what is going on with the economy and how it affects them, and it’s good to share with them what steps the company is taking to focus on the core competencies of the business, why it’s important, so they’ll be much more motivated to accomplish those goals.
How you communicate depends on the size of your company. It might be that they have a morning meeting before they head out for the day, they can gather all in one room. That’s great, because they can ask questions. That has to be part of the culture — can I walk up to someone and ask questions. That is as important as being able to ask questions in a meeting setting.
That is an aspect of the culture that you have to work hard at creating. There are several ways we do that here. Management is very approachable. We sit in cubes just like everyone else sits in cubes. We don’t have offices. We also interact with all of the employees regularly, including a suggestion box, regular meetings where they can ask questions.
You need a philosophy in which every employee has a right to ask a question and get a real answer. Then, when you get suggestions, you have to give feedback on that. It can’t just be a suggestion that goes unanswered. If you do that, it will hurt the culture because employees will think their efforts are futile. You need to offer feedback, even if it’s a suggestion you can’t really implement. You reinforce that through your actions. It’s how you demonstrate it, how you receive that feedback and what you do with it. If you don’t pay attention to it and you don’t act on it, it won’t work. You can talk about being a company that has an open-door policy, but if you’re not doing anything with it, it won’t sustain itself.
How to reach: Angie’s List, (888) 944-5478 or www.angieslist.com
No matter the industry you’re in, no matter your management style, advancing technology is one of the unavoidable truths of 21st century business.
It’s a fact that Lonnie Coleman has met directly. The president of mechanical contractor Coleman Spohn Corp. has recognized the need for an educated work force that is able to adapt to new technology and changing times.
“As a leader, it is up to me to make sure our membership stays abreast and educated on the new technology to make sure that their company stays viable,” says Coleman, also the owner and founder of Coleman Spohn, which generated $23 million in 2008 revenue.
Coleman has placed an emphasis on both recruiting skilled younger employees and retraining older employees, gaining a mix of technological savvy and veteran experience.
Smart Business spoke with Coleman about how you can position your company to adapt for the future.
Q. What advice would you give about building an adaptable company?
One of the things is you’re always going to have to look at your work force and your people. General Electric, every year, they’ll look at their work force and they’ll remove the lowest 10 percent from the organization, which keeps them stronger moving forward in future years. I can’t say that we have that luxury to do that, but we have to constantly look for new talent to come into the industry, because as things change, you have to change, as well, and you want to have the type of talent that is going to help in growing your business. You want to have the type of talent that will get you to that next level.
And the talent is there. A lot of times, those of us in leadership positions, we get comfortable with the people we have; we’ve been in business with them for 30 or 40 years, they’ve helped the organization grow. But, at the same time, if you don’t look at new people with new ideas, you can become stale, and that’s what you don’t want to have happen.
Once upon a time, 30 years ago, when I started in business, there were no fax machines, no cell phones, you didn’t have laptops or BlackBerrys, you didn’t have the virtual office. Today, you have that. At one time, you could get away by not having all of these things. Today, you need them all and you need more if you want to keep your company viable and sustainable.
Q. How can you find and attract people who have new perspectives to your company?
You can go through career fairs, but in the mechanical contracting industry, we have created student chapters across the United States. Right now, we have about 49 chapters in colleges and universities throughout the country. We look at our student chapters as our apprenticeship programs for management, just as pipefitters or other forces in the field have their apprenticeship programs. In our apprenticeship programs, you have project managers, construction managers, mechanical engineers, civil engineers, IT personnel that are going through these programs. That’s what we’re looking at. By creating these student chapters, we’re trying to train the work force in our industry for the future.
One of the other things we do in regard to education is we’ll reimburse students for their college classes that help them develop skills that will help grow and sustain our business. If there is a need for something, we’ll put it out there for our staff if someone is willing to go take the class and invest the time in the program; we’ll pay for it. We try to make education available.
Q. Why is education so critical to success in business?
If you’re not educating in the new ways of business, you and your business can become stale and stagnant, and then who is going to want to work with you? If you’re not abreast of the changes in the industry and you’re not willing to move the company to the next level, you are setting yourself up for trouble. For instance, once upon a time, we did estimating by hand, now it’s done electronically. If you’re still out there doing estimating by hand, how many projects are you going to be able to accomplish when competing against the guy who is doing everything electronically? You are going to fall so far behind, it would be ridiculous. That’s why keeping up with education is so important.
Q. Does a work force ultimately have to get younger to keep up with cutting-edge skills?
The work force doesn’t have to necessarily get younger. What happens with the younger work force is they’re bringing certain skill sets to the table that are going to help your company as you try to move forward and sustain yourself. But the older worker doesn’t get kicked to the curb in the process. You can offer the older worker opportunities to go and get trained in the new technologies, as well. And if they’re willing to embrace that change, there is a spot for them.
Another thing you can do is take the older worker and put them in a position where they mentor the younger worker. That is a mutually beneficial relationship, because the younger worker might have the technical expertise, but hands-on, he might be lacking. So you put the two people together, and by doing that, [you] create a powerful force within a company.
How to reach: Coleman Spohn Corp., (216) 431-8070 or www.colemanspohn.com
The one constant in business is that nothing ever stays constant. Jeffrey Tinsley has firsthand experience on that front.
In February, Tinsley relaunched the former Reunion.com as MyLife.com Inc., a brand that better reflected the company’s growth from a high school reunion site to a broader form of social networking.
But with the launch of MyLife.com, Tinsley — the founder, chairman and CEO of the company that generated $52 million in revenue last year — was faced with a multitude of transitional tasks, not the least of which involved bringing the company’s 120 employees on board with a new brand and new strategy.
“That is really the one constant here in any business, that things are going to change and evolve, and we’re always going to try to evolve the business in a positive way,” Tinsley says. “We had to coordinate a number of teams and people across this entire organization to make it happen over many, many months. It wasn’t just something that happened overnight.”
Smart Business spoke with Tinsley about how you can focus your employees on common goals.
Hire to evolve; train to evolve. It starts with new people joining the organization. I have an orientation meeting with new people to start, and within that meeting, we do a number of things. We talk about the business, the opportunities of the market and what we’re going to focus on. We take people through the individual departments, how they impact the business and drive us toward the goals of the organization. We even get down right into values, what do we believe in here. We believe in open, honest communication, collaboration, yielding the best possible results, the best possible opportunities, and we believe in evolution, that things are going to change and that we’re going to embrace change.
It really starts with good, solid orientation that shows what the company is about, your opportunities and how you’re going to operate as a business. It’s a really great way to get people on board.
Show your purpose. When anyone joins a company, one of the important decision-making factors in joining that company is feeling like you are joining a business that is providing a great product or service and a business that has the chance to be successful. For the people who are part of this business to know that the work they’re putting into making this business successful is actually paying off is something that is very positive. It reaffirms for many people why they joined up in the first place. Nobody wants to be a part of an organization that is struggling. They want to be a part of a company that is making consistent progress and is winning in their particular category.
That’s what we’ve done. We’re making consistent progress, even with the state of the economy, and we want to share that with our people so that they continue to be excited that they are a part of a growing, thriving business.
Facilitate communication. You have to communicate, which is what we really believe in here. That starts with helping people on a broad basis understand the thinking behind the change. Reiterating to the whole company what you’re focused on as a business, where the opportunities lay and how making the shift will better position your company for achieving the goals of the business. It’s very important to help the teams and different individuals in the company understand their roles in that evolution and helping them understand how they impact your progress against your internal objectives.
The leaders have a very important role in helping their pieces of the organization understand the overall objectives of the business and how they relate to the areas of responsibility in that group. They’re obviously breaking down to another level of detail what the priorities and actions are that are going to drive toward the overall goal. Those leaders need to provide the feedback necessary that shows how the team is progressing in relation to the overall company goals. They’re taking the higher level messages of upper management and bringing it to another, more consumable level for the individual team members. Our leaders are no different. They consistently communicate with their groups. Some groups in the organization are meeting on a daily basis.
It goes back to making it part of our culture and making it a natural part of the way we operate here.
You just can’t be open and honest and direct enough. It’s another one of our values that is part of our entire intake orientation process. We talk about the importance of open, honest communication, even if it hurts sometimes. As long as that communication is done respectfully, people need to share openly and not look back. At the end of the day, people are trying to make the business and make each other successful, and the way you do that is by working well together. And you do that by sharing openly and without hesitation.
Give employees their say. You also need to develop feedback channels for employees. At a minimum, within the monthly meetings we’re sharing everything we possibly can about the progress, from a key metrics and financial perspective to the external feedback from consumers, analysts and others that are having conversations about the business. All of that is communicated in these monthly meetings.
Taking it to another level, each of the teams within the business are looking at detailed feedback mechanisms, which include customer feedback and actual key metrics that they’re tracking on a daily basis. I actually do involve myself on a consistent basis with various teams across the board, just to check in and make sure that every group has their questions answered as to our organizational direction.
How to reach: MyLife.com Inc., (310) 571-3144 or www.mylife.com