Collaboration. To Michael
Graham, it’s more than just a business buzzword, it’s
the key to developing and
maintaining a culture of
teamwork in any organization.
Employees want and deserve
to be kept in the loop with
regard to what your business is
trying to accomplish, says the
president of Xavier University,
and they need to see how their
jobs fit in to the larger picture.
Graham says the only way you
can accomplish that is through
building a culture that values
collaboration and considers
ideas from everyone.
Smart Business spoke with
Graham, who has been the
president of the $152 million
Jesuit Catholic school since
2001, about how leaders can
Collaboration is key. I’m increasingly convinced that an older-style, command-and-control
form of leadership does not
work effectively. You get much
more out of people if you capture their hearts and souls
because then they’ll work for
you as hard as they can because
they are as passionate about the
overall objectives as you are.
Having people work across
networks that are formed or
reformed on the basis of the
issue that needs to be
addressed is absolutely key.
Something I’ve also come to
believe is leadership needs to be
inspirational. That relates directly to big-picture-mission kinds
of questions. One of the things I
can provide is a sense of the
direction, the hill we’re going to
take, so to speak. Why we’re
taking this hill and why your
helping us take this hill will help
you feel better about your life
and make you a better person.
In other words, connecting
the individual’s sense of themselves with the larger corporate project is terribly important, and it’s something you
have to do at regular intervals
across your community.
Find people who value teamwork.Make sure you attract people
who believe in a collaborative
approach, and that you reward
collaboration and don’t
encourage, for lack of a better
term, ownership activity when
it starts to pop up.
Having said that, there are
also times when someone has
to make a decision and people
need to feel empowered to
make a decision. Otherwise,
everything devolves into endless talk.
As we look at people, and
we’ve been doing a lot of key
hires in the past several years, that is one of the things we
check on, to see what a person’s
reputation is for collaborative
engagement. To some degree,
it’s how you structure what the
tasks are, who you have come
together on a certain project so
that people get used to working
Our departmental boundaries
have become blurred in recent
years with regard to that. It’s still
traditional in many ways, but
there are many more dotted
lines now because of the need
for participation across the old
silos and boundaries.
Tasks to be solved, especially
big-picture and really important
ones that have the capacity to
advance our frontiers, can’t be
answered within any one silo.
You need people from a variety of previously sectored-off sections of the organization.
Our world is a much more
complex place. We have an
awakening sense in the private
sector that the kinds of issues
we face are only going to be
Our business students are a
great case in point. There is no
way we ourselves can educate
our business students for the
world they are going to enter
when they graduate. We need
the expertise of all hands on
deck across the university.
But we also need an engaged
partnership with the business
community so they can give us
feedback on our curriculum,
what they’re looking for in a
business school graduate. That
departs completely from the
older mindset that we know the answer and the solutions,
and we’re going to shape our
students according to what we
think is best. That’s just not the
case anymore, nobody believes
that. Collaboration sets an
example for our students as to
what they’re going to need in
their professional careers.
Tap into people’s passions. You
need to harness people’s passions. When you harness their
passions, they’ll do 100, 120,
160 percent, whatever the
number. They’ll do it in a way
that is much easier than if they
It’s also the right thing to do. I
come to work, I’m a priest, so I
shouldn’t be doing this work if
someone who isn’t a priest
could be doing it just as well as
me. So I can bring something to this, and it’s this sense that here
are whole people with whole
lives, they go home to a husband or wife or kids and they
have struggles and so on.
Everybody wants to have a
sense of purpose in life, that
somehow living your life
becomes easier, better, more
rewarding and meaningful if
you have a sense of contributing to something that is bigger,
broader and more lasting than
yourself. The university can
offer that because what we’re
about is very big.
People ought to have that
sense of meaning and purpose.
We’re owed that as human
beings, and I’m in the happy
position of being able to supply that because of my position of leadership.
HOW TO REACH: Xavier University, (800) 344-4698 or www.xavier.edu
Ron St. Clair says there are similarities between politics and business: At the center of each, says the president and CEO of Thorntown-based Stalcop LP, has to be a belief in the sometimes messy process of democracy. St. Clair strives to get everyone involved in forming the vision and direction of the $35 million manufacturer that specializes in metal forming. To do that, he solicits input from all of the company’s approximately 300 employees based in the U.S. and Europe. It’s a time-consuming and sometimes tedious process something St. Clair likens to making sausage but without it, he says you will find it extremely difficult to build your company effectively. Smart Business spoke with St. Clair about why it’s important to get everyone involved and how to keep employees engaged.
Democracy can be messy, but pursue it anyway. There is no easy democracy. Take the town-hall meetings you’re seeing in the presidential race.
You have certain people who don’t want to change anything, you have certain people who want to change something. Each one thinks their idea is the best. What we have to do in this democratic process of where the company is going, what we want to do, is you’re setting a clear direction, but how you get there is really important.
To get the buy-in from everybody, you have to take the time to really bring the people together, and that’s what I call sausage-making. It’s very easy for me, as the CEO, to come in and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do, steps one, two, three, four, five, go do it.’ But if you don’t get the democratic implementation, it never gets done.
So from my perspective, I say, ‘Let’s spend the time upfront, get the appropriate buy-in, make sure we’ve chosen the right objectives,’ then once we’ve done that, it’s easy for me to say, ‘Discussion over, objective one belongs to this person,’ and they either perform or they don’t.
Once we’ve democratically determined our collective objective, then I implement with a very autocratic focus. We’ve elected, now it’s not democratic anymore, the specific objectives and resources. So once we’ve democratically chosen our direction, I autocratically hold people accountable.
It’s a messy process, but you don’t get anything done otherwise. You might think you control the company, but nothing happens. If you don’t get people talking about these things and at least give people the feeling that they are participating, unless they are the one assigned the objective, they’ll only give begrudging support to it.
This approach lets people really become involved in how we set the company, where it’s going to go, why it’s important we go in certain directions. It allows people to understand more about the dynamics of the business versus, ‘Shut up, I told you to do it.’ Everyone working here is a bright, articulate person, they just have different job skills, and you want to know why you’re doing something. It’s about more than just the paycheck.
Map out a strategy. One of the key tools we’ve used over the past several years is called strategic mapping. This is something that was developed at Harvard, but what we’ve done is applied it to a mid-sized company instead of a large corporation. The strategy map is a physical document that shows how we create value for our customers and the actions we’re taking to lower costs and improve revenue.
If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t get done. It’s very easy to use the nebulous, ‘We want to be the best company in the world, we want to be a lovely company, we want our employees to love us, our customers to love us.’ What does that mean?
Without having very specific measures for financial, operational, customers and internally for your people, you don’t know whether you’re truly making progress. It’s very easy to say we’re working on these things, but you never know if you’re going to accomplish them or if you’re headed in the wrong direction. You have to have concrete measures or you’re not going to accomplish anything.
It’s similar to FedEx when they first got started. They absolutely guaranteed your package would be there by 10 a.m. Everything was focused on getting it there by 10 a.m.
Set and review goals. We spend quite a bit of time doing something called catalytic coaching. It’s different from performance assessments. You sit down with someone and tell them what you need them to do for the company.
So for high-potential people, we’re using a variety of tools that way, and the old management-by-walking-around. We spend a lot of time getting out with the people, constantly communicating the objective for the week, the objective for the month, where are we with regard to revenue growth, where we are on specific projects and how they can help us in those areas.
We used to do annual performance reviews, sit you down, find out what you accomplished, assess a grade on a scale of 1 to 10, then throw you back out the door. It was really a nonvalue-added type of performance review.
Through using the system of catalytic coaching, it really gets you into a dialogue between the person you report to and yourself. It gets away from trying to say you’re a number grade to, ‘How are you brining value to the organization, and how is the organization helping you achieve what you want to do?’
Through these quarterly sessions, you learn about your performance. You don’t find out that you were up to be fired and nobody has every talked to you.
It provides a reason for this dialogue, but it takes people quite a long time to get used to dialogue. All managers I’ve ever run into just have a hard time with dialogue. They’re OK with superior-subordinate interaction, but if you start entering into dialogue and start discussing things, they become uncomfortable.
By forcing them to use this type of tool, you find that they are more apt to enter into things jointly rather than dictatorially.
HOW TO REACH: Stalcop LP, www.stalcop.com or (765) 436-7926
Many leaders talk about having an open-door policy, but Doug Jennings lives it. The double doors of Jennings’ office at Park Tudor School open into a large hallway accessible to students, teachers, administrative staff and anyone else who might need to speak with Jennings, who is head of Park Tudor School, a $26.5 million, 1,000-student independent college preparatory school. Jennings keeps his doors open as often as possible and encourages people to stop in and share their ideas about what is going on at the school. He believes that interaction and collaboration are two of the most powerful tools that any leader needs to take his or her organization to the next level. Smart Business spoke with Jennings about why he plants the seeds of ideas in people, then sees how they grow.
Get out of your office. Getting people involved has a lot to do with managing by walking around, so each morning, I’m trying to see the campus, stop and talk to people, listen to them, show genuine interest in what is going on.
I have literally an open-door policy. The double doors of my office open into a hallway, so kids, faculty members, whomever, are welcome to stop in and talk. I try to put down what I’m doing if I can and show that I care about them and am happy to talk with them.
I think the other way would be collaborative, and I know that can be kind of an overused term, but in a school, you have to involve everyone that you can with buying in to decisions. We work a lot with committees, parent organizations, student council, all sorts of things to try to reach a mutually accepted decision.
Bring people together. It’s my job as the head. I need to keep reading and keep up with the research and talk to people in the industry so I’ll come up with some new ideas or find some visionary things that are being done out there.
My method is usually to talk to individuals first and sort of plant some seeds, see how they grow, then bring them to the committee level and eventually bring them to the all-school level. But I’d never come in and just impose an idea, even if I thought it was a great idea. I would like to plant the seeds and see if there is interest in the people.
The best ideas are really the ideas people came up with themselves, and I try to engender that. Collaboration is usually the best approach because of buy-in. If people are part of the decision-making, they are going to be part of the implementation or at least have a much stronger stake in making something work.
If the boss comes in and says, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ if it works, it’s his credit, if it doesn’t work, it’s his fault. It’s just not the same buy-in that you get with collaboration.
It usually takes me at least two meetings to get that level of buy-in. One is sort of the introduction, the listening, the airing of it. Then I usually tell people to go away, do some homework, think about it, talk it over, go on the Internet, whatever, and we’ll meet again in a week or two weeks. As much as I like to do things quickly, going more slowly gets more buy-in and gets people to add to the original idea.
Remember the importance of communication.
Remember your mission and core customers. So for me, that’s kids. My core business is kids, so I have to remember a lot of my communication is to kids as young as kindergartners.
I have to make sure I relate to them, that I know what they’re doing. I think you try to communicate on an appropriate level to everyone in your organization. You don’t just have one style or one level of communication because that won’t reach everybody.
Someone told me it’s all about communication, especially as a leader. People are always watching and listening to what you are doing. To be an effective communicator, listening is extremely important. I use electronic media a lot, e-mail, but that is no substitute for a face-to-face talk. I like to write, so I’ll write something for our school magazine or for our weekly newsletter.
It’s important to see, particularly in a school, that the head teacher is a pretty good writer, so I try to keep my writing skills up to snuff. And speaking, there are always opportunities to speak to groups. I take them seriously, even though I try not to give very formal speeches.
Attract people who want to be involved. I look for people who are eager to grow, eager to listen to other people. We look for expertise, but we really want them to become part of a team. We don’t want them to come in and just import a set of skills.
We want them to get a feel for the Park Tudor culture, bring some new ideas, but work within that culture. It’s a balance of a strong personal ego but also a willingness to change and grow and listen to other people.
The key to attracting and keeping good people is just making it a darn good place to work. We work hard, but we have very good working conditions, good compensation and benefits packages; it’s just a nice place to work, right down to the lunch that we serve. When I bring someone in from another part of the country and they get a feel for the place, I want to make it so they want to work here.
HOW TO REACH: Park Tudor School, (317) 415-2700 or www.parktudor.org
“How do you put it all together?”
That is a question many business leaders face. You have the talent, you have the vision, you have the infrastructure, you know where you want to take the business in the coming years, but how do you take everything and allow it to become a self-sustaining machine that will allow your company to grow?
Zeffrey Lucas has been there. As the U.S. operations director of Production Services Network, his job is to take the resources, manpower and vision that exist in his company a 1,000-employee wing of a worldwide oil and gas exploration services provider and harness it, getting every person on the same page and generating the momentum that will carry PSN into the future.
But holding the reins is not easy when you are the head of a company division with locations all over the country.
Since joining PSN in 2002, Lucas says he has learned two valuable lessons about enabling everyone in a company to take charge: It’s all about communication, and that communication must be simply stated, consistent and frequent.
“The key to it is trying to communicate what we are, what we’re doing, where we’re going,” Lucas says. “That’s one of the biggest challenges. You have to maintain a link to employees to make sure they’re aware of what is going on. That’s my own personal philosophy. I want to know why we’re doing things. I perform better if I know why I’m doing something.”
Lucas says just about everyone performs better if they know why they are being asked to perform a task, and that’s what makes communication so important.
If your business is to flourish, your job as a leader is to work tirelessly to communicate with your employees in many different forms.
Communicating core values
At PSN, creating a sense of belonging for employees is about more than just including them in the communication pipeline. Once employees feel involved, Lucas says he wants to take it to another level, where they feel like they’re actually helping to steer the company.
In other words, Lucas wants employees to feel like they each own a small part of PSN. Ownership could involve something concrete, like stock options, but Lucas believes it goes deeper than that.
“If you feel like you belong to something, you put a better effort toward it,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be financial ownership in the company, but it’s more about if you share common goals.”
Lucas has helped to author and install a series of core values at PSN, aimed at giving employees a template to follow. With the core values in place, PSN’s work force knows in what direction the company wants to move and will get a better idea of how each can do his or her part to help the company get there.
PSN’s core values include an emphasis on health and safety, building and maintaining relationships with clients and employees, integrity on both a personal and corporate level, localization of projects, and financial responsibility.
Your core values can become the philosophical pillars upon which your company is built, but that won’t happen unless upper management sets the example for everyone else in the company. Lucas says it’s extremely important for a company’s leaders to “live it” when it comes to the guiding principles of the business.
“These core values that we are trying to cascade throughout the organization are lived by senior management,” Lucas says. “Many companies have core values, but we do it in such a way that we talk about it a lot. Even our company emblem represents our core values.”
Lucas and his senior management take just about every daily, weekly and monthly communication opportunity as a chance to reinforce the core values. It’s a challenge with a business spread across many different areas, but Lucas says that if you want your communications culture to be a success, you are going to have to get creative and be willing to concede that you aren’t going to be able to do as much in-person communicating as you’d probably like.
“I do not prefer e-mail, and that’s coming from someone who e-mails a lot,” he says. “It’s always better to call someone. With our busy schedules, we have a tendency to write very quickly to a request or response to someone. But because of the speed at which we e-mail what we have written, people may interpret it the wrong way. Without voice inflection or listening to how people respond, you might not pick up on whether they have an issue with something.”
To compensate for any inconsistencies in face-to-face communication, Lucas periodically holds companywide Web broadcasts with question-and-answer sessions. He says any type of voice contact with your managers and work force is a positive when compared to simply dashing off an e-mail.
Staying vigilant with regard to communicating your core values might seem like a lot of work with little immediate reward. But while you could be spending that time landing a major account or inventing the product that will put your business on the map, Lucas says if you don’t pay attention to the basics, your company will begin to fall victim to an ambiguous sense of direction, and your growth could stall.
“(Core values) are essential in that it’s been described as the DNA of a company,” he says. “It’s what makes us who we are. Every decision we make can be linked back to these core values. It’s obvious in our review meetings, every Monday, when I meet with our senior management.
“We cascade it down so that everybody in our organization is familiar with them. It’s important because these particular values are important for the success of any person in the company, and it’s the case in any organization. You have to continue to not just talk about the core values, but live them. They establish not only who you are, but who others perceive you to be.”
Another key part of enabling employees to take charge is to give their ideas merit. Once they have internalized your core values, your work force will be able to innovate in line with your company’s goals.
Lucas says that’s where a business leader’s ability to listen becomes crucial.
Your ability to listen to what your team members are telling you is as important as and in some cases, more important than your ability to reach them with your messages.
But their ideas will never see the light of day if you and your senior managers aren’t available to hear them. That’s why Lucas sees to it that every person in the company is comfortable enough with him to have a conversation. He does it by repeatedly encouraging his employees to seek him out, then following his words with consistent actions.
“I’m an open person, and whoever you are in the organization, I’ll have a conversation with you,” Lucas says. “If you have any problems whatsoever, you should not hesitate to call me or e-mail me, and I’ll respond to it.
“I think people respect it when they see I’m honest about the fact that it doesn’t matter who you are in the organization, I’m here to work for them. That means if I can help them in certain issues, I’ll do that. That word gets around, and if people remember that it’s OK to talk to so-and-so, it’s a whole lot better.”
Lucas says properly trained and enabled employees can be a wellspring of new ideas, which is an important ingredient in preventing a business from stagnating and stalling. Even if you have no plans to change your business model or alter your products and services, there is almost always room for improvement.
Lucas says the business that stops trying to get better is the business that has stopped trying, period. And the responsibility belongs to everyone on the payroll.
“Innovation leads to better ways of doing things,” Lucas says. “Better might mean safer, it might mean cheaper, it might mean more efficient. In our case, by distinguishing our company as one that has a core value of innovation, it separates us from competitors that might just want to do it the same way they’ve always done it. From that standpoint, it encourages people to think outside the box and look for different ways to do something.”
He says coaching people to become innovators is coaching them to become leaders. The employees at PSN who take the initiative to lead the company in a new direction are the people who are developing important managerial skills.
“I think you always look for people who naturally want to innovate,” Lucas says. “But I think it’s more along the lines of encouraging the people you have to become innovators. That goes back to promoting innovation through our core values and talking to them about it. It takes a couple of people to get it started, but then it becomes contagious in every area they go to.”
Accentuate the positive
After you’ve filled the heads of your employees with your core values and given them the tools to help lead the company into the future, your job isn’t done. If you don’t reinforce their behavior through encouragement, you can’t expect it to continue.
It’s really no different than when you were in grade school and your parents took you out for ice cream for getting straight A’s. Lucas says people respond to encouragement, and as the head of the company, your job isn’t just to notice when there is a problem or instances of underperformance. It’s to notice when people are doing things right, and then reward them for it.
“There have been various studies that talk about what motivates people,” Lucas says. “One of the top motivators is people wanting to feel appreciated. It’s not necessarily the money, it’s the recognition you give them.
“Whether it’s a pat on the back, shaking their hand, giving them a call out of the blue, a gift certificate, it doesn’t have to be big. But the appreciation you show lasts a lot longer than any particular piece of money they may get.”
Lucas makes public recognition of high performers a regular occurrence at PSN. And it’s not just about workers who come up with great ideas or are superlative performers. Sometimes, it includes people who put the welfare of their co-workers ahead of the bottom line.
Several years ago at a PSN plant in California, a gas leak caused a potentially dangerous situation. In a move that cost the company money but may have preserved the safety of PSN employees, the manager decided to shut down the plant so the leak could be repaired.
PSN’s leaders recognized the bold step the manager took in risking revenue to protect his workers, and they recognized him through the company newsletter and other forms of communication.
Lucas says it goes back to walking the talk. Employees have to see your words in action if they are to believe them.
“This is one of the age-old problems we have in oil and gas operation, that safety has to be your first concern,” he says. “For that person to take the step to shut the plant down, which created an obvious loss of revenue, it was the right thing to do. So we rewarded him not only with a gift certificate, but we made a big deal of it. We told everyone that this person did exactly what we wanted him to do.
“It’s not so much about punishing people when they do something wrong, but rewarding them for the things they do right.”
HOW TO REACH: Production Services Network, www.psnworld.com
When forming a vision for a company, you need a lot of things. You need focus and discipline. You need a definite idea of where you want to take your company. You need communication skills. You need perseverance to overcome the inevitable bumps in the road.
You also need an audience.
Francine Parker says ideas will never get off the drawing board if people aren’t there to implement them. So when you are defining the direction of your company, it’s imperative to get everyone involved.
Parker, president and CEO of Health Alliance Plan a Detroit-based health insurance provider with annual revenue of more than $1.6 billion makes it a point to seek input from her employees when formulating a plan for the company’s future. Upon becoming president and CEO in 2004, she sought input from everyone in the company.
And when Parker says everyone, she means everyone. “When I was working on a vision for HAP, I used a small group of people to react to the vision and really assist with its development, then we tested it with our board,” she says.
“Then what I did and some people thought it was rather ambitious I actually went and met with each employee and rolled out the vision. I established a series of meetings, and I think that at any given point, there were no more than 30 to 40 people in a room.”
By organizing a series of smaller meetings with HAP’s employees, Parker was able to create an ongoing dialogue about the direction in which the company was headed. The in-person meetings spawned e-mail correspondence, and feedback is something she continues to solicit to this day.
“You’re not going to move an organization without (your employees),” she says. “They are the organization, they are what breathes life into it. If they’re not involved, it’s not their vision.”
Making your vision become their vision starts with the culture you create.
From the bottom up
A CEO has to know when to take the reins of a situation and when to back off and let others do the thinking. You can’t turn everything into a popularity vote, but in many cases, you need to have your decisions influenced by what your people have to say.
Parker says that’s why a top-down approach is normally not a good idea for creating policies that will affect how everyone in the company will do their jobs.
“One or two people can’t know everything,” she says. “You can set the climate, but let’s say, for example, that in quality, if you’re working on improving the treatment of diabetics, you wouldn’t have a top-down approach. You’d want to have a nurse-educator, a physician, you’d want to have somebody from the pharmacy talking about compliance. You’d want an ophthalmologist because of the importance of diabetic retinal exams. So you’d want a team there that would look at all aspects of something.”
Part of engaging employees on their level is to enable them to not only provide feedback on your ideas, but come up with their own ideas and pitch them to senior management.
Team-building is an important part of creating and developing new ideas at HAP. Parker gets different levels of the organization involved in each idea by assigning a “sponsor” from upper management to work with the development team. The management member acts as a liaison between the front lines and Parker’s staff.
Having a member of management working with employees on a project also allows Parker and her staff to keep tabs on the progress and productivity of each project.
You don’t want to see ideas fall flat but some will, and knowing what is going on at ground level will allow you to better steer the energy of your people toward the projects that have the best chance to benefit the company.
Parker says letting employees take ownership of their projects is a tremendous motivator, but will lead to inevitable clashes when you decide to not implement an idea. Having employees who strongly advocate for their ideas isn’t always a bad thing. It can be indicative of someone who is passionate about what he or she is doing, which is a necessary ingredient in moving a business forward.
“There is danger when you involve employees in these processes and danger when you don’t,” Parker says. “Sometimes you might not take all the ideas, so if you don’t take all the ideas, you need to be able to say why you’re not.
“The good thing is the passion people have around their ideas, but some days, it’s bad to see the passion when you go to say no to something. But I’d rather have them involved than not. If somebody can’t own it and be a part of it, I don’t see the responsibility to want to make it work.”
In an attempt to spark as many ideas as possible, Parker has established quarterly meetings called the “basket of ideas.” She and her senior management team host a cross section of the company’s employees in a breakfast brainstorming session centered on a given topic, such as growth or products. Employees are encouraged to attend and submit their ideas.
Those meetings, which began shortly after Parker assumed the top post at HAP, are one of the primary means by which she continues to engage employees on a large scale.
“That established a climate of actually wanting to engage employees in living a vision and helping to shape that vision,” she says. “They actually get the information, they send it to me, I get the e-mails from employees, we test ideas with employees. It does-n’t need much coaching because we’ve established that as our climate.”
The best ideas might start near the bottom of a company and work their way up, but the only way employees will feel motivated and enabled to help form and drive your company’s vision is if they’re hearing the right words from management and hearing them consistently.
Quarterly meetings are a good way to engage employees in person, but Parker says it has to go beyond that. Good communication is something that happens every day in many different forms.
“Effective communication takes on many forms,” she says. “For me, it needs to be down to earth, and the message delivered depends on the communication you use.”
Motivating employees doesn’t always have to be about communicating long-range visions about where you want to take the company in three to five years. Sometimes, it’s about showing employees that good things are happening here and now, no matter how small the event might seem at the time.
“A while back, for example, we had significant growth in one of the companies we serve,” she says. “In the Michigan economy, as many people might know, there hasn’t been a lot of good news. Our major employers are the automotive companies, and that means the top three customers have cut one-third of their work force.
“We share news about layoffs and bankruptcies and things like that, but when there is good news, like we had a gain of several thousand new customers, I make a point to jot a quick e-mail to employees to say it, to make sure we end the day on a good note, that we grew by this much, and you all contributed to our growth. I get so many e-mails back from employees thanking me for things like that.”
Parker also uses feedback from customers as a motivational tool. She has organized positive letters from customers into a slide show that she shares with employees who don’t regularly interface with customers. Just because an employee doesn’t work in a customer-service position doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t serve the customer. She says that everyone in the company contributes to the overall customer experience and should be exposed to customer feedback.
“We have 850 employees, and many of them don’t get to hear the actual voice of the customer,” she says. “Sometimes a computer programmer never hears what the customer thinks or the person in charge of security or the mail room, and they are so appreciative when you show them the positive feedback you get.”
Parker says that as you attempt to get employees involved in the future of your company, it is important to keep communicating the same messages in different ways. It comes down to casting the widest possible net with your communication because people won’t react the same way to every message.
“Some people are comfortable in face-to-face interaction,” she says. “Other people like a note. It’s funny because I’ll send a thank-you note, and people will post it on their cubicle, they’ll share it. For that person, the note probably means more because they can pass the note on to other people. Just as people learn differently, I think people react differently and like to be communicated with in different ways.”
E-mail is a pillar of Parker’s communication philosophy, but she says there is still no substitute for meeting in person. That’s why, as much as her schedule will allow, she makes time to meet with her managers and employees face to face.
There will always be something that comes up and could sidetrack you. But if you really want to make in-person communication a priority, Parker says you’ll find a way to make it happen.
Parker tries to get creative when it comes to balancing face-to-face communication with a busy schedule. If HAP purchases a block of tickets for a charity event, Parker will use it as an opportunity to meet with employees and also give them the reward of a night out.
“In a lot of organizations, people in senior management, they end up having to go to a number of charity functions, and they end up just becoming routine,” she says. “What they don’t realize is there are a number of people in that company who would have loved to have gone to that restaurant or that hotel.
“What I try to do is multitask. If I have to go to an event and have an opportunity to bring 10 people with me, I’ll bring 10 people that have worked on a project, so it’s sort of like killing two birds with one stone. I look at my schedule and come up with creative ways to spend time with my employees.”
If the latest daily crisis is getting in the way of your ability to communicate with and involve your employees in the company’s direction, Parker says it might be time to re-examine your priorities.
No one gets it right all the time, but you’re never going to have employees who are enthusiastic about shaping your company’s future if you don’t first project enthusiasm for their input.
“Sometimes I do it well, and sometimes other things get in the way,” she says. “I have an internal gauge where I know that I’ve reached a point where I need to stop paying attention to a crisis.
“I need to have face-to-face communication with people. I might get more out of it than some of my employees do. Being with my employees energizes me, and I can always tell when I need to be recharged. That’s one of the neat things about being a CEO. I used to be the COO, and as the COO, you get to handle all the crises. I used to tease the former CEO, I used to say, ‘You get all the fun stuff, and I handle all the crises.’ But now I get the fun part and get to delegate some of the crises, which is a nice move.”
HOW TO REACH: Health Alliance Plan, www.hap.org
No one is going to believe you. Not at first, anyway.
If you are ever in the same situation that Bob Peiser found himself in upon becoming president and CEO of Imperial Sugar Co. in 2002, Peiser says you shouldn’t expect to find a lot of allies within the company ranks at the outset.
In early 2002, Imperial had just emerged from bankruptcy, bottoming out at the end of a several-year slide that began when acquisitions the company had made in the late 1990s generated excessive debt. The effect of the growing debt was magnified by a downturn in the often-cyclical sugar industry.
By the time Peiser was hired, Imperial owed more than $300 million to its creditors.
“We probably could have survived one or the other, the debt or the down cycle in the industry,” Peiser says. “But we had trouble enduring both at the same time.”
Peiser was faced with the task of not only rescuing Imperial’s finances, but instilling confidence in a work force that wasn’t interested in believing anything upper management had to say.
“The company was in trouble for three or four years, so the people who came out of it were skeptical about whether there was a future here,” he says. “There was also a skepticism about me, the new boss with new ideas and a reputation for turnaround management. They were thinking of me as someone who was just going to come in and cut a lot of jobs, fix the company, and sell it. But that’s not what I am all about.”
What transpired in the ensuing few years tested every aspect of Peiser’s leadership ability his aptitude as a financial manager, his ability to manage people and, above all, his ability to create a new outlook for a sinking company by forming a new vision and outlook.
Peiser says there is no good way to perform cutbacks when you are trying to relieve your company of massive debt. Any way you slice it, you are going to rock your company’s foundation and upset employees.
He says the best thing you can do is be candid with your work force. Developing a bunker mentality because you are afraid of negative publicity will only make the situation worse.
Between 2002 and 2005, Peiser oversaw the sale or closing of 14 Imperial plants and factories, which came with a number of layoffs.
Peiser says he went to every single plant to personally announce the sale or closure.
“That’s not a particularly pleasant job,” he says. “But it’s important to not hide behind someone else to make that announcement. You get more respect from the organization if you do it yourself.
“I can remember the day we closed the Sugar Land refinery, right across the street (from headquarters). I was right across the street making the announcement. I’m not sure everyone would have done that, but people recognize that is a good thing to do, and it makes you much more visible.”
Peiser says he believes in a strategy of “overemphasizing personal presence.” In the first couple of years of his tenure, Peiser frequently traveled to Imperial facilities around the country for face-to-face interaction with employees and managers.
There is no substitute for being there when it comes to building trust, especially when employees have been conditioned to not trust management.
When Peiser traveled to factories, he was dealing with, in essence, survivors. The people still employed by Imperial felt guilty that their jobs stayed while the jobs of others were lost. They were also wary of it happening again.
“The people that survive downsizing are distrustful and guilty,” he says. “They might have lost someone who worked next door to them. The first time you go through that, the openness of communication is so vital, but you also have to recognize that nobody is going to believe that this is the only time you’re going to do this. Nobody believes that this is going to fix things.
“You just have to slog through it, and open yourself up to questions and doubts and be willing to talk about it.”
Peiser says only through frank, honest and repeated communication will employees start to see the big picture.
“They’ll start to recognize that the ones who are most vulnerable to losing their jobs are the ones that are not working hard and not contributing,” he says. “So, the message is do your job well, and you’ll have far less to worry about.”
Focusing on strengths
When a company has hit bottom, employees can tend to view everything within the company as inherently bad. But Peiser says most of the time, that’s not the case, and as the leader of the business, your job is to separate the flowers from the weeds.
From the outset, one of Peiser’s most important jobs was to identify the positive aspects of Imperial Sugar, and then stress those aspects to employees.
“From a confidence standpoint, it was important to stress that we had some significant strengths within the company,” he says. “We had and still have two very strong brands in the regions they are sold in, and we have very strong relationships with our customers.”
The longevity of the Imperial Sugar and Dixie Crystals brands throughout Texas and the Southeast was something Peiser played up to emphasize his belief that the company was built on a solid foundation, even if the previous couple of years suggested otherwise.
Peiser also wanted to harness the innovative power of Imperial’s employees, which he couldn’t do as long as there was widespread doubt and a pass-the-buck mentality throughout the company.
Peiser turned the tide by making accountability a buzzword throughout Imperial.
“We started communicating a message that we are really strong on accountability,” he says. “We talked about how everyone is responsible for their jobs, to the extent that if I think there are people who don’t take that seriously, we’re going to change those people.”
Peiser wanted his work force which currently numbers about 850 to concentrate on things it was capable of changing, steering his employees away from the mentality of concentrating on what they thought their peers or management weren’t doing and focusing instead on what they were doing themselves.
It’s something that, once again, came down to Peiser’s persistent communication and having his actions fall in line with his words. Even then, the change took years in his estimation.
“It took everyone a couple of years to realize I was serious on both,” Peiser says. “I was going to change the people that needed to be changed, and I was going to reward the people that are good and deserve to be rewarded.”
Gathering new ideas
Another way Peiser created and strengthened a sense of accountability was by enabling employees to take a more active role in the company’s future. He wanted new ideas to well up from within the company and lead to possible new directions for Imperial.
Sugar isn’t an industry known for frequent innovation. It’s basically a commodity product that has been sold in the same paper bags on supermarket shelves for years. In order for Imperial to get a leg up on the competition, Peiser needed his employees to start thinking with an innovative mindset.
He set up focus groups with a wide range of Imperial’s customers, from end consumers to retail stores to food manufacturers, in an effort to gather ideas.
He says allowing your company’s existing inertia to always drive you, never questioning what can be done differently, is a road to ruin. Everybody in your company should always look for ways to do things better. That starts with looking at things from the perspective of those who use your products or services.
“It would be very dangerous if I made decisions based on what I think is right and not listen to the customer,” he says. “So we spent a lot of time with our customers.”
Peiser also brought in a number of experienced consumer product consultants. The interaction with the consultants and customers planted the seeds for the innovative culture he was looking to grow.
From those meetings, eventually came a new line of sugar packaging and alternative sweeteners. It was a rare place for a sugar company to venture, but Peiser says breaking the mold was crucial for his company’s long-term health as it rebounded.
If you want to change the environment in and around your company, Peiser says patience is more than a virtue. It’s a necessity.
“Patience is really important,” he says. “A lot of what we were doing was change, and change is hard. It’s still hard for us. While we’ve attempted to promote our new products and make sure there is visibility, it still takes a long time.
“You need patience, and you need to demonstrate your early wins to your employees. It’s really important to show your population of associates that this really could work if given the time and the ability to produce a quality product.”
The comeback trail
The progress for Imperial since the dark days of 2001 and 2002 has been incremental but quite noticeable. When Peiser took over, the company had more than $300 million in debt, but as of the end of June, it was virtually debt-free.
Imperial had its comeback interrupted with a downturn in 2005, but in fiscal 2006, it posted net income of $50 million on revenue of $946 million.
For Peiser, the experience of the past five-plus years has reinforced some basic principles of turnaround management. Principles he calls the “Six C’s.”
“Turnaround management involves communication, credibility, consistency of message, culture, courage and commitment,” Peiser says. “It’s very important to demonstrate a commitment to a path and making sure people understand that you’re not going to sway from that path. We’ll learn from mistakes and do things differently, but we’re on a path to improve the company in a certain way, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
There isn’t a magic formula to salvaging a sinking company. Mostly, he says, it centers on your ability to be an effective communicator and seeing to it that your actions follow your words.
“You’re really going to be bored with my philosophy on communication. It’s really just hammering away at it. I talk about communication a lot but also credibility. I want to make sure everyone knows they have access to me because I believe being an effective leader really isn’t about doing everything. An effective leader hires people who do things. They set a vision, a strategy, and then they motivate.”
He says the only way to truly motivate employees is to make sure they know you care, and you do that by being visible and accessible.
“There are two ways communication works, and the first way only works if the second way is done,” he says.
“The first way is to tell people, ‘I’m going to make sure I get any e-mails you send me. It’s not going to go through an assistant. And if you call me, I’m going to answer the call, or I’m going to call you back.’ But that won’t work unless the second thing happens. And that means you have to do it. You have to answer that e-mail and return that call, and do it relatively quickly.
“Then the word gets around that not only are you asking for e-mails and phone calls, but that it’s important to you to spend the time to answer them. Then word gets around that you really are going to listen to people and answer them.”
HOW TO REACH: Imperial Sugar Co., www.imperialsugar.com
Gordon Stewart once wanted to find the secret to building a successful, motivated work force. So he hired a consultant to show him the way.
He paid the consultant $15,000 to unlock the mystery of what truly gave employees a sense of accomplishment and gratification at work.
“I wanted to give my employees something,” says Stewart, the president, CEO and founder of Stewart Management Group Inc., a Harper Woods-based auto dealer operator with five locations in Michigan, Florida and Alabama. “Not just something I wanted to give them, but something they wanted.”
He thought the secret was in compensation, perhaps a new retirement plan or better health insurance.
But when he asked the consultant to get to the bottom of it, the consultant gave him a blunt reply.
“I’ll never forget it,” Stewart says. “He said he could save me $15,000 right now and tell me the answer before he ever met my employees.
“I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Respect and recognition.’ To which I said, ‘Aw, baloney, do the survey.’”
Hours and hours of research and $15,000 later, Stewart had his answer.
“The No. 1 priority among employees was not increased wages or increased benefits,” he says. It was respect and recognition.”
Stewart says it was an expensive lesson to learn. Without the support of management and a feeling of accomplishment, your employees will never feel like they have a home in your company. If employees feel detached and underappreciated, so will your customers, and that, Stewart says, is the road to ruin for any company.
Ever since Stewart paid $15,000 to find out just how important respect and recognition are to employees, he has made it a priority to build a motivated, enabled work force at Stewart Management Group.
Stewart says motivated employees pave the way for good customer service, and if you want motivated employees, you have to be willing to play to their strengths.
At Stewart Management’s dealerships which garner approximately $300 million in combined annual revenue that means finding a home for both high-performing, high-volume salespeople, and those who might not have as much of a knack for moving units at a brisk pace.
Stewart says that he has a place for salespeople who aren’t schooled in high-pressure, volume-oriented sales tactics. If anything, he says he values an ability to connect with people on a personal level more than he does traditional sales tactics.
“We prefer to hire people who are new to our business,” he says. “That way, they don’t come to us with any bad habits. Then we try to provide them with an environment that allows them to progress to whatever level they are comfortable with and at which they can perform sufficiently.”
It’s important to remember that not everyone enters your company with the same level of ambition or the same goals. Some salespeople can’t, as the old saying goes, “sell ice to an Eskimo,” but Stewart says the units they do move are important because each sale represents a customer relationship formed or strengthened.
“People have pressure to perform and push to the top,” he says. “But some people don’t want to push all the way to the top. The system we have allows for that. We depend as much on the steady performers as the exceptional performers. We welcome that type of performance ... and put them in a position where they don’t have to worry about their jobs every month.”
That doesn’t mean that Stewart is content with mediocrity from his employees. He says he wants all of his employees aiming for the top floor. He simply tries to spread the message that, even if you aren’t a star salesperson and don’t have that level of ambition, you still have a place in his company.
If your company is only set up to accept a certain kind of performer, you run the risk of limiting your company’s capabilities because you won’t be able to keep many workers who don’t fit your narrowly defined definition of the “ideal employee.”
“There are certain triggers that might strike your fancy as you’re interviewing people to realize that it might be a good fit,” Stewart says. “But it’s as important to make sure that, that individual is going to fit well in to the organization as it is to make sure you are going to be happy with them. If you’re not happy with them and they’re not happy, you haven’t gained anything.”
That’s why, during the hiring process, Stewart tries to make sure that not only do his company leaders gain an understanding of the person being interviewed, but that the person being interviewed gets an accurate picture of the company.
“We try to be very explanatory during the hiring process of letting people know what the situation is and what they’re asking to be a part of, so we have a good chance of forming a long-term relationship.”
Living the culture
Stewart has a favorite saying when it comes to a company’s culture, and how it can either motivate or discourage employees: “The way you interact with everyone, both customers and employees, defines what is really your culture.”
In other words, your culture isn’t what you say it is; it’s what your employees think it is.
“Many companies have a statement of what their company culture is and should be,” Stewart says. “Sometimes, (the CEO) actually believes that because I said it, that’s what it is.
“My philosophy is that your culture is more defined by how you treat employees and how they, in turn, treat customers. It’s actions more than words that really dedicate what your culture is.”
For Stewart, it comes back to respect and recognition. He says you won’t gain respect as a leader unless you show respect for those who are supposed to follow you. You do that by actively and frequently acknowledging the contributions and accomplishments of your employees.
Again, he says it’s in the actions. If you aren’t communicating with your work force, you can’t expect your employees to latch onto your culture.
Action is the hard part. Stewart says many business leaders can come up with a grand vision for their corporate culture but getting it to take root is all in the legwork you are willing to perform.
“Respect is easy; recognition is the hard part,” he says. “If we have a weakness, it’s on the recognition side. If you’re not careful, you begin taking superior actions for granted because people do them so often and repeatedly, and the danger is failing to acknowledge them on a regular basis. There is no foolproof answer on how to do it, but there is always a strong need for it.”
And loyal, culture-absorbing employees can’t be bought. While prizes and money are a nice gesture and a concrete way of reinforcing your messages, bonus checks don’t necessarily make employees bleed the company colors.
Stewart says that goal-oriented bonuses become a kind of checklist for many workers. What truly gets people motivated is recognition in front of their peers.
“You can offer a bonus for a certain performance, and the person hits it and they get the compensation, but all it means is they hit that one goal you set,” Stewart says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean the performance was super, it just means they hit that certain level where you were willing to pay extra. For some people, that is sufficient. But everyone loves recognition, especially in front of their peers.”
Stewart doesn’t have a reason as to why it works that way, but he says the proof is in the pudding, and he strives to recognize employees at every turn.
“Mine is not to reason why, but to do or die,” he says. “I know it’s needed. It’s just a necessary part of doing business. You can’t live without it.”
Above all else, a culture needs continuity to survive. Stewart says a leader’s words need to follow his or her actions, every time, in order for employees to develop the deep cultural connection every CEO seeks between the workers and the company.
“You must project an unwavering degree of commitment to your corporate vision,” he says. “Your employees must be communicated with in whatever fashion necessary for your particular situation so they never have to wonder how to behave or react in a given situation.
“Imagine a shortstop on a baseball team. With a runner on first and a ground ball hit to him, he does not have to stop once he catches the ball and decide what to do with it. He knows that if it’s a hard-hit ball, he has a chance at a double play. If it’s a slow grounder, he knows he has to hustle to get the runner at first.”
The same concept applies in business. Stewart says that when any employee in your company has the ball hit to them, they have to know where to throw it, whom they can rely on for solid team-work. If everyone in the company has had the culture communicated and reinforced to them consistently, that person should feel comfortable going to anyone.
“The same shortstop concept applies in the business world,” he says. “If you want a consistent culture, every employee must know what is expected of them in almost any given business situation.”
Letting employees speak
Even if you do the world’s best job of internal communication, Stewart says you must acknowledge that your employees aren’t human sponges and won’t simply soak up what you are saying without developing opinions or ideas on how things could be done better.
As the company leader, he says you should welcome employee feedback, even if it is critical.
“If you really want employees to have a two-way street for communication, you must constantly solicit the action,” he says. “You must also take care, if you do that, to not dismiss certain thoughts or ideas too quickly. Nothing stifles that type of communication quicker than embarrassment. Trust builds over time, and that type of communication is something you earn as an employer. It’s not a birthright, unfortunately.”
You can announce that you have an open-door policy with a megaphone from the roof of your headquarters. He says it won’t mean a thing, until employees see what type of reaction awaits the first few co-workers who get up the nerve to come before upper management with an idea or concern.
“You cannot announce an open-door policy and expect it to happen immediately,” Stewart says. “Employees will carefully watch others attempting to bridge that gap. If they see a modicum of success, they will believe in the policy over time. This is another area where consistency is a virtue.”
No matter how you do it, Stewart says the only way you and your work force can truly bridge the communication gap and begin trusting each other is if you work tirelessly to keep the lines of communication open and active in both directions.
He says having a company spread across a large geographical area is no excuse for poor communication. Your company’s future relies on the effectiveness of your communication culture. Face-to-face communication can be an unrealistic endeavor at times, but you still need to find the means and the time to reach your work force.
“With businesses that have operations in several states, such as ours, face-to-face communication can be difficult,” Stewart says. “But that’s no excuse. E-mail has become a wonderful way to communicate. Phone calls are even better, if possible. But any form of communication is better than none at all.”
HOW TO REACH: Stewart Management Group Inc., Gordon Chevrolet Garden City, www.gordonchevrolet.com
The president of Acme Markets Inc. says simplicity is the oil that greases the cogs of any business organization, making growth and good communication much easier to achieve. She believes in keeping her messages simple, her philosophies simple and her overall leadership style simple.
Of course, trying to keep things simple can be a rather complex process when you’re the president of a company composed of 129 supermarkets in Greater Philadelphia, New Jersey and Maryland, staffed by about 16,000 people.
That’s why Spires has made it a priority to work at it and see to it that her managers work at it.
“You have to be very organized and disciplined,” she says. “We have a president’s meeting every Monday. The meeting has to be meaningful, it has to be precise and concise, and people have to come to the meeting prepared to share the key things they’re working on so we all understand each others’ priorities, and we’re joined at the hip with regard to what’s going on.”
Spires says to keep things simple, you have to know how to communicate and never lose sight of the basic principles that guide your business. If you lose sight of the basics, your employees will lose sight.
“You have to keep your goals stated very simply and keep repeating them,” she says. “You have to make them a part of everything you do. That’s how you keep people focused.”
The front lines
At Acme Markets a subsidiary of the $37 billion Minnesota-based grocery store giant SUPERVALU Inc. since 2006 Spires keeps everyone focused on three basic goals that serve as driving principles for the business: “We want to be the best place to work, the best place to shop and the best place to invest.”
Every collaborative project and every individual goal needs to address one of the three main organizational goals. Spires says if it doesn’t, it’s not worth discussing.
Spires places an emphasis on enabling the employees who interact directly with customers and shareholders to take the initiative and come up with ways to make the company a better place to do business. Those employees are the eyes and ears on the ground for any business and are the people who will be able to react quickly to the changing needs of the customer base.
For example, Acme faces a unique challenge in that the company must sell essentially the same products from city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood but must also cater to the specific needs of the local community.
Spires says in areas of suburban Philadelphia that have a large Jewish population, Acme stores need to have a full-service kosher deli in order to best serve customers. Stores in commercial districts might need a large salad bar for the business lunch crowd.
Giving managers on the store level the power to steer their individual stores didn’t happen overnight. Spires says it took an extensive organizational restructuring on the operations side.
“We set up our new structure in the organization, we restructured our operations team to afford those very close relationships with the marketing and merchandising people so we could make sure that we are supplying the store managers with what they say are their needs for their particular neighborhoods,” she says.
The ideas that form on the store level aren’t necessarily limited to one particular store.
Spires says if you allow ideas to well up within the organization, you’ll find that an idea that was formed in one area can potentially benefit other areas of the company.
That’s why, whenever possible, Spires brings representatives from individual stores together in face-to-face meetings. It’s an opportunity for managers across the Acme chain to find out what is going on in other locations, and perhaps form ideas for improving their own stores.
“It’s amazing how many people are doing some best practices that we don’t even know about,” Spires says. “When people hear stuff from their peers at work and they get a live testimonial, it ignites them to go back and try that, it ignites their thought process to say, ‘What can I do to better please customers, to get a better spirit in my store?’ It creates such wonderful momentum.”
The meetings have built so much momentum, Spires and her team decided to formalize it into a council. In Acme’s Associates Council, one representative is elected from each store. Quarterly, all the store representatives meet with Spires and her senior vice president of operations.
“The Associates Council gets to come in and tell us what is on the minds of the people in their store,” Spires says. “What are we doing, what aren’t we doing, what can we do better? It gives our associates a way to know that they’re being heard, and it also gives us an opportunity to get to our main source of contact with the customer and let our associates know what is going on.
“The growth we’ve seen there and the communication that takes place are doing wonderful things for our organization.”
New ideas can well up from the bottom, but Spires says the culture that allows those ideas to take root starts at the top.
As the company leader, she says you need to be able to set examples that everyone can follow. When it comes to communication, it all starts with keeping it simple and casting the widest possible net with your messages.
“Communication is about three things: listen, listen and listen,” she says. “It has to start at the top of the organization. When you truly listen to people, the results are incredible. You hear how they respond. It’s amazing what you hear on many levels.”
Spires sets the example at Acme by practicing what she preaches. She goes out of her way to make interaction with her team a priority.
There is no magic formula to making time for employee engagement when there are dozens of other tasks that need to be taken care of. You have to make a schedule, and then stick to it.
“I schedule blocked-out time with each individual I meet with on a weekly basis,” Spires says. “The door gets closed, and no one interrupts us. On-the-fly conversations don’t allow you to do that. My team knows that my door is always open and that we’re always talking and communicating. They know that when it gets down to the business issues, they can schedule specific time and have my absolute, undivided attention. The door gets closed, I listen intently, and it’s their time.”
Management repeatedly emphasizing open, honest communication is how employees overcome any reservations they might have about approaching upper management with a question, concern or idea. The only way employees will become convinced that you want to hear what they have to say is if they see it for themselves over and over.
That’s a big reason why Spires likes to take her open communication philosophy on the road. In addition to having an open-door policy in her office, she frequently visits Acme stores.
“You have to make yourself accessible and walk the talk,” she says. “For me, I love being out in the stores, talking to my people and making myself accessible.
“We have a town-hall meeting once a month where we tell people what is going on in the business. We share our numbers with everybody. There are no secrets. You get people to believe you by walking the talk, by being in situations where people say things, and it doesn’t come back to haunt them.”
When you communicate a mindset of best practices and problem solving, Spires says you encourage teamwork by creating an environment where people aren’t afraid to bring their shortcomings to the table and discuss them.
“In one of our first associate council meetings, we had a store manager ask if we would take a look at the store because it needed some neighborhood merchandising help,” she says. “By the afternoon, our merchandising team was in that store and worked with the store team to do what they needed to do.”
She says the store’s revenue production has grown rapidly since then.
“My message to management is that I don’t need to come to the store and tell you what you’re not doing right. I need you to show me the things you are doing right and the things you need help with.”
While good communication is a must for any company that wants motivated employees and a successful culture, you can’t stop there. You also have to reward employees for realizing their potential and helping the company grow.
One of the first lessons Spires learned in business was that people want to feel like they matter.
“People need to feel attached to the company they work for,” she says. “They need to know that there is an importance to what they do.
“It’s something I experienced firsthand when I was just starting out. My store director, when I started working in this business, he had this ability to make me feel that this company wouldn’t run if I wasn’t here to do my job and I was a part-timer. I knew how much money I made in an hour, but that wasn’t the thing that made me fall in love with the business. It was how he made me feel about my job and my worth to the company. That’s something I firmly believe in.”
Spires tries to make people feel like they matter by doing things like handing out service recognition cards, which are handed out to high performers on the spot. She recognizes achievements on her weekly organizational broadcast. Stores that reach organizational benchmarks receive a storewide employee lunch.
But she says the tokens of gratitude and pats on the back don’t tell the whole story. Truly rewarding a high achiever means giving that person a chance to grow within the company.
Spires has helped launch a career fair program aimed at allowing the talents of her employees to blossom before they have a chance to work elsewhere.
In July, Acme invited more than 100 employees to one such fair.
“Having people do things they’re interested in, it just makes a world of difference,” she says. “Finding a cashier who is a high school art student and would really like to be a cake decorator, that makes all the difference, as opposed to finding someone from the outside and hiring them as a cake decorator.
“It all starts at that basic level, asking people, ‘What interest do you have in this company?’ or finding out what department they’d like to work in. People need to know what opportunities you have for them as they move up the ladder. That’s where we really start to get tremendous success stories from our people. It all goes back to one of our main goals of making this the best place to work.”
HOW TO REACH: Acme Markets Inc., www.acmemarkets.com
Go beyond the skill set. One thing I always say is when you’re bringing in members of the team, they have to become part of the family. As you’re bringing them in, A players are 10 times better than B players, and B players are about 10 times better than C players.
So an A player is literally about 100 times better than a C player. And that shows up not just in their skill sets, but in terms of their interpersonal skills and their ability to work on a team and get that effect of five people on a team can really do the work of 10 if they’re really collaborating and working well together.
I consider the team skills, cooperation, collaboration, to be every bit as important as the skill set.
We have what we call a ‘New Worker Inventory’ test. We’d give a skill test, say, if it’s an engineer coming in. But we also give this other test called the NWI that tests things like teamwork, the ability to work on a team, the ability to follow through. It’s more of those intangible things that predict whether this person will fit in with our team.
We don’t score it like a pass or fail, but we like to see the results of the test before we walk in to an interview process. It kind of tells us where to drill down. If that score’s a bit low, we give them an opportunity to take us through situations where they’ve worked on a team before.
I find that when you get people to talk about their projects, you really get to drill down deeper, in detail how the project played out, who was working on the team, what worked and what didn’t, where were the snags in this particular process. People are sometimes surprised at the level of detail that I drill down on a particular thing, but you often find out some really important stuff by doing that.
Identify the intangibles. Identifying a person’s intangibles is what is happening in the (interview) session. Things like eye contact; when you are having the conversation, are they trying to dominate, or are they listening?
You really try to tune in to the subtle things, the body language, that is going on during the interview process. That can be extraordinarily helpful. I also find that having multiple people in on the interview process is essential because everyone gets a different take, and you get to see what the chemistry is like among multiple people.
The technique I’m talking about might seem normal or ordinary, where you ask questions to dig in to somebody’s past, but I tend to take it beyond the level of other interviewers I’ve seen at other companies or even here.
I’ve had people come here and watch me interview, and they say it is very striking the level to which I drill down. I’ll ask who exactly was on your team, who did you like, who didn’t you like, why, what went right about the project, what didn’t? We’ll get into detail about it. What happened to that customer you were meeting with, why didn’t you get the sales you really wanted?
I might spend 20 minutes on half a sentence of their resume that might have triggered me to drill down. I’m trying to find the situation that is equivalent to the one they’re going to be in here in this company.
Find superstars to carry the load. As a CEO, one of my most important jobs is to back up and see the forest, even though we deal with the trees a lot. One of the best ways to accomplish that is to bring on superstars who can handle the day to day.
I’ve worked very hard at the recruiting side of the equation to find people that are much better than I would be at their particular roles in the company. Then I’ll spend the time I need to take care of the day-today affairs, but they’ll carry the load.
Then I reserve time for myself to think things over, and actually, sometimes, schedule it. I’ll reserve some time and drive off to a park and look around for a while, just to make sure I’m not in the middle of the war.
I need to get outside that so I can think clearly about, strategically, what should we be doing here? Other things I’ll do is I’ll spend a few hours every few days surfing the Internet, not necessarily drilling down on any particular point, but kind of an unguided searching expedition, just to see what is going on in the industry. I try to put myself in situations that are new and different and abnormal that might give me some new perspective on what strategy should look like.
If you stay in the same rut every day, you’re not likely to put yourself in the same context of where the world is going. You have to feed and nurture that side of things, and that’s not trained in college. How do you really get out of the box in a way that gets you to think about things differently?
Challenge people to think. The best way to challenge people is by example. You take them through it a few times, and they start to know what you’re going to walk in and say when the meeting begins, that I’m going to challenge them as to how might we get this thing done. I use a variety of techniques and creativity to get it done, but I’ll bring it to the table in various situations in my companies.
Partnership, accountability, trust and high reliability.
It’s Joe Swedish’s path or, more correctly, his “P.A.T.H.” Those four qualities are the team-building characteristics that he wants every person at Trinity Health to embody, from the senior managers down to the lowest levels of the $6.1 billion, seven-state health care service provider.
With partnership, accountability, trust and high reliability in place among its people, Swedish says an organization is built on a foundation of bedrock that will allow it to grow for years to come.
“For me, it’s that acronym,” he says. “That’s what a team is based on. With all of us working together, if we can fit ourselves to that team construct, I believe we can accomplish great things.”
When Swedish became president and CEO of the fourth-largest Catholic health care provider in the U.S. in 2005, he had never led a multistate business entity that needed large-scale alignment of its people in order to accomplish long-term objectives. Out of necessity, he had to undergo a self-directed crash course on large-scale organizational management.
He quickly came to an overriding conclusion: The power of a business is in its people. You have to be able to harness that power in order to grow your business, and in order to do that, you need your people to not only work together, but to want to work together for the common good of the organization.
That is how Swedish started down his path to “P.A.T.H.” “The challenge I quite frankly underestimated was a matter of scale, with regard to geographic dispersion, program diversity and just the nature of managing infrastructure that oversees all of our locations,” he says. “What I have learned thus far is that I have to be more trusting of people, my leadership team, and I really have to become very knowledgeable about the power of talent in an organization.”
The four qualities of partnership, accountability, trust and high reliability are, as Swedish calls them, “vectors toward a simple word, and that’s ‘alignment.’”
“There has to be clarity of purpose and a commitment on the part of the people who are serving the organization,” he says. “Fundamentally, people have to be able to trust the leadership and commit to the team so they feel that sense of ownership toward the organization.”
To define the path for a business, you must define where you want to take your business, and to do that, Swedish says you must isolate what it is you want to value as a leader.
He says strategy is one of the most important areas in terms of defining an organizational path.
“I spend a lot of time determining the effective path of the organization based on our strategic direction,” he says. “The responsibility of the CEO to set strategy is a very significant responsibility. Basically, it lets your organization know what you’re striving to achieve and why that sense of ownership is so important. We can only accomplish it if everybody is aligned.”
For Swedish, the critical keys to alignment are making sure you have strong communication within your culture and that you intelligently manage risk.
Swedish says that without effective communication, your best-laid plans will die on the vine.
And truly effective communication appeals to employees on a personal level.
“Once you’ve defined the path, then it becomes the responsibility of the CEO and the team to communicate again and again,” Swedish says. “You want to make sure certain people are listening to your message, and in order to listen, that gets back to the ability of the person communicating to cover their personal commitment, not just to the organization, but to each individual.”
It’s the philosophy behind Swedish’s second P.A.T.H. acronym: passion, attitude, truth and heart. Those four qualities are essential for authentic communication that draws in your team. Swedish says a CEO must be passionate about what he or she is saying, and that must go along with large doses of positive attitude, transparency of message and speaking from the heart.
“Every leader has the responsibility to exhibit those qualities. That is evidence of an organization where people can really begin to get that sense of ownership because they believe the owner is really trying to bring them into the organization with that level of commitment and is an authentic leader.”
But delivering a message with passion, attitude, truth and heart is only half the battle. If you are in Swedish’s situation, with many employees spread across multiple locations, you need to make sure the employees in Location A are interpreting your messages in the same manner as employees in Location B.
With 45,000 employees in seven states, that is no simple task for Swedish. That’s why he decided early in his tenure to begin stressing what he calls “common language.”
“What I have found repeatedly is a disconnect, a breakdown of common language,” he says. “I can go from one location to another and the same word means different things to different people.”
Shortly after arriving at Trinity Health, Swedish gathered his senior management together for a series of culture-shaping sessions that lasted for about six months. In those sessions, Swedish and his leadership formed a template for uniform communication across the health system, including common organizational terminology.
“As an example, we all committed to the description of our organization as unified enterprise ministry,” he says. “To us, that means something more powerful. To others, it might not mean as much.”
He says each word was selected with a particular quality in mind. “Unified” represents a systemwide approach to communication and best practices.
“If you are a unified organization, you are better able to cross-pollinate best practices, so that a hospital in Silver Spring, Md. can benefit from the achievements of a hospital in Boise, Idaho or Fresno, Calif.,” he says.
“Enterprise” is an acknowledgement that Trinity Health is a complex, growing organization that must manage risk effectively.
“Hospitals within our organization are singularly very traditional but connected from the scale in this organization can create a very powerful voice to promote the transformation of health care in the U.S.,” he says.
“Ministry” speaks to Trinity Health’s mission in the communities it serves. The system has its roots in Catholic health care providers extending back more than 100 years.
“Ministry means simply to serve, and we want to be able to continue in the tradition of serving our communities,” he says. “So those three words, that is an example of common language. No matter where I go in Trinity today, we talk about being a UEM.”
The job of communicating to all parts of a large organization falls, in many ways, onto the shoulders of the field management. Since a CEO can’t be in all places at all times, or even some of the time, Swedish says he learned very quickly that driving a message across an organization is heavily reliant on those directly beneath the CEO.
“Certainly you become aware that the limit of your control is probably about a layer and a half or two layers in the organization,” he says. “Beyond that, you are really trusting individuals who work with you to effectively guide the organization to accomplish its goals.”
Swedish meets regularly with all leaders throughout the Trinity Health organization, in person and by phone, to reinforce the messages that originate in the home office.
“I’m not disconnected from the organization, but we have 45,000 associates,” he says. “I have to have a team I can trust and that is aligned with me and my thinking regarding the primary objectives of the organization.
“Leaders like me really pride themselves on that face-to-face connection. But that is incredibly difficult in a far-flung organization. In some regards, it’s really not that different from a multinational organization, which suffers the same issues with regard to executive outreach. So you have to be able to rely on the talent that immediately surrounds you to carry out that message.”
Swedish says aligning a company for optimum growth means managing risk in a uniform fashion. One wing of your company might lean toward playing its cards close to the vest, while another might like to gamble a bit more.
However, if the conservative wing of your company is losing money by missing out on growth opportunities while the more adventuresome wing is making bad investments, it all adds up to the net sum of pulling the company downward.
Swedish says the key word is “judgment.” “If you don’t take risks, you don’t grow. Business risk is like personal risk in that it’s a matter of seizing moments that, in many cases, are opportunities that only come along once. As a CEO, managing change is probably the hardest thing I do every day.”
Swedish says it comes back to knowing what you want to value as an organization, and then communicating that to your employees. Through communication and feedback, he says you will figure out what is an acceptable risk level for those in your company.
“Taking risks means different things to different people because people have different levels of risk tolerance,” he says. “It’s the responsibility of the leadership to advance risk-taking to appropriate levels to continue growth.
“I think it’s important to note that the most important risk-evaluating tool I have is the ability to know two plus two equals four without knowing what the second ‘two’ is. That was something that was taught to me many years ago by a mentor. The judgment of the leader is what helps an organization discern the correct degree of risk to take on in any project or activity that attempts to move the organization. Again, it all distills down to judgment.”
HOW TO REACH: Trinity Health, www.trinity-health.org