Brian Horn

Tuesday, 26 August 2008 20:00

Setting your sights

Back when VisionIT Inc. was a smaller organization, founder and CEO David Segura could easily go out to lunch with employees and talk about the company’s vision and goals.

Now with 850 employees, doing so is more difficult, forcing Segura to find other methods to communicate his company’s vision, including an anniversary video showing how the IT staffing company grew to 2007 revenue of more than $107 million, up 373 percent from 2006.

“Every new team member that joins our company sees the VisionIT video and gained a better understanding and appreciation for where the company started from and where it’s going,” Segura says. “It allows us to touch many more people through that video.”

However, before you can communicate a vision, you must first research your industry, create your vision and then stick with it.

Smart Business spoke with Segura about how to get the most out of your company’s vision.

Understand your current marketplace. Initially, you are setting the groundwork of making sure you’ve got all of the clear data and information before setting that vision.

You’re not always going to have every piece of information, but you want to try to gather as much as possible to then look at and evaluate and say, ‘This is where we are at; this is what I have to work with as far as resources.’ But, also know that when you are establishing that vision, there are still always going to be some, if not many, unknowns. But, based on that framework, you can establish a clear vision of, ‘This is where I want the organization to go. This is how I see it operating. This is what I see it doing. Here’s the types of people I see that our organization will have to attract or groom from within the organization.’

A lot of people have dreams of, ‘I wish I could do this; I wish I could do that,’ When you start to really pepper them with more questions, you find they haven’t done a lot of research on that industry — how they’re going to get there, what the current trends are.

I think what is important is doing your research so you clearly understand what is happening in that industry before you set that vision of where you want the organization to go. From my perspective, a lot of the decisions and game plans ... that we built for VisionIT came from a lot of research and planning and strategy and then being audacious.

That’s the exciting part of setting a vision. It is unlimited. You may not have every aspect of it mapped out, but that’s also part of the excitement of setting forth that vision and the experience and the adventure you go on in fulfilling that vision.

Don’t overanalyze. Some people are extremely analytical, and they can spend too much time, or they are not audacious enough that they are so concerned about, ‘That might not even be possible.’

It’s a nice balance between doing research and gathering data, but also timing is so important and understanding that there is a time to act and a time to begin to move forward. Sure, you aren’t going to have every piece of data. You can start gathering that information as you proceed forward.

But, if you stay in the visionary stage too long without moving forward, the timing of the opportunities may dissolve quickly.

Don’t lose focus. Clearly, that really comes from the leadership team of ensuring that we stay focused that the opportunities we take on align with where the organization is going, that we’re not taking any opportunities just because it exists or someone’s willing to give it to us.

Once the vision has been set and people are driving toward it, then new things are coming into the organization — new opportunities that are totally different than the vision you’ve set. I find that an organization starts to take on those opportunities and suddenly there is confusion within the organization because you have team members that are saying, ‘I thought this is what we’re trying to achieve, and now it seems like something totally different.’

I find that a major pitfall for an organization is they get excited about the opportunities, but it doesn’t align with the vision.

So they lose focus. They start going down so many different paths that unfortunately their organization stops rallying around the work and becomes more frustrating, more confusing — ‘Who’s doing what? Who’s on first? Who’s on second?’ Before you know it, nothing is working and the morale is down and your organization isn’t achieving and you’ve spread yourself too thin. You’re not driving toward that vision.

We had a customer that wanted to give us all of their clerical business. VisionIT said, ‘We’re not a clerical staffing company; we are a technology firm.’ We could have taken it on. I know we would have worked hard and delivered. But I think it would have caused confusion within my organization — ‘I thought we were an IT company?’

That’s a good example of why we’ve achieved the results we have because everyone clearly understands that we are a technology firm first and foremost.

HOW TO REACH: VisionIT Inc., (877) 768-7222 or

William Wilson isn’t

just making huge

business deals when he arrives early in the morning at KZF Design Inc.

“I clean up the coffee

machine and refill the sugar

and the creamer and things

like that,” says the president

and CEO of the architectural

and engineering firm, which

posted 2007 revenue of about

$15 million.

And he doesn’t do it just

because he likes coffee.

“There isn’t any job in the

company that you shouldn’t be

willing to roll your sleeves up

and do,” he says. “If you do

things like that, the staff will

be behind you on it.”

Smart Business spoke with

Wilson about staying involved

in your company and how to

communicate with diverse


Q. How do you communicate

with different levels of


It depends on the type of

business that you are in and

the type of people you have. In

my particular business, we

have a wide diversity of people with varying talents and

varying educational backgrounds.

You almost have to have a

smorgasbord of ways of handling things. There’s no one

solution fits all. It’s not like

you have a work force that has

a similar background and they

are all producing the same

product. This is much more

diversified, so it requires a lot

more personal tailoring.

There are people that are

great at working in groups and

talking in groups, and there are people that are very quiet

and don’t like that type of situation. You really need to get to

know all of your staff in order

to be able to manage the

process of interaction at the

level that they are most comfortable with.

Q. How do you get to know

your staff?

We are a team-oriented company. We are always working

together in groups and

teams on projects

together. Beyond that, I

think it’s important to

keep a certain amount

of separation between

your private life and

their private lives and

your life as a business

manager in the company.

But, just through the

general interaction,

you’ll get to know the

people and to learn

more about them just by

working with them.

Management in our

business is a hands-on

business. Our managers

are working managers.

We don’t have a separate layer of management that

has the ivory office and sends

dictation through the various

other people to filter down to

the staff. We’re actually working on projects. The management in our company is actively involved with our staff on a

daily basis.

Q. How could a leader develop a team-oriented culture?

One of the things that we do

here is we have something

called a discretionary fund.

Each of the managers in our

company has an allotted amount of money that’s given

to them every year, and it

varies depending on the size of

the group or the number of

people that would be involved.

The purpose of that is we

didn’t want accounting micro-managing decisions being

made at the floor level or at

the management level within

the company every time someone said, ‘I’d like to give somebody a gift certificate, or I’d

like to buy them dinner,’ or something like that. We didn’t

want accounting saying, ‘Well,

give me a justification for it,’

or making any kind of attachment to it of, ‘This has to be

tied to a client,’ or some other

business reason.

There are just times where,

you as a manager, have to step

in and do something, and it

has to be timely and it has to

be immediate, and it doesn’t

need a whole lot of overview

or peer pressure on you about

why you did it.

So, this discretionary fund

system has been very helpful

in terms of giving us the

opportunity to reward people,

to send something to someone

or give them a night off. Just a

quick way to recognize the

effort that individuals put in.

There are many times that

people work here to late

evenings, multiple evenings to

get ready for a particular presentation or a project going out.

It’s important to recognize

those things when they happen, not to save up a list and

then, at the end of the year,

give them something to thank

them for all they did the previous year, so we tried to reward

people in a timely manner or

on an ongoing basis through

something like that.

It’s one of the many tools that

we use. Obviously, just walking

over and saying thanks or just

being aware at a management

level that someone’s been

working the last couple of days

really hard for you and just

walking over and saying, ‘I

want you to know I really

appreciate what you did.’

It’s those kinds of things

that are extremely important,

in terms of just maintaining

the culture, and also supporting the staff and showing

them that you are aware of

what is going on and that you

do care.

HOW TO REACH: KZF Design Inc., (513) 621-6211 or

Saturday, 26 July 2008 20:00

Legal opinions

When Gary L. Sasso became president and CEO of CarltonFields P.A. in February 2006, he learned a quick lesson in his firstfew months leading the law firm.

“When I started this job, there were a couple of occasionswhere I expected my colleagues to rally around an idea I hadbased simply on the elegance of the idea without really taking thetime or the trouble to walk them through all the steps that it tookme to get there,” says Sasso, who has been with Carlton FieldsP.A. since 1987. “I had a wake-up call that people weren’t simplygoing to love the idea because I thought it was a great idea.”

Sasso learned to involve people sooner in a discussion, and thenbroaden that circle, if necessary.

“Because, even if it’s a great idea, particularly lawyers have a lot ofskepticism about any idea,” he says. “You have to take some time andtrouble to make sure people have all the facts so they understand thenecessity for perhaps a change and come to some agreement that thisstrategy is a good one.”

Yet, in order to get honest opinions out of his employees from thesediscussions, Sasso needs to create an open environment and doesthat by setting the tone with his actions.

“I really don’t ask people to let their guard down,” he says. “What Ido is I let my guard down. I’m very open with people, and I tell themwhat’s on my mind. I give them the facts, and I hope they will respondin kind, but I don’t ask people to trust me because I don’t feel I couldask people to do that. I feel I have to earn it. I think I can earn it byshowing them that I am treating them with that same respect.”

Sasso suggests starting small to develop a comfort level with sharing information that will eventually build up trust and respect.

“I would say, first, try it out on a close circle of confidants in thefirm,” he says. “Try it out with people you feel comfortable with or thatyou trust, and see how it is, see how it feels. Then extend that circleuntil eventually you include everyone in the organization.”

Since becoming president and CEO, the company has grown in bothrevenue and employee numbers. The firm increased from 575 employees at the end of 2006 to 594 at the end of 2007 and 612 as of April of thisyear. Revenue jumped from approximately $109 million in 2006 to morethan $125 million 2007.

Sasso says he couldn’t delegate or lead change without letting hisguard down and hearing other’s opinions.

“I just couldn’t do this job any other way,” he says. “Again, it’s a matter of making the decision that I make better decisions because I amgetting better input. It’s also a matter of making sure that people arebehind those decisions and will execute, that we’re rowing togetheras a firm, and I’m not out there rowing by myself. We’re not going toget very far if I’m rowing myself. I think that’s crucial for me and that’scrucial for the firm.”

Here’s how Sasso used the ability to let his guard down to maximizedelegation and lead change.

Don’t try to do it all yourself

Sasso says it’s not hard for him to delegate a task.

“I have to delegate everything I can delegate because there are manythings I can’t delegate, so I have my hands full doing those things,” hesays.

“It’s easy to identify the things that only I can handle, at least in a lawfirm, because all of our attorneys are busy practicing law. Only I amcharged with dealing with a lot of the big-picture issues that our firmhas to confront. I can’t delegate those issues, which involve issues ofstrategy or positioning the firm, and that takes up an awful lot of mytime — issues relating to our growth. Other attorneys in the firm, andreally most managers in the firm, have a full plate dealing with otherissues, and I have to free up my time to deal with those matters thatno one else is dealing with. I will delegate everything I can that mightotherwise fall on my plate, as long as somebody else in the firm is ableto handle those responsibilities well.”

If you are having trouble delegating work to those around you,Sasso recommends lining up your priorities and being honest withyourself.

“I would suggest making a list of the most important things that person has to address in order, and then being very honest about howmany of those things you can reasonably do,” he says. “Chances areyou are not going to get very far down that list. You have to delegateeverything else. You get tempted all the time to do things that otherpeople can do or should do or can do better, and you have to resistthat temptation.”

Sasso tries to spend most of his time supporting the organization’sstrongest practices and dealing with the organization’s greatest opportunities.

“But I obviously care about all of our attorneys and all of our practice groups and do try to be aware of what’s going on throughout thefirm,” he says. “Some of our practice groups just have a lot more activity and provide more opportunity and also warrant more attention.”

Even though Sasso has no problem delegating work to allow him tofocus on big-picture ideas, he does monitor what he delegates.

“I do try to monitor what is happening throughout the firm,” hesays. “We have regular managers meetings, and I will talk to peoplethroughout the firm from time to time to make sure I have a senseof how they’re doing and how our different practice groups and different offices and functions are doing.”

Sasso says he has stepped over the line and may have gotten tooinvolved in a situation where he delegated, but that’s when lettinghis guard down comes into play. Those around him are free to tellhim when he is interfering.

“I always encourage others in the firm to be honest with me,” hesays. “I will ask them as we are working on matters togetherabout whether I’m being helpful or whether I am interfering.

“I have frequent discussions with our managers about what rolesthey can play and what roles I should play. So, we try to keep fairly open communication about that. “Nonetheless, I’m sure thereare occasions where others feel I am stepping on their toes andsome occasions where others feel I am not helping enough.”

While not everyone may let Sasso know if he is meddling too

much, he realizes that if he focuses on his priority list, those jobswill keep him busy.

“I’m sure there are some occasions where people feel uncomfortable raising that with me,” he says. “But most of this is takencare of simply by the dictates of time. There’s only so much I cando. So, there’s only so much I can meddle in what other people do.”

Overall, delegating responsibilities and allowing employees tohave input on ideas has helped make Sasso’s job easier and hashelped the organization grow.

“These lawyers and key staff people really help grow the firm,help make sure we provide the best possible service to our clients,help us identify and seize opportunities,” he says. “These peopleare self-starters; they provide a lot of input into decisions that wemake as a firm. If I try to map out all by myself where we’re goingas a firm and what we’re doing as a firm, I might come up withsome good ideas. But, it never fails to be the case that when I pulltogether some of our top people on any issue we are dealing with,we come out with a better decision than I would make alone.”

Roll with t he changes

Staying on top of the changes in your industry is a key to long-termgrowth.

“Our profession is changing quite a bit. What the law firm looks liketoday is changing quite a bit. How our clients use legal services ischanging quite a bit. So, there’s a part of this that just involves observation and analysis of what is happening around us. Then part of itinvolves deciding what we are going to do about that.”

To identify what changes need to be made in the firm, Sasso observeswhat is taking place in the marketplace. The organization turns to legaltrade publications to find out what other firms are doing across thecountry.

After soaking in all the changes and ideas being talked about andpracticed across the country, the firm deciphers between the ideasthey feel are fads and ideas they feel will stick around for a while. Theytalk with clients, and if they are hearing the same opinions fromclients, they know that change is something they need to focus on.

“For example, we know that clients want to have depth in areaswhere they have legal needs,” he says. “That’s pretty obvious from justus talking to clients. So, we built depth in key areas where our clientshave legal needs. We know that clients, in some cases, like us to collaborate with them on cost control. That becomes evident, we talk tothem, they tell us their concerns, and we will deal with that. We knowthat’s not a trend because we know it’s very important to our clients.We know it’s not a flash in the pan.”

Sasso then has to get employees to buy in to the change. “There is a temptation to do something a certain way becausewe’ve always done it that way. And there is a natural reticence bypeople to make changes because people feel comfortable aboutwhat they’ve done before,” he says.

Sasso and his team make a case for the change, which involves talking to people inside the firm who are involved in that change.

“It could be a problem, it could be a concern, it could be a perceivedopportunity,” he says. “We may debate it and talk about differentapproaches or solutions, and then typically I will process all of thatand come back to that group with either a summary of what we talkedabout or perhaps a conclusion of my own that comes out of that discussion.

“I’ve found when people understand all the facts, they generally willembrace the need for change and the strategy for change.”

Sasso says you can always sense when there is unease with a change.If there is unease, he is open to hearing about it and willing to discuss any problems employees may have.

However, it’s no coincidence that because Sasso welcomes open communication, he can’t recall an employee not getting on board for a change.If you don’t involve others in the change process, but instead make thedecision all on your own, you might run into that problem.

“That can be very, very dangerous to make decisions that waybecause ultimately we really need the people in the firm to be behindwhat we decide or it’s not going to be reality,” he says. “Any organization depends on planning and execution. You can have great planning,but if you don’t have the execution, you are going to fall flat on our face.The people who execute are all the employees in the organization. Ifthey don’t buy in with what you’re doing, it’s not going to happen.”

HOW TO REACH: Carlton Fields P.A., (813) 223-7000 or

Saturday, 26 July 2008 20:00

Banking on talent

Youdon’t need to tell Joseph C. Guyaux about tough love. The president of The PNCFinancial Services Group Inc. learned all about it when he was in college.

Guyauxhad two potential summer jobs: One was for a company that was a precursor toMerrill Lynch, and the other was for the Upper Allegheny Joint SanitaryAuthority — when there was a lot of rain, it would be his job to lift manholecovers and climb in with a hard hat and little shovel and unplug clogs.

Guyauxplanned to accept the Merrill Lynch job, but his father had other plans. Hisfather told him if he didn’t take the sanitary job, which paid less than theother job, he would have to move out.

“Isaid, ‘I don’t understand,’” Guyaux says. “He said, ‘Look, I don’t know whatyou’re doing when you are off at college, but I want you to understand whereyou could end up if you don’t make the best of your opportunities. So, this isyour job.’

“Ilater found out that the sanitary authority hired 14 people for the summer.Twelve sat in the air conditioning and painted the pipes at the sanitationplant different colors.

Twowent out on the line. My father had requested that if I was given the job, thatI must be one of the people that went out on the line.”

Guyauxdidn’t leave the experience without learning a lesson. “Where it shows up forme and what my father instilled in me was, we all have chances andopportunities in life,” he says. “Sometimes, we take them for granted like theyaren’t that big of a deal or, ‘I’ll get another one.’

“Ithink what my dad was trying to say to me was, ‘Hey, you should be thrilled togo to college, but what are you going to do now that you are there?’ I try totell people that you might be thrilled with a promotion, you might be thrilledthat you got hired here, but now that you are here, celebrate, but how are yougoing to take advantage of it now? What are you going to do to prepare yourselfto be the best that you can be so that you don’t have any regrets?”

Guyauxsays one of his biggest challenges is motivating more than 28,000 employees atPNC, which posted $6.7 billion in 2007revenue, to achieve new goals.

“Itis hard,” he says. “It’s sort of like when you have a group of people that aretrying to win a world championship in anything. Everybody makes the sacrificeto do it. I think why it’s so hard to sort of continue and repeat with the samegroup of people is that once you’ve achieved it, it does feel like, ... ‘Don’twe deserve a break?

“Youjust have to keep saying, ‘As well as we’re doing today, it’s not a certaintythat because of how well we are doing today we will be doing this well threeyears from now.’”

Guyauxand his team are consistently asking themselves the tough questions about wherethey are now as a company and where they want to be in the future.

“So,I’ll get my team together and say, ‘Three years from now, if we are doing thesame things, if we’re executing the same strategies, does that sound like awinning place for you? What are people that are struggling today or maybe arebetter in certain areas or even nonbanks, what are they doing? What do we thinkabout that? If we are going to stay ahead of them, what are the implications ofthat for us?’” he says.

Getemployees involved

Inorder to keep everyone excited and on the same page, you need to involveemployees in decisions at the company. The ability to do so exemplifies thedifference between leadership and management.

“Iknow this is an oversimplification, (but) when I think of management, it’s sortof, ‘I know what I want to do, and I want people to execute it. Here’s theplan, here’s the product, here’s the pricing. I want us to go find 1,000customers,’” he says. “If that’s what I want, I should just simply say, ‘Look,I need you to execute. I’m not asking you to bring your thinking and your views— feedback would be great, but let’s get going.’

“Ithink that’s different from getting people aligned. You have to leave room forthem to own whatever you’re doing.”

Forexample, PNC had an initiative called “One PNC” that was focused on how to makethe company more efficient and effective. In order to get the best results,employees are asked for their ideas.

“Webasically went out to the company and said, ‘We’d like your thoughts and ideason this,’” he says. “We even organized cross-functional teams, and we had aprocess where all these ideas bubbled forward and were then decisions. Therewere decisions of yes, no, not now, let’s take this one, but every employee’sthought or advice ... was at least considered.”

Someideas were discussed in work groups, and ideas would come from the supervisorlevel.

Therewere also no incentives for an employee if the company used an idea.

“Thiswas really just inviting them in and saying, ‘Listen, we need to do better atthese things,” he says. “Rather than management sitting off by itself andtrying to figure it out, we’re going to open this process up to the wholecompany, and that way, we’ll get the best ideas and the best way to get to ourdestination.”

Ifmanagement would have taken care of One PNC by itself, Guyaux said it wouldn’thave been as successful.

“Mysense is we would have hit our objectives, whatever they would have been,financially,” he says. “We would have probably made some serious mistakesthat we didn’t understand the unintended consequences because we would haveordered things to get done. And I do not think we would have emerged with amotivated inspired, engaged work force.”

Instead,the company had an inspired work force, and One PNC generated $400 million incost savings.

“Itmakes people a part of the company,” he says “So, when we declared success onOne PNC, there were literally thousands of people inside PNC that could saythat happened because of me.”

Theaverage cost-saving idea cut about $150,000 in expenses. “These weren’t, ‘Sella building, downsize your sales force by 20 percent.’ It wasn’t those ideas. Itwas a bunch of little ideas. So, ever

ybody literally could see whether theycame up with the idea or whether they executed the idea or whether theyaccepted it, they had contributed to a wonderful outcome for the company.”


Whilea leader should get employee input, it’s important to be clear to those belowyou that their opinions are honestly wanted.

Guyauxrecalls when the company was launching a new checking product, which was adramatic undertaking.

Hehad four people on his team to work on it, and one day, he sat them down andtold them he was feeling good about it. He also noted there was some risk andasked if anyone was concerned or wanted to talk about anything.

“Isaid, ‘I really need to know where you are at on that. Here’s where I’m atbased on what I know, but I value your thoughts on this.’ I went through personby person, and they all said, ‘Fine.’ We go into launch, and about a week afterlaunch, one of the women comes in and says, ‘Joe, you should know, here’s a badoutcome, here’s a bad outcome and here’s a bad outcome.’”

Guyauxasked her how this could have happened, and she said she suspected before thelaunch that it was a possibility but didn’t say anything. He questioned why shedidn’t bring it up when he asked in the prelaunch meeting if anybody had anyconcerns.

“Shelooked at me and said, ‘Oh, you really meant that?’ I said, ‘What do you thinkI meant?’ She says, ‘Well, the bosses that I’ve had, usually when they saythat, that’s been code for, ‘Get on board or get out.’ I said, ‘But I didn’tsay that.’ She looked at me and she said, ‘Oh, I get that now, but that’s sortof how I heard it.’

“So,it just shows you how complicated life is. I think from time to time I am beingcrystal clear with no room for misinterpretation, but people have their ownsort of filters and files and experiences that sometimes even then get in theway.”

Guyauxsays part of the problem was only two of the people on the team had a prior,direct working relationship with him. The woman reported down two levels in theorganization from Guyaux, and she wasn’t that familiar with him on aprofessional level.

“So,what I got clear about is when I am speaking like that and I am asking peopleto respond, there is a difference between how much time and energy we’ve spentwith each other,” he says. “So, how sure can I be that they’ve heard mecorrectly? So, my lesson from that is, if I had to do it over again, I wouldhave assessed how strong do I think my relationship is with this person. If Iwouldn’t give it an 8, 9 or 10 on a scale of 10, I should have probably takenthose other people aside and said, ‘Look, I know you haven’t worked directlywith me, but I want to make sure there is no misunderstanding. You have thefreedom to really express what’s on your mind because that’s what I reallymean.’

“It’simportant there not be any misinterpretation. Instead, I just assumed thateverybody knew who I was and everybody knows how I operate. Therefore, when Isay this, I can expect a uniform response.”

Youalso need to look at people and gauge their reaction in meetings and follow upwith them if you feel you didn’t get the reaction you wanted when, forinstance, if you asked for those in favor of a proposal to say ‘aye.”

“Thereare times when some people say aye, and there are some times when other peopledon’t bother to say aye and there are times when they sort of turn away and sayaye,” he says. “It all means something. It could mean something.

“But,clearly, the people that are shouting aye, you figure they are going to leaveand go climb the hill. The people that didn’t even respond, it’s at least worththe inquiry of, ‘Did you just not want to respond, or did you just not want toobject?’”

Guyauxreflects after meetings, and then reacts if he doesn’t feel satisfied when themeeting is over.

“Ialways ask myself in important meetings, when I leave the meeting, howconfident am I that everybody got the message that I intended?” he says. “Quitefrankly, there are meetings where I think back and I picture people in theroom, and I think about the body language or the expression on their face. It willcause me from time to time to call people up and say, ‘Hey, I’m just checkingwith you. What did you come away from the meeting with? Did you feel inspiredand motivated; did you feel clear and excited? Or, where did you end up comingout of that meeting?’ It’s amazing how many times I’ve had the exact oppositeeffect on some people than I had intended.”

HOW TOREACH: The PNCFinancial Services Group Inc., (888) PNC-BANK or

Saturday, 26 July 2008 20:00

Big ideas

When building an organization, Lisa Stern says it’s important to bring the right people on board to succeed.

Stern, founder and CEO of Big Communications Inc., which posted 2007 revenue of about $17 million, uses the interview process to find out if someone will fit into the health care communications agency’s culture.

“The right people for us are not always that they have 50 years of experience in the technical skills that we need them to have,” she says. “Much of the time, it’s more about their innate makeup and the values that they have as part of their DNA that make them a good fit with us.”

Smart Business spoke with Stern about how asking the right questions during the interview process can help you find the right people to develop a solid organization.

Q. How do you know a potential employee is the right fit for your company?

It’s important to ask the right questions. I think behavioral-based questions really help to get an understanding of how a person would act in a certain situation. It’s really about asking questions to really (seek) out who they are at their core.

When you have clearly defined for yourself what those things are that you are looking for, it’s harder for a candidate to hide. As an example, we look for people that are detailed. So, one thing that I might ask them, depending on what position they are going to be in, is how you plan your day, how you organize your day. That’s a benign question. I don’t say to someone, ‘Are you detailed?’ I ask them about something specific that they can say, ‘Well, I find that I’ve got a great memory and that I always know what it is that I need to get done.’

To me, that is not a detailed person, it’s not a process person, and all I’ve asked them is how you organize your day. I may interview somebody that has been in a position before and I’ll say, ‘Tell me about a system at your current job or some other job that you really thought could have been better, that you really thought could have been made more efficient. If you were king or queen, what would you have done?’

If they don’t have any ideas, then I know they aren’t a systems person. I know they aren’t going to be thinking about process and how could we be more efficient.

If they’ve got a lot of ideas, that’s just inherent — you can’t fake that. If you are making up ideas that you could have had, then you are still thinking about process. But if you can’t think of anything — you can’t fake that in my mind.

Q. How do you know what you want out of your organization?

If you are starting a company from scratch and you are saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to establish is going to be our culture,’ that’s different than if you’re already in the middle of the organization and you’re like, ‘Oh, I better think about this cultural thing because it sounds like it’s kind of important.’ So, how do I analyze what we have here, and then make it better?

Q. How do you define your culture?

When we had about 20 people, we really liked our company, we liked our culture, we liked the feeling; we had no definition for it at the time.

But we kind of liked the ‘big’ feeling, and so we said to ourselves, ‘What is it that makes it so great here?’ We broke it down into people and what qualities those people had that, if we just had 100 of these three people, we could just change the world.

So, what are those adjectives that define those people? Then, pare it back even further to say, ‘What are the top five or six or seven?’ I think we’re at eight that really define who we are and who we want to be and who we want to continue to be because we liked where we were.

Then, our next step was to look at the leadership team and say, ‘OK, do we have these things, because if we don’t, it’s going to be very hard to live by them.’ So, if I’m not detailed, that can’t really be one of our cultural values because how am I going to lead by example? How am I going to teach people how to be detailed, how are we going to do that if we are not inherently ourself — which is not to say that every person in the organization on a scale of 1 to 10 needs to be a 10 in all of the cultural values because you aren’t going to find that.

HOW TO REACH: Big Communications Inc., (248) 246-5200 or

Wednesday, 25 June 2008 20:00

Pots of gold

It certainly wasn’t an overnight success story for Bob Johnston and The Melting Pot Restaurants Inc.

Sure, with more than 100 restaurants now open around the country and many more in the works, things look great.

However, when Johnston, president and chief operating officer, and his two older brothers, Mark and Mike, bought the Melting Pot fondue concept and its five restaurants in 1985, they were fighting an uphill battle. Aside from the problem of getting banks to loan them money, they were essentially doing everything themselves.

“Our story is not an instant success story,” Bob Johnston says. “The first 10 years we struggled, and we really failed to thrive.”

Yet, even with the challenges, they grew to 19 locations. “But, it wasn’t the growth that we had projected,” Johnston says.

[See Smart Business' Mike Cottrill interview Bob Johnston
about capturing customer service information.]

That was until 1995 when the trio established their mission, vision and principles as a blueprint on how to achieve their goals.

“We were not certain that this would solve all that ailed us at that time,” he says. “However, we realized that we were rather narrow-minded in how we viewed our business and made decisions.

“We tended to focus on ‘What will this do to the bottom line?’ first, as opposed to considering the impact on our two most important customers: First, our team members and management, and, secondly, our valued guests in the restaurant. The purpose of stating clearly our mission, vision and principles was to help us always put these two groups at the center of our decision-making.”

To create the mission, vision and principles, consultants interviewed team members about what was important to them regarding the business, while Johnston and his brothers discussed ideas for the mission, vision and principles with franchisees and showed them how the changes would help the company grow.

“We felt as, if they had a hand in creating this statement, it would be easier to buy in to it and also teach team members from it as a platform,” Johnston says. “We said, ‘Let’s take a hard look at ourselves. Let’s look at our business practices. Is it a match or is it a mismatch with these things that we say we believe?’ When we found mismatches, we changed things.”

By defining and stating the mission, vision and principles, the company attracts and retains better employees, and it’s easier for Johnston to monitor the company’s progress, which has led to faster growth.

In 2005, the company posted revenue of $160 million, then $194 million in 2006 and $217 million in 2007.

While currently employing approximately 5,000 employees, Johnston and his team continue to grow based on the changes made in 1995 and expect to open 36 additional restaurants by the end of 2009.

“Once we clearly stated mission, vision and principles, the next 10 years kind of tells the rest of the story. We went from 19 to 100 (locations), so you can kind of see what a difference it made,” he says.

Find and keep the best employees

The challenge that stands out most to Johnston in his years with the company is the attraction and retention of talented team members, both in management and service personnel.

The development of the mission, vision and principles has been a major key in reducing the problem. Because there are concrete beliefs set up through the mission, vision and principles, current and potential employees know what is expected of them.

“When that’s clear, you get benefits in two areas,” he says. “It benefits the existing leadership and management, but it also provides this benefit as a recruiting tool. It’s a magnet that kind of draws toward you people that are like-minded.”

Once the mission, vision and principles were clearly identified, Johnston had something that was portable and easily shared with his existing team members, franchisees and management.

“Really, it has served us in many areas and ... this clearer understanding of mission, vision and principles that we use to make our daily decisions became a recruiting tool,” he says. “It was kind of a litmus test of sorts [that] we shared with perspective franchisees and perspective team members and management candidates. We shared with them how we make decisions and the things that we believed. We have found effective ways of testing whether they have a higher likelihood of embracing these principles and using them in their daily decision-making or not. If they do, then they are attracted to the brand and pulled into the organization and help us grow. If they don’t, then, ultimately, it results in turnover, which is very costly in terms of hard dollars and soft dollars, and it takes away from our focus on our customer service mission when we have turnover.”

When hiring, Johnston wants to find flaws in a potential team member or where they might lack in regards to the mission, vision and principles.

“A lot of times, we get into a room with a potential team member and we tend to only see the things that we like about them; this is the one time to deny your human nature,” he says. “Don’t look for the things that you like about this person. Find out what’s wrong with them. Find out what you don’t like about them. What doesn’t fit in this picture?”

Johnston says he has trouble in this area and has a tendency to only want to be friendly with job candidates. That’s why he depends on others to help him in the interviewing process.

“We give them over to our existing team members and let them spend time together because some real interesting things happen during that interaction,” he says. “They step out of the interview mode and really, all of a sudden, become themselves alongside people who they think are going to be their peers, and they might be their peers. That’s where some real great learning takes place about the individual.”

The mission, vision and principles are now in print on trifold business cards that all team members carry with them to help guide them when faced with a decision. Though the card is a guide, the employee has the power to make a decision, instead of waiting for someone else to make the call. That empowerment develops employees who want to stay and grow with the company.

“So, what this whole clear understating of our principles and mission and vision, what it really results in is independence,” he says. “Team members are made more self-reliant, and they are able to make decisions on their own without having hand-

holding going on. And, the decisions they make tend to mirror the decisions of the principles, of the company and the top-level management, and that’s real power. When you have that in an organization, you have real power and now you are ready to grow.”

Monitor progress

Though the mission, vision and principles points the company in the right direction, Johnston still has to monitor if the company is meeting its goals and where it can improve.

To do that, Johnston manages by objective and not micro-management.

“My role, any leader’s role within an organization, is to share the top-line vision and have a clear understanding of what the objectives of the organization are,” he says. “The team members’ role is to develop the strategies and the tact ics to bring the organization to that objective and achieve it. My role is to set the objective and make sure they’re clear and, when necessary, help remove roadblocks for team members. Maybe they need more resources or they need to be kind of nudged in a different direction, occasionally, but that’s it. Their role is to get us to that result.”

Because one of the organization’s principles is learning, the company relies on that data to know where they are succeeding and where they are coming up short.

“You have to have your clear objective,” he says. “They have to be measurable. You have to have budgets and metrics for measuring results. You have to force yourself to face the music, look at performance against expectation and budget, and when it’s out of line, talk about it, make adjustments. We do that on a monthly basis with the entire leadership team.”

The company has an open format where all of the restaurant operators share all of their sales and data with every franchisee and operator, so they can learn from one another.

There are also franchise business consultants who work with restaurant franchisees, managers and employees and conduct topto-bottom assessments of how each unit is running. A third-party consultant company then monitors the customer feedback and reports on the results.

“I sit on the edge of my seat every Sunday waiting for that report to be e-mailed to me so I can see what the customers’ attitudes are toward the service and the experience we are providing,” he says.

When you get results, you have to use your own judgment when deciding what information will have the greatest impact upon your customer.

“It’s fairly obvious where the opportunities are,” he says. “We don’t overreact. We look for trends. We look for validation. If this feedback is an anomaly, then we might, I wouldn’t say we disregard, but we’ll come back and look at it later. If it’s something that we’re seeing continual feedback of the same sort, then we huddle up with our leadership team ... and look at that and examine it further, drill down and go to our operators and managers, talk to them about the challenges that we think we are seeing and get their input.”

While, ideally, Johnston wants his people to identify a problem and work through it themselves, there are times when they need help.

When there is a roadblock, Johnston wants the troubled team member to come to him with the problem. In order for that to happen and for him to monitor effectively, he needs to establish an environment where a team member will admit to a mistake.

“It’s something you work on every day,” he says. “The bottom line is that comes as a result of the team members monitoring your behavior, your actions. You can say it all you want — ‘If you need help, let me know.’ But, if your actions say something different, trust me, they aren’t going to come to you. They’ll sweep it under a mat.”

When Johnston experiences a customer defect while dining out, he knows that if a manager doesn’t visit him, it isn’t because the front-line employee doesn’t care enough to tell the manager.

“It’s because they’re worried about the repercussion of going to management and saying, ‘Hey, we dropped the ball here,’” he says.

That’s why the company preaches to the managers at the restaurant level that the ball will be dropped from time to time, and, when it does, don’t read the guilty party the riot act.

“You think they’re going to come see you again?” Johnston says. “Would you rather have problems and know about it so you can do something about it or rather not know you have problems?”

HOW TO REACH: The Melting Pot Restaurants Inc., (800) 783-0867 or

Wednesday, 25 June 2008 20:00

FocusMark Group LLC makes decisions by data

Kim Allan Sharp, the

founder, president and

CEO of FocusMark Group LLC, has a saying he has

adhered to all his life: “Not

always right but never in


The statement reflects Sharp’s

view on how important it is for

a leader to not only make decisions but also to empower

employees to make decisions.

He says employees need to

know a leader has the decision-making ability to execute on

the vision of the company.

“If the leader or the CEO

doesn’t make the decision necessary to execute your vision,

obviously, everything bogs

down,” says Sharp, who led the

marketing agency to 2007 revenue of about $40 million.

Smart Business spoke with

Sharp about how he uses data

— and gut feelings — to make


Q. How do you empower

employees to make decisions?

Many times, I’ll bring everybody — or the particular

employees — in, and we’ll talk

about what are the options,

and we’ll narrow down those

options to two or three options.

What I’m always about is, ‘I

can make this decision for you

right now, but here is what I

think, from a consensus standpoint, we agree [that these] are

the logical options that fall in

line with executing our vision.

It’s up to you to decide which

one of those routes to take.’

At the same time, understand

that you’re going to be held

accountable from a revenue

standpoint or from an employee morale standpoint, whatever

road you take. In many ways, I believe, if you can educate your

employees, they will help you

make those decisions, and, quite

frankly, usually they make the

decisions you’d make anyway.

Q. How do you educate your

employees to make those


We’re very numbers-oriented,

so we look at it from a numbers

standpoint. That can be financial numbers, those could be

marketing numbers,

those could be numbers

regarding square footage

of a building.

We always have a way

of saying, ‘OK, let’s say

here’s what the numbers

tell us,’ and we’re a numbers-processed, engineering-type organization in everything we do.

What we then say is, ‘OK,

even though we know

these are what the numbers are, we all know,

even if you are a good

statistician, that about 20

percent of a good statistician is that gut feeling or

the subjective nuances

that you bring into your

final decision-making.’

So, we try to balance it.

Providing people with facts and

figures and then mixing that

with your good, old, ‘OK, this is

what my instincts tell me,’

that’s the best way to have a

powerful mix of information

that allows and empowers our

employees to make the right


Q. How do you react if your

team is married to the data,

but you want to go in another


You have an organization

that, in many ways, you’ve educated to look at the numbers in

their decision-making. Then

what happens is, you have to

come back and you have to sit

them down and coach them

and say, ‘OK, here’s all the numbers. But what, for instance,

would be the impact on that

employee you are talking

about? Or, what would be the

impact — I know we’ve

worked hard on that, I know

we’ve overcommitted the

hours on a project for a client— but what’s the impact? I

understand what the numbers

are, but what’s the long-term


Many times, it’s just coaching

and also educating our employees and senior management

team, that, yes, they have decision-making authority, and yes,

we want them to be aware of

the numbers, but, at the same

time, they have to look beyond

that. There’s a balance between

those two, and we highly

encourage that for them to

make those decisions. Again,

you might have an executive

VP or senior VP from an operating unit, they’re going to follow the numbers, and it may

end up that you lose a client

over it, or you lose a key

employee over that.

I’d rather see somebody

make that type of decision and

see the consequences of the

decision because that is going

to be the best learning tool,

rather than if I am always just

making decisions for people.

Q. How do you handle mistakes?

I’m a big believer that, many

times, you have to fail in order

to succeed because you learn

from your failures. It’s more of

a coaching.

The numbers allow you to

provide analysis. If you have

failed, well, why did you fail?

Let’s look at it from an analytical standpoint first, and then

bring in the empiricals. From a

coaching standpoint, I don’t

mind failure because that

means that employee is trying

and, at the same time, developing that learning curve that

we all have to work on every


HOW TO REACH: FocusMark Group LLC, (513) 583-4660 or

Friday, 25 April 2008 20:00

The last full measure

A lot has changed since Herb Shear began leading GENCOSupply Chain Solutions more than 30 years ago.

For starters, the chairman, president and CEO of the reverselogistics company only had 15 people with him in the beginning.

“So, obviously, your leadership style for managing 15 peopleversus an organization today that has 7,000 people in 100 different locations — it’s significantly different,” he says. “So, Ihad to evolve my leadership style and my leadership thinkingover that 36-year period because if I was doing the same leadership style that I did 36 years ago, the company would probably implode.”

One of the primary ways he’s found to make sure everyone is staying true to the company’s mission is by relying heavily on data.

“You can’t manage a business without good, good data,” Shearsays. “If you continually manage from your gut, eventually you’regoing to have a problem. So, we like to make decisions based onour data. Sometimes, you don’t have all the data, and you have tojust go with your gut. But, we like to get as much data as possibleto make our decisions with.”

The goal at GENCO is to have great customer and employee satisfaction and to be a profitable company — and each one of thoseareas is measured to see just how well the company is doing.

“It’s more than just words to us,” Shear says. “We actually measure our customer satisfaction, our teammate satisfaction and ourprofitability. We only consider ourselves a successful company ifwe are doing well in all three. It’s like a three-legged stool. If one ofthe legs is broken, we need to fix it.”

Monitor progress

Shear makes it clear he wants GENCO to focus on the customer,and he makes sure that is happening through data.

The company surveys at least its top 75 customers once aquarter to find out how well the company is serving them.

GENCO takes the surveys one step further by not relying onsome outside firm to do them but requires every senior manager inthe company to conduct them. The surveys are made up of predetermined questions and are administered by phone by the managers.

“We want every senior manager talking to customers becausesometimes you get so involved in other things you forget you havecustomers,” he says.

“So, every quarter, we survey and database the results, and wemonitor how we are doing with our customers. We’re very proactive. So, if a customer says they have a problem or we aren’t meeting their objectives, we don’t want to call them again next quarterand have them say the same thing again.”

Though Shear says you can be inundated with data, he saysdetermining the information to pull from the surveys is easy. Ifsomething in the surveys tells Shear and his team that a customeris having an issue, they try to fix it immediately.

“You really have to pick what’s significant,” he says. “We’ve created what we called a balanced scorecard (from the surveyresults), which we put out once a month that’s about one page forthe overall company.

“On the balanced scorecard, we’ve identified the items that wethink are significant to the company’s long-term success. And then,it’s like a dashboard. Things are either in red or green. Greenmeans you’re doing fine; red means we’ve got some issues —we’ve got to improve in that area.”

While the scorecard process is always evolving, overall, the company sticks to its mission and values when determining what is significant.

“Every company has to decide that for themselves — what’s really important for my long-term success? What’s the stuff I should becontinually looking at?” he says. “It shouldn’t be more than a page.It should be something you can do on a page or less.”

Shear says a common misconception about customer surveys isthat those surveyed will try to find something wrong even if theyare satisfied with the service.

“When we first started surveying customers, everybody said, ‘Wedon’t want to do that. No news is good news, and if you ask customers if they have a problem, they are going to make up a problem,’” he says. “I think we found by being proactive and surveyingour customers and having senior managers talk to customers thatwe tend to keep our customers longer than our competitors.

“Our longevity with customers is longer because we’re going thatextra mile to create a strong relationship with our customers andcreate customer satisfaction,” he says.

Value your employees

Shear also uses surveys to focus on his employees as much as hiscustomers — and for similar reasons.

“If we aren’t creating a good work environment and we lose ourvalued teammates, long term, we’re not going to be profitable,” hesays.

Part of retaining employees who fit into a positive culture is thetimeliness in which you respond to those issues.

“If we see areas where we don’t have a good work environmentfor our teammates, we don’t say, ‘Well, we’ll deal with it six monthsfrom now,’” he says. “We deal with it now.”

Shear creates an environment where people are motivated byproviding incentives to employees who do well. The surveys ofemployees give Shear and his team an idea of how the majority ofworkers feel about the GENCO culture.

“We’re asking teammates, ‘Are we creating a good work environment — a place you enjoy coming to work?’” he says. “We askquestions: ‘How are your working conditions? Are you happy withyour benefits? Are you happy with your wages? Are you happywith the overall GENCO culture?’”

Shear doesn’t do an annual survey with his employees becausehe wants a continual look at what’s going on with his culture.

“Most companies, when they do employee surveys, they tend to dothem once a year to once every two years, and they take a snapshot,” he says. “We survey 9 percent of our teammates every monthfor 11 months, so every teammate does a survey. But we’re doinga large enough random sample every month that it gives us anopportunity to see if there is change occurring in the work environment. Our goal is to keep improving the work environment sowe get monthly feedback as to how well we’re doing.

“We have it on an individual facility basis so we can see wherethere might be places where we could do better in providing a better work environment and also monitor the places that are doingwell.”

The survey consists of scoring each question between 1 and 6,with Shear looking to achieve about a 4.8 or higher.

“We feel that rating, overall, we are creating a good work environment,” he says. “Now, is everybody happy in that work environment? Probably not. But, are the majority happy in that work environment? Yes.”

Hold people accountable

Listening to and rewarding employees can lead to success, butyou also need an environment where people are held accountable.

If data shows there is a problem, Shear will first sit down with hisleadership team to discuss if they, as leaders, set up roadblocksthat caused the problem. As soon as they remedy where they fellshort or found there weren’t any roadblocks caused by the leadership, the employee who is in charge of the department is shownthe data and is responsible for fixing it.

“The way our structure is, we have about 100 different facilitieslocated throughout the U.S. and Canada,” Shear says. “So, if wehave a problem at a particular facility, there’s a customer servicevice president that is responsible for that facility, and they get allthese metrics. So, it’s really their responsibility to get the issuefixed. So we just monitor it more from a senior level that the issuesare getting fixed.”

Letting employees know where they stand is an important partof creating a culture that wants to grow.

“I once heard a speaker say, and it resonated with me, that people come to work, and they are kind of lethargic at work,” Shearsays. “Then, after work, they go to their bowling league, and theyroll the ball down and they get a strike or something, and you seethem jumping up and down with excitement. He basically said,‘Why don’t a lot of companies get that at work?’ He said the reasonis, ‘Because at work, you tend to put a sheet up over the pins.When you roll the ball down, you hear the pins crack, but younever know how many went down.’ So, we’ve tried to create anenvironment where everybody always knows where they stand allthe time.”

That includes sharing the high-end financials with workers toshow them how the company is doing.

“Especially on the financial side, I think that companies think thatif their employees know that they’re making money, that they’regoing to say, ‘Why can’t I get more?’ I actually find that generally people think the company makes 10 times more than it actually makesif you don’t give them any information and that they actually like tohave something they can judge how well they’re doing. Financialsuccess is certainly one metric of how well a company is doing.”

According to the numbers, GENCO is doing well. The companyhad revenue of $514 million in 2005, $577 million in 2006 and $712million in 2007.

He says, if the company didn’t use data to measure the company’s strengths and weaknesses, then GENCO wouldn’t be as big asit is today.

“I think the company would still be here,” he says. “We wouldn’thave the growth rates that we have, and I think we’d be putting outa lot more fires. So, I think it would be a lot smaller companyalways struggling to put out fires.”

GENCO has been in business for more than 100 years, and Shearwants a culture that will take them to 200 years in business.

“We’re creating an environment for the long term,” he says. “I’veseen all kinds of management styles and all kinds of success withall kinds of management styles, but I think you have to look at thecompanies that stay around for the long term. I think those companies that stay around for the long term have a focus on the company, on their missions and what’s important is the long-term success of the company.”

HOW TO REACH: GENCO Supply Chain Solutions, (800) 677-3110 or

Sunday, 24 February 2008 19:00

Healthy returns

Opportunity pounded on Michael Blackwood’s door back inearly 2005. The only problem was he couldn’t answer it by himself

On his doorstep was an opportunity to grow his company’s revenue and diversify its business through a new Medicare product.But, for Blackwood, the president and CEO of Gateway HealthPlan L.P., the project wasn’t simply filling out some paperworkand then watching the money accumulate.

He needed the help of all his employees and his managementteam to get the product in place by January 2006.

The only way to do it was to get buy-in from all companyemployees on why they should go through the process to makethe new product a reality.

“We had to create the sense of urgency and create the capacitysimultaneously,” he says.

Here’s how Blackwood sold his staff on the initiative and heldthem accountable for results.

Communicate to get buy-in

Blackwood needed complete buy-in from the organization in orderto take on such a monumental task in a short period.

He started by discussing the change with his senior managementteam, and then brought the rest of the managers into the discussion inearly 2005.

He explained why the product was so attractive, filled them in onhow much work it would take as well as the systems that the company had to create to make the change a success. He knew no otheractivity the company could undertake would lead to growing the company’s revenue line like the new Medicare product would.

“You had to make a case to the organization for why you needed todo this as an organization and do it so rapidly,” Blackwood says.

To get the point across, he showed them the projected $300 millionrevenue increase that the new product would provide.

“We also have a philosophy around here: You are either growing oryou are dying,” Blackwood says. “So, they knew that this was going tocreate major growth for the company as very few things could have.Nothing motivates a company, in my opinion, more than growth.When they see growth is possible, and particularly of this magnitude,it’s sort of self-motivating.”

Blackwood also pointed out the number of members they would beable to retain, which has a lot to do with retaining positions andresponsibilities in the $1.21 billion company.

“So, we made the business case for why we should do it and add thisnew line of business in a rapid period of time because it was in thedirect interest of the company as well as in the direct interest of ouremployees and certainly in the direct interest of our owners,”Blackwood says. “So, it was not that hard of a case to make, frankly.”

After he made his case to all levels of management, Blackwoodallowed the senior management team to be the communicators of thechange because there was no way he could do it all himself.

“Make sure you communicate throughout the company the samethings you communicate to your senior management team,” he says.“Sometimes you do it directly as a CEO; sometimes you rely on yoursenior staff to be ambassadors and proponents of the change so thatthey can help sell it through the company.”

He met with the team more frequently during the process in orderto stay in the loop and to monitor the communication of the message.

“It took an intense amount of oversight,” Blackwood says. “Then,those people in the organization brought it to individual departments,the individual workers, through company meetings, through department meetings, even through sectional meetings, and made sure thatwe tested our efforts. ... Then we created a plan in each department toroll it out, which we sequentially followed. So it was a very complexundertaking.”

Blackwood says you should state the business case upfront in orderto get the buy-in from the beginning.

“People will no longer just do it because someone tells them to doit,” Blackwood says. “I don’t believe that is the way things work in thismarketplace anymore. You have to make the business case as to whyit is critical, why it makes financial sense, why it makes business sensefor the company, and that is half the battle right there.”

Though it was fairly easy to make the business case for the change,employees still had questions because they had other strategic effortsgoing on, and they were concerned about the allocation of resources.Employees also questioned whether the company could pull off thechange successfully in the timeline suggested and if Blackwoodwould support budgetary changes to allow them to add new peopleor to modify the systems.

“We didn’t know this opportunity was going to exist until it wasalmost upon us,” he says. “Our managers and the global managementteam had to believe that we weren’t going to ask them to do it with thesame number of people or with the same resources.

“As soon as they understood that we were going to put the moneyand resources and the systems behind them to build the capability —once they knew we were going to give them all the tools that theywould need to have in order to do it — that created enormous buyin.”

Measure your progress

Blackwood compares implementing the new product to swallowingan elephant — you have to do it one small piece at a time. He says youneed some type of management tool you can use to track the progressof all the efforts you are making to bring the product to the market,and what worked best for him was a Gantt chart.

Gantt charts are a type of bar chart used to measure a project’sprogress, keep track of how an employee was doing and break downthe work into components.

“It’s a way of visually seeing your progress of those elements of thetotal plan for which you are responsible — you being a departmentand you being an individual,” he says. “It’s a way of tracking progresstoward completion of a very large project, which was the elephant Iwas talking about.”

You also need to break the set of tasks into components so everyoneinvolved can take bite-size pieces of that elephant and digest it.

“We carve it up in a way that each person has a role, each person hasa reference team as well as a Gantt chart and a business completioneffort to get it done,” Blackwood says. “They can have milestones anddeadlines and accomplishments, which they can convey electronically throughout the company using all types of communication toolslike e-mail, fax and Gantt charts, and all of the tools at our disposal toget the word out to the people who need to know.”

Because just looking at the chart wasn’t enough proof the job wasprogressing, Blackwood met weekly with his management team forupdates.

“The weekly meetings took those Gantt charts and gave me verbalreports,” Blackwood says. “We gave them to each other as well as tome personally. That gave us the confidence level that we were progressing at the rate that we needed to in order to have this product online for the deadline, which was (Jan. 1, 2006). So, there was documentation. There was action being taken.”

As far as personnel goes, Blackwood says the people implementing the change need to be experts in the company who canexecute the plan.

When it came down to assigning people to Gateway’s project,Blackwood turned to the best of the best in the organization.

“People who we knew were stars, people who we knew could do it,people who knew the company, knew the resources, knew how tomake things happen in the company who could actually execute onthis plan,” Blackwood says. “They were given the authority and theresources to do it, and they knew they could come to me at any pointif they needed to ask for more resources or to modify the plan basedon their requirements. They had complete access to me throughoutthe process, and I was very visible and very much a part of the planning itself.”

Although Blackwood knew the people working on the project couldpull it off, he still needed to be kept in the loop. He tracked to makesure the execution of the plan was documented and could beexpressed to him verbally during the weekly meetings.

“They were empowered and had the authority and the organizationto make it happen,” he says. “So, I had high confidence they could, butI needed to hear — as well as the senior management team needed tohear — that the speed of progress was matching the deadlines thatwere approaching.”

Blackwood also referred to the Gantt chart to decide when heneeded to get involved if something was heading in the wrongdirection.

“That’s why we created a barriers section within that Gantt chart,”Blackwood says. “If I hear them run up against a barrier, I know I needto get involved. I have to define what that barrier is, or they do.Whenever I see a barrier, I know I have to personally get involved andhelp define the problem, and then perhaps engage other people tohelp knock those barriers down. I will not stop the process on thingsthat are working. I tend to insert myself selectively on problems thatemerge during the process.

“It could be based on reports that I get, feedback from individualpeople from members of my senior management team. I could bumpinto an employee, however, and they could give me a curbside consultation, which might be something from the ground level, whichraises a question in my mind, and I may elevate it to a much higher status. So, I try to listen to all our employees. We try to combine the intelligence of all our employees and treat them as a major resource andgive them a voice.”

After testing out the systems and fixing any glitches, the productwent live in January 2006 and resulted in a 25 percent increase in revenue between 2005 and 2007.

“It has been, I would say, a resounding success because we havebeen able to make it work both programmatically and financially,” hesays. “It has been a major diversification of the company in terms ofproduct line and in terms of revenue stream, and it’s helped contributeto the financial performance of the company. It is a central part of ourcompany.”

While the implementation wasn’t easy, not taking on the new product would have hurt the company’s potential.

“It would not have allowed us to diversify our revenue streams nearly as much as we were able to with this product,” Blackwood says.“And it created additional capabilities to serve our members. So, therewas a programmatic addition as well as a financial positive for thecompany. So, I think we would have really missed an opportunity thatmay not come along again in my lifetime.”

HOW TO REACH: Gateway Health Plan L.P., (412) 255-4640 or

Sunday, 24 February 2008 19:00

Trivantis Corp. hires the best

Timothy Loudermilk wants

a work environment

filled with self-motivated performers. So to create that

environment, the founder and

chief software architect at

Trivantis Corp. hires the best

people he can and then trusts

his employees to do their jobs.

“If you are in a company

where you need to manage

people tightly, then I think that

what you have is you have a

company of people that are

relatively unpersonally motivated,” says Loudermilk, who

managed the 85-employee

provider of publishing technologies and services company

to 2006 revenue of more than

$10 million.

Smart Business spoke with

Loudermilk about how to hire

the best people and how to get

the most out of them.

Q. What do you look for in


First of all, I look for people

with specialties that are better

than what I can do. I don’t

think you can be afraid of hiring people in their field that

are better than you.

For example, at this point, I

can assure you I am not the

best computer programmer in

the world because I’ve moved

away from it over the years. I

have a team that’s just the best

in the world that I can find.

But, I think you have to be

confident in the people you

hired, and you have to look for

people that have real expertise

in their field.

Q. How do you find the best


I think it’s really hard to pop an ad in the paper and hire

someone. Your best places to

look are really to your own

employees first.

Many of the people we’ve

added to the business have

been references from other people in the business that are very

happy and very excited about

the job that they have. They’re

your best possible recruiters.

Our development team in

Florida, for example, almost

everyone that is on the team

was recruited by word-of-mouth. It’s very popular, word-of-mouth, in a marketing

sense, to talk about products. I think in this generation, it’s just as important on employment.

Occasionally, we will

use some outside professional recruiters, and the

reason we do that is

some of the folks that we

work with have a keen

sense of what we are

looking for because I am

looking for the top 10 percent performers to hire.

And when you have a

company that’s 15,000 employees, you might be

able to afford to not have

the top 10 percent performers. But, when you

have a company that’s

85 people, everyone’s contribution really matters.

Q. How do you motivate your


I think there are certainly

ways to motivate. You probably

have to keep from demotivating them more than anything

because I think some work

environments that are highly

structured can be somewhat

demoralizing to professionals.

So, what I want to do is create an environment in which they absolutely love to work.

That means an environment of

trust, of personal responsibility, and they have an opportunity to contribute to the end

product. I think it’s really

important that they be able to

see and use the end product

that they are working on. And,

of course, that is coming from

a software standpoint. It’s really easy to look at the product

and realize your contribution

to it, whether it be in sales or

whether it be in development.

Q. How do you show

employees that you trust them?

First of all, you should never

give them deadlines. You

should actually get them to

buy in to deadlines.

Let’s say you have a particular project. You look at the

project, assess how long it’s

going to take, let them assess

it in their sense, agree to it,

and let them be accountable

for saying, ‘Here’s where I am

on this project.’ I think that

there’s too often a tendency in

business to set random dates

that mean nothing. I don’t

think that’s the way I choose

to manage this business.

We agree to dates that are

real, and then they own them

— they are accountable for


Q. How has hiring the best

people and trusting them made

the company a success?

Everybody personally has an

investment in the end product.

When you have a successful

end product, everyone feels

the success of that. That’s the

critical component.

Whether it be in sales or

product development, having

a successful company takes a

lot of different skills across a

broad range, and when people see the success of the

company, they need to understand that, that is their personal success.

So, the reward system has

to be there in terms of financial, stock options. Profit-sharing is appropriate. Those

all have to be in line.

HOW TO REACH: Trivantis Corp., (513) 929-0188 or