It was a project that had Michael J. Perry more than a little nervous. He trusted his employees at HBD Construction Inc. and had a high level of confidence in their abilities. But this was something completely different from anything they had ever done before, and Perry wanted to proceed carefully.

Perry had been introduced to a Charlotte, N.C-based company that had expertise in blast- and ballistic-resistant technology, but lacked the building skills that HBD had as a general contractor in the construction industry.

“They had worked on barriers and things like that on military bases,” Perry says. “And while they had done some work on nuclear facilities, they had not done anything that was a structure.”

The two parties discussed the project and decided to put their respective skills to use to build a structure for a nuclear facility that needed it.

“It certainly took analysis and thought because we didn’t just say, ‘Oh sure, it’s a project. Let’s go for it,’” Perry says. “But we quickly adjusted. We have a great staff here, both in the field as well as in our office. We turned them loose to use their abilities and to tackle this new market, and we did it successfully.”

In an industry that had been hit hard by the recession, the project was a great opportunity for the 130-employee company. But it also reinforced for Perry the importance of doing your homework before you take on a project, no matter how much you may need the work.

“The real issue is if you’re going look at other sectors, do it in a slow, methodical way,” Perry says. “It can hurt you if you just decide, ‘I’m going to go over there,’ and you don’t know all the peculiarities of working in a certain environment. The knee-jerk reaction, particularly in a downturn, is the wrong move.”

Here’s how Perry has found ways to make decisions that both fit his team’s talents and make sense for HBD’s growth plans.

Look for a match

Perry and his team put in a lot of time talking about what’s happening in the construction industry. It’s work that takes time, but pays off when opportunities present themselves and decisions need to be made.

“We get input from all our project managers and field their opinion on where they see the market going,” Perry says. “Certainly, multiple heads are better than one.”

The idea of the constant dialogue is to measure what’s happening in the industry against their own capabilities and talent and look for matches.

“You just can’t pursue every opportunity that is out there so you try to make strategic decisions on what is the best fit for your company,” Perry says. “What is profitable work and who are good customers to work for? Our whole philosophy is customer service that ultimately yields repeat customers.”

When you can find customers who you have a good rapport with and you can build on that relationship, it can only mean good things for your business.

“We look for solid customers who are connoisseurs of construction that don’t just consider it a commodity and something to get the cheapest, bottom-of-the-barrel and quickest way to get it done,” Perry says.

“Those types of relationships usually end up in adversity and struggle and do not end pleasantly. We like to work with owners who understand construction or at least want to enjoy the process and want to have a contractor who is going to be looking out for them and build the best product for them of the highest quality within their financial needs.”

The work that HBD did on the nuclear facilities is a great example of the fruit that can be gained from a strong and committed relationship.

“We had to learn and educate ourselves, but we’re good at that,” Perry says. “We’re nimble because of our size, and we were able to provide a service that the larger companies these nuclear facilities were dealing with could not provide.

“We analyzed what it would take in terms of our resources and our abilities. Is this something within our ability to do? We just decided that it was, and in fact it worked out. We have six or eight successful projects under our belt now.”

One of the underlying keys that you should never lose sight of in your pursuit of work is your ethics and your values.

“It is very easy in this recession to see people bidding out of desperation,” Perry says. “It’s very easy to take shortcuts and do things that ethically you wouldn’t have done in a better market when you’re very busy and flush with work. Those will all come back to haunt you. That’s what the leaders of our company prior to me, that was their philosophy, and that’s what we’re continuing on today.”

Perry says it’s just as important during a recession, even one as tough as the one in 2008, as it is during the good times.

“We’re not going to compromise the way we do business, and we’re not going to compromise our product,” Perry says. “If that means we might miss a project or two and possibly our volume might decrease a little bit, then so be it. We’d rather have that and be in a strong position when the market comes back.”

Know who you need

It would be easy if Perry could hire a specialist to handle each aspect of running his company. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have enough room on his payroll for that many employees, so he needs people who can handle multiple tasks.

“Our project managers have to have the ability to go out on a sales call with me, they have to be able to estimate, schedule, run the project and close out the project and have interface,” Perry says.

“We can’t have a one-dimensional employee. So other companies, bigger companies than us, are more departmentalized and so they can have a person who is just good at scheduling, just good at estimating or just good at project management. That’s not the way we’re set up here.”

So to ensure that he has as many well-rounded people on staff as he can, Perry emphasizes opportunities for employees to learn new skills and grow their talent level.

“We tend to make sure all our project managers and superintendents in the field try to get as much experience in various types of work so that they are not one-dimensional,” Perry says.

“If you take a superintendent who has always done new work out of the ground and has never done a renovation project, he is somewhat limited and unavailable for renovation work. So while we do have folks who have more experience, and we will strategically place a guy in his best position, that doesn’t mean he can’t be trained.”

Encourage your people to continue their training and give them the time to learn new skills that can help them be better employees for your business. When you’re looking for new employees, look at their desire to learn and go after the ones who have the energy to broaden their abilities.

When you do that, you end up with people you can count on.

“My guys that I have here — I feel confident I could put them on almost any type of project,” Perry says.

Set employees up for success

If you have a project on the table that you feel your employees would have trouble completing, you’ve either got to find a way to train them or turn down the project. Otherwise, you’re going to have a very frustrated group of workers.

“You don’t want to set up an employee for failure,” Perry says. “As a leader, if you know an employee is weak on a certain thing, you try to shore up his weaknesses and show off his strengths. You don’t want to send a person into a task that you don’t believe they are up to.”

If you choose to train people, you’ve got to take a firm, yet patient approach to get good results. Perry says this has been particularly necessary when it comes to the influx of technology into the construction industry.

Instead of presenting changes as a burden or something else that a person has to do, present it as an opportunity to make their jobs easier to perform.

“The dawn of the tablets is a pretty good example,” Perry says. “We’re integrating the tablets out into the field now. Our guys, probably our biggest hurdle was getting field people used to computers period. That was a big learning curve and was met with some frustration. But to a man, everybody that gets over the fear of doing it can’t believe how they could ever do without it.”

The frustration that comes about when learning a new task or a new piece of equipment is natural. If you try to force someone to get up to speed quickly or make a sudden change in the way they do their jobs, that frustration is only going to grow.

“We have some new technologies that we are utilizing and admittedly, the young guys tend to take to it faster than the older guys,” Perry says. “That’s great because we have a good mixture in our office or young and experienced guys.

“The younger guys are helping us older guys with some of the new tools and so forth that are out there. Not forcing everybody on something immediately gives a little more time and somebody that maybe would be more anti-whatever, they’ll look over and see someone else doing it successfully and it makes it easier to implement.”

It really comes down to working with your team rather than fighting with them. You’re the boss and there are things that they need to do that aren’t optional. But if you proceed with that attitude, you’re just going to turn your people against you.

“It’s a communication business,” Perry says. “When you’re running a business and you have employees, the key with your employees is to communicate with them. Hear what’s on their mind, what’s worrying them, how they are doing personally and in their business environment, how they view you and how you view them.”

One of the ways business has changed over the years is the tilt toward more acceptance of work-life balance in the workplace. Perry says it’s something he accepts and has integrated into the way he runs HBD.

But he makes it clear that whatever culture you want to have in your business, there is no substitute for hard work.

“In the construction business, there is not an easy short cut to hard work,” Perry says. “It takes long hours, it takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. There’s not a way to hit the one big home run. It’s not like picking a lucky stock and you win big. It’s a lot of projects, a lot of time and that, I don’t see changing. So if you’re looking to click your mouse, do your thing and go home in a short work day, there are jobs that can answer that. But that’s not the construction business.”

How to reach: HBD Construction Inc., (314) 781-8000 or www.hbdgc.com

The Perry File

Born: St. Louis

Education: Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, University of Missouri-Rolla in Rolla, Mo.

What was your very first job?

I had a little grass-cutting business that evolved into construction. That’s really what I did all the way through college, just about any kind of handyman work that you could think of. Building out basements, porches, fences. I always enjoyed building things with my hands. I do kind of miss that because I don’t have much chance to do that anymore.

What project stands out that you helped build?

When I was at the tender age of 14, my uncle had a very large house in a wealthy area of St. Louis. He turned me loose on his entire basement to design and build it out. I brought in one of my buddies and we single-handedly over the summer and into the winter did that. That was the first soup-to-nuts turnkey project that I did and that evolved to doing other things around his house.

Perry on having pride in your work: I can remember working on that basement and toiling for hours and hours wondering what it’s going to look like. It’s the same thing today when we cut the ribbon on a project that we just completed. It’s the thrill of having a happy customer and being the one who put the whole project together.

Who has been the biggest influence on you?

Without a doubt, my father. What he was able to instill was being fair with people that you deal with, both from the subcontractors beneath us to the owners above us. He always did that and always had a great reputation in St. Louis and I’m hoping to have the same.

Takeaways:

Look for the right opportunities.

Don’t compromise your ethics.

Build relationships with your customers.

Social media gives people a much closer connection to your business, which can be very good. But when customers use the forum to criticize, you may find it hard to resist the urge to fire back with an emotional response. And that can be very bad.

“People are constantly getting in trouble for tweeting something they shouldn’t have and then somebody responds with a more emotional tweet,” says Kevin McCarney, founder of the $15 million Poquito Más restaurant chain. “Digital communication is great for information, but not really good for communication.”

McCarney has written a book based on the interactions he has each day in his restaurants. “The Secrets of Successful Communication” offers insight on how to avoid saying things you’ll later regret.

What is the difference between the big brain and the little brain?

I’ve been in the people business all my life, literally since I was about 14. I have been studying people’s reactions and their overreactions as well through all different kinds of circumstances.

I distilled a lot of the things that are happening inside the head into two simple concepts. The big brain gives you that smart, diplomatic, positive, thoughtful response you’re going to get in any situation. The little brain, which I put right next to your mouth, is going to spit out the impulsive, overreacting, sarcastic comment that gets us in trouble once in a while. We all have a big brain and we all have a little brain.

How can the little brain get me in trouble as a leader?

My responses to things will be mimicked by my employees. If you’re in a leadership position or in a management position, your words are far more powerful than a front-line worker. And they’ll have an impact on the front-line worker and the people working underneath and around them.

If I as the owner of a company get upset and angry every time something goes wrong, people aren’t going to tell me anything that is going wrong. They’re going to hide everything from me. So it’s important that my responses are measured, that I’m under control and that employees feel like they can talk to me about anything. Otherwise, I’ll lose control of what’s really going on.

How do I keep my cool during tough situations with my employees?

The key that we describe in the book is there are several different traps you can fall in to. If you identify the traps in your life and the things that may push you into little brain, then you can work to not overreact to it.

More importantly, you can teach others. If you’ve got other people in little brain mode, you can know how to handle them. You don’t follow them. If somebody is uptoning in the conversation, they are getting more angry and their tone is going up and escalating, you don’t follow them as a leader.

You realize if their tone is going up, there is something else going on here. Let me just bring that tone back to where it should be, and they will eventually come back.

Is it ever too late to apologize for losing your cool?

There’s no expiration date on an apology. You can go back and if you said something to a co-worker or about a co-worker and they found out, you can just go, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking. I apologize and I didn’t mean to say that.’ And you kind of reset after you apologize.

How to reach: Poquito Más, www.poquitomas.com; for information about the book, go to www.bigbrain.com

It was a dream that made absolutely no sense to Michael Landau. But this was his sister and he loved her very much and so he set out to help her make it happen.

“I not only knew nothing about the hair and beauty business when this started, I also have no hair,” Landau says. “I’m completely bald and I didn’t understand why women would want a [professional] blowout, why they needed a blowout or why they would pay someone else to get a blowout.”

Landau’s sister, Alli Webb, had launched a small mobile hair blowout business in Los Angeles and it really took off. It was so successful that she couldn’t keep up with the demand, so Landau decided to step in and try to take the concept to the next level.

“I lent her the money to do her first store,” Landau says.

The response was staggering.

“We had an eight-chair shop in Brentwood,” Landau says. “When you’re in the restaurant business, sometimes it’s a good problem to have when you can’t get a reservation because you seem hot. For us, our clients were getting so annoyed that they couldn’t get in.”

Landau and Webb quickly opened three more stores and they were just as jammed with business. This new company named Drybar simply could not grow fast enough. Waiting lists were 40 and 50 people deep on the weekends and customers were driving from all over the city to get their hair blown out.

“It was fast and furious,” Landau says. “For the first year, it was all hands on deck, chaotic, working around the clock 24 hours just to keep the door open and everything happening the way it should.”

The company has grown in a little more than two years to more than 850 employees who do about 24,000 blowouts each month. A dozen new locations are expected to open this year, doubling the size of Drybar.

“It was just amazing how people were coming from what felt like all walks of life and they were traveling an hour or an hour and a half from different cities all over L.A.,” Webb says. “It was really amazing and humbling and gave us the fuel to keep going.”

So what’s the key to succeeding when your business grows infinitely faster than you ever imagined it could? Landau says it all comes back to satisfying your customers, even if that means chasing them out the door, following them down the street and buying them a cup of coffee to make them happy.

 

Keep your customers content

If you asked Webb about the moment her brother chased a disgruntled customer out the door at Drybar, she might tell you Michael had it coming. It was his zeal, after all, that often left the store bursting at the seams.

“In those very early days, Michael would be in the shop sitting in the back answering the phone and telling anybody, ‘Yeah, come in, come over!’” Webb says. “I was like, ‘No, stop, because we had a line out the door.’ We didn’t have enough stylists, but Michael couldn’t say no because he was just so happy and excited to have all the interest.”

But back to the unhappy customer. She saw a sign that said walk-ins were welcome and came in, but quickly discovered it was going to be a long time until she was serviced. Then she had a bad experience with a cashier and that just made things worse.

“I witnessed this whole thing,” Landau says. “I watched the woman leave the store so upset. So I followed her out and ran down the street because I was determined to not let this person leave so upset.”

He brought gift certificates and tried to give them to her as a peace offering. She wouldn’t accept it and continued walking and Landau thought he had indeed lost her. But then he decided to give it one more shot.

“It was in front of a Starbucks and I said, ‘It’s going to ruin my week if I can’t apologize properly to you. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?’” Landau says. “She actually got a kick out of it and we went inside, and I bought her a cup of coffee and I started talking to her.

“The bottom line is this woman ended up not only becoming such a great client, but she told so many of her friends about that story and how the owner did this and did that.

“We learned early on that you can take a negative situation and really turn it into a positive. It’s one thing when people just like you. But it’s another thing when a leader is put to the test in terms of dealing with a negative situation or a problem. That’s where you can show your true colors and turn a customer around and keep them for life.”

When you have a business that is really taking off, that’s obviously a great thing. But there’s also the potential to create hard feelings if someone doesn’t get to experience your business because of the high volume. You won’t please everyone, but you’ve got to try.

“We’re dealing with a high volume of customers and sometimes, things go wrong,” Webb says. “Michael and I established early on that we care so much about the customer and the customer experience and we want everybody to be happy and we don’t want to let even one person leave unhappy. You see that with our girls and all our people in the shop how they bend over backward for the customers.”

In an attempt to ease the chaos in the stores, and reduce the risk of another disgruntled customer storming out of the store, Landau and Webb decided to move the act of taking reservations to an off-site location.

“We hired and trained very quickly a call receptionist who could work from home and just plug in the Internet phone to the computer and we could route our phone calls to them,” Landau says. “It was such a breath of fresh air because now our customers were calling and it was a quiet place where they could have a conversation, the client could hear us and we could hear them. That really took the pressure off in one certain aspect in a major way.”

 

Manage your culture

In the styling business, it’s obviously critical that you have people who can do great things with their hands. But if their personality is abrasive, you may not get much return business.

“We’ve come across great stylists who are amazing at hair, but they are just not all that friendly or personable,” Webb says. “To us, that’s not a winning combination and that’s not what we look for. Unfortunately I’ve had to let stylists go who were fantastic at hair, but they were divas or they didn’t share our over-the-top customer service. That is definitely a challenge.”

Landau learned just how much people value great customer service and a welcoming personality when he finally gave into his sister and let a stylist go who had great skills, but not a lot of personal skills.

“Alli really wanted to get rid of her and I was so scared because she had such a following and so many people coming to her,” Landau says. “We debated ad nauseam over it and Alli won and we got rid of her. I have to tell you she was so right. The whole attitude in the shop changed. There was such a change in the energy and the vibe of the shop in terms of the other stylists and how they got along.”

Webb says you can’t underestimate the value of having team players who your employees and customers like being around.

“If you’re causing problems with the staff and the stylists and bringing things down, it’s just not a good fit,” Webb says. “It’s not going to work.”

Landau says Drybar has found success by developing leaders and grooming them for more responsibility in the company.

“As we grew and became more sophisticated organizationally, we tried to bring in more experienced managers,” Landau says. “It didn’t work as well. They didn’t have the respect of their co-workers. For us, it just works so much better when we bring people from within that we’ve had a chance to get to know and we’ve nurtured.”

You need to share with people what your vision and culture is all about and make sure they understand it so they can live it with your customers.

“There’s a lot of training that we do, but I think it’s more philosophical,” Landau says. “We’ve worked on defining and articulating what our core values are as an organization and making sure our key managers have an active part in that.

“That way, there can be broad-based buy-in for that, and you’re making sure you’re building a foundation where people really understand what the vision is. They can become leaders within their individual organizations and kind of extend that.”

 

Get good people

When a business is growing as fast as Drybar, there can often be a lot of pressure when it comes to hiring. You need people fast and you may be tempted to skip a few steps just to get people out on the floor faster.

It would be a mistake. But there are ways you can learn more quickly whether a person is a good fit for your organization.

At least for me personally, I feel like I can tell when I’m interviewing somebody if they’ve done their homework on Drybar,” Webb says. “They know a lot about us. Our website is pretty extensive and they come in with that hunger and excitement saying, ‘Oh, I’ve been looking for something like this. I love styling hair and I really want to be part of it.’

“You can get that as opposed to the person who comes in and says, ‘Oh, you guys don’t do haircuts?’ That person hasn’t taken the time or the interest to really see who we are. That would create a huge red flag for me. You haven’t even checked out our website.”

If a prospective employee is more concerned about their own future, that’s not always a good thing. You want people who want to grow as individuals, but in an interview, you want people who are excited about what you do.

“You really have to dig deeper,” Landau says. “We would rather have somebody who is so passionate about what we’re doing and our brand and about what’s going on and who really wants to be here because that person, we can teach certain stuff. But you can’t teach that passion. You can see that attitude.”

Webb says she always has her eyes open for people who show the ability to be a leader so that she can provide encouragement and get them to show even more.

“We’re always looking at people and we’re always even encouraging stylists who are showing more leadership capability and tremendous enthusiasm and passion for the brand and the company to consider management,” Webb says. “We put a bug in their ear and that starts it.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Keep your customers happy.
  • You can’t cover up a bad attitude.
  • Encourage people who show leadership.

 

The Webb and Landau Files

Born: We were both born in Long Island, N.Y., but grew up in Boca Raton, Fla.

Education: For 25 years, our family had a retail clothing store that both Alli and I grew up in, sweeping the floors. It’s where we really learned many of our philosophies on customer service. We come from a family that is a fourth-generation retailer. It was just what all the kids in our family did.

Webb on working with her parents: I feel like I learned so much early on. My first job was actually in retail because that’s all I knew and that’s what my parents did. But I remember so well being young and treating wherever I worked like I owned it because that’s what my parents did. I feel so incredibly grateful for how much of those values we got from our parents without even really knowing it. A lot of that comes through in our business now and it helps us to be successful.

Who has been the biggest influence on Landau? Seth Godin. I speak to him or e-mail him on a daily basis and he’s just been a mentor of mine. His philosophies on marketing have shaped everything that I do and I definitely, without being overly dramatic, wouldn’t be who I am today without Seth.

Who has been the biggest influence on Webb? Michael thinks it’s Michael. He has taught me a lot, even in Drybar, with more of the business side. I still kid him that I’ve taught him about the hair side. But I think if I had to pick, it’s probably mostly my parents.

Learn more about Drybar at: 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thedrybar
Twitter: @theDrybar
Pinterest: 
http://www.pinterest.com/thedrybar/
Tumblr: 
http://thedrybar.tumblr.com/
Instagram: 
http://instagram.com/thedrybar
YouTube: 
https://www.youtube.com/user/drybarblowdrybar 

 

 

 

 

How to reach: Drybar, (877) 379-2279 or www.thedrybar.com

 

 

Eric D. Belcher was not overwhelmed by the fact that his company went from having a presence in four countries to having one in 44 countries in just a single year.

“When you’re in a rapid-growth environment, change is … not just something that you need to embrace and get used to,” says Belcher, president and CEO at InnerWorkings Inc. “It’s something you learn to feed on. It becomes exciting and important. My guess is if we dialed back our ambitions and had more time to spend worrying, who knows? We might find ourselves using that time to worry or talk about people at the water cooler.”

Belcher and his team have worked hard to position InnerWorkings as the market leader in outsourced print management services. They’ve done so by giving the customers what they want – a one-stop shop that can tackle all their printing needs.

He has been able to sell that promise and in the process, rapidly expand the company’s presence around the world. Belcher says the frenetic pace is only going to keep gaining speed.

“For us, it isn’t as though we’ve gone global and now we can sit back and integrate and grow at 5 to 10 percent and do what many other organizations do in situations like this,” he says. “We’ve both gone global and added about 300 people to our ranks last year. But we’re going to add at least that again this year to our company and probably grow at an extremely rapid clip once again.”

New people are showing up almost daily, bringing the total number of employees to more than 1,200 and still growing. Belcher says it’s not always easy, despite his affinity for rapid growth, to keep everyone moving forward as one.

“That makes the communication of who we are and what we do and where we’re going and making sure everybody is aligned all the more challenging than it would be if it were a more static environment,” Belcher says.

“We’re pioneering a space and we expect substantial competition at some point. By the time that competition comes, we hope to have a fairly meaningful jump on that competitor or set of competitors.”

Here are a few things Belcher and his team do to manage the company’s rapid growth and prepare for future competition in the print management industry.

Find the right fit

Belcher doesn’t want there to be any misunderstanding with potential new hires at InnerWorkings. In short, the message he conveys is that the future is subject to change and so is your job.

“It takes a certain amount of courage to show up on day one knowing that you’re going to have to deliver and it’s not the company that’s going to tell you in some long-written form exactly what the expectations are,” Belcher says. “It’s up to you to help us figure out where the gaps are and plug your talents in.”

Recruiting at InnerWorkings is done for individuals and not for specific positions. The reason is that some positions that exist today will not exist tomorrow and some that will exist next week haven’t even been thought of yet.

“There is sort of a natural selection that goes on with the candidate pool when you do recruit more for the company, the cause, the energy, direction and vision versus, ‘Hey, I’ve got a role and I need to fill it,’” Belcher says.

When you’re looking to bring people in quickly, you have to be in an almost perpetual state of recruiting. It’s probably not something you should delegate.

“I do delegate plenty, but on this one, I stay pretty involved as I find it’s much better to have a firm grasp of who we’re partnering up with early on versus making a decision and then hoping there will be an opportunity to blend that person into the culture and strategy of the business,” Belcher says. “It’s just time well spent.”

Skills are obviously important, but when you’re growing fast, you need to focus more on personality and attitude and make sure the person you’re looking at can handle whatever you throw at them.

“We are looking for people who are hungry and have a fire in their belly,” Belcher says. “People who see the master goal, the major goal that we have as a company, which is revolutionizing one of the oldest and largest supply chains in the world. We look for people who can get excited about that just like us. So there’s a passion, a fire, an intangible that we are constantly searching for.”

One of the keys to InnerWorkings’s success at finding people is the recruiting groundwork that was laid before the company entered hyper-growth mode.

“We work very hard to understand the people that we hire and their background not so much from doing the rote checking of self-supplied references and making a few calls like that,” Belcher says. “We do it but by finding contact network overlaps where we can get candid feedback and also by watching an individual as they perform over a period of time prior to joining our company.”

If you don’t have the time to do that, focus hard on the attitude because it will be a key to your new hire fitting in and meshing with your team.

“We just communicate frequently and openly and generally; decisions made about hiring are made in a fairly collective manner where a number of people within our organization will have a chance to weigh in on somebody that we’re thinking about hiring,” Belcher says.

Set priorities

While Belcher believes the future is wide open for InnerWorkings, there do need to be goals and objectives to keep everyone on the same page. It’s the ability to toe that line and promote independent thought that still fits in with a common goal that is his challenge.

“It would be easier for me to micromanage and be more autocratic than it is to step back and have the trust that is required for people to flourish,” Belcher says. “There’s a way to stand back and allow autonomy, but yet still have a firm understanding of what’s going on in the business. That’s the challenge.”

Belcher and 10 other members of his leadership team have put on paper a few priorities that they each plan to pursue for 2012.

“It’s not a broad, ‘I’m going to do a good job this year,’” Belcher says. “It’s very specific. That group meets once a week and we pull that document out every month and we make sure that within the macro, we all understand what everybody else is focused on and expects to accomplish throughout the course of the year.”

With that foundation in place, leaders are free to work within a set of parameters to find their own creative ways to deal with issues and challenges that arise each day.

“There is everything in between those one or two top priorities and the day-to-day, which is the vast majority of what fills our work days,” Belcher says. “With that component of the business and how we interact as a leadership team with one another, it’s very open, very dynamic and there’s a tremendous amount of autonomy that each leader has to make decisions.

“Ultimately, as long as there is that vision of what is the one thing that my function or my geography or my role needs to knock out this year to make it a successful year, it works.”

The regularly scheduled meetings work to keep everyone apprised of what their colleagues are doing. Beyond that, Belcher says he doesn’t want his direct reports to feel like they have to check in with him on every little decision that needs to be made.

“I want to be able to make decisions that I feel safe and comfortable making without having to hit the pause button and consult and hold meetings,” Belcher says. “There’s a simple framework that we’re all working toward, but outside of that, there’s quite a lot of room and freedom and excitement that people feel.

“The enjoyment people feel on Monday morning is exponentially magnified when there is this sense that I can make decisions within my world. If I don’t make them all right, which I’m not going to, I don’t have to worry about hearing about that. As long as I’m making decisions, everything is going to be good.”

Take smart risks

It may not always seem like it’s possible, but you’ve got to have a plan in place no matter how fast your business is growing. If you don’t, it will eventually get the best of you and you’ll hit the wall.

“That starts not with the CEO saying, ‘Hey guys, go take some risk and it will be cool if it doesn’t work out,’” Belcher says. “It starts with having a disruptive, ambitious and aggressive growth strategy which by definition is somewhat friendly to taking some risks and trying new things.”

If you always keep the big picture in mind and trust that your people are talented enough to deal with the occasional bump in the road, you can avoid the things that slow companies down such as a bottleneck for making decisions.

“It isn’t as though we’re reckless and charging ahead and someday, we’ll look back and clean up the mess,” Belcher says. “But we’re very comfortable making quick decisions as a company. I think we’re just very good at correcting as we go.”

Dialogue needs to be regular so that people constantly feel they are in the loop and know what’s happening and know that they need to be doing.

“We hold quarterly calls, we call it an open mic where for an hour, we’ll get on and it’s essentially a Q&A with people from around the world asking questions and things of that nature,” Belcher says. “It’s a very candid and open internal conversation.”

Belcher also makes it a priority to get out to his company’s locations around the world as frequently as he can to have face-to-face meetings. But the key, whether it’s laying out a new plan or troubleshooting an existing one, is to keep things as simple and manageable as possible.

“We really do keep to a minimum that which is most important to us, which is client retention and the reputation we have in the marketplace based on what our clients say about us,” Belcher says.

The formula has helped InnerWorkings grow from $482.2 million in 2010 to $633.8 million in 2011. One of the keys to enduring success will be Belcher’s ability to stay ambitious.

“The natural inclination when something is working so well is to hunker down and try to protect it,” Belcher says. “We suppress that and our goal is to keep introducing is at as rapid a clip as we can do without compromising our service offering.”

How to reach: InnerWorkings Inc., (312) 642-3700 or www.inwk.com

Takeaways:

People with the right attitude help you grow.

Have a plan everyone understands.

Make smart decisions.

The Belcher File

Eric D. Belcher

President and CEO

InnerWorkings Inc.

Born: St. Paul, Minn.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa.; MBA, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business

What was your very first job?

It was working for the village that I lived in in Southern California for the summer, doing things like laying asphalt and trimming trees. Laying asphalt in the summer in Southern California, as hot as it is, I lost a lot of weight. It taught me I better go to college and get an education. It was a requirement of my parents that I get a job for the summer and I guess that’s the one I saw advertised and went and applied for.

Who has had the biggest influence on your life?

My wife, Lisa. Knowing me as a person, knowing me from the inside, she’s able to put into a unique perspective questions I may have regarding my work environment. And I can always trust that she is going to give me the most direct and open feedback that I’ll get from anybody, anywhere. It doesn’t hurt that she’s super bright.

Belcher on making decisions: The day I see the company struggling to make the difficult decision or taking too long to make what is a somewhat obvious decision, but yet is not being talked about with pure intellectual honesty in meetings — that type of stuff we have zero tolerance for. We’re just very open and we’re very quick at making decisions. That’s in part because of the business model and our strategy and our business approach and that’s what gives me the confidence that we’re doing things right.

Jane Saale isn’t happy with the way communication flows at Cope Plastics Inc. It results in wasted time, missed opportunities and a shortfall in productivity — and that bothers her.

“One time it’s like this and the other time it’s like that,” says Saale, president and CEO at the plastics fabricator and distributor. “We don’t have a clear process and place to say, ‘Every time we do this particular thing, we’re going to communicate it like this.’ I would say from a communication standpoint, we have lots of room for improvement.”

Saale is hardly alone, however, in bemoaning her 380-employee company’s communication difficulties. It’s pretty safe to say if you’re reading this story or if you’ve ever been part of any kind of organized activity, you’ve experienced problems communicating. It’s all part of the human struggle to interact with each other.

“Does anybody ever get up in the morning and go, ‘How am I going to communicate today’?” Saale says. “Nobody says that. But it’s a challenge. You have so many different dynamics of people and personalities and different backgrounds and knowledge and expertise. You have different ways of how people interact with each other. It’s a big challenge.”

Despite the ongoing challenge of improving communication, Cope Plastics has weathered the storm of the 2008 economic crash and is back on track toward hitting the $100 million mark in revenue. Revenue in 2011 totaled $86 million, up from just under $70 million in 2009.  Saale says the key to success is being yourself, accepting that you’re not perfect and making sure your team members understand that and are ready and willing to do their part to fill in the gaps.

“You have to earn their respect by being genuine,” Saale says. “They’ll trust you if you are genuine and if you talk on their level. Be yourself, know your audience and know where you need to be and what kind of conversation you should be having with the people you’re talking to.”

Here are some of Saale’s thoughts on becoming a better leader and striving for better lines of communication in her organization.

Focus on yourself

Saale’s efforts at becoming a better communicator begin with herself. She’s the leader, after all. If she does a poor job of sharing information, the company has no hope of becoming a more cohesive and more informed group.

“You have to have clear and concise directions and you have to make sure your folks know where you’re headed,” Saale says. “You have to be a good listener. You have to understand and know your audience. You have to set expectations, and they have to be clear.”

She says growth in her confidence as a communicator has been achieved through plenty of practice.

“It’s come from experience,” Saale says. “We have trade associations and I’m on several boards in the area. I’ve also gone through some leadership roles and done some speaking. The folks in my community and on the boards that I serve on, they have helped me grow as a communicator and as a leader.”

If you feel like you’re not as effective as you could be talking to your people and delivering information, find ways to practice. Learn what works and doesn’t work, and it will help you improve.

“I have topics that I need to speak about and those topics are written down, usually on a piece of paper,” Saale says. “But I don’t write it out. I used to write it out and I used to read from the paper, but I’ve come a long way. Now I just kind of go with the flow.  “I try to talk to them on an even keel, and I don’t try to be this person who is the president and is trying to make this big statement. I’m much more personable. I engage my people. I giggle or sometimes I tear up, depending on what I’m talking about. I just try to be very personable.”

Another important component is the fact that Saale doesn’t shy away when she makes mistakes, either through action or something she said.

“You’ve got to lead by example and if somebody has a critique about something I did or didn’t do, I listen,” Saale says. “It’s a consistency thing that you always have to be aware of.  “It’s about talking to them on their level and getting them to understand why some of the things that we do, why we do it that way. They need to know the whys behind things and I think that gets them to buy in.

“They may not all agree about certain things, but it is what it is. It’s all about engaging them as a team and helping them understand that we’re all in this together.”

When you get feedback in those situations and people pose questions back to you, the same rules apply as to any other situation: Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answer.

“I don’t have a problem saying, ‘You know what, I have no idea,’” Saale says. “If you try to come up with a half answer, that’s not good enough. I usually just say, ‘Good question. Let’s get so and so in here who is more of an expert. I’ll learn from it, too, as we go through it.’”

You can’t worry about what your people think or about cynics who believe as the CEO, you should know everything about every last detail of the company.

“If people want to think that, they are going to think it, and there is nothing I can do about it,” Saale says. “But I’m surely not going to be one to say I know something when I don’t know it. I think I’m versed in all the different divisions in my company, but there are things I don’t know how to do. I understand the process. I’m versed in as much as I need to know.

“If there is an issue that comes up, I can get the background to understand what the problem is so we can try to get to the root cause to try to fix it.”

Bring people together

One area that has been a particular concern for Saale at Cope Plastics is interdepartmental communication.

“Most of our groups are pretty cohesive,” Saale says. “The challenge is when you start talking about inventory management to salespeople or to the branch managers and that dynamic of getting them to understand what the inventory manager’s role is or the material manager’s role is or what the salesperson’s role is. Everybody has their own directives and goals and objectives. It’s trying to get them to mesh.”

As part of the effort to fix this and bring more common purpose to everyone’s work life, Saale is working to instill shadowing opportunities for people to experience what happens outside their department.

“I need to get them to understand the whole piece — salespeople shadowing people in corporate and corporate going out and shadowing salespeople just to see what their challenges are on a daily basis,” she says. “That’s the kind of stuff we’re looking at to meld these departments together and communicate better and understand both sides of the equation.

“I just think it’s a huge value to have people who understand and are better-rounded and understand not just what they are doing, but how all the other departments need to work together.”

When you have meetings with department heads, make sure people are getting an opportunity to get familiar with what others are doing. You don’t want to overload them with things they don’t need to know or that don’t concern them. But a basic level of knowledge can go a long way.

“I’ve grown a lot with my plant manager and my director of manufacturing and understanding their challenges and the whole process of manufacturing and all that goes into that,” Saale says. “I feel with the background I have, I can be very empathetic and sympathetic when I need to, but I also understand these are the things we need to do to make it better.”

Encourage self-reliance

When Saale addresses her employees, she doesn’t go in expecting a ton of questions at the end of her remarks.

“Usually there are one or two people that you know are going to ask a question,” Saale says. “For the most part, people don’t raise their hands in those meetings. You just have to say, ‘OK, I have an open-door policy. But do me the courtesy of making sure your supervisor knows that you are coming to me.’ I don’t like people to do end runs.”

If you want to be collaborative, you’ve got to make yourself available. But you also need to take care that you’re not cutting out leaders who you’re paying to serve in a supervisory role and deal with certain situations on their own.

“That puts their supervisors in a bad way, and I don’t like that,” Saale says. “As long as their supervisors are aware of it and for whatever reason, they can’t get the answers they are looking for or they are frustrated, that’s fine. I just try to encourage them to go through the proper channels first. It is somewhat of a reflection on them if they don’t and it makes them look bad.”

As much effort as you make to hear the concerns of your people, you’ve also got to be careful that you don’t let them rely on you or on their supervisors so much that they become unwilling or unable to make decisions on their own.

“There are times I want to go, ‘Guys, you’re the experts. I’m not in your field, so guess what? You make that decision. If you fail, that’s fine. Try something else. I’m not perfect. We go one way and that doesn’t work, we’ll admit it didn’t work and go in a different direction,’” Saale says.

Saale takes the same approach of instilling self-reliance when she asks others to deliver information to the rest of the company. She doesn’t go overboard imposing her will on their thoughts and she doesn’t ask them to recite everything they are going to say to her before they talk to the team.

“You just have to ask questions, things like, ‘OK, what are you saying? Does that make sense?’” Saale says. “You have to give communication back to them. I try to be collaborative, almost to the point where people think I’m too collaborative or too soft.

“I don’t say, ‘OK, now read that back to me. Or tell me what I just said.’ I guess it’s a matter of how you present it back to them. But my approach is to give the people the opportunity to decide and make their own decisions. It’s always about, ‘How can I make you better.’ It’s all in the approach.”

How to reach: Cope Plastics Inc., (800) 851-5510 or www.copeplastics.com

Takeaways:

Don’t think you’ve arrived as a great communicator.

Make sure your departments are coordinating.

Don’t let people shy away from decisions that can make.

The Saale File

Born: Alton, Ill.

Education: Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Ill. Business administration degree with a concentration in accounting. I love numbers, but I’m also an extrovert. Most of the time, your numbers people are kind of black and white. I’m not black and white. I’m definitely gray. I have a mixture of accounting and marketing in my blood.

What was your first job?  I worked at Ken’s Pizza as a waitress. I learned about dealing with people and being a servant. It somewhat humbles you to serve other people and want to do the right thing and make them happy so they enjoy their experience.

Who would you like to sit down and talk to?  Because I was too young and too inexperienced and naive to think about it before he passed away, it would be my grandpa. He’s the one who started this business. He passed away in 1995.  I was 30 at the time and I didn’t have the experience and knowledge and know-how I have today. So I never sat down with him on a business level. He was always just Grandpa. And I would love to do that. Boy, would I like to pick his brain about things at work.

Clayton Frech loves customer service. He loves it despite the fact that his first job was managing a dormitory salad bar at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“It was the worst job in the cafeteria other than maybe washing dishes,” Frech says with a chuckle. “But you learned quickly and within a year, I was one of the assistant managers and I started managing my own team.”

That passion for stepping into a tough situation and not only making the best out of it, but finding a way to thrive in it, would serve Frech well years later when he was asked to get things turned around as division manager for the Southern California division of Safelite AutoGlass.

Sales had been flat for the three years prior to Frech’s arrival in 2009, and that had fostered a work environment that didn’t have a whole lot of energy.

“In that kind of slow to no-growth environment, there aren’t a lot of new stretch assignments,” Frech says. “There’s not a lot of need to develop new talent.”

Frech wanted to start developing talent and get people excited about serving the customer and energized about the opportunity to become a leader in the Safelite organization. Doing so was the only way he knew to get Safelite on the map in Southern California with potential customers and boost the division’s mediocre sales volume.

“I love the service side of things and I love thinking about the underlying people and operations processes needed to ensure that the service delivery is excellent every time the customer walks through the door,” Frech says. “While I’ve changed industries over the years, this is what I’m most passionate about.”

When Frech brought up the idea of providing leadership and customer service training to employees, he didn’t get the response he expected from his general managers.

“I was thinking about whom my managers are going to be in two or three years and what skills do those guys need because I want to start grooming them,” Frech says. “And my managers said, ‘Well, the guys who are running the business right now need some of this too.’”

So Frech changed course and opened the training up to existing leaders as well the leaders of the future. And he set out to create a program that would give them the skills they needed to make Safelite a company of choice for its potential customers.

Lay the groundwork

Frech was fortunate that Safelite’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, had put together a leadership development program that had already proven to be effective at grooming leaders and improving customer service.

It would provide a template to work with in developing a curriculum for the Southern California division. Frech knew he wanted the training program to balance learning about leadership principles with the functional side of being a manager.

“We weren’t teaching them how to do their day jobs,” Frech says. “We were teaching them the intricacies of people management as well as the softer side of leadership. To put it another way, in terms of conducting a performance review, there’s the nitty-gritty functional things you just need to know about how to do it and do it correctly.

“Then there is also the side of what do we expect out of our people. Is it just that they are able to put a windshield in correctly? Or do we expect them to have a good attitude? Do we expect them to bend over backwards for our customers? It’s a balance.”

As the curriculum was hashed out, it was decided that the first training course would take place over the period of a year. But in both cases, Frech says one of the keys to success is often a willingness to remain flexible.

“You have to be rigid and flexible at the same time,” Frech says. “If you don’t put dates on the calendar, it will never happen. So getting the dates on the calendar and planning it and forcing everybody to make it happen is critical. But then it’s trying to listen to your people and be flexible when you really need to make a change.”

An agenda was provided at the beginning of the training to give participants an idea of what to expect, but caution was taken to not reveal too much.

“They never really knew exactly what we were going to do,” Frech says. “So there was an element of knowing and an element of surprise. But it was a healthy balance.”

As for the participants in the Safelite training course, everyone who was already a manager would be required to take part. High-potential employees who had a strong desire to one day become a manager would then submit applications.

“The main thing we looked for in the applications was a vision of where they wanted to go with their careers and if they could articulate that vision, even in a limited way, and really show that they were hungry, engaged and willing to learn,” Frech says. “For us, it didn’t need to be that polished perfect application. It was more, is there desire in there?”

There were 50 slots filled for the first course, with about 75 percent of high-potential applicants accepted. Those who weren’t chosen were put on a list and a point was made to give them more opportunities to stretch themselves in their work. They would also be given strong consideration when future training courses were offered.

As for those who were selected, the excitement was high.

“They had never been through anything like this before,” Frech says. “So the general mood going into the classes was excited and positive.”

Make it worthwhile

Since it was something new, Frech did indeed feel a lot of energy about the leadership development course that was about to begin. It was now up to him and his team to make sure the students weren’t disappointed.

“In every class, there needs to be an aha moment,” Frech says. “The content of the class needs to be compelling enough so they are searching for that aha moment. They are really paying attention. That’s probably the most important thing.”

Frech wanted employees to focus on gaining knowledge and getting better at their jobs. There would be no grades and there wouldn’t be a final exam at the end of the course either.

“The main emphasis was on them reporting back in some way and using the knowledge they gained as part of the discussion,” Frech says. “That’s how we reinforced the homework. At the end of the day, the classroom is only so good. You’ve got to be in the field and learning on the job. That’s where the vast majority of learning is going to take place.”

Frech and his team sought to make the classes interesting by bringing in people who could offer compelling lessons to the trainees.

“We brought in high-level speakers from other parts of the organization, some in person and some on conference calls,” Frech says. “We toured facilities together. We just did a lot of different things and tried to keep it fun.”

While there was thought to bringing in outside help to lead the course, Frech was confident he had the resources in house to train people the right way.

“For us, the basic goal of this effort was to take an hourly technician and turn them into a team leader/store manager of five to 10 associates and to be able to lead those associates to their optimal performance and capabilities,” Frech says. “We weren’t trying to take on the world here. We were just trying to develop a new generation of managers with some idea of what it means to be a manager and what it means to be a leader and have expectations.”

As the first year drew to a close, it became apparent that employees had gained a lot of knowledge about managing people.

“But it didn’t provide any insights into the business and how we want to run the business and where the opportunities are to improve the customer’s experience and the customer’s journey,” Frech says.

So a second class was scheduled to begin a year after the first one ended. It would focus on the customer journey and all that went into providing great service.  

“We got experience at the distribution center and an understanding of the supply chain and at our warehouses where the glass is stored and shipped out to our technicians,” Frech says. “We spent time with the technicians and talking about their perspective and then we spent time doing the glass and talking to customers, real customers, on both ends of the process. We talked to them at the beginning when they’re making the decision and at the end when they’re deciding if they are happy or not.”

Frech says the two-year plan of first learning to be an effective manager, then learning about customer service, was not exactly how he had it planned. It just happened to work out that way.

“It’s a pretty good one-two punch the way it ended up, but I’m not going to take credit for some grand vision,” Frech says. “If we take care of our people the right way and they in turn take care of our customers; that’s the heart and soul of what we do and of our strategy.”

Provide a path

Frech made no promises to employees who took part in the training program in regard to raises, promotions, bonuses or any other incentives.

“The implicit deal that we struck with the associates was if you can adopt the learning in your life, you will be much more viable for a promotion,” Frech says. “It’s got to be a two-way street. You can train people, but how much training goes in one ear and out the other?”

You’ve got to stoke the flames of self-improvement in your people and create an environment where they see the potential opportunities ahead and get excited about going after them.

“That’s what I talk about with my people. Are you on a journey of self-improvement? What are you working on? If they do all those things and start stepping up and taking more responsibility, that’s when I’m more comfortable to give raises and promotions,” Frech says.

“If they can start on the journey and show that they are really genuinely improving, the opportunities are going to be there for them. It doesn’t mean you win every opportunity or you get everything. But that’s the commitment that has to be made.

Frech’s division has since been expanded to include all of California and now encompasses 566 employees. Since the training began, 20 promotions have been issued and 16 of the people who were promoted took part in the training course.

“So that’s 80 percent,” Frech says. “That probably keeps them motivated. I don’t tell them who has been promoted out of their peers, but they know. It’s really worked to give them visibility with myself and the general managers as well as with their peers and has really moved their learning along.”

How to reach: Safelite AutoGlass, (877) 800-2727 or www.safelite.com

Takeaways:

Think about what your people need.

Make sure that you’re not wasting anybody’s time.

Give employees a reason to get excited about what you’re asking them to do.

The Frech File

Born: Bethesda, Md.

Education: Bachelor of arts in economics, University of California, Santa Barbara; MBA, University of California, Los Angeles

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

Steve Miggo, senior vice president of operations and human resources at Safelite. There are a lot of bosses in the world, leaders in the world, who don’t always appear to have a caring or kind manner.

Steve is the kindest, most genuine and caring guy and he’s 100 percent focused on building the organization in that same vein. He was one of the folks I interviewed with when I was thinking about joining Safelite.

His leadership philosophy was just so perfectly aligned with how I have always wanted to lead. It’s almost like a homecoming from a values and leadership philosophy standpoint.

Who would you most like to meet?

I would probably say Jack Welch. The reason I say Jack is he spoke at our annual leadership conference back in 2011. And he talks a lot about people and talent development. He talked about how he evaluates his managers along two criteria: performance and values. This has really had an impact on the way to look at managers.

It’s easy to discard values if you get performance, and he made the point that you absolutely can’t do that because in the long run, it’s not sustainable if managers do not share your values or have your values. I think about that all the time and it’s one of those things that has stuck with me. It’s so simple.

Andy Mills was confident that Medline Industries Inc. was ready to go live with its new enterprisewide system. After more than two years of preparation, it was going to make everyone’s life easier by organizing orders, inventory and every other business process in the organization.

“Then we hit the switch,” Mills says with a hint of doom in his voice. “The system had been tested, but not with the volume of orders that we had. So although it worked fine when you were throwing a few simple tests in there, it wasn’t stress-tested adequately enough. And it really collapsed the whole company.

“We couldn’t locate our inventory; we couldn’t bill. Customer service calls that normally would take two or three minutes were taking 45 minutes to an hour. We had a disaster on our hands.”

Medline has a long and rich history of manufacturing and distributing health care supplies to customers across the country. But that all seemed so far away now as leaders at the 9,000-employee company scrambled to find a solution.

Fortunately for Mills, he had built some credibility with his team over the years. So he went to them and explained exactly what had happened and what the company was facing.

“We said, ‘Here’s the situation we’re in,’” says Mills, the company’s president. ‘“We’re crippled in many different computer aspects. We think we can come out of this in 12 to 18 months. We’d like you to work Saturdays. We’ll pay you bonuses, but we’d like you to work Saturdays. It’s kind of do-or-die time for us.’”

As much credibility as had been built, this was still a lot to ask of his team, and Mills knew that.

“But a remarkable thing happened,” Mills says. “We had this feeling of all hands on deck and people saying, ‘We’re going to get through this.’ People brought in sleeping bags and were living here for weeks at a time. Morale was not lower but higher than normal. We came out of our problem in four to six months, not 12 to 18 months. It really taught us no matter how big or small the problem is, share it.”

Indeed, Medline overcame this significant hurdle to maintain its spot as the largest privately held medical supplier in the United States with nearly $5 billion in annual sales. Mills says the value of respecting your people was never more evident than it was during those tough times.

Here are some of the things Mills tries to instill in Medline’s culture to make employees feel like a valued part of the team and a willing partner to help the company achieve success.

Trust your people

Mills gets as excited as anyone when he has the opportunity to share good news with his employees. But he, CEO Charlie Mills and COO Jimmy Abrams did not earn the loyalty that saves their butts when problems occur by only delivering good news.

“You have to take a leap of faith and trust people when you share information, even challenges,” Mills says. “Some people are afraid to share dirty laundry. But when you share what challenges you’re facing, you really give people a feeling that they are empowered to be part of the solution. I don’t believe in hiding things, but some people are afraid to admit weaknesses or show anything other than a façade of strength.”

Whether it’s a problem in your company that you had no control over or a situation that came about due to a mistake on your part, you’re better off being upfront with everyone about exactly what happened.

In most cases, you’re going to be asking these people who work for you to step up and do something to fix the problem. So why not give them all the facts going in?

“You can say, ‘Listen, you’re closer to the situation than I am,’” Mills says. ‘“What do you think? Because I’m not sure.’ I wholeheartedly believe the people closest to the situation can help you find the best solution, and I’m not afraid to say that.”

When you talk about problems, or even if you’re talking about good news, frame your comments in a way that leaves people feeling like you’re all part of the same team. Don’t give the impression that you’re asking people to fix a problem in “your company.” It should be their company, too.

“We talk about the company being our company,” Mills says. “People like being associated with a company that’s growing and they take pride in the success. That’s part of the reason we get these kinds of unbelievably devoted employees who want to pitch in and help. They feel like we’ve all built this, and we’ve all been part of the success. That goes from the work on the factory floor to anybody in the organization.”

The closeness that leadership and employees feel at Medline was also evident when the company made an acquisition about seven years ago that included a component that created some uneasiness.

Medline wanted to remove the Canadian market from the deal because leaders didn’t feel they had the expertise to succeed there. But the point wasn’t negotiable so Canada stayed part of the deal.

“But we went into Canada, and it has become one of our biggest success stories,” Mills says. “We went from about $7 million the first year to this year we’ll do about $100 million.”

Once again, communication about the problem at hand was a key to achieving success.

“Open dialogue on some of the challenges we were facing and some of the resources we could bring to bear, I think that really created a culture of trust there that is common throughout the organization,” Mills says. “That turned it around. We had people who got involved and didn’t like the idea that we couldn’t succeed there.”

Reinforce your culture

There are times when, try as you might, you and the person you’re talking to just can’t connect on the topic at hand. This occurred with Mills and an employee who was trying to explain an idea she had to redesign and rename a Medline skin cream product.

“I said, ‘I really don’t get it,’” Mills says. “She went on to explain why she thought it made sense and said, ‘We’re going to change the image from a low-end cream to a more spa-like experience for the product.’ And I said, ‘I still don’t get it. I just don’t believe in it.’”

Mills wasn’t upset, but the employee’s supervisor, who was also in the room, felt that enough time had been spent on the topic. At one point, he interrupted the employee and told her it was time to go.

The employee remained persistent, however, and ultimately sold Mills on doing a field test.

“We picked this small area to field test it and it came back a couple weeks later validating what she had said, and I said, ‘Let’s go with it,’” Mills says. “But even before we got the results back from the test, I said, ‘I really want to congratulate you for standing up for what you believe in and not being afraid to share that with me. I think that makes us a better company.’”

Mills also went to the supervisor and expressed his disappointment in him for not backing up his employee when she clearly had a passion for what she was talking about.

“We want that culture where people have ideas and want to fight for their ideas,” Mills says. “Sometimes I judge the strength of the idea on how hard the person fights.”

Mills works hard to remind his managers on a constant basis to support new ideas and to encourage dialogue. He wants everyone in the company, from the top on down to the lowest levels, to feel comfortable bringing up a suggestion or a concern.

“One of the things we talk about is accidents in the operating room,” Mills says. “You’ll hear a nurse say, ‘I’ve been here for six months but the doctor has been here for 10 years, and I didn’t want to speak up. Who am I to say that?’

“I give that example when I talk to all our sales reps on their first day of joining Medline and either Charlie, Jimmy or I tell that to our new recruits. It’s kind of part of our standard speech to say, ‘No matter how new you are to the organization, you may see things that don’t seem right. If you do, we want you to speak up because you’re coming in here with a different perspective and you may just be right.’ So we try to get that in from day one.”

Reward productivity

Bonuses give employees an opportunity to aim for a goal, meet that goal and be rewarded for their efforts. But as simple as it sounds, there are some corporate environments where it’s not clear what must be done to meet a particular goal.

“You really have to have an understanding of what the individual is working on and what’s controllable,” Mills says. “It’s very important that the individual feels the bonus is tied to something that is within their power to control.

“When you set up a bonus that is too broad and the individual thinks it’s either not measurable or too arbitrary or too broad for them to affect, you lose that engagement. People get excited about controlling their own destiny.”

If you really want to accurately track performance and determine who is being productive and who is not, it will take some effort. But once you have a system, it will be easy to demonstrate what needs to be done and who is doing their part to get it done.

“We know what equipment people are on and we know the size of the product they are picking,” Mills says. “We know the distance from the receiving dock or shipping dock to the slot. We know the hour of the shift and that somebody in their first four hours will be more productive than their second four hours. So we calculate all these things to come up with a standard time.”

Once you look at your business and figure out what metrics to use to track your employee productivity, you’ve got to stick with it.

“You have to make sure if you put it as your core value, that you’re going to walk the talk,” Mills says. “You’ll undermine everything if you don’t.”

If you do it the right way, you’ll create regular opportunities to talk to your employees about what’s happening on the job and what concerns they might have.

“We think making the time from work to bonus as quick as possible is smart,” Mills says. “Every time there is a discussion of the bonus, you look at the pay with the employee and you get them more engaged in what they need to do. If it’s once a year at the end of the year and you’re reviewing 2011 and they made bonus or they didn’t make bonus, you’d be surprised how much more effective it is to do it quarterly. It just reinforces what their target is.”

How to reach: Medline Industries Inc., (800) 633-5463 or www.medline.com

Takeaways:

Be forthright with employees.

Commend people who speak up.

Promote what it takes to achieve a goal.

The Mills File

Born: Chicago

Education: Bachelor of science degree, Tulane University; MBA, J.L. Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

What was your very first job?

I went door to door with a bucket and rags and washed people’s cars when I was too young to get a job. You learn the value of hard work. My father and uncle both worked very hard and they would work six days a week. Frequently, they would have employees or customers over for dinner and be with them on the weekends. One of the ways that I got to spend time with my dad was to follow him around on some of these dinners and meetings when I was young. So I kind of grew up in the business.

Who has been the biggest influence on you?

My father and my uncle. If I can have two people, I would say both of them. They have been so supportive in mentoring. They just set an example of how to work together. It’s hard working with three people and not having an ego about things. They were very good about sharing ideas and crediting one another.

[Charlie, Jimmy and I] try to be the same way and we also try to be very supportive and they were always supportive of one another. They’ve been good and they’ve also taught us that nothing goes perfectly straight up. You’re going to hit bumps in the road, but don’t give up and don’t be afraid of hard work.

What person would you most like to meet?

I had a grandmother who had Alzheimer’s most of her life when I knew her, so I really didn’t know her very well. So for me personally, I would like that experience.

Susan S. Elliott wanted to write a book that would share the inspiring words of wisdom she picked up in her 50 years in business. It would also keep her out of her daughter’s hair.

Elliott launched SSE Inc. in 1966 after a successful stint as a female programmer at IBM. She led the 100-employee IT services firm until 2004, when she transitioned leadership to Elizabeth, her daughter.

“If I could help do the same thing for others who were coming along or leaders who were building their leadership roles, that was what I hoped and dreamed about,” Elliott says.

Elliott’s book is called “Across the Divide.” She spoke with Smart Business about the lessons that helped her be a more effective leader.

What are keys to successful leadership?

If you have passion, there are no obstacles and nothing stands in your way. If it’s important to you, you persevere. A favorite quote I read from Steve Jobs was when Steve believed in an idea, he was both passionate and patient, scratching away over the years until he got it right.

It’s relentless intensity and total commitment. The only way to do truly great work is to adore what you are doing, which is a combination of passion and perseverance.

How do you deal with these times of constant change?

You have to look at change and look to the future right when your business is at the peak of its success. It’s the hardest time to do that. Your revenue is coming in. You’re feeling good about what you’ve accomplished. That’s when you have to make the transition.

IBM almost missed the PC market altogether. They stayed with the mainframes so long. Microsoft, they were late coming up with Internet Explorer, but it did replace Netscape. But look at Bing, it doesn’t touch Google. The last one is Kodak. They had to declare bankruptcy. They missed the whole digital world transition.

How do you get your people to buy into change?

You have to build a team that is responsive and receptive to your vision.

Elizabeth, my daughter, pulled together people from various aspects of the company. She did not include me or the gentleman who had been president when she took over. She pulled together people who were technical, business office, back office, that type of thing.

What they did was figure out, what can we be the best in the world at? What can be we passionate about? What do we have that is an economic engine that will make it work?

By pulling the various entities into this discussion, they came out with this manifesto as to what SSE should be doing going forward. That filters through the whole organization because it bubbled up from the people.

What is a leadership trait of your daughter that you really admire?

The ability to make a decision and follow through. It’s not shoot from the hip. It’s well thought out, carefully prepared in her mind and then executed. There are so many business executives that just weeble-wobble and can’t bite the bullet. You have to make decisions. You have to follow through.

If you don’t, your employees look around and they think, ‘Well, they tolerated this, they won’t care because this is OK.’ You have to be strong. Don’t second-guess yourself.

How to reach: SSE Inc., (314) 439-4700 or www.sseinc.com

Eli Tene, principal and managing director, Peak Corporate Network

Gil Priel and Eli Tene were about to take on not one, but two significant challenges that would literally reshape the way that their business would be run. The fellow principals and managing directors went into the effort with their eyes wide open to the inevitability of bumps along the way.

“It’s not going to be seamless and it’s not going to be smooth,” says Priel, who shares the title of principal and managing director with his partner, Tene. “But we didn’t do it overnight.”

The partners wanted to take a number of different companies that they owned and combine them into one organization under one brand name: Peak Corporate Network. Once that was done, they wanted to implement a customer relationship management system to bring clarity and order to the process of helping clients of the 230-employee company buy, sell and manage their real estate.

“As time went by, we really felt our clients wanted to have our service,” Priel says. “The fact that we had the different companies was just confusing. It was tough to sell.”

The key to a successful transition in both the brand change and the CRM implementation was the attitude with which the partners brought it to their employees.

“It’s important to embrace them, empower them, educate them and make them part of the process,” Tene says. “When we’re changing this atmosphere, people need to understand it’s a partnership between the leadership of the company and the people that work there. That makes the process much easier to go over and makes it much easier to get everybody to work through this in the best interest of the company. That was a challenge we’re still going through.”

With the move to one brand, Priel says the tough part was getting people to look beyond their specialty and push other areas that were now part of their company too.

“They resist the adjustment because they are used to doing things in a certain way and they are afraid that change can reveal weakness,” Priel says. “They have to start thinking and talking about everything that we do together as a big company. They can’t just talk about their specific service.”

When you engage your people in regular dialogue and portray change as being something that you’re going through too, you make it more palatable.

“It’s something that leadership must be part of,” Tene says. “You can’t just implement it without support. It needs to be reinforced from senior leadership.”

As for the implementation of the CRM system, Priel says similar principles apply. Implementing change comes down to helping people feel comfortable with it and helping them see the benefit of it.

“You need to start with baby steps,” Priel says. “Like anything else, what do you need from me? You need to come to those people who need to work with the CRM and you need to show them what it means for them. Why it’s good for you to use. As long as you can explain that and show it and make sure the training process is painless and something they can understand, it should work.

“The initial reaction is, ‘Oh my God, I’m being monitored, where before I wasn’t.’ That’s your hurdle. You say, ‘Yeah, you’re being monitored. But you’re going to know yourself when the last time was you called on this guy. Why has his business gone down this year compared to last year? Maybe you need to go visit him more often.’ It’s being able to prioritize channels and clients and it makes everybody’s work so much easier.”

There may be some people who can’t make the transition to what you’re doing and you need to be ready to accept that. But if you take the mindset that you’re all on the same team working toward the same goal, you’ll stand a better chance at achieving success.

“We see the results,” Tene says. “The sales are jumping.”

How to reach: Peak Corporate Network, (818) 591-3300 or www.peakcorp.com

Don’t give up

When you’re taking on major changes in your business, you’ll undoubtedly face a situation where someone isn’t ready to do what you need them to do. You’d be a pretty cold and heartless person if you just cast them aside without checking first to see if they could help you in other areas.

“Some of the stuff we’ve implemented has shown us that someone might not be right for the position they are in,” Priel says. “So we think and we strategize about how that person has a lot of qualities. Where can we utilize those qualities? We’ve had several people where we’ve moved them from one company to the other or one division to the other and they have succeeded. We’re trying to set people up for success, not for failure. Before we ever fire someone or lay someone off, we think about where he could be useful. What strengths does that person have?”

David Hoffmann has never tried to make DHR International Inc. the most affordable executive search firm in the market. His goal since launching the firm in 1989 has been to provide the most value to his clients.

And despite an economy that still has some business leaders feeling skittish about their finances, Hoffmann says his philosophy about pricing still fits.

“The overall competitive global landscape that we are all dealing with today makes price a secondary issue,” says Hoffmann, founder, chairman and CEO at the 410-employee firm.

“[Clients] are more interested in something that can change the marketplace and give them a competitive advantage that before this product or service offering, they didn’t have. In almost any business you can think of, they are all going after market share.”

Pricing may be more important in some industries and less important in others. But however your clients feel about your costs, how can you get them to really focus on the great value that your company wants to provide them through your product or service?

“If you’re going to have that ‘McDonald’s hamburger’ around the world, you need to be consistent,” Hoffmann says. “Any great company has a consistency with its message and a consistency with its product. General Motors is a big client of ours and those cars are distributed all around the world.

“They pretty much function the same in any part of the world as they do in Detroit where they are manufactured. Consistency of quality and consistency of brand is critical when you’re thinking about growing a company at any level.”

That doesn’t mean that you come up with one way to do something and then never change. It means you’re consistent about how your product is presented, consistent about how it is packaged and consistent about the way you respond to concerns.

“We say, ‘Look, not only are we going to find you the best executive to fill this need, but we’re going to tell you how we did it, demonstrate how we did it and build a competency that tells you that this is not just a good candidate, this is the best candidate on the planet and here’s why,’” Hoffmann says.

You need to be the kind of company that clients know they can turn to for anything and you’ll come through for them. You build a reputation and they just expect you to come up with great results.

Those results don’t just come from your own initiative, however. They come from an intense and consistent study of your competition.

“One needs to look at the competition and say, ‘OK, where are they weak?’” Hoffmann says.

Go back to the time when you launched or took over your business and identified a need you wanted to tackle in the marketplace.

“You had to see a need or why would you have started the business?” Hoffmann says. “I would define those needs and then I would exploit those needs in terms of messages to the marketplace. It could be that my widget has a lifespan that is 50 percent longer than the next competitor’s lifespan. Be able to demonstrate that is factually correct.”

The key is you’re constantly focused on your product or service and never assuming that you’ve got it all figured out.

“One needs to explore their competition, analyze their weaknesses, create a product around those weaknesses and exploit it to the potential customer base in a way that is going to be effective through advertising, marketing or media placements,” Hoffmann says.

“You have to be adaptable to change in a changing environment and evolve, but keep the fundamentals of that business intact. At the same time, you have to be anchored to that which made you successful in the first place.”

Being consistently great is never easy, but it’s what your goal needs to be. Don’t be afraid to use your team to make it happen.

“It’s getting everybody together and saying, ‘Look, in 30 days, let’s go out and figure out what our competition is doing and see how we can differentiate,’” Hoffmann says. “It’s not a bad starting point.”

How to reach: DHR International Inc., (312) 782-1581 or www.dhrinternational.com

Do your homework

Studying your competition is a very different thing than copying what they are doing. You’re trying to take what they do and do it better, says David Hoffmann, founder, chairman and CEO at DHR International Inc.

“The way I did it is I looked at our competition that was much bigger than us and I looked at their outlets that they utilized to get their message out,” Hoffmann says. “So we looked at the competition of the big five search firms in the world. Today, we’re one of those.

“Look at who is doing it really well, look at where they are going and take aspects that you think you can capitalize on in whatever business endeavor you’re in. Some of those will be attainable and some of them won’t.”

Hoffmann knew he couldn’t replicate the kind of advertising campaigns of companies such as Coca-Cola or Budweiser. But he found ways to sell his brand in a way fit his budget.

“There is just a whole host of ways to get one’s name and brand to the marketplace,” Hoffmann says. “You’ve just got to see what fits.”