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Jim Smith saw the growth that was going on at Elford Inc. This wasn’t the general contracting business that Edward “Pop” Elford started back in 1910 with $153.75 out of his savings account. It’s a company that has invested more than 15 million hours on construction since its inception.

In the last decade alone, Elford has built more than 13 hospitals in Central Ohio and the company continues to build its presence in the region in 2010. This growth has created a complex array of projects that, if not handled properly, could easily become difficult to coordinate.

“We not only grew in size, but we also grew in some of the areas we cover for our customers,” says Smith, the company’s president and chief operating officer. “We end up working with new team players as in our subcontractors and our vendors. How do you keep the communication current? How do you keep everybody feeling part of the HQ and part of the home team and not feeling disenfranchised?”

If each of his 240 employees came into the same office every day, Smith could just issue a morning message to everyone all at once. He could then go about the rest of his day reasonably confident that they knew what he expected out of them.

But when one team is out working on the Riverside Methodist Hospital project in Columbus and another is busy planning the Springfield Regional Cancer Center project, it’s not that simple.

How do you make sure all of your employees are getting the information that either they need or that you need them to have when they’re scattered about on various job sites?

“What it’s taken is a little higher level of intentional focus on communications and keeping everybody in the loop as far as what we’re doing and why we’re doing certain things,” Smith says. “We’ve empowered everybody in the organization with as much knowledge as possible so the mission and values are felt from top to bottom and bottom to top.”

It’s not always easy, but Smith says it’s his job to make sure things are getting done throughout his company. It’s also his job to know when to use resources and make sure he doesn’t become a micromanager.

Here’s how Smith strikes the right balance to make sure Elford meets the needs of its customers.

Get them ready

One of your most important responsibilities as a leader is to remove obstacles that make it harder for your employees to do their jobs. Lack of knowledge or lack of proper training is certainly an obstacle and so it’s your job to make sure they are prepared for different scenarios.

“We’ve gotten better over time allowing people to mature in their roles and to build confidence in themselves,” Smith says. “If you put people in situations way before they are prepared, you don’t allow them that ability. Their confidence isn’t yet there. If you don’t have the support system built in, you’re letting them down as a leader. … Our job is to make sure the support system and the resources are in place and to set direction and align and provide the necessary resources for everybody to be successful.”

It starts with making sure you have the right people in the right positions with the right amount of training.

“Then you have to make sure you continually develop them,” Smith says. “I don’t care what business you are in. I don’t care what seat you are in. You can never be finished with the learning process. It’s having our guys step back and understand what they can control and having the wherewithal to adapt when things do change. They know that change is inevitable and that things are going to happen that they had no way to affect because it was out of their control.”

One of the biggest challenges in the construction business is the coordination of schedules for various tasks that need to be done with multiple projects in a short time frame.

When those situations occur, Smith doesn’t want his people wandering around wondering what to do next. He wants each person to know what his or her role is so the process can operate smoothly. So he makes sure his employees have a chance to run through those scenarios and see what works best.

“We stage these events called kaizens,” Smith says. “That’s a cross-departmental team that comes together from job sites and it’s a number of the job contractors that come together and we get to the meat of the matter and cut any excess out of the process. That whole lean process is to minimize the steps it takes to get to an outcome. It’s all about improving your processes.”

You have to do the prep work up front so you know what needs to be done with a project. Then you need to be able to convey that knowledge to your people and put them in a position to deal with it successfully.

“We are only successful here when the team works well together and understands one another,” Smith says. “They have to be honest with one another. If one department is not supporting another or an individual isn’t hitting the expectation, we have to be honest. We’re doing them a favor in the short term and the organization in the long term and the customer a favor all the time.”

Use your resources

So how does a leader avoid getting burned out with the responsibility of managing so many tasks and trying to keep employees moving cohesively to accomplish a given task?

“First of all, don’t look at it as a burden,” Smith says. “You look at it as an opportunity to provide the ability for so many people to succeed at what they do. In doing that, you have to be very intentional as far as how you set up departments or divisions and then within those departments and divisions, the processes and procedures and how they all act so that the machine does work smooth.”

There is a difference between being a driving force who micromanages every detail and a driving force who delegates and uses your resources to effectively and efficiently complete tasks.

“If you take it all on yourself and you don’t delegate, then it will be a burden,” Smith says. “Proper delegation is the absolute key because then it empowers everybody to grow and succeed at what they do.”

How do you deal with all of the responsibility? You handle what you can and accept that you are the leader, but you also accept that you can’t do it all alone. You understand that it’s not a sign of weakness to delegate important tasks to other people. It’s a sign of strength to know when you need a little help and being willing to ask for it.

“Put the shoe on the other foot and say regardless of what’s going on, wouldn’t you make the time if that person called you?” Smith says. “I think you know the answer is yes, you would. You can seek opinion. You can seek counsel, but you are still the decision-maker. Receiving feedback is a great thing.”

It really comes down to being able to look at a situation and admit there are some areas in which you need help.

“You have to be able to look deep inside at how you’re working, how you’re sharing and not be afraid to face those bad situations,” Smith says. “You have to be able to recognize when you’re not hitting the mark. The key is putting them on the board and dealing with them and not saying, ‘Well, we’ll take care of that later.’

“Procrastination on those types of things is the absolute worst thing you can do. When you do that, it gets worse. … If you’re going to expect different results as you grow and go forward, you can’t just keep doing the same things over and over. If you’re doing the same things over and over, your results are either going to stay the same or get worse.”

Drive the process

Out in the field at a construction site, it’s the project manager or project superintendent that makes sure everything is running smoothly.

“Those are the positions that are out on the front line leading the process,” Smith says. “That’s the leadership team that has to deal with weather changes on a daily basis, materials that might show up early or late, or manpower that might show up early or late. They have to be, and they are, very skilled at having a plan.”

Smith isn’t managing a construction project. He’s managing a business that manages many different construction projects. But the dynamics of ensuring that everybody is marching to the same beat can be quite similar for either effort.

“We have to be the hub that keeps everything moving,” Smith says of a leader. “We have to drive the process. We advance the progress of a project versus just administering it and recording history. People want to know what’s going on. When people know what’s going on, whether it’s good or bad, they are more at ease with their task and the stress goes away.”

Smith ultimately views his role as that of stress reliever.

“The pressure of getting things done doesn’t go away,” Smith says. “I look at it as relieving stress from our people. Stress is when you’re not prepared. You feel stress when you’re not prepared.”

Smith says his job is to make sure his people are prepared and that they have the information they need to do their jobs. It’s also to make it clear that he is a person they can rely on as the source of that valuable information whenever they need it.

“It’s keeping people out of the mindset of being task-oriented and keeping the big picture of why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Smith says. “That’s one of the things we talk about a lot here. ‘Why do you come into work every day? Why do you come to the job site? Why do you come to the home office? What are you going to accomplish that day?’ We spend a lot of time talking about our core purpose. ‘What is our core purpose?’ Our core purpose is to make construction a positive experience.

“It’s extremely important to be really clear in the performance expectations of each position. If we are clear as leaders in explaining to everybody what expectations are and where their boundaries are, before they are underwater, they know they can raise their hand and ask for help or ask for suggestions. We tell people all the time that is a strength.”

You need to prepare and you need to be out in front of your employees in order to fill that role of driving your project or driving your business or driving whatever it is you’re trying to drive.

“That individual can see the end and can see the outcome, no matter what stage the project is in versus the person that is working day to day and hour to hour,” Smith says. “They have to be able to see the end at any point and how they are going to get there. The only way you can do that is by being prepared. What that means is knowing the job, knowing the people and knowing the schedule. It’s back to one of our core values, which is work smart, work hard.”

You need to make the time to prepare yourself to know these things and make time to be available to your people when they need you.

“Your job as a leader is to serve the people that report to you,” Smith says. “You’ve got to make yourself available to them. Not to be their answer machine, that’s not what you want. But you have to be there for support and guidance and counseling. If they’re coming to you for every answer and you’re solving all of their problems, you’re not doing your job as the leader.”

HOW TO REACH: Elford Inc., (614) 488-4000 or www.elford.com

Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Selling with style

Stefan Brugger wanted to transform the way Gautier USA did business. Unfortunately for him, his decision to move forward with this change came as the world was plummeting into a deep economic recession.

One of his many challenges was the fact that high-end contemporary furniture is not high on most priority lists when the pocketbook tightens.

“The biggest chunk of the market is still traditional furniture,” says Brugger, the company’s CEO. “So in this niche of high-end contemporary European furniture, it was a big challenge to survive this economic downturn.”

The challenge was made even more difficult by Brugger’s plan to scrap the old way of relying on distributors to sell furniture for the $220 million company. He wanted to launch his own line of franchise stores that would sell the product with a more personal touch.

“Our goal is to create an environment (that) makes the furniture understandable for the people who are maybe not so informed about contemporary furniture,” Brugger says. “We try to work more on these qualitative things than to overreact and quit on our strategy and go like everybody with sales and panic measures.”

So how do you as a niche business launch a new way of doing things during a time of great economic uncertainty? How do you get employees and customers to believe in a strategy that seems to go against the grain of what everyone else out in the marketplace is doing?

The answer is you show confidence in the plan you’ve developed, in the product that you’re selling and in your employees’ ability to meet the needs of your customers.

You look for ways to get your employees to feed off of your energy and sell your brand to your customers. In simple terms, you don’t panic.

“It would be fatal to panic,” Brugger says. “We are willing to survive and overcome this economy and have a clean, understandable and coherent strategy for the time which follows.”

Brugger just needed the 650 employees joining him on the new venture to not panic either and to buy in to his plan for change.

Stay the course

Brugger felt the pressure every day to cut prices and hold blowout sales to get customers in the door. But he did not give in to it because he was committed to the company’s niche of being a high-end furniture dealer and not a discount retailer.

“Every end consumer, even people with money, everybody is asking for a discount at the moment,” Brugger says. “So it is tough, but it pays out long term. You might lose a customer, but if you begin to go in that direction, it never stops. It’s tough to make that clear sometimes on a daily basis, but long-term-wise, it’s obvious.”

Every successful niche company needs a brand, something that it can identify with that resonates with consumers. If you feel strongly about that brand positioning and you want to maintain it, sometimes you have to find a way to weather the storms.

You need to take steps to show your people that you believe in what you’re doing.

“If a store owner begins to panic and to agree with every discount, which some people do right now at the store level, that would be completely wrong in the long run,” Brugger says. “We jeopardize our image and our brand and everything. Our goal is to offer this environment in our franchise stores in order to explain to people we are French high-end quality.”

So how do you get people to believe in your strategy when they see people they know at other companies losing their jobs and wonder if they might be next? The answer is you convince them that they are part of a team that is going through the challenge together, not alone.

To weather the storm, get people involved in coming up with plans and strategies that fit your vision and maintain your brand image. Make people proud of what it is you stand for and show that you are committed to fighting for it.

“Pride is a very important engine to get people to bring ideas to the table and to bring the company further than only being employees,” Brugger says. “You don’t only talk about the measures they have to take, but the goals and objectives we want to reach when we achieve those measures. It’s a better understanding of why we do this. We don’t just dictate what to do but also show where that should lead to.”

Share the knowledge

Brugger wanted his employees to have the same wealth of information about his company’s products that he did. He wanted them to know why Gautier USA chose this piece of furniture to sell and why it was being targeted to this particular consumer.

So he made sure to bring all of the employees together and directly explain this reasoning to them.

“We invite them in and present all the new collections and features,” Brugger says. “We go over the sales arguments and possible objections and the story behind them. We give a little background to help people understand that we adopted this collection to respond to a trend or a certain need. With that background information, the person is then able to create something of their own in the sales process. If you just teach them the arguments, he stays in what you teach him. If you give him background information, he is able to create something individual in his sales approach, which better fits his personality.”

It’s that engagement and willingness to share information and bring your people into the strategy of how you do business that will earn you more loyalty. When consumers use a niche business, they expect a certain level of expertise on the product they are looking for.

“We want to have people who are fascinated by our product and by our company and our values,” Brugger says. “You have to be a good salesperson for your strategy. Live the strategy and be enthusiastic about it.”

When you hold strategy sessions with your employees, encourage two-way communication. Make the sessions collaborative by doing less talking and more listening to your people.

“If you have people around the table, to me, it’s always important to take advantage of everybody’s skills,” Brugger says. “It’s more brainstorming and creating a workshop instead of the university atmosphere.”

Use the sessions to answer questions from your people and to talk about your products and services and try to find an advocate who can further your cause for you.

“Pick some relevant project elements and develop a workshop with them so they feel part of it,” Brugger says. “They are the best people to talk to about it because they are out in front.”

When the company got a new wall unit that was designed for consumers who lived in condominiums, Brugger made sure that employees knew that detail.

“Now, if he knows this wall unit is particularly flexible to be in condominiums, if somebody comes in next time, he knows which collection to offer him,” Brugger says. “He can be much more creative in the sales process.”

There’s no reason why details on your products and services have to be closely guarded secrets.

“That’s the key because we are not fighting with prices or with discounts or those common tools,” Brugger says. “Our unique selling points are functionality, quality and French design. This is exactly why people have to know much more about our products and they have to be part of it.

“If I created the strategy, it’s very easy for me to sell it a product because I live it and stand for it and I’m very conv incing. If I have to sell a product, which I have to swallow, then it’s different. It’s difficult to tell you how to sell it because you can’t give the same energy as something I would with something that I stand 100 percent behind.”

Don’t focus on money

Brugger makes it a priority to take as much focus as he can away from money, whether it’s dealing with customers or with employees. That’s not always easy to do in a tough economy when you’re trying to draw people to your business.

“Everybody else tries to throw down prices and push more products on the market and tries to convince people with payment plans,” Brugger says. “We try to convince people that this is a good investment in the long term.”

Brugger is confident that success is found when you avoid the haggling over dollars and cents and instead focus on meeting a need, whether it’s a need for your customers or your employees.

On the consumer side, that’s particularly important when you’re talking about consumers who in many cases, aren’t frequent shoppers of your product.

“If you’re looking for quality furniture, you buy every fifth, every 10th, every 15th year,” Brugger says. “So you don’t have the same information as you have for clothes or other consumer goods. We build on long-term success and not short-term success. … In the long run, we’re able to generate more quality sales that way.”

Your employees are obviously working for you to earn a paycheck to support their families. But when you focus on meeting customer needs and make it a priority to be open with them about things other than financials, you make it about more than just the paycheck.

“For me, in my experience, long-term-wise, it’s not the best approach to have people just motivated by money,” Brugger says. “It can be part of it, and it should be part of it, but it’s much better to have that provision be on a team base and not an individual base.”

In other words, focus on building teamwork and rewarding teams for collective effort.

“If most of the people are just money-oriented, then they are usually short-term-oriented because they just want to push, push, push to get the next paycheck,” Brugger says. “It shouldn’t be the main reason why somebody is working for us, because then people are much more difficult to involve and it’s much more difficult to implement a strategy because their first thought is money.”

When you focus on providing good service and helping your customers and you show that you’re in it with your employees, you make it easier for them to join you. And the end result of better service is usually a better bottom line.

In the case of Gautier USA, the approach put the company in a position to successfully launch its first concept store in New Jersey last year with new projects planned for Florida, New York, Texas and Las Vegas.

Brugger says a key to his success is the ability to build a connection with his employees.

“Even stronger than money benefits is really involvement and identification with a company, with the values and with all the basic core elements of the company,” Brugger says. “If they really feel they are part of something and they can commit personally to it, then they will invest more than if it’s only money-based. This is a factor which is extremely important.”

How to reach: Gautier USA, (954) 975-3303 or www.gautierusa.com

Gerry Czarnecki can only do so much to help an employee struggling on the job, a truth that he must constantly keep at the top of his mind.

“It’s not my job to be the success,” says Czarnecki, president and CEO at Miami-based O2 Media Inc. “If I have to do their job, then I don’t need them.”

A high-maintenance employee is a luxury that many leaders can’t afford during a recession, says the leader of the 130-employee media production company. So when the time comes to cut ties with an underperformer, how do you make the move without creating a problem with those who remain?

Czarnecki is releasing a book on April 6th titled, “Lead with Love,” that talks about dealing with emotion in the leadership realm.

Smart Business spoke with Czarnecki about how to make tough personnel moves without inciting fear in the workplace.

How do you avoid the spawning of rumors?

From the moment you’ve made the decision to do it, you need to act on it. Because once you’ve decided for certain that you’re going to turn somebody loose, almost invariably, a little clock goes off and you turn off your relationship with them. It doesn’t take long for somebody to feel that.

You have to be forthright, clear and compassionate, and you have to do it in a timely fashion. Because unfortunately, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a small or large organization. There is what we used to call in Hawaii, a coconut wireless. It was a euphemism for the rumor mill. When there are these kinds of decisions being contemplated, somehow people hear about them.

How do you reduce panic about who’s next?

The people who are remaining probably already know that person was failing.

If you have a candid, open relationship with them, they know where they stand with you. If they’re doing their job and they stand well with you, you’ve already told them. They already know and they are already secure in their own skin because you’ve interfaced with them and you’ve given them feedback on how they are doing.

Is there always going to be somebody who is going to be insecure in the organization because they see somebody terminated? Absolutely. You can’t be perfect in your relationships with people. It may be that somebody who doesn’t report to you somewhere else in the organization may conclude that they are next on the hit list. Some of that is going to happen.

What if you feel the fear the day after making a move?

If I walked in the next day and I felt everybody stressed out because I let somebody go, I would be hugely disappointed in myself. I would start reaching out to the people both as individuals and as a group and make sure that there is no ambiguity in their mind as to where they stand.

It’s hard for them to not think they are going to be on the next chopping block. You have to reach out to them and you have to be open. It may be important for you to say to them, ‘Look, we’re doing this now, but I can’t guarantee we won’t have to do it again.’ At least you’re being honest with them about where your head is.

When you are there, you’re saying, ‘You’re important enough that I’m taking the time to go see you.’

Space is a very territorial thing. In my mind, the way you get past all of that is that you have to be visible. People need to trust the leader.

I would never tell the organization no more shoes to drop if I thought that next week I was probably going to have to drop another shoe. I’m not going to get caught in that. I’m going to be as honest and candid as I can while I try to put their minds to ease.

What’s the price of deception?

There’s no doubt if you don’t tell them the truth somewhere along the line, you’ll lose their trust. And when you lose their trust, you’re going to lose them, at least emotionally, even if they don’t walk out the door.

Long before I have to take draconian measures on something, I want to make sure that the people who I’m dealing with in the company know what to expect from me. They know that if I tell them X, they can bank on it.

If somebody comes out with a perception that I’m not being perfectly candid and forthright and attacks me on that in an open forum, I have to be prepared to defend myself.

If I have enough people in the organization who are working their hearts out to succeed, I owe them the candor of knowing whether their working hard is working.

How do you move on?

Think about the well-being of all the people who don’t go. We’ve been through a time in the last year or two years where companies have had to lay people off. They’ve had to take people who weren’t necessarily bad performers and say, ‘I can’t keep you on the payroll because I don’t have enough business to justify it. I have to save the company and unfortunately that means I have to eliminate your job.’

The leader has to look at that and say, ‘I hurt. I feel the difficulty of doing this, but it’s in the best interest of everybody else in the company.’ You have to get past the indiv iduals and think about the organization. The people who don’t do that, they are oftentimes the ones that don’t survive.

How to reach: O2 Media Inc., (954) 691-1102 or www.o2mediainc.com

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Finding a home

Tom Roses could see that The Continental Group Inc. had a lot going for it.

The property management firm had grown from a fledgling company with a handful of employees to one that had subsidiaries to handle all of the maintenance issues that might arise for its 1,300 condominium and homeowners associations.

But as the company kept growing, the list of issues needing attention kept growing and the challenge of making it all fit together seamlessly was getting more difficult. Roses was concerned the right hand didn’t always know what the left hand was doing.

“Continental owned a lot of companies throughout Florida,” says Roses, president of the 5,500-employee company. “There were multiple brands, multiple processes and various systems. One of the things that was happening was through the growth, there was starting to be overlap.”

Different brands were in some cases competing for customers in the same demographic or in the same territory.

“It wasn’t a good long-term strategy,” he says. “My goal was to unify the organization.”

Roses wanted to eliminate the confusion so there would be no more overlap. Employees needed to understand their roles and responsibilities, eliminating the confusion between markets and brands. As a result, no matter how much bigger the company got, the solution would need to be the guiding force to keep it all aligned.

“How do you create an organization that becomes scalable and able to replicate?” Roses says. “The challenge becomes establishing the right culture so that as you send people onto the far rungs of wherever your region is, they bring that culture and they bring what the company’s values are all about.”

Figure out what you need

Roses could see the confusion in his company, but he needed to know exactly what was causing the uncertainty before he could begin to fix it.

“It’s establishing a gap analysis,” Roses says. “You need to understand what your needs are. You need to identify where you want to get to and where your people are at and what’s that gap. In some situations, that gap needs to be filled in four weeks or sometimes that gap needs to be filled in four years.”

Roses determined what his company needed was a common plan that outlined what to follow and that the best way to achieve that would be through training. He needed to act quickly or the confusion that existed might begin to affect the company’s relationship with its clients.

“People moving into planned communities are well-educated and intelligent people,” Roses says. “They are looking for you to be running a business, not just be a clerical person in the office depositing a check that you bring to them on the first of the month. Our needs have evolved.”

He also knew he had to involve groups of people in the development of the training. He had to make sure it was a fit with the company’s workplace culture and something that employees would eagerly pass on to others.

“It’s making sure that it’s not done in a way where you’re saying, ‘You’re doing it this way because I’m telling you to,’” Roses says. “People need to buy in to the process and they need to own it. If they own it, then they can pass it forward. If they’re just being told, ‘This is the way you do it’ and they don’t own it, it’s going to stop there and it will probably fall off. It needs to be a repetitive process where everybody is acting the same way with each other.”

The result would need to be a training course that would help employees provide better client service and, at the same time, strengthen the company’s culture by presenting more opportunities for individuals who got excited about enhancing their skills. It would also eliminate the confusion within the organization about who was supposed to be doing what.

He started by gathering his senior leaders together from across the state and along with an outside training organization, began to collectively assess the company’s needs.

“People that worked for other brands were mixed in with other brands,” Roses says. “It was the first opportunity of getting people to look at how people do business in other parts of the state and in other companies. The whole idea was learning from each other and taking what’s good and coming to a conclusion as a group what is really best practice and what the philosophy was of what we were trying to accomplish.”

When you play an active part in talking about a program and asking questions and showing your enthusiasm and curiosity for it, you only help in your efforts to earn support from others.

“It wasn’t like I said, ‘OK, HR, go ahead and find somebody to do this and this and this and bring me back trained people two years from now,’” Roses says. “Like in everything, I come up with the idea, I give it to people that like a challenge and they come back to me with things they want to recommend. Then I review the process, and if it feels right, I’ll make that decision. If it doesn’t feel right, I send them out to do more homework.

“By getting them involved in looking at it and having to present, they tend to own the process. Then all I have to do is rubber stamp it as opposed to me having to convince them that it’s good. They have kind of ferreted out all the problems.”

All this effort is contingent on your ability to identify the big problem at the beginning and make it clear to everyone what you’re working toward.

“It’s really understanding and having a clear vision of what the goal is,” Roses says. “If I did not believe that we needed to have a certain level of leadership and a certain level of competency two or three years from now, I wouldn’t have spent the hundreds of thousands of dollars I’ve spent. You have to have your finger on the pulse of where your business is going to go and what your needs are going to be going forward.”

One of the keys to solving any problem is to not approach it as a problem but rather as an opportunity. If you spin it positively, people are naturally going to be more excited about taking part in the project.

“We are all challenged in life,” Roses says. “We live a fluid life and things happen. It’s all how we face those challenges and whether we make those challenges opportunities to learn and adapt or we just see them as problems and headaches. These challenges are truly opportunities to make a difference and make the client see you through a different set of eyes.”

Engage at all levels

Once the program was created, Roses spent a lot of time with his people talking about the training, even on his lunch hour.

Whether it’s a working lunch, a brown-bag lunch or a power lunch, many leaders use the time from noon to 1 p.m. to gather a team and work on a particular issue affecting the company. But to really make this time count, you have to use the opportunity to speak to your people and engage them in a conversation. This is especially important when you’re looking to implement something like a new training program.

“I explain to them what’s going on,” Roses says. “It gives me an opportunity to communicate the vision and the culture of what I expect out there. It’s m aking sure it’s getting to the field because they heard it directly from me.”

Roses also brings along a person whose primary responsibility is to take notes on whatever is discussed during the meeting.

“I take someone with me that is the scribe,” Roses says. “Not the spy, the scribe. They are writing everything down as to who is making what recommendation and so on.”

It enables Roses to know what was discussed and follow-up for more information or respond to questions that might have come up at the lunch.

You can’t rely entirely on meetings in the boardroom or surveys to give you all the feedback you need to implement new programs. You need to get out and talk to your people in multiple settings.

“When you’re in a large organization, there is a bureaucracy, and that bureaucracy tends to create barriers in communication,” Roses says. “The message doesn’t get to where it needs to get to. So by modeling the behavior of listening to those people, my hope and my intent was those people who are leaders below me would also do the same thing. They would take the time to listen to those people that report to them and get their deal as to how we can do things better and then bring those ideas back up and champion them. It’s one thing to have an idea and put it on a piece of paper and not do anything about it. The next challenge is to get people to champion a cause.”

The meetings helped reinforce Roses’ idea that the training is meant to benefit everybody and bring the entire organization closer together. It’s not just for senior leaders or people who have dreams of flying up the corporate ladder.

“It’s important to remember that how people are treated is how they are going to turn around and not only treat the external client but how they are going to feel about the company,” Roses says. “If they feel good about the company, they are champions there and that’s what is going to help the company grow. They are all basically salespeople for your organization.

“It’s about pushing that culture out there. Those people that are out on the front lines, they are the face of the company. They are the ones that provide the service. They are either going to be rude and mop the floor in front of someone’s feet or they are going to say, ‘Good morning Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones,’ and they are going to ask if they can help them with their bags. They are going to be the ones to show them that they respect that this is their home and their property and they care about it.”

If you show your people that you value them, they are much more likely to value your ideas.

“It’s getting leadership to realize that not only can we learn from our subordinates, but what we have to do is empower our subordinates to bring opportunities to us,” Roses says.

“It would help us move the needle a lot quicker to satisfy our clients. When you’re so far removed from the client, it’s very difficult to get your finger on the pulse. … You try to identify those people that are successful at promoting the culture, and as you identify those people, those are the ones who get promoted and are provided opportunities for growth.”

Sell service

With the real estate market continuing to struggle, Roses knows that service will be a key to his company’s success. It makes the training he has put in place at The Continental Group even more vital.

“Real estate is not where we’re going to grow the business in the next two or three years,” Roses says. “Development isn’t going to happen. We’re growing through acquiring existing associations and providing services to those people. How can we help them reduce their expenses?”

The recession gives you an easy target to point to in rallying your employees. You need to find ways to reach your people and rally them around a common cause that they can pass on to others.

“My thing is more about providing opportunities for experiencing things or challenging people, which is my method of coaching as opposed to telling people to turn left or turn right,” Roses says. “I used to be a school teacher. Parents had the kids, but then I educated them and they became something. I was also a coach, but they weren’t my kids either. How do I affect people’s lives while they are with me? And then when they are not with me, am I still affecting their lives?”

How to reach: The Continental Group Inc., (954) 925-8200 or www.thecontinentalgroupinc.com

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

No more cruising

Bob Restrepo was brought to State Auto Insurance Cos. with a mission. He was the first CEO the company had recruited from outside the organization. This was an intentional move by a board that felt its company was in need of perusal by a fresh set of eyes.

“They thought we had gotten very insular, not arrogant but introverted, and that we might be losing touch with the marketplace,” Restrepo says. “So when I came here, I spent a lot of time listening and learning.”

Restrepo wanted to know what was holding the company back. So he began asking questions of all the company’s movers and shakers, from board members to stock analysts to industry regulators.

“I asked them all the same questions,” Restrepo says. “‘What would you like to see change? What would you not like to see change? What do you think our biggest opportunities and threats are? What advice do you have for me about what I should do first?’”

His initial investigation showed him that State Auto was a successful and profitable company. The $1.8 billion property and casualty insurance provider is one of only 13 companies to maintain an excellent rating from A.M. Best & Co. every year since 1954.

But internally, State Auto had developed a lot of silos and that had the potential to hamper the 2,600-employee company’s ability to maintain that level of performance.

“We wanted ways to instill greater collaboration and fewer silos,” Restrepo says. “I really wanted to be able to look at the whole company and identify areas that would improve productivity and that would lower costs. I wanted to identify areas where we could be more responsive to our customers and areas that would position us for both profit and growth going forward.”

Lay it all out there

Remaking your organization, even if it’s not obviously broken, still requires participation and buy-in from all levels. This internal support is infinitely more important than any outside help you might enlist for the effort.

“You never turn it over to a consultant,” Restrepo says. “You lose credibility with the organization. You lose engagement. You lose good ideas. More often than not, all you’re going to get is somebody else’s regurgitated ideas of what might be good as opposed to what’s in the best interest of your organization and what’s consistent with your company’s corporate culture, both current and where you want to be.”

Restrepo, who is also chairman and president, did call on some limited external resources to help shape parts of the restructuring at State Auto. But the bulk of the decisions on this plan would be made by the people who came to work there each and every day.

He spent about six weeks giving presentations to everyone in the company in groups of about 20 or 30 people at a time.

“I was reminding them of what the strategy was, where we were well-positioned to achieve the strategy and where we were not well-positioned,” Restrepo says. “It was really focusing on poor productivity and our cost structure. We had never had a layoff before and that’s what people are most concerned about.

“I prepared them by saying, ‘Look, I can tell you right now where I think we’re overstaffed and where I think we’re understaffed. But this process is going to validate that. It’s not just about what I think. It’s about what you think. You at the front lines know where we’re not productive or where we’re underinvested. I need you to be involved in helping us do what’s best for the company, regardless of the impact on us individually.’ So it’s very candid.”

When you lay your initial plan out there, you need to provide time for questions and feedback.

“You have to be very candid, very transparent, very open and very nondefensive,” Restrepo says. “But people are still going to hear what they want to hear. You have to steel yourself to not get distracted and get defensive. Nobody is ever 100 percent bought in.”

You just need to keep working to engage people and get them on board with you as their leader.

“I wanted a process that would engage the organization and develop the information we needed, not only to implement the ideas but to monitor the success in executing to that implementation,” Restrepo says. “We told them this was going to be an opportunity for them to develop as individuals as well as make a big contribution to the company. It’s looking for opportunities for alignment where an individual says, ‘I’m excited about this. I’m going to get better out of this with an opportunity to make the organization better.’ My personal experience has always been the best things that have happened to me in my career were areas where I could make a big contribution.”

Gather your people

Restrepo looks for three things when he’s trying to put a team together: intelligence, energy and ambition.

“I always define ambition as the desire and capacity to learn, not to get to the next level but to learn and be able to operate effectively outside of their comfort zone,” Restrepo says.

You’re looking for people who demonstrated leadership ability. To help in that effort, Restrepo created a talent team whose job is to identify the leaders and prime-time players at State Auto.

The team of seven or eight individuals meets monthly and simply talks about the talent in the company. As a result of that dialogue, the team composed a list of the 50 top performers in the organization.

“We use this as a list of people we think have high potential,” Restrepo says. “We align them with members of the talent team for informal mentoring.”

Each year, the list is revised, meaning it consistently offers a sample of the best of the best.

“We use that pool of people for any special projects that might crop up that we think might be a good development opportunity,” Restrepo says.

Using the talent team and his own observations, Restrepo began to put together teams to look at various aspects of the company. To maintain a spirit of discovery, he looked to put people in positions outside of their comfort zone.

“So we had salespeople looking at IT,” Restrepo says. “We had IT people looking at products. It was an opportunity to not only evaluate the organization, but it was an opportunity to evaluate individuals outside of their comfort zone.”

You’re giving your people an opportunity to stretch their boundaries, and when they respond to it, see how they handle it. Each person feels a sense of camaraderie at trying something new.

“It’s putting together a diverse team of people who trust one another and are willing to collaborate and who are credible,” Restrepo says. “People in the organization say, ‘I trust that person. That person wants to do the right thing and is not political. They are going to do the right thing for the organization.’”

Restrepo also put together teams to challenge the teams and vet their ideas to make sure they fit in with the overall company goal.

“I didn’t want a process that imposed change from the top down,” Restrepo says. “I wanted to engage the whole organization in developing innovative new ideas.”

Keep it moving

You want to get your people involved, and you don’t want to be overbearing in leading a change effort. But at the same time, it’s your responsibility to keep things moving.

“What the leader has to do is to make real clear what’s expected and when it’s expected,” Restrepo says. “Trust the people to make it happen. If they don’t make it happen, then we’ve got a problem. I kind of have a deaf ear to why they didn’t get it done, because I made it real clear this was their No. 1 objective and they were expected to do their jobs.

Restrepo spoke with managers who were losing people to this project to plan for their absence in an effort to clear the obstacle of time from their work.

But everyone is busy and sometimes you just have to deal with it.

“We all have peak times and you have to learn how to manage and balance,” Restrepo says. “Sometimes the only way to manage and balance is to put in more hours and that’s what folks did. But they understood why it was important and understood that it was important. They also understood that it wasn’t going to go on forever. People have to learn how to manage themselves and their teams through peaks.”

Your job is to keep things moving, but it’s not to be a micromanager.

“If you want to empower people, you need to give clear direction and then you have to get out of their way,” Restrepo says. “But you have to have means to verify that they are making progress.

“Make sure you have a point person or point people to check in with to monitor progress. I’m always asking, ‘Who is in charge? Who is accountable? Who loses sleep if we are off track on this? How far down the organization are they?’ It’s making sure you have the right person in charge and you have to look them in the eye every once in a while. It’s just really assigning clear measurable responsibilities. I want to know, ‘Who is it that is going to make this happen?’ Then it’s holding them accountable for it. ‘Did you do it or didn’t you do it?’”

You also need to make sure you’re keeping the rest of the company involved, even those who aren’t directly engaged in the process. The key to any project is a clear sign of progress.

“We gave at least monthly updates to everybody,” Restrepo says. “You’ve got to communicate status. When the process was over, I did a second round of employee meetings, 20 to 25 people to talk about the high-impact ideas and spend time specifically on those areas that affected my audience.”

Perhaps most importantly with any project, in addition to getting it done, is how quickly you get it done.

“The first critical success factor is, ‘Do it fast,’” Restrepo says. “I’ve seen projects that last 18 months. They bring in an outside consultant and they do one after another and it takes 18 months to two years. Whatever you do, do it fast. I have a friend who works with me here and he says, ‘Fast beats perfect every time.’”

The end result is a company that’s in a better position to move forward.

“We’re much better positioned for the future,” Restrepo says. “I knew when I got here we were going to need to make some structural changes. We had been doing things the same way for 15 years. We called our project, Innovate State Auto, but there wasn’t a whole lot (of innovation) that came out of this.

“It was just getting us up to some reasonably good practices. What it’s positioned us for now is to take the next step and say, ‘OK, now what are the best practices?’ It’s positioned us to be more responsive to our customers and positioned us to accelerate profitable growth.”

How to reach: State Auto Insurance Cos., (614) 464-5000 or www.stateauto.com

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Take a deep breath

Unless you’re a completely cold and heartless boss who really does spend your evenings counting your nickels and dimes, the act of laying off someone can be a traumatic experience.

Kevin Moore had to lay off five people more than a year ago from employment at The Cleveland Play House.

“You’re talking about people who are heading out into that economy to find work,” says Moore, managing director at the nonprofit theater company. “That’s probably the most painful part of it all.”

So how do you get through it?

“A lot of deep breaths,” Moore says before taking one himself. “It’s really vital to keep your head and keep calm. Other people are looking to you to maintain a sense of calm, which is not always easy to do. When you’re faced with chronic cash difficulties as we were in some of the darkest days, it’s not easy to keep calm.”

The recession hit a lot of people and businesses hard and the Play House was not spared. Five people were let go, leaving the full-time staff at 45 employees.

When the time comes to deliver the bad news, it never hurts to rehearse what you’re going to say.

“I rehearse it and try to anticipate what kind of response it might be from across the table,” Moore says. “I really do sort of close my office door and just take a yellow legal pad and rehearse it. I have a habit of when I have to communicate something, my most comfortable form of communication is writing.

“So sometimes I’ll just sit down and write it all out. That works for me. The other thing is don’t ever have that conversation by yourself. Always have a trusted colleague in the room with you.”

You should also consult an attorney to make sure you’re not forgetting anything that could get you in trouble down the road.

“In the actual conversation, any attorney I’ve ever talked to has said it’s a not a long conversation,” Moore says. “It needs to be succinct and direct and compassionate.”

If you’re making the decision to lay off someone, there’s a good chance the person saw it coming, even though it’s still a shock to the system. So try to listen more than you talk.

“There’s not a lot to talk about,” Moore says. “Unfortunately, when you’re doing a work force reduction, it has everything to do with them individually and nothing to do with them individually.

“The everything is the part where you care, but none of those choices were made by performance. They were made because the organization is swimming in red ink.”

You need to reassure yourself that you’re making the right decision.

“Trust yourself, and trust that the decision is sound,” Moore says. “Test the decision with people that you trust. Resist the urge to let it all fall on you by yourself. Because they are horrible decisions, absolutely painful. Sometimes, you have to set back and say, ‘Why am I here? Why did I take this job? Why is this organization important to me?’ Ultimately, what you’re doing is finding a way for the organization to survive.”

You should never be afraid to ask for help or for counsel when pondering a difficult decision.

“I made sure that I had really high-quality advice as we were going through it,” Moore says. “You have a responsibility to the organization, and I feel a very personal responsibility to the people who choose to do theater for a living.”

How to reach: The Cleveland Play House, (216) 795-7000 or www.clevelandplayhouse.com

Deal with the aftermath

While it’s all over for the person or people you’re laying off once you deliver the news, you still have other people to think about: the people who are still working for you and wondering who might be next.

“The best thing is to address that head on,” says Kevin Moore, managing director at The Cleveland Play House. “We told the staff that we don’t anticipate any further reductions, but it would be a lie to say we’re not in a very difficult situation. We asked everybody to band together.”

Many companies choose to have an all-company meeting after a layoff to begin the healing process. If you do this, make sure you prepare for it.

“Take a little bit of time to take a yellow legal pad and write down the things you need to accomplish so you don’t leave anything out,” Moore says. “The thing that is hardest to do is actually creating any kind of dialogue.”

If you show that you’re open and interested in hearing from your people, that will make it a little easier for people to feel that they can speak up.

One thing you need to be sure of is that when the meeting is over, leadership needs to speak with one voice. Otherwise, you could end up with mixed messages and rumors among your staff.

“Every place that we stumbled has been in how well we communicated it,” Moore says. “It’s relentless. Things get going pretty fast and you’re moving from one thing to the next and you can’t skip that step. You’ve got to be in sync and try to be relentless about sending a positive message about what you’re trying to accomplish and why.” <<

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 19:00

Leading with heart

Robert H. Chapman was having a really good day. He had just eaten a fabulous breakfast with his wife, complete with impeccable service and great food at the Ritz-Carlton hotel where the couple was staying.

After the meal, on the way back to his room, Chapman noticed a man painting the hallway.

As he approached, the man stopped his painting and began to speak to Chapman.

“He paused and apologized for interrupting my stay because he was touching up the paint,” says Chapman, chairman and CEO at Barry-Wehmiller Cos. Inc. “I said, ‘I can’t believe anybody has engaged people so much.’ If Ritz can do it with a lady serving breakfast and a gentleman touching up the paint in the hallway, any organization can do it. Those people felt valued. So when they felt valued, they treated people with value.”

The idea of ensuring a positive experience between your employees and your customers is a universal challenge. How do you ensure that each and every interaction between employee and customer is a good one?

Chapman says it’s more about showing employees that you value their role in your business and much less about trying to be their manager.

“Never have I really sensed that we have learned to teach inspirational leadership,” says Chapman, who has led the 5,500-employee manufacturing and service company since 1975. “People graduate with management degrees and take management courses and are put into place managing companies. So what do managers do? They manage people. Nobody in this world can be managed or wants to be managed, but we put people in management positions instead of leadership positions.”

It’s not as if the moment at the Ritz was an epiphany for Chapman. He always viewed a leader’s job as being more about what you can do to put your employees in a position to fulfill their potential. When you’re able to do that, your customers will notice.

That morning at the hotel simply reinforced the idea that he wasn’t the only one who thought altruistic leadership was the way to go. You need to show your people that you value their talents and value their ability to put those skills to use for your business.

“We think that’s why we’re here, to create an environment where each of us can help the other person by working together and sharing our gifts to do something with our life,” Chapman says. “It’s the core thought. We don’t do this to get more out of our people. That may be a byproduct, but it’s not the intent.”

Chapman has helped his business succeed by developing an inspirational vision that appeals to his people. He firmly believes in asking employees to think deeply about their talents and to think about how they might be put to the best use in the organization.

And even though he says it’s not his goal, the approach has resulted in growth for his business. The company hit $960 million in fiscal 2009 revenue and expects $1.1 billion for fiscal 2010.

Here’s how he inspires his people and as a result, intentionally or not, puts his company in a position to be great.

Inspire your people

Any idea that seeks to change behavior has to begin with a vision. Your employees need to have a clear idea of what you are looking to do and then be able to find something in your plan that they can grasp on to.

“You have to create an inspiring vision of why you’re all coming together for some common economic purpose,” Chapman says. “Our vision is to create a global something that can pay people fairly, treat them superbly and create value for all stakeholders in the process. We can share that with people, and we can say, ‘Now let’s go do it.’”

Chapman likens the process to a religious leader seeking to gather disciples.

“You want to gather people around you in an environment where they feel their ideas and input are of value,” Chapman says. “Then you need to have a way of sharing your initial vision and saying, ‘This is a vision that I have, but I want to engage you all in making it more powerful because I value your input.’ When people feel like they are involved in the process, it’s uplifting to those people. They will go the last mile with you to help make it happen because they have had a chance to share their gifts and be appreciated for sharing their gifts.”

While you may be thinking big with your vision, you have to start small with your effort to sell it.

“You have to create disciples and get people in the boat with you,” Chapman says. “Pick a core group of people that you begin the process with that can spread this over time. It’s a long, firm leadership philosophy. You look at Toyota and companies that have embraced lean manufacturing and you say, ‘Oh, I want that.’ Well, you can’t just go out and buy a kit and think you’re going to be a lean company.”

You need to realize that you’re never going to reach everyone, no matter how inspiring your leadership is. Chapman says he simply began with people in his company who he thought would be receptive to his idea.

“I just thought about people who I thought were the kind of people that could help us develop it,” Chapman says. “It wasn’t all senior people. It was the secretary from one division. It was the president of another division. It was a production executive. It was just a group of people that I thought could help me develop it. They become disciples. They spread the beliefs. You try to change one person at a time. They become believers and disciples and the more they share it, the more other people embrace it.”

Once you have a core group of people that believes in your plan, you can begin that effort to sell it to the rest of the company.

“It’s continuous learning,” Chapman says. “We ask people for their input so we are constantly benchmarking and sharing it and continuously improving it and refining it. We have to live those principles of continuous improvement.”

Chapman says it really comes down to adopting a philosophy that your people bring a diverse set of skills to the table. It’s your job to figure out how best to draw out those skills.

“There’s an expression, and I don’t know who said it, but it goes, ‘We paid people for their hands for years and they would have given us their heads and hearts if we just knew how to ask,’” Chapman says. “We have never learned to ask people for their heads and hearts. We’ve just simply paid them for their hands. That is at the core of what we have come to realize.”

You need to show your people that you’re interested in anything they can do to better themselves and, in the process, better your organization.

“If you work for a company that you don’t feel cares about and doesn’t draw out your passion and your abilities, how could you possibly share your full potential with that company?” Chapman says. “It’s just a job. You’re going to do what’s expected.”

Chapman doesn’t believe that’s enough.

“People are craving to be part of something meaningful and to share their life in a meaningful way,” Chapman says. “Why can’t a job be meaningful? Why can’t the role we play in business allow us to fulfill our dreams? Why can’t it allo

w us to share our gifts? Because we never taught people how to do that.”

Give your plan substance

If you expect your people to open themselves up to your plan and buy in to your leadership, you need to give them a good example to follow. You need to show them that’s it’s more than just fancy bells and whistles and that there is substance behind your words.

“You have to live it,” Chapman says. “It’s not what you say; it’s what you do. You have to live that commitment to your people. You can’t just go around preaching. You have to actually mean that you want to engage people in creating something of value for everybody and that you value their input. It’s not one meeting and then we go back to normal.”

You have to show that beyond the initial pomp and circumstance, which often comes with a new way of doing things, that you want your plan to endure and you want them to participate in its development.

“If I don’t engage them in this vision and in a dialogue and I don’t get them to buy in to it, then this vision is under a rock,” Chapman says. “It’s never going to be embraced. We said we could either print this out and put it up on the wall or we could engage people in a dialogue about it every day. We need to put it in people’s heads and hearts and take it off the wall.”

One of the ways Chapman shows his commitment to the principles of his vision is through a leadership checklist. It’s about taking those values that you want your people to embrace and making sure they stick in terms of everyday action.

“Every day when someone walks in our company, you purposely go through a thought process of what you need to do,” Chapman says. “We have a purposeful process each day that focuses on people and performance.”

The list is made up of things it takes to be a good leader at Barry-Wehmiller, taking into account the vision that employees have heard and bought in to.

“They are just things you need to think about as a leader each day for the fulfillment of your teams,” Chapman says. “The leaders need to genuinely embrace it and then you need to find a way to live it. You can’t just run in one day and say, ‘We’re going to do this.’ There is a process to everything. You can’t decide you’re going to be a great chef tomorrow and say, ‘That’s what it takes to be a great chef.’ It takes time to develop these habits and skills and processes.”

In driving home the importance of your vision, you have to make sure you stay aligned with it. In the case of Chapman, that means remember that you’re part of the team, too.

“You don’t instruct them,” Chapman says. “You go with them to create it and live it. You’ve got to live the principles you’ve articulated.”

Focus on finding the ways your people are living your values and make an example of them.

“I spend my day trying to find goodness where people have done something right and I hold up good behavior,” Chapman says. “I don’t look for broken behavior. I hold up good behavior to inspire people and to recognize the people that showed good behavior and to encourage others to do the same.”

Chapman rewards this good behavior by giving employees who demonstrate the company’s values a Guiding Principles of Leadership Award. Employees are nominated for the award by their peers, which puts them on the lookout for people who are adhering to the vision.

“I sit down and I have a dialogue and remind them of what we believe in and how we’re trying to live it,” Chapman says. “I engage them in a dialogue from their perspective so that I stay in touch with their heart and soul. I’m not just sitting on the pinnacle of our company and looking down. … Leadership is not an accident. It should be a purposeful process each day that we consciously think through to allow people to fully reach their potential.”

How to reach: Barry-Wehmiller Cos. Inc., (314) 862-8000 or www.barry-wehmiller.com

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 19:00

Slowing it down

David Bianconi thought he was doing the right thing when he saw an employee doing well and rewarded the individual effort with a promotion. But in a number of cases, he ended up ruining the person’s ability to help Progressive Medical Inc.

“I saw people flourish at one level, and when we tried to move them to another level, they would fall apart,” says Bianconi, founder and CEO at the provider of managed care services.

“I have ruined a couple people and I blame myself for that. I put them in a position not to succeed but to fail. I understand it now, but unfortunately, it was at their expense. It took me several episodes to realize that being loyal to people does not necessarily mean promoting them. There are other ways to be loyal.”

There are also other ways to put your people in a position to move up in your organization. One of the most important lessons Bianconi learned was that just because you can promote someone today doesn’t mean you should do it today.

“If there is a hole to fill, there are options of how you can fill that hole,” Bianconi says. “You may not need to go out and hire someone and fill that hole with an external person today. Or you may not need to promote someone internally to fill that position today. Another option may be to take someone you think might be a good candidate for that position and allow them to go into that position and visit there for several months and see how they do. If they don’t perform, the act of moving them back to where they were is much easier if you’ve never consecrated them with some title that says they own this domain.”

This philosophy of patience with moving employees up the ladder has paid dividends for the $188 million company. It’s reduced the number of promotion mishaps by making sure employees are ready to move up. It also provided a framework for Bianconi to anoint Kevin Banion as the company’s president and chief operating officer in January.

“When I named him president, I told him, ‘Kevin, I need to make you the president. You’ve been running the company; you just haven’t had the title,’” Bianconi says. “Kevin had already been doing it. The only thing that changed was his title and he got a little boost in pay. He had been doing the things he needed to do and I have a great person who is very talented and proven in that position.”

Here’s how Bianconi eased the pressure of advancing in the company of nearly 500 employees by slowing down the process to make sure employees are ready to move up.

Don’t tell, show

Bianconi actually developed his new approach to employee growth by accident.

“There were a couple situations where we weren’t sure that we wanted to put a certain person in a position, but we didn’t have anybody else to put in the position,” Bianconi says. “So we told the person, ‘Hey, until we can fill this position, we’d like you to handle these duties.’ All of a sudden, they did a great job, and we ended up promoting them. It became pretty obvious to me that was the missing link. Having that procedure in place made life much easier for everyone. It’s very easy to promote and announce you’re assigning someone a position and a title. But it’s very difficult to take that away.”

Bianconi began selling his team on this new approach of an interim period before a promotion by laying out the facts.

“I would go in and say, ‘You know what, we’ve just gone through a situation where we’ve promoted several people and we’ve not had good success,” Bianconi says. “These people have failed. They did great in the previous position with the company, but we promoted them and, for whatever reason, they failed in those positions. We need to figure out a way to do this.’”

But what followed was not Bianconi talking about his idea to create a transition period before issuing promotions. Instead, he began to ask questions.

“If you want to communicate an idea that you have, the best way to do it is not to tell people what the idea is,” Bianconi says. “Let them figure it out. The way I do that is by asking questions. You ask the people in the room, ‘What is your opinion?’ That’s a very valid question. People typically have great solutions and great comments. Instead, what happens too many times is leaders get into a room and they think their solution is the only one and the best one and they are not interested in hearing other people’s opinions and comments.

“You have to be open-minded at all levels to understand that your idea may be a good one, but it may not be the best one.”

In this case, Bianconi believed that his idea was the best one. But you can’t go into a meeting with your team with an attitude that it’s your way or the highway.

“I’ve always used the premise that you have to start with the fact that (your people) think logically and they are intelligent,” Bianconi says. “If I can’t convince you it’s a good idea, then maybe it’s not and vice versa. We both have to agree that whatever thing we’re going to move forward on is a good idea.”

Bianconi got the buy-in he needed by making an analogy to airline pilots.

“We started off hiring crop dusters and we elevated to single-engine planes and dual-engine planes and then mini jets and now we’re flying jumbo jets,” Bianconi says. “But along that progression, you need to constantly redefine and hone those skill sets and positions. The person that flies a single-engine plane, they may be able to fly a dual-engine plane. But that’s not what they are really trained for. It’s not where their comfort level is. If you have people up there flying these planes, sooner or later, the likelihood of them crashing is greater.”

Bianconi felt like the company could continue going about the promotions the way it had. If the company was lucky, there wouldn’t be any problems in sales or IT or accounting and it would keep plugging away. But Bianconi had no desire to run his company on a hunch.

“I tell people that our organizational chart is flipped on its end,” Bianconi says. “The people on the top, they are the leaves on the tree that are out there growing the company. I need to be the one offering the support and to make sure I’m providing them with the right tools.”

It was up to the leaders to do better and put a process in place that would better prepare employees for their jobs and the growth opportunities they might provide.

Test employees

The lack of a new title was one of the first but also most important ways Bianconi could ease the pressure on employees who were being eyed for a promotion. They would experience the position and learn the ins and outs of how to do it, but they would still hold their current title.

“Before we give them the title and complete responsibility of that area, we give them a lot of the roles and duties that they need to perform,” Bianconi says.

“We first give them a test and see how they do. This has proven to be very valuable and effective for us. It ensures that, ultimately, when the decision is made, instead of making them an interim manager, they become a permanent manager. We know they have already done the tasks and proven they can ha

ndle the situation.”

If they aren’t able to handle the new job, little has been lost and no demotion is necessary. The employee simply continues with what he or she had been doing.

The removal of that risk and pressure is one of the keys to helping employees get over the hump of an advancement.

“People are going to make mistakes,” Bianconi says. “I always talk about good mistakes and bad mistakes. Good mistakes are actions that have undesirable outcomes, but given the same information you had, anyone in the normal state of mind would have made that same decision. That’s a good mistake. You learn from that. You never go out of business by making good mistakes. Bad mistakes on the other hand are actions that people take that are done without any kind of good intent or knowledge base. It’s just kind of like throwing darts. Those are bad mistakes, and we certainly don’t want those to happen.”

The idea that you are working for your employees and are available to provide them with support and the tools they need to succeed is one that Bianconi says cannot be delivered too many times.

“You have to start by giving people the freedom to take risks, risks without retribution,” Bianconi says. “I’m going to take a risk and put myself in a position to make good mistakes and learn from that. That’s a first step. Part of that has to do with delegating and making people feel that they make a difference. I don’t make a difference, you make a difference, and we collectively can do something that is very good.”

So when you approach your employees about taking on a new position, make it clear that it’s an opportunity that you’re just as curious and excited about as the employee.

“First, you want to ask the person, ‘Are you interested? We’re interested in you. Are you interested in this?’” Bianconi says. “‘Here are the game rules, and here’s what we’re trying to do. We want to give you an opportunity to go in there and try this. Tell me what you think.’”

As the employee begins to learn about the new position, don’t feel as if you need to throw him or her curveballs to see how the employee might respond. The regular business world will probably provide plenty of those.

“We don’t want to make life any more difficult,” Bianconi says. “You might ruin a perfectly good person by throwing stuff at them. It’s all about fundamentals. If they can’t handle the fundamentals, all those specialty things, they aren’t going to matter.”

And when you’re assessing the employee’s performance, don’t just study the individual. Look at the people he or she is working with and see how they respond.

“Look at who it is they are leading,” Bianconi says. “You can get a good grasp on how these people are responding to this person in this new capacity.”

Just because you’re not giving the person a new title in their audition for a new job, that doesn’t mean you keep it secret. You want to be clear with everyone about what they are doing so they can offer their support.

You also want the promotion candidate to know that either you or their direct supervisor is there to offer support whenever it’s needed.

“People want to know, ‘How am I doing? Am I doing what I’m supposed to do?’” Bianconi says. “Many companies don’t tell people what they are supposed to do, they just presume people know. And they don’t tell them how they are doing so they don’t even know what they are supposed to do.

“You don’t just sit down and talk to people when they are doing something wrong; you talk to them when they are doing things right. That way, when they are doing something wrong, I don’t get intimidated by the fact that you’re sitting down with me and telling me I’m doing something wrong. … If the only time I sat down with somebody was when they did something wrong, they’re going to think they do everything wrong. It’s a process. You have to mentor and lead them through the process.”

How to reach: Progressive Medical Inc., (614) 794-3300 or www.progressive-medical.com

Saturday, 26 December 2009 19:00

Surgical precision

Crystal Haynes is proud of Saint Louis University Hospital. It’s a level-one trauma center, meaning it’s capable of handling the worst of the worst when it comes to illness and injury.

It’s a 356-bed academic teaching hospital that has provided health care to the St. Louis region for more than 70 years. But as Haynes looked at the hospital’s range of service offerings a few years ago, she felt like maybe her staff was trying to do too much.

“This was a facility that wanted to do every aspect of the health care business and be involved and engaged in it and wanted to do that at an exceptional level,” says Haynes, CEO at the hospital, which is part of Tenet HealthCare Corp. “The lack of real adherence to specialization and narrowing the choices to what you want to do, and doing those really well and selling those services appropriately, was a bit of a departure from where this organization had been.”

Another problem was Barnes-Jewish Hospital, located right across the street from SLU Hospital.

“We don’t have the size and scope or depth to be a Barnes, nor do we want to be one,” Haynes says. “We were literally duplicating the services that were being offered over at Barnes and competing against them.”

Haynes decided it was time to stop trying to be everything to everybody and start focusing on what her 1,800 employees do best. SLU needed to find its own niche. It needed to sell a more targeted vision to the community of what it could do instead of trying to compete with everything that Barnes was doing.

“This goes way beyond just the health care industry,” Haynes says. “It’s all about defining your product and understanding what it is you do well. It’s figuring out what are the best aspects of your product or service and being able to enhance that. Instead of offering a very broad or generic service or product, we became much more precise about what it was we were going to market and where we were going to place our resources and how we were going to deliver that.”

Haynes succeeded by focusing on what could be gained rather than dwelling on what would be lost. She sold her employees on the opportunity to take their most valuable skills and put them to use for the betterment of the organization.

“Our success has been moving forward the things we have in place, not going out and inventing new things to do,” Haynes says.

Here’s how Haynes got her employees to focus on their core talents, improve performance and raise their organization’s standing in the community.

Take an honest look

If you don’t know what you’re really good at, the chances are pretty good that your clients and customers don’t know either. Haynes felt this was one of the biggest obstacles holding SLU Hospital back from reaching its full potential.

The hospital was known for doing a lot of things well. But if it could put itself in a position to be lauded for doing a few things exceptionally well, that would be even better.

“You need to be honest with yourself about truly what it is you do well,” Haynes says. “Sometimes you can have one piece of your whole business doing really well, but it could do a lot better if you were willing to change and either add to or subtract from other services you’re providing in the organization. It’s understanding the bits and pieces. If you turn the dial to the right or the left, you might be able to even enhance the opportunities for the service you want to provide. You don’t have to be everything for everybody.”

For too long, Haynes says employees would wistfully dream of what they could do, if they only had this money or that equipment to do it.

“The first piece is kind of emotional and just a little bit hard,” Haynes says of launching the identification process. “We stopped wishing for things, like, ‘Gee, I wish we did better in this particular service line.’ We really looked at what we had at that moment. Instead of just saying, ‘If we added this person or brought this surgeon on,’ and how we would do this, we were very critical of ourselves. What do we have in place that we can do now without having to expend a huge amount of money, buy a bunch of capital or hire a bunch of people? What is it we have that we can enhance?

“Someone would come to you and say, ‘I’ve got this ability to do these things, and it’s not going to cost an arm and a leg.’ That would be a very strong indication of opportunity. People that would come and say, ‘If you give us this new type of technology or this new piece of equipment or you completely rebuild something, this is going to cost you millions and billions of dollars,’ generally that was not something indicative of a good investment. They were suggesting the reason they hadn’t moved forward was related to equipment or technology or money.”

So how do you get to that point to know what it is you really do best? How do you convince employees who have been doing something a certain way and feel a certain level of pride at how they do it that you’re going to go in a new direction and not do it that way anymore?

“It needs to be data-driven and not based on motives,” Haynes says. “You really have to look at things with a jaundiced eye and ask critical questions. When you hear specific pieces of information that don’t jive with what you know from an experience base to be true, you stop. The data may be right, and it may be showing you something that you haven’t experienced before or find hard to believe. But at least you can go through the process of understanding it more deeply.”

You also have to remove as much bias as you can from your analysis of the data to make a truly honest assessment.

“We have a tendency to delegate responsibility for determining what data should be and what metrics should be to the people that are actually being measured,” Haynes says. “There’s a bit of a bias attached to that. There is good merit in having people kind of extraneous to that be able to look at that data and use that data. … It’s all part of that honesty and trying to divorce yourself from wishing and trying to create an environment where you’re really looking at the stuff that is tangible.”

In the end, what’s often most important in developing a niche is asking yourself what your customers would want and what you can give them.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling shoes or working in a telecommunications company,” Haynes says. “If you embrace the same kind of concept we embrace in health care, which is to look to the patient, as you are going through your decision-making and testing your ideas and questioning whether you made the right decision, that will give you the answer you are looking for.

“As these things merit themselves out, you’re able to deploy your resources and your money in a way that supports the effort of people that are changing process or redeveloping or retooling their product based on what is a much stronger set of business principles than just saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ You have to step away from that. … That was one of the key decision factors in deciding what it was we would spend our energy and efforts on.”

Create energy

It’s much easier to implement change when people are asking you for it. That philosophy served Haynes well in getting employees to buy in to the transformation at SLU Hospital.

ȁ C;You’re in the position of saying, ‘Oh, you want to change? How can we help you do that?’” Haynes says. “It really is motivating. I think the trick for us was finding one particular area with the right people that wanted to move things forward and rethink what they were doing. Either they had experience at other hospitals or they just had a grander sense of what was possible. Being able to do that one time was really all that was necessary.”

Try to stay away from making huge announcements or convening meetings that make it seem like nothing will ever be the same after the meeting is over.

“If you’re going to effect change, it needs to be organic and feel like it’s coming from within,” Haynes says. “This doesn’t mean you have to be like a sloth making change. A lot of times, you have to say, ‘Guys, we’re going to try this for six weeks. We’re going to stick with it if it works. We’ll retool it if it doesn’t, but we are going to make this change today.’ Sometimes you have to do that.”

But the goal is to implement change in a way that attracts rather than repels other employees.

“When we would go in and work effectively on a particular service line, others would see the success that would breed,” Haynes says. “We had others come to us and say, ‘We want to do this, too.’ It’s a wonderful position to be in when you have people that can see individual opportunities in these service lines and exploit them.

“That’s when other people come forward and say, ‘We want to do that, too.’ Instead of having people gnash teeth over huge change, it does take you to another level. You’re able to see these people not only embrace it, but they are excited about it.”

It’s usually easier to build this kind of energy if you focus on smaller areas rather than attempting to convert everyone at the same time.

“Deal with individual operating units or departments and make sure they are functioning as optimally as possible,” Haynes says. “Then worry about the connectivity with the other departments. Make sure the individual little bits of pieces of that larger equation all function well, and then you work on creating that collegiality between all the different services.”

As Haynes looks at her organization today, she feels like her mission has been accomplished. The hospital was named one of the nation’s best in both 2007 and 2008 by U.S. News & World Report.

It also has begun to fulfill its mission of more specialized excellence by developing the Mid-America Stroke Network.

“We draw from hospitals and patients from a 500-mile radius because we’re an accredited stroke center,” Haynes says. “The quality of patient care has improved. We were already great but became even better. And the ability to both attract physicians and clinicians in their areas of specialty improved. Also, the number of patients we had went up. We never want people to get sick, but if they are sick, we want them to choose the best place for them to receive their care. It really isn’t any different when you think of it at that level than a business.”

How to reach: Saint Louis University Hospital, (314) 577-8000 or www.sluhospital.com

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Engineering an empire

For David Alfonso, success comes from confidence.

He founded his company, Empire Investment Holdings LLC, in 2003, after leaving a lucrative job where he had done very well.

“I was very happy at that organization, but something inside of me told me that I could do this for myself,” Alfonso says. “I had that much confidence within myself to not even question whether I had the ability to do it or not.”

His confidence was such that he never allowed himself to think of a scenario in which he would fail.

“It’s hard for me to explain, but it never crossed my mind,” Alfonso says. “I would always tell myself or my wife or the folks that were around us at that time that it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. It’s strange, but I never thought, ‘What happens if this doesn’t work?’”

The confidence that Alfonso built Empire on is the same confidence that he attempts to convey to the struggling companies that his business now seeks to acquire and rebuild. The 800-employee firm targets companies that he believes have characteristics that can be exploited and developed to create market value.

“When we acquire business units from the Fortune 1000, they have been categorized as no longer strategic for their ongoing businesses,” Alfonso says. “As a result of that, they tend to be ignored. They are put off to the side because they either are going to be sold or shut down.

“It’s not that there is a bad business there, but the folks recognize the fact that they are not being tended to and they are not being invested in. There is no one really mentoring, coaching or talking to them. … People want to feel as though they can truly make a difference. They really want to be able to make an impact. Those are the very characteristics and qualities that our organization promotes. That’s what we want.”

The ability to convey a plan to employees that makes them feel confident and useful again is a key reason why Empire has been able to process more than 40 corporate divestitures since 2003 and hit $135 million in fiscal 2009 revenue.

Here’s a look at some of the guiding principles that Alfonso used to build Empire and still uses today to help struggling businesses get turned around.

Show your confidence

You can have the most imaginative and creative plan in the world to get your business turned around, but if you don’t have confidence in your ability to make it happen, it’s never going to get you anywhere.

“If you’ve come into a room and you’re going to pitch me, you better be damn confident about what it is you’re doing and what it is you’re saying,” says Alfonso, putting himself in the position of the beleaguered leader. “You can tell pretty quickly whether the individuals on the other side of the table believe in themselves.

“One of the keys for me is going to be, are they demonstrating the appropriate level of not only competency but confidence in themselves in order for me to engage in this relationship?”

Whether you’re an investment firm that is buying other companies or just a CEO who is trying to turn your own business around, the challenge is the same. You need to project confidence that you can lead these people to success and prosperity.

“If the leader truly believes in what he is doing and what the business is doing and really has that passion, the type of passion where when you talk about it, you can even get choked up about it, it’s contagious and it can spread,” Alfonso says.

“It’s a level of intimacy. It’s working with everyone in your organization from the top down and being very intimate with the details and every functional area. I don’t know that sitting behind a desk and pounding out memos or communications is the most effective way. It’s by interacting at an intimate level with your work force.”

Give people a sense of where they fit into the picture of taking your company to greater heights and be specific about the details.

“It’s essential,” Alfonso says. “Everyone needs to understand not only where they fall in the organization from an organizational chart perspective, but they truly need to understand what is expected of them. And more importantly, not just what they’re expected to do but what that function actually does for the organization. How does it interrelate with the other functional areas and how and why does that function bring value to the organization?”

Don’t just rely on e-mails or company newsletters to speak to your people.

“Nothing can substitute an in-person meeting,” Alfonso says. “You can send out memos and put things in a newsletter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re touching everyone or reaching everyone or that everyone is going to read it.”

In the end, it’s both your ability to communicate a plan and your discipline about sticking to it and following through on its components that will give you the best chance to generate the confidence you need.

“It’s consistency,” Alfonso says. “You can walk into any building right now and give a presentation and someone can even write it for you and you can sound really damn good. But if you don’t live those words, if you don’t demonstrate through your personal actions that you are involved and you’re following through with things, it won’t work. If you make commitments, you better damn well make them happen. Over time, that will counteract the employees’ notion that here’s just another person giving me a presentation and we’re going to walk away and it’s just going to be the same old, same old.”

Lend a hand

Just because you’re the boss, that doesn’t mean you should be above helping out your employees who are trying to make things happen in your business.

“Right now, one of our key executives, Chris Cummings, is knee-deep in implementing an ERP application for our latest acquisition,” Alfonso says. “I know Chris is working long days and nights and weekends, and he is really putting forth an amazing effort to get this done. When I talk to him, I will periodically say, ‘Hey, do you have anything on your plate you want me to get done for you?’ And he’s given me a couple things and I’ve done it for him.

“It’s being able to recognize when your resources are really going above and beyond the call of duty to get something done or get a project done that is really tying up their time. It’s recognizing that they are in that situation and offering some help and then it’s being able to do it.”

The key is when you extend the offer to help, you can’t just do it in a subtle way that you hope won’t generate any responses.

“If they give you something, get it done,” Alfonso says. “It doesn’t matter what the task is. There should be nothing that is beneath you.”

If you want to convey an attitude that you’re part of the team, you need to act like it and not seek out special treatment. You’ll reinforce the idea that it’s not just you and your responsibilities that make the company go.

“I do a lot of things on my own,” Alfonso says. “I don’t rely on an administrative assistant to make phone calls for me. My fingers aren’t broken. I can pick up the phone and dial it. There’s a certain level of approach from that perspect

ive. … It’s not uncommon for someone to walk into my office and say, ‘Hey, I can’t get to this. Can you help me get this done?’ Absolutely, give it to me. I’ll get it done. It’s all about bringing value and if you truly embrace that, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your title is or what it is you may do for the organization. If something needs to get done, anyone should be able to do it, including myself.”

If you want to bring value to your position, you need to be in tune with what’s happening and engaged with your employees. You need to be asking questions and assessing your strategies and checking for efficiencies on a daily basis.

“You really can’t answer those questions if you’re trusting those around you to answer them for you,” Alfonso says. “You have to know for yourself. You have to be the most prepared. You have to be the most diligent, and you have to work harder than anyone around you.”

Stay focused

When things are going well and everyone is busy, you’ll probably be spending a lot of time with your employees. It’s important to work to build strong working relationships without letting things get too personal.

“I’ve seen it happen too many times where people get too close and then something happens in the business environment which requires one person to have to take a certain action and it becomes very difficult,” Alfonso says. “We work very long hours, and when I get home from a trip, I want to go home and see my family and my kids. I don’t want to continue the party. There’s a time and a place for everything and you need to know when to cut it off.”

This type of work-life balance is an important element when you’re trying to be a leader who is engaged with your people and a part of the team.

“I don’t allow what’s being handled from the business side and the tactical side of the organization to become personal,” Alfonso says. “This is all business and all about getting things done. For those who work with me and around me on a regular basis, there’s no fooling around. We’ve got one task in mind and that’s to make sure we get things done for the company. It’s not about me or anyone else. It’s about the organization. People know that I take that seriously.”

It’s all about setting boundaries and sticking to them.

“It’s hard when you work with people as closely as we do and we travel as much as we do to not get to know the people that are around you and to not get to know who their spouses are and who their children are and where they live and the things they like,” Alfonso says. “So it’s not black and white. But I maintain an appropriate level of separation.”

It’s not the extracurricular activities that get the business moving if you have the right plan in place. It’s a commitment to the plan and a strong effort to bring employees along for the ride.

“We’d love to be able to do those things, but we’re generally too busy to do that type of entertaining or level of personal touch,” Alfonso says. “It’s by working with them. If I go visit one of our organizations, and let’s say that particular organization has 50 or 60 employees within that building, I will go visit everybody.

“I will literally go and say hello to everyone and talk with them. I have that personal relationship with our staff at all levels. We’re interacting at meetings. We are involved. We’re engaged owners. It’s not like we take a hands-off approach, cross our fingers and hope for the best. We really are involved in what our companies are doing. That goes to our management team and their management teams and it kind of rolls downhill.”

How to reach: Empire Investment Holdings LLC, (305) 403-1111 or www.empireih.com