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Susan C. Kelley doesn’t want her employees to provide great customer service because she told them to do it. She wants them to do it because they feel and believe that it’s the right thing to do.

“In my view, it’s creating a culture where employees want to treat the customer that way,” says Kelley, president of Shell Vacations Hospitality and Shell Vacations Club. Both are part of Shell Vacations LLC, which has more than 1,700 employees.

“The only way you’re going to create that culture is face time with your employees and creating an environment where your company is human,” Kelley says. “There’s no one single thing that a company or a CEO does to create that culture. It happens over time. It happens because management spends time with the employee.”

And it happens when you stand by your word and become someone who your employees can trust.

“If you say you’re going to give a performance review every year, then you have to do it,” Kelley says. “If you say you’re going to create incentive programs for you, you have to do it.”

And if you say you’re going to survey your employees on a regular basis and gather their feedback on how the business is being run, you have to do that too.

“If a hot button issue for an employee, which it always is, is to feel empowered and appreciated, we can create training programs and incentives that are going to help that employee feel empowered and appreciated,” Kelley says. “I’m a huge believer, and it’s been proven in our organization, that that employee turns right around and that’s exactly how they treat the customer.”

Here’s how Kelley uses surveying to stay tuned in with her employees and to help them provide better service to customers.

Set the stage

Shell Vacations was a much different company when Kelley arrived in 1994. For one thing, there wasn’t really a system in place as to how customers were to be treated. It varied depending on which employee was providing the service or at which resort it was being provided.

Kelley wanted to change that. So she launched an effort to gather feedback from both employees and customers as to what they expected from the company.

“If you can gather the priorities of your employees and your customers, then it becomes a function of culling through that information and saying, ‘OK, what kind of training do we need to provide to our employees to reinforce what’s important to that employee, but mesh it with what the hot button is for the customer?’”

Surveys obviously can be an effective way to gather this kind of information. But before you take that step, you need to go talk to your people face to face.

“It doesn’t help any company or any CEO to just send out the survey and say, ‘Here, take the survey.’ Then it has zero credibility,” Kelley says. “Particularly if you’re trying to create a culture where this becomes a way of life on a long-term basis and not just the one time. In order to do that, you have to go out and talk to your employees and tell them what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

In some cases, the face-to-face conversations may be enough to gather the feedback that you need.

“If I was a CEO of a company that had 100 or fewer employees, frankly, I too perhaps would question how critical [a survey] was, knowing I could spend time with 100 people in my organization in any given month, quarter or half year,” Kelley says. “But when you have hundreds of employees or over 1,000 in our case, the ability to find out what they are thinking and feeling is absolutely essential to the success of your organization.”

In Kelley’s case, a survey was needed as she was trying to build something that would have a lasting impact on the company. So she explained to people exactly how the survey process would work before it was to be carried out.

“We tell employees, ‘OK, you’re going to take the survey on Oct. 2’ or whatever the date may be,” Kelley says. “We will have the results by Nov. 5 and by no later than Nov. 10, we’ll be scheduling departmental meetings to go through the results of the survey.”

You also need to work with your direct reports to make sure they are clear about the schedule and to make sure that they understand how critical it is that everything happen according to the plan.

“My direct reports provide me with a very detailed timeline of exactly the schedule for the survey,” Kelley says. “When is it being rolled out? When are we expecting the results? Here’s what we’re going to do when we get the results. Here’s the action plan of how we’re going to follow up on those results. So we actually train management on what the proper process is for following up on the action plan.”

It’s these details and your commitment to them that can make a difference in how seriously your employees take your survey process.

“One of the biggest mistakes that companies make is making promises and then either not following through or being very late in following through on those promises,” Kelley says. “I always tell the management team that reports directly to me, it’s like spanking a puppy for having an accident on the carpet. If you don’t catch it right away, it no longer has any meaning.”

Trust the experts

Your best bet for conducting an effective survey of either your employees or your customers is to find a third-party company that does it for a living.

“We look for a company that has done surveys in our industry,” Kelley says. “We look for a company who is willing to sit down with us and understand our company’s culture, our company’s mission and service statement and our service goals. A company that every time we do a survey, and we’ve been doing our surveys now for almost 12 years, it’s willing to go through the results of those surveys with us before they get rolled out to the employees.”

The best thing is to find a company that you can stick with on a long-term basis as it’ll be able to track changes and trends that you are going to want to know about as more surveys are conducted.

“They can look at trends and compare information from the prior survey and provide us with analytics from having so much experience,” Kelley says. “They may say to us, ‘Sue, all of a sudden your results in ‘I feel appreciated’ have jumped 10 points across your company. Have you done something different in your organization in the last six months that would have caused the results of that question to jump by 10 points? It’s hugely beneficial for us because we can take a look at how what we’ve done has had a positive or negative impact on the survey. They are our partners.”

So with that long-term view in mind, provide a sense of what you’re looking to accomplish with your surveying. A good survey company will work with you, although they may not always agree with you.

That’s when you need to keep in mind, this is what they do for a living.

“They initially provide us with stock questions,” Kelley says. “We sat with them and said, ‘Fifty percent of these questions work for us, and 50 percent we’d like to tweak.’ They said, ‘Your tweaks don’t work.’ There are scientific reasons why and that’s why they write surveys and we don’t. But they said, ‘We understand where you’re trying to go with your tweaks, so let’s alter the question and see if it works for you.’ So they provide us with the stock questions, but for that 50 percent we wanted to tweak, they helped us customize them for our particular organization.”

If a company is not willing to work with you, it’s probably not going to provide the benefit you’re looking for. So you want to find someone you feel comfortable with and someone who you feel is after the same goal that you are.

“They are our partners,” Kelley says.

Make it matter

Surveys of customers are very similar to employee surveys in that you’re typically after the same goal: to get good feedback that you can use to make your organization better. The difference is that customers come and go all the time and it can take some effort to reach them depending on what your business does.

Shell Vacations uses electronic surveys with customers that include drop-down menus that ask for more feedback if someone had a negative experience in a particular area. But perhaps more importantly, the cover letter on the survey is signed by Kelley.

Customers are also reminded when they check in and when they check out that the surveys are of great value to the company.

The idea of surveying is one that should be valuable to any business, whether that company in the hospitality business, the manufacturing sector or any other type of industry.

“Every business in this day and age is competitive if for no other reason than with the Internet,” Kelley says. “You can buy anything and everything by going to Google and typing one word and finding 1,000 different organizations that provide the same product. In our world, as fast as it’s moving, understanding your customers’ needs and your employees is translatable to any type of business or organization.”

You need to show yourself to be someone who is tuned in to what’s happening in your business and responsive to the needs of both your employees and your customers. You need to show people that you care.

“In the bigger picture, this is not just relating to surveying,” Kelley says. “It’s very important for management, if there is a glitch, if there is a concern, if a particular division of the company or particular area of the company begins to slip or has a trend that’s going in the wrong direction, you can’t get mad about it. You have to look at it objectively and create an action plan to try to fix it. You have to be patient. Take a deep breath and count to 10. Don’t immediately assume that somebody is doing something wrong.”

How to reach: Shell Vacations LLC, (847) 564-4600 or www.shellvacationsclub.com

The Kelley File

Born: Chicago

Kelley on her big career break: “In between graduating from high school and going to college, I needed to have a job. I had a scholarship to go to college but there were ancillary expenses. So I needed to have a job. I went to downtown Chicago looking for a job and walked into the Congress Hotel on Michigan Avenue having absolutely no clue what people did that worked in hotels.

“I was very fortunate that I was hired for the summer. I worked there the entire summer between high school and college and I absolutely loved it.”

But the college thing didn’t really work out.

“I went to college in the fall and absolutely hated it. There was not a moment in time that I was in college the first semester that I didn’t wish I was back at the hotel working.”

So after being offered a full-time job with the hotel, back she went.

“For me, it was like somebody handed me a check for a million dollars. … I never went back to college, and I have worked in the hospitality industry ever since.”

What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?

This was from Jerry Sikes, front office manager at the Congress Hotel. He had tremendous patience in this young girl who had stars in her eyes, but also willingly, openly and without a moment of hesitation taught me everything that he knew. He said, ‘Just try to figure it out and if you make a mistake, pick yourself back up and figure out another way to get it done until you get it right.’

Scott Ginsberg has worn a nametag every day for more than 10 years. He loves when people ask him why. But he’s confident many would prefer a root canal over most types of social interaction.

“How many people did you go out of your way to avoid yesterday?” Ginsberg says. “How many people went out of their way to avoid you yesterday? That’s the core of what this is all about. Approachability is not who you know, it’s whose life is better because they know you.”

It’s with that in mind that Ginsberg has written “-able: 35 Strategies for Increasing the Probability of Success in Business and in Life.”

Smart Business spoke with Ginsberg about how his book can make you a more effective leader.

Why should CEOs read this book?

This book shows people how to get out there more and have a sense of visibility with people. As a result, they connect with you more on a human level. That’s what makes them work their butts off and their hearts out.

For a CEO, anonymity is bankruptcy. If you’re not visible to the people who matter most, customers, employees and people in your organization, you lose. It becomes this maze of struggle for a lot of executives that you see in a lot of employee engagement surveys and 360 evaluations.

They have an open-door policy, but they don’t have an open-heart policy and they don’t have an open-mind policy. Part of doing that is getting out there and physically talking to people.

Who did you write this book for?

That’s the whole point. I write in a way that meets people where they are. I write stuff as if I’m having a conversation. It’s one on one. I write like I talk. I don’t edit, I just write it once and that’s it. It appeals to people because it allows them to plug themselves into the equations and to think about their business and their world and their relationships and think, ‘OK, what is he saying? How does that apply to me?’

It works that way if you can write it in a way that is democratized and hits people in their own space and kind of rewards them from any angle. Everyone can read it and get something good out of it. Everything I write does that and that’s what readers tell me.

What is your ultimate goal for wearing a nametag all the time?

I want to disturb people. I use that not in a negative way. People don’t really understand what disturb means. It comes from the same Latin word as emotion. So to disturb is to invoke emotion. That’s what I hope happens. I hope that somebody reads a tweet that I write and it disturbs them to a point where they actually go do something.

Or they read the book and it disturbs them to the point where they go have a conversation with someone that’s important to them. Or if they come to a presentation, I hope they leave and decide, ‘You know what, I’m going to go do this. I’m going to start my website or get my blog going.’

I think disturbing is a good goal. That’s kind of what I want to do every day. I just want to disturb people. Comfortable people never change. If I can disturb people enough, maybe they’ll get so annoyed with me and they’ll do something just to shut me up.

How to reach: Scott Ginsberg, (314) 256-1800 or www.hellomynameisscott.com

You’ve taken a look at the balance sheet and your company has lost more than $1 billion in revenue from the previous year. What do you do?

If you’re Brett Good, president of the Southern California district for Robert Half International Inc., you face some very painful decisions. Good manages a small part of Robert Half and not the entire $3.2 billion specialized staffing firm. But he still felt the pressure to demonstrate leadership.

First, he had to get over his own frustration about what was happening.

“I remember sitting one day and just ticking through my head the amount of market capitalization that had disappeared over the course of three or four months,” Good says. “I got up to over $100 billion in market cap and decided I was making myself depressed and just stopped counting.”

Good, who has about 200 employees in his district, had spent enough time wallowing. It was time to make those decisions and do what had to be done to survive. He knew he had to start with his own demeanor.

“I think about the pilot who landed the jet in the Hudson River,” Good says. “He was such a consummate professional. He was poised through that whole crisis. He averted disaster just because of that poise and calmness and the way he approached that situation. When faced with crisis, calm and poise is important.”

If you’re going to get the root of what needs to be done in your business, you can’t have people who are afraid to deliver bad news to you.

“Quite candidly, you want to hear the bad news more than the good news because those represent the areas of opportunity within an organization,” Good says.

As you begin the process of feedback, you need to go out of your way to show that you haven’t already made up your mind.

“People at all levels can contribute to a really good idea,” Good says. “A lot of times, they are so much closer to the problem or the opportunity that they can provide insight that you simply don’t have if you are removed by multiple layers.”

Good recalled discussions he had at Robert Half about reducing variable expenses and cutting costs. When he met with people to discuss possible steps, his attention was on that meeting.

“You’re going to have an important staff meeting regarding a project or cutting expenses or something important to the organization and you spend the time in that meeting checking your BlackBerry or your smartphone,” Good says. “It’s those little things that can have a big impact on the psyche of the staff. How much better would it be if you call that meeting and you say at the front end, ‘Cellphones shut down, put your iPads away. Let’s sit down and really talk about what’s going on.’”

When you feel you’ve reached a decision, you need to demonstrate commitment and belief in the choice you’re making.

“You don’t want to blindly stick to it, but be committed to it,” Good says. “If you and the people around you truly feel it’s the right decision for the organization, whether it’s disposing assets or slashing variable costs, communicate to those who are the key stakeholders what decision has been made and why it’s been made. Reinforce that decision and stick with it. Then follow up on it to make sure it’s having the desired impact on the organization.”

Good is hopeful the bottom has been reached and the economy will continue improving. But when you’re still searching for bottom, he adds that hope is not a very useful tool.

“Time is not your friend,” Good says. “The longer you take to make a decision, it usually doesn’t help the end result.”

How to reach: Robert Half International Inc., (650) 234-6000 or www.rhi.com

Seek balance

You may never think you’re doing enough to get your company out of danger. But working 16-hour days is usually not the answer, says Brett Good, president of the Southern California district for Robert Half International Inc.

“What I found during those really challenging times was leaning a little more heavily on the personal side,” says Good, who has about 200 employees in his district at the specialized staffing firm. “What are some things that can reinvigorate me?

“I’m blessed to have a beautiful wife and three young children. Having the opportunity to watch a tee ball game with the kids all in a mosh pile on top of a baseball and a quiet time to think about something other than the business, that’s what recharged my batteries. It allowed me to put a little perspective on what was happening around me to make those decisions.”

You can’t take the whole company on your shoulders and take all the responsibility for what needs to be done.

“Rely on the input of people around you to make the best decisions possible,” Good says. “That goes a long way with helping to develop them and it may just reaffirm what you’re already thinking, or you could get a different idea that helps you solve that problem better than you would have by yourself.”

Ray Werner finds it difficult to remember a time when he had to break up a shouting match at Arnstein & Lehr LLP. Perhaps it’s because those who work for him know that the managing partner has a very simple, tried and true method for resolving disputes.

“Repeatedly, situation after situation, when you get the facts, it’s so helpful in making the right decision,” Werner says. “The facts sometimes make the decision for you. The facts solve the argument for you.”

Werner presides over 146 attorneys and 176 staff throughout the firm's offices in Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida. Each attorney his or her area of expertise and that could make it difficult for the organization to march forward as one solid team. But Werner says camaraderie is not a problem at Arnstein & Lehr.

“One thing that often works is adult conversation,” Werner says. “You have to make sure that you confront issues in a calm, intelligent, fact-oriented way. So many times when people say, ‘Well, this is happening or that is happening,’ the facts help you defuse that situation. A lot of what I do is constantly provide the facts to the people I am working with. I’m making sure they understand what other people are doing, what the firm is doing and how we’re trying to do it.”

It’s your job to be in tune with those facts, whatever they might be, to serve as a mediator when that role is needed.

“I’ll go and investigate the facts to the extent that I can and then start talking with people about what I’ve learned,” Werner says. “I’ll ask them to challenge what I’ve learned.”

If it’s a dispute of some importance, you need to focus on getting the people who it concerns together in a room to talk out their differences.

“Putting people in the same room and having adult conversations that aren’t emotional conversations is important,” Werner says. “Not shuttling back and forth with what did A say, what did B say, going back to A, going back to B. Get A and B in the same room and let’s talk about it. It’s better that people are able to see each other.”

The worst thing you can do is let disputes play out over e-mail.

“It’s so easy for people to sit behind a computer screen not looking anybody in the eye and jot off a quick e-mail,” Werner says. “The advice is often giving pause before you hit that send button to make sure that what you’re saying is really what you want to say and do. When you wake up at 3 in the morning, you won’t say, ‘Oh God, why did I do that?’”

Werner says that resolving differences among lawyers can present a unique set of challenges.

“Lawyers, especially litigators, are trained to argue and take their side of the case and make the best they can out of it,” Werner says. “That’s just the way they are wired. When they start advocating for their position, they use those same skills. You have to weigh that and say, ‘OK, is there a little bit of overstatement here? Is there a little bit of too aggressively trying to reach conclusion A out of this set of circumstances rather than conclusion B.’ If so, filter that for where the reality might be.”

Your ability to stay level-headed in a dispute is another one of the keys to bringing it to a happy outcome.

“People know they are going to get a fair hearing from you,” Werner says. “You’re going to look at things fairly. You’re going to treat them fairly whether it’s compensation, whether it’s information or whether it’s discipline, which we sometimes need to deal with. But fair treatment, honesty and integrity are absolute keys.”

How to reach: Arnstein & Lehr LLP, (312) 876-7152 or legalnews.arnstein.com.

Be human

Ray Werner likes spontaneous encounters with his people at Arnstein & Lehr LLP. He just doesn’t have very many of them.

“Frankly, I often make appointments with people or small groups,” Werner says. “I think the people know me well enough to be candid. But breaking down barriers, we don’t spend enough time getting to know people.”

Werner is the managing partner at the law firm that dates back to 1893. And he obviously has a lot more important things to do, at least in terms of the firm operations, than to talk about how someone’s weekend was.

But such seemingly inconsequential information can be quite valuable in building morale with your team.

“Be human,” Werner says. “Have empathy for people.”

That doesn’t mean you try to be their best friend. But you don’t have to be an automaton either. Seek balance and look at your people as more than just numbers on a spreadsheet.

“I just had a conversation this afternoon with somebody about somebody else’s compensation,” Werner says. “We were talking about this person and how we like them and how we respect them and how we like being with them, but we have business decisions that need to be made. We try to make those business decisions in a human way, recognizing those are people just like us.”

Scott O’Neil had moments during the launch of MarketSmith where he just felt completely lost.

“I’ve been in a few meetings where they bury me and I just say, ‘Please, just draw me a picture,’” says O’Neil, president of the 200-employee investment research firm.

MarketSmith is a wholly owned subsidiary of William O’Neil + Co. and has developed the next generation of the company’s popular Daily Graphs Online investment research service.

“The launch was very professionally done, but it was nerve-wracking,” O’Neil says. “It was tough launching a whole new major product like that.”

The biggest challenge in launching a new product is figuring out when you’re ready to unleash it on the world.

“They always want a little more time to make sure fit and finish is really good and solid and tight,” O’Neil says of your product team. “You kind of have to force them with deadlines. So there is that tug of war. When you get down to that moment, if that product is not quite ready and you launch, you’re going to pay in multiple ways.”

So what steps can you take to make sure your product is actually ready to be launched? You can start by getting a number of different people to test your product.

“We would take it out of the technologists’ hands and put it into a business analyst’s hands on their desk,” O’Neil says. “They would work it and they would try to break it and give it the going over.”

It’s important that some of these people that you have testing your product are people from outside of your primary circle.

“It never hurts to get a fresh opinion or an opinion from the outside,” O’Neil says. “For instance, a couple times over the years, I might find someone that is much more my senior that has just been in business longer with lots of experience. I’ll sit down and have a cup of coffee.”

It can’t just be you judging whether your product is ready and it can’t just be your cronies who can be counted on to praise every word that comes out of your mouth or every product that you develop.

“It’s impossible for an individual to be an expert in numerous different fields,” O’Neil says. “If you have a team and it’s a high-caliber team and there are experts in various fields, you are significantly stronger as an entity.”

As you’re getting feedback from people, if it differs from your expectations or if you find that people don’t necessarily love what you’ve come up with, don’t just dismiss it in favor of your own idea. Your people have to believe they’re not wasting their breath by offering their opinion.

“That boosts morale and gives them tremendous energy to really want to accomplish something,” O’Neil says. “Then of course, the person that sits next to them sees that person and they say, ‘Gee, coach. Give me the football and let me run.’”

Of course at some point, you need to stop fiddling around and either launch your product or try something else.

“At a certain point, you have to draw the line on what’s going into the product and just launch it,” O’Neil says. “You have to say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re going to have to wait for the next bus and that will be version 1.5.’”

If you do it right and take the right amount of time to plan, you should have a solid launch.

“Absolutely in spades I’ve seen this where we were prepared for a lot of road bumps when we launched and we really didn’t have very many because of all this front-end preparation,” O’Neil says.

Engage your team

Scott O’Neil doesn’t want to make every decision at MarketSmith. If you are making every decision in your business, you may be headed for trouble.

“You have to push authority down and I mean far,” says O’Neil, president at the 200-employee investment research firm that is a wholly owned subsidiary of William O’Neil + Co.

“I don’t mean just down a little bit. In the end, you have to trust people that they will accomplish the task. They have to believe they control their destiny.”

O’Neil talks about the work environment at MarketSmith on a regular basis. He wants work to get done, but he wants it done in a way where everybody is taking part in the journey.

“Create an environment that is conducive to everyone’s growth,” O’Neil says. “Your company will grow and your customer base will grow. Another very important point. You want positive, can-do people. Cut loose disruptive, negative people. You don’t have time for that. They’re infectious. Over the years, I’ve removed two individuals for general negativity. I’m not proud of that, but that was the reason.”

O’Neil says it’s the failure to involve others in your business that dooms many leaders.

“They don’t always listen,” O’Neil says. “I can tell you probably over half the decisions in this company, I’m not making. I don’t make them. We’ve got a lot of competent people and they are out there doing it.”

How to reach: MarketSmith, www.marketsmith.com

Adam Coffey is fond of comparing the company he took over more than seven years ago, WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems LLC, to a World War II battleship.

“It was a World War II battleship that went out to sea in 194,7 and it never came home,” Coffey says. “Over the 60 years it had been running, everything still worked. The teak decks were beautiful and the brass was as shiny as it was on day one.”

The problem Coffey saw was that under this shiny exterior, there was a company that was hopelessly behind the times.

“The infrastructure and technology, everything was outdated,” says Coffey, the 500-employee company’s president and CEO. “At that time, the company had around 60,000 locations that it conducted business in. They literally kept track of every one of those locations on 3-by-5 paper index cards.”

Coffey traced this lack of progress back to the laundry service company’s founding family. He praised them for building such a strong business based on core values and beliefs. But he looked at the family’s next generation of leadership and saw a lack of drive to bring the business into the 21st century.

And that was making it pretty tough for the company to grow its profits.

“Over the 10 years prior to my arrival, revenue had grown by about $75 million to $80 million over what it had been,” Coffey says. “So they added about $80 million of revenue, but they weren’t making one more dime in profit.”

Coffey wanted to change that. But he had been recruited to the company and so he didn’t want to come in and cast aside all the history and heritage that the business had been built upon over the past 60 years.

“We wanted to modernize it, drive change, but at the same time, embrace the best parts of our culture without destroying it,” Coffey says. “We wanted to keep the uniqueness of the firm that it had had in being a larger family-owned and operated business where everybody felt like they were the piece of some gigantic puzzle and were respected and listened to and cared for.”

Set the right tone

Coffey didn’t know a lot about WASH when he joined the company and that was a good thing.

“The best part of being an outsider for me was I was a blank canvas,” Coffey says. “I had no preconceived notions about what I was going to find at the company. I knew they provided coin- and card-operated laundry equipment to apartment communities with common-area laundry rooms. I knew they did a lot of service calls. I knew they collected a lot of quarters.”

He also learned pretty quickly that the company was a bit behind in its technology. Beyond that, he was a novice. And that was the way he liked it.

Because it was going to make his trip to the company’s 28 markets across the country a whole lot more interesting.

“I carried around a banner with me as I went from city to city,” Coffey says. “Every time I conducted a meeting, I had the employees sign my banner with a permanent marker.”

The banner idea was a hit with employees, but these meetings weren’t just for show. Coffey wanted to get to know the people in this company he was now leading and learn from them what it would take to get it moving forward again.

So before he headed out on his tour, he composed not an e-mail, but a letter that he wrote and mailed to each and every one of his employees. He introduced himself and explained that he was going to be visiting their location. He referenced the company’s history and explained that he wanted to help and not hinder their efforts. And he closed the letter by explaining how important their feedback was to him.

“What you have to say is going to be heard and it’s going to be listened to,” Coffey wrote in the letter. “It doesn’t mean that everything you say is going to be adopted. But I’m going to be a sponge and you’re going to teach me about this company.”

Coffey wanted employees to have complete assurance that it wasn’t going to be his way or the highway when it came to making changes in the business.

“I knew some of the executives I had exposure to early in my career didn’t listen,” Coffey says. “They didn’t know the real world. There was a disconnect and they were out of touch. So I tried to add the personal touch. I tried to let them know, ‘Hey, I’ve walked in your shoes. I’ve understood your challenges and you’re going to help me effect change in this organization.’”

As he arrived at each location, Coffey did indeed take the time to meet with employees at all levels on the organizational chart.

“I spent time in each of the major job classifications that existed in the company,” Coffey says. “So I was out riding with the service techs. I was out collecting from machines with collectors. I was working in the plant with the people who do the refurbish work. I was traveling with the sales team. I talked to the people about their jobs. I observed the processes that they followed and the things that they did. I asked them about their challenges. I talked about their desires and their future plans and what they thought about how they could improve and modernize their business.”

What he began to see was that the people out in the field had become severely disconnected from the corporate office.

“What I found was people in the trenches were thirsty for leadership,” Coffey says. “It’s far more important to be a better leader than it is to be a better manager. I can surround myself with people who are smart. I can hire people who know the latest methodologies for managing a piece of the process or a business. But I can’t necessarily get all my employees to follow me unless I get out there and inspire them.”

If you’re not inspiring your employees and you’re not being clear with them about what they should be doing, they are wasting their time and your time.

“If you’re not communicating with them, they are expending energy every day and they are expending it in different directions,” Coffey says. “They may be doing what they think is right. They may be doing what they’ve been told by local leadership or management. But they are all expending energy. The job of a leader is to harness all of that energy and get it to move in unison like a flock of birds or a school of fish.”

Build a solution

As Coffey met with his people and got to know them, he tried to isolate themes. He wanted to note the things he was hearing or seeing over and over again.

“When I watch someone do a job and they tell me and I only hear it once, I’ll tend to discount it,” Coffey says. “But when I hear it 10 times from 10 different people, I start to see a trend.”

The wooden boxes containing index cards in company trucks were definitely a trend.

“They pull the first card out,” Coffey says. “‘Oh, I have to go here.’ They go there and they write on the back of it, ‘Joe was here on this date.’ They stick it at the end of the card catalog and they pick out the next card. ‘Oh, here’s where I’m going next.’ When you look at that over time with 60,000 plus locations, you’re losing business during the year, you’re gaining new businesses. Where do you take out this card? Where do you put in that card? How do you do that when you’re a human?”

Coffey knew that technology was the answer. He knew that GPS and electronic routing systems would make the work of his employees infinitely easier. But he still refused to take the approach of mandating anything when it came to change.

“I could have walked in and said, ‘You know what, this is the product we’re using,’ Coffey says. “But going to an enterprisewide system is one hell of a huge task and undertaking for my company. So what I wanted was buy-in from key constituents. We brought in all the manufacturers. I let the team decide what the best product or solution was for our company.”

The result was employees picked the same solution that Coffey would have selected. But because they worked through the process and came to a conclusion on their own, it earned a whole lot more support than if it had been a mandate.

“Assemble a team,” Coffey says. “Get some key stakeholders and bring some people in and present the problem. Let them be part of the solution. Then instead of one person selling this solution, I wind up with a dozen people selling this solution. They are part of it, they own it and they go back and become my local champions of change.”

Don’t fear change

If you want change to be embraced in your business, you can’t fear it and you can’t let your people fear it.

“There’s one myth that I’ll bring up that I’d like to dispel,” Coffey says. “Ideal organizations are stable and orderly. That is so far from the truth, it’s not even funny. A progressive company that is managing change and constantly working to improve itself is hardly ever stable and orderly. There will be growing pains. You have to communicate what the expectations are.”

You have to explain to people why you’re pursuing change and how the changes are going to help your people do their jobs more effectively. And if you’re the one that fears change and is holding back your business, you need to get over it.

“Don’t be content,” Coffey says. “If it weren’t for seeking change and looking for other opportunities and pushing the envelope and taking a risk now and then, I’m not a successful CEO. Force yourself to get outside your own comfort level and work hard to push yourself to achieve even more.”

The big things you change garner a lot of attention. But you take the time to talk to people and get to know them so that you can address the small things too and build an organization that is truly effective from top to bottom.

“You get your ’57 Chevy, you don’t paint it before you do the body work,” Coffey says. “You don’t do the interior while the frame is still being grinded on. There has to be some type of methodical approach. You have to recognize the totality of the job and then break it down into pieces that are appropriate and then break it down into the order that is appropriate.”

It’s that approach that had Coffey feeling perfectly comfortable when he arrived on board at the company with very little knowledge of the business. He had no fear of the unknown and that put him in a great position to learn from his people.

“A lot of times, executives can become closed off from the people in the trenches,” Coffey says. “It’s unfortunate when that happens. But when it does, you lose touch with what is the reality? What is the customer’s reality? What is the employee’s reality? What’s going on day to day in all of these jobs that are being performed by people in the organization?

“When I saw a job classification, I saw people. I knew what those people did for a living. I understood what their challenges were. It gave me a bigger sense of reality very quickly to where I could assess what the challenges were that we faced.”

Coffey’s efforts and energy are paying off. After growing by only 1 percent in the three years before his arrival, the company has grown 32 percent in the past three years and earned a profit of 9 percent in 2010 alone with revenue of $231 million.

“Good ideas come from everywhere in the organization,” Coffey says. “You need to create a culture where that person at the bottom of the line can have an idea and it can be a good one and it doesn’t have to be owned by you.”

How to reach: WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems LLC, (800) 421-6897 or www.washlaundry.com

The Coffey File

Born: Chicago. I grew up in southeast Michigan.

Education: La Salle University, Philadelphia

Coffey’s path to success: I left home at 17 and went into the service. I cobbled together a business degree over time. I was in the U.S. Army for four years. I was a radar repairman and I worked in missile defense systems and radar stations.

At General Electric, I started off as an engineer and then crossed over to business after I finished a degree program through General Electric at the famous [John F. Welch Leadership Development Center] in Crotonville, N.Y., which was a great place to learn to run a business. I learned public speaking. It was Jack Welch and his speech writer who taught the class.

What one person in history would you like to meet and why?

The one person I’d want to sit down with is Jesus Christ. In the entire world, no matter what your religious beliefs are, no one disputes the man lived and no one disputes the man made an impact on mankind as a whole. I would like to learn from the man. Why am I here? What is my purpose?

If you want to talk business people, I have been fortunate to sit down with a lot of the country’s leading business people. What I tend to find is that CEOs and presidents are inside of everybody. There is no special boy’s club or girl’s club that you need to belong to to become president.

Some people get there through an Ivy League education and work their way up. Some people tend to work their way up from the bottom as I did. There’s no reason anybody out there can’t become a CEO or a successful person.

Todd Beckman wants his employees at The Tan Co. to think of really big things and really big goals that they want to accomplish in their lives. If for some reason they’re not sure how to proceed with these lavish wish lists, they need only step into Beckman’s office for guidance.

On his desk, they’ll find a picture of the house Beckman wants to build some day and a model of the car he’d like to eventually own.

“I just always try to keep myself moving forward,” says Beckman, founder, president and CEO at the 400-employee chain of tanning salons. “Usually, I do that not only with the business or family, but with some sort of a toy. A car, a boat, a house. I have that in front of me at all times. I just do things like that to keep my head in the game. We have to constantly be hitting on all cylinders to hit those goals.”

The growth of The Tan Co. from a small two-salon operation in 1994 to more than 70 locations across 13 states today can be tied directly to ambition, Beckman says. The trick is to get your people to share the passion and energy that you possess as leader of the company. You’re going to need it if you want your business to grow.

“I have goals that I want to achieve for the year and we work toward achieving those on a weekly basis,” Beckman says. “Everything has to work. Otherwise I don’t achieve my goals. So I have to come in and be excited and positive about where we are going and what we are trying to do so everyone wants to follow that.”

There is a board at the corporate office of The Tan Co. and Beckman has employees post their dreams and aspirations on the board for all to see.

“It can be anything,” Beckman says. “It can be anything from a purse to a car to a house. Whatever they think they want to achieve. Even to be higher up in the company.”

The goal is to get your people to adopt an attitude of continuous improvement that will hopefully come through in their work.

“That’s the whole trick of it,” Beckman says. “I have to make sure that everybody is working hard and that I am leading them as hard as I can to make sure we can achieve our goals. It’s impossible to do it on your own.”

On the business side, you need to work with your people to set goals that they can pursue and not just blindly assign them without any dialogue.

“They feel like they are part of the company and that they’ve helped to make those decisions,” Beckman says. “They come into the office on a weekly basis and we go over where their store is at and what kind of numbers they are doing. Then they talk about their numbers in front of their peers. A mix of all of that is what motivates our people to want to work here.”

You need to demonstrate that you are working hard, that you have goals that you’re pursuing and numbers you need to meet and that you’re part of the team if you want to get support. Your belief and confidence in your ability to achieve those goals can make a huge difference.

You can’t let yourself get down when challenges arise.

“You just can’t allow that to happen,” Beckman says. “Even in the worst of times and the worst of days, you just have to figure out a way to not go into the office with that attitude. That’s what I try to do. It’s not easy, but at the same time, if you’re going to be leading, you’d better be on your game.”

How to reach: The Tan Co., (866) 668-2626 or www.thetanco.com

Learn to unwind

Todd Beckman starts each day at the gym with a workout and a three-mile run. It’s a crucial step in his ability to be an effective leader at The Tan Co.

“If it wasn’t for that, it would probably be a lot harder of a struggle for me,” says Beckman, founder, president and CEO at the 400-employee chain of tanning salons.

“You just relieve a lot of stress and anxiety when you’re at the gym running. I run three miles a day and then just do a workout. That helps me.”

It also puts Beckman in a better position to deal with employees who are going through a tough time and get to the root cause of what is bothering them.

“We’ll sit down and talk to them about it,” Beckman says. “It’s just really going over the whole wheel again and starting from scratch. What is it you’re not happy about? Where is it that you want to go? What is it you are trying to achieve? Why aren’t you achieving it? It’s just going through the steps. That’s what all of our training is all about. We’re constantly helping people to be better.”

How to reach: The Tan Co., (866) 668-2626 or www.thetanco.com

Julie Smolyansky was living a dream. She and her family had escaped the old Communist regime in the Soviet Union in 1976 and come to the United States. Twenty five years later, her father was leading a successful business in Chicago in Lifeway Foods Inc. while her mother had opened a popular delicatessen in the city. All seemed right with the world.

And then in a flash, it seemed as if her world was crumbling all around her.

“My dad died suddenly, unexpectedly, out of the blue,” Smolyansky says. “There was no road map for this. I had been with him for five years, and I was kind of his right-hand person, but I was 27 at the time. We’re not talking about a little mom-and-pop store.”

Far from it. Lifeway Foods had about 90 employees and $12 million in annual sales in 2002 selling kefir, a milk-based cultured drink that is healthier than yogurt and attractive to those seeking good nutrition.

But her father’s death had suddenly filled many in the company with doubt about the future.

“At my father’s funeral, I heard friends of my family and friends of my father say, ‘Well, this company is done,’” says Smolyansky, the company’s current president and CEO. “I had to live with that and wake up and try to steer the ship even though it was a personal tragedy for me as well as a business tragedy for the company.”

Smolyansky was filled with pain and anger. But she used work as a place to refocus her energy and at least temporarily, push the pain to the side. Her father had made a huge sacrifice by leaving his homeland and taking his family to Chicago and then worked hard to build a successful business. She was not about to let that effort be for naught.

“You have to roll with the punches and if you can’t, if you crumble, it might not be the place for you to be,” Smolyansky says. “If you can’t take the heat, get out.”

Smolyansky let people have their moment of doubt about the future. But she quickly followed that up by demonstrating her resolve to keep the business going.

“When you assemble the team, steer them,” Smolyansky says. “Lead them. That’s what we do. Hopefully a good leader has a sense of Zen or calmness even when it seems like chaos is happening. It’s really up to you to navigate through those moments and make it OK for everybody and begin to problem solve.”

Get into the steps that need to be taken to overcome the challenge and move on from it. Focus on the task at hand.

“Something has happened,” Smolyansky says. “Now what are the steps we need to take to resolve it? How do we get to those steps? Start to assign people to get to those steps. Maybe have a brainstorming session. I get away from the drama of what happened and straight into, ‘OK, what are we going to do to solve this?’”

You’re only human, of course. So what about those anxieties or doubts that you’re always trying to keep under wraps?

“I manage those personally on my own,” Smolyansky says. “Not always with my team. Or I might have a go-to handful of people I can bounce things off of.”

If you’re a true leader, you’ll find a way to deal with the doubts and continue pushing forward to conquer your challenge and lead your business through the storm.

“I completely just focused on my work and getting the company stable and the team stable and had complete pinpoint focus on what things we needed to get done to be where we are today,” Smolyansky says.

Where the company is today is 315 employees and $63.5 million in gross sales for 2010.

“I just kept repeating like a mantra, ‘Failure is not an option,’” Smolyansky says.

How to reach: Lifeway Foods Inc., (877) 281-3874 or www.lifeway.net

Don’t give up

If Julie Smolyansky feels “gung ho in a very crazy way” about a product, she gives that product an excellent chance to succeed.

“The leader has to get behind the product,” says Smolyansky, president and CEO at Lifeway Foods Inc. “You really have to have your heart in it to successfully launch something with great success. If you have any doubt in it, that’s probably when you don’t get to success.”

So why do some products have people clamoring to buy them while others just sit on the shelf and collect dust? Smolyansky has grown her dairy company to 315 employees and $63.5 million in 2010 gross sales, but that doesn’t mean she has any foolproof solutions. One thing she does believe in quite strongly is the positive power of passion and energy.

So if your product isn’t a hit right off the bat, try to figure out why it’s not working, apply what you’ve learned and take another shot at it.

“Even out of something that is failure, if you learned something that maybe gave you the tools for the next thing you’re doing, maybe that was a success then,” Smolyansky says. “It’s optimism and the ability to take punches. You can assemble a different team or position it in a different way. Go after a different market. You have to be intuitive and open your eyes and ears to other ideas. You really have to personally want it.”

André Thornton doesn’t make excuses. He didn’t do it as a baseball player with the Cleveland Indians and he doesn’t do it as president and CEO at ASW Global LLC.

In both cases, he faced sizable challenges.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the man once known as “Thunder” hit a lot of home runs, but played in front sparse crowds at cavernous old Cleveland Municipal Stadium with a team that had almost no hope of ever winning a title.

Today, Thornton leads the 170-employee supply-chain solutions company in the midst of an Ohio economy that is still recovering from the 2008 recession. But just as he did in his playing days, Thornton stays laser focused on the job at hand.

“You can’t sit back and say, ‘Well, I’m in here in Northeast Ohio, so therefore, I’m crying about business going out all over the world,’” Thornton says. “Well, that’s not going to change. You have to figure out a way to be competitive and to survive in an ever-changing global marketplace. That’s what a leader and his leadership team is always thinking about.”

When Thornton bought ASW in 2007, he saw employees that had quite a bit of fear about what the future might hold.

“People’s anxiety levels were up,” Thornton says. “Frustration was up with things going on around them. To go through those ups and downs, you really have to trust the people you are following.”

So it was up to Thornton to be open with his people and give them a reason to trust him.

You need your employees to be an active and committed part of your team so they can do their best to help you compete. You can start by clearly explaining to them what you’re looking to do.

“It’s making sure that the plan you have in place, people can understand it, they can believe in it, they can trust it and they can see the practicality of it,” Thornton says. “They can see the progression even though they may not see all of the plan rolled out at once. They can see a progression of where you are trying to go.”

Thornton draws a parallel to the very nature of his business, which is to provide solutions for clients with warehousing and distribution needs. You need to do the same with your employees.

“This is where we’re going and this is why we’re going there and this is what we want to accomplish along the way and this is the benefit to all of us,” Thornton says. “Those are things that a leader has to establish.”

But it’s not just your ability to explain a balance sheet or lay out a strategy that is going to make the difference for your business. You need other people who can play leadership roles too and help you move things along.

“I need to have the right people in place to help promote, direct, guide and advocate the vision throughout our organization,” Thornton says. “That’s through leaders both formal and informal in your organization. They have to buy into it and continue to advocate. They have to be people that have the respect of the organization. What I mean by that is they are not only saying something, they are doing it. Their lifestyle and management style is one of respect and one of integrity.”

And while respect doesn’t have a slot on your balance sheet, it’s probably as important as anything in determining whether your business succeeds.

“It’s the way you carry yourself,” Thornton says. “It’s what you do and how you do it. It’s how you treat people. It’s how you listen. All those things are vitally important because for you to follow me, there’s a respect level that needs to take place.”

Evaluate yourself

André Thornton is a respected man in Northeast Ohio and that’s something that matters a great deal to him. It should also matter to you as the leader of your business.

“We see leaders struggling today,” says Thornton, president and CEO at ASW Global LLC. “It is often around a lack of management around their personal life. Look at the breakdowns that we see taking place in the business community and the political arena. “You are constantly being bombarded with all sorts of information, challenges, requests and opportunities. If you don’t have a way to manage that in your own life, it could throw you off kilter. Whether it’s success or lack of success, people respond to those things in ways that are not healthy.”

So take a moment once in a while to look in the mirror and assess what you see.

“Be honest in assessing your own personal management,” says the leader of the 170-employee supply-chain solutions company. “That it is not a hindrance or deterrent to the success of your organization. Secondly, make sure that what you’re doing organizationally is not a deterrent to the success of your organization.”

How to reach: ASW Global LLC, (888) 363-8492 or www.aswglobal.com

Mike Stayton had a problem. It was 2008, and he was trying to create a business that would be the market leader in contract utility locating during one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression.

“My analogy was trying to change a flat tire on the road while the car is still moving down the highway,” says Stayton, founder, president and CEO at U.S. Infrastructure Corp.

Stayton and a group of partners purchased SM&P Utility Resources and Central Locating Services in late 2007 to form USIC. The 3,600-employee company had two unique cultures that would need to be meshed into one if Stayton was going to achieve his goal.

“Creating a brand and taking two previous legacy companies, which is what I like to call them, and raising their brand level to a new level was my first challenge,” Stayton says. “We took the first year and a half to integrate the two companies and create one way, the USIC way, as opposed to the way the other two companies were operating.”

Stayton chose to first focus heavily on the cultural integration, because there wasn’t much he could do about the recession.

“You don’t know where the bottom is as the economy is sliding into the recession,” Stayton says. “You don’t know what level to keep your overhead at and your staffing levels. It was a constant moving target.”

So Stayton focused on the cultural integration by talking to people. He wanted to talk to a lot of people. He wanted to meet with them face to face and share his vision for the company and get their reactions. It wasn’t something he could do through a single town-hall meeting. Not when he had 41 locations across the country, each with employees curious about the new company they were all now a part of.

“It was my management challenge to get them on my page for the vision,” Stayton says. “So I had to gear myself up. Otherwise it would have been a flop.”

Just do it

You need only look at the breakdown of employees by where they work to see why Stayton felt it necessary to hit the road to sell his plan for USIC.

“Our headquarters is here in Indianapolis, but there are only 80 people out of the 3,600 that are here,” Stayton says. “So we’re a very decentralized organization. I don’t have the luxury of everybody being here and being able to address them. So how do you create this brand and this unity in the USIC way in a decentralized organization? We had to work very hard to overcompensate for the geography differences.”

Stayton wanted to visit each office and explain where he was coming from as well as find out where the employees were coming from. As a result, he hoped to have an idea of how they could all find their place in the new company.

“My presentation was twofold,” Stayton says. “One was to present the vision of what the new company was all about and why my partners and I bought the two companies and put them together and what we were going to do for them to take them to the next level to be part of that. The second part was more tailored depending on what their needs were and how well they were performing.”

When you’re meeting with so many people, both for their sake and your own, you need to keep the message simple.

“You have to set a couple of key objectives,” Stayton says. “In our business, we’ve distilled that down to three objectives, which are productivity, quality and safety. If you take care of those three things, the financial objectives take care of themselves. But by setting clear targets, that’s only half of it.”

And here’s where the stumbling block comes for many businesses. Stayton explained three key objectives he wanted his employees to focus on. But if you stop there and don’t check to see what your employees need to meet those objectives, success will be tough to achieve.

“If they don’t have the resources to achieve those targets, you’re going to lose face with your organization,” Stayton says. “They won’t believe in what you’re doing. As we talked through in those initial meetings what they had and what they didn’t have, it was imperative for me to deliver on the resources they needed to meet those objectives. Then I could hold them accountable for meeting those objectives on a monthly basis.”

In order to learn what everybody needed, Stayton hit the road. He knew it would take a lot of energy to visit all 41 locations and make sure that employees at the 41st location felt just as valued as those at the first.

But if that’s a problem for you, you should ask yourself how badly you want to achieve your goal? What is your true level of commitment to making it happen?

“It’s not unlike somebody acting on Broadway,” Stayton says. “They have to get out there six days a week and perform and be up for the show even though they’ve performed Phantom of the Opera 235 times. My enthusiasm and passion for creating the market leader allowed me to gear up for every meeting. When you think about it, I couldn’t create the market leader without each of these management teams and technicians doing their job properly.”

Don’t be a dictator

The face-to-face meetings, beneficial as they may have been, weren’t going to be enough on their own to build a cohesive new brand. Stayton needed to create an integration team, one that truly would play a role in melding the two former independent entities into one.

Stayton’s first tip on integration teams: Don’t stock it with a bunch of managers.

“It just seems to me that getting people involved that are actually doing the work helps you reach a more complete decision,” Stayton says. “Management has to be involved in it. But the people actually doing the work, the ones who will be using it, they are the ones that also need to be involved. You get your best results that way rather than just superimposing a new system that they have to relearn and may or may not buy in to.

“They know what works and what doesn’t work. Whether it’s a billing system for our customer or a payroll system or an accounting system, it’s the actual people doing the work on the teams. They were led by a manager. But the actual people who had to do the work and live with the resulting system were involved in the decision-making process, because they know it better than anybody else does.”

One of the things that made this process tricky was the fact that both companies Stayton and his partners had purchased had authoritarian cultures.

“I knew that I had to create an environment that would allow people to start expressing their opinions freely without reprisal,” Stayton says. “That was a problem they had before. To allow that debate to happen is extremely important. Let people understand that it’s OK to agree to disagree. It’s OK to give your opinion. There are no bad opinions. There’s no risk to you doing that. We’ve made a lot of progress on that, but it’s still not where I want it to be. We’re getting there, but my job is to create an environment that will allow key players to get to the right answer by interacting with each other, not by my dictating something.”

Stayton was trying to build an organization where everybody felt a strong attachment to the whole team. So he let the integration team hash out such things as the type of finance system that the company would use or its operating system or HR policy without interference.

“I could have dictated that upfront and we probably wouldn’t have gotten it completely right, but it would have been a lot simpler,” Stayton says. “But that wouldn’t have done any good.”

Of course, when one system was chosen, another system was rejected. Stayton made sure the people who had pushed for the system that was rejected got a full explanation as to why their way wasn’t chosen.

“I had to circle back and explain to the group why I didn’t pick their system or their process and why picking the alternative would make us a stronger company,” Stayton says. “Had I not circled back and explained to them why I felt it was better in the long term, I think that probably would have caused their feelings to fester and they wouldn’t have become participative. As I circled back and gave them the rationale and made sure they understood why we did what we did, I found that made all the difference in the world.”

If you explain to people why you’re doing something a certain way and the rationale behind the decision, that’s usually enough to earn their support.

“If they understand something and understand why a decision was made that will lead to their success, they can come to grips with it,” Stayton says. “But if there is some unknown reason and they don’t know why you made the decision and it doesn’t seem logical to them, they’re either not going to be a team player or they’ll probably leave.”

Set some goals

As work progressed through those initial phases and more concrete plans began to be made, it was time to give employees a clear sense of what was expected of them. They needed to know exactly what their role entailed in making the company go.

“You have to first decide what the key levers are that you want to measure that you think are important to your business,” Stayton says. “That’s got to be the essential starting point. Figure out what everybody needs to know collectively and how you’re going to set your targets for the year.”

Again, this needs to be a collaborative process. Employees who know what the systems are and know what the greater goals are need to have a role in figuring out exactly how they will be measured in using the systems to help achieve those goals.

“A person’s objectives have to be achievable in their own mind,” Stayton says. “If they’re not achievable in their own mind, they’ll dismiss them as being out of reach. Then they will be cast adrift. It’s very important when we set the budget for the year and objectives for everybody at the beginning of the year that we measure them against that they have input into that.”

Based off the input gathered from employees at all levels speaking with their direct reports, USIC puts out a daily dashboard each morning.

“It starts with the technician in the field,” Stayton says. “He or she gets their individual dashboard on how they did yesterday and year to date in their key metrics of quality, safety and productivity. That rolls up to the supervisor, to the district manager and all the way up to me. I have one for the entire company every morning that is up to date through yesterday. Having that dashboard in front of them, I hope it keeps most of them focused.”

By staying laser-focused on the creation of this new company and not worrying about things he couldn’t control, such as the recession, Stayton was able to put USIC on a good track for the future.

“You’ve got to have confidence in your management team and the systems and the culture that you’ve built that it’s strong enough to withstand adversity,” Stayton says. “If you don’t have confidence, I don’t think there is anything I can tell you that would make you feel better. I wasn’t doing the integration. I had to rely on a lot of people to do it. If I didn’t have confidence in those people, I probably wouldn’t have gotten a lot of sleep.”

How to reach: U.S. Infrastructure Corp., (317) 575-7800 or www.usicinc.com

The Stayton File

Mike Stayton, founder, president and CEO, U.S. Infrastructure Corp.

Born: Battle Creek, Mich.

Education: Bachelor of arts degree in biology and chemistry, Wabash College; master of science degree in international commerce, George Washington University

What was your first job?

I was a paperboy for the Indianapolis Star. It taught me if I didn’t get up in the morning to deliver the paper, a lot of people would be upset. I was affecting their life by my decisions.

Who has been the most influential person in your life?

Ted Englehart was in the venture capital business and was an early mentor of mine. Most recently, Jim Morris and I worked a lot together when he was president of the water company and then he and I were with the United Nations World Food Programme together. He is now president of the Pacers.

Ted was very helpful in looking at new business situations and understanding their strengths and weaknesses. Jim Morris taught me the value of dealing with people properly and getting the right people in the right slots to help you do anything. Jim arguably has the largest Rolodex in Indianapolis. He’s got more done here in Indianapolis than most people have done. But that was a valuable lesson on how he treated people.

What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I learned at a very early age that treating people like you want to be treated and, with respect, is an extremely important way to live your life.

If you could sit down with one person in the world, past or present, who would you choose and why?

I did that with my father before he died. He lived to be 91 years old and had a lot of experiences.