When Tony Atwater was advancing through the ranks several years ago, his father-in-law shared this wisdom: “There’s nothing new just the undiscovered.” Today, Atwater has transformed that adage into ambition as president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In addition to managing a $209 million budget and 1,873 employees, the leader constantly re-evaluates the market and his own business practices seeking innovative ways to better serve his organization and constituents. The latest innovation is a multiphase construction plan to build the largest student residential facility in the United States. Smart Business spoke with Atwater about listening, evaluating data and why you need to do the who before the what.
Learn from the past. Organizations change just like human beings. You can look at your son or daughter; they’re not the same at age 25 or 30 as they were at 3 or 4. They’ve gone through experiences. Looking back at the history of your institution really provides a good education in terms of what has been tried and what needs to be tried.
Also, talking with other presidents and past CEOs and hearing the benefit of the challenges that they faced and the successes that they were able to achieve. See how you might utilize those contexts to build upon your performance and lead the organization.
Question your performance. Ask yourself one simple question: How do I increase my service to my constituents that are relying upon my service?
That’s an important question in terms of generating ideas on how new things can be done or how things can be done differently to improve overall services and performance.
Find out more of those things in terms of opportunities, methods and approaches to enhancing my service and contributions to base constituents. If I can find those new methods and new approaches and generate additional productivity and additional efficiency, then my constituents are being served through innovation.
Look at data in new ways. Use institutional research to generate data that will show what areas may be responsible for one method or one project not being successful.
If you are driving a car and all of a sudden your car stops, it’s being able to look under the hood and see whether it’s the carburetor or whether it’s the engine, and then finding out how to get the car back working the way that it should work.
We get a lot of data thrown at us as CEOs. Part of the challenge is having a good unit to provide analysis of that data and generate new ways of looking at it in various contexts so that it can be used productively.
You get the data, and you may get one impression of what it’s telling you, but there may be another message in that data that you missed.
We have an institutional research office here, and they’re doing that. They’re generating not only the numbers but also are able to provide qualitative analyses that help us to look at the data for its utilities in a number of contexts.
If you don’t have an institutional research operation, then it becomes very important for you to have an executive team that is also data-driven and that you provide venues for them to be able to have assistance for that kind of data generation. It then becomes an issue in terms of how they have access to data gathering, processing and analysis.
Being able to assess data qualitatively as well as quantitatively is extremely important, and that certainly helps in terms of making the right decisions.
Listen. You need to listen, not only to what is said but also to what is not said. You need to listen to concerns, to needs and to interests. By doing so, you are able to surmise what are the directions that an organization needs to go.
Of course, some of the input that you get may not be the most informed, but a lot of the feedback that you get by listening routinely can be utilized to advance your organization.
I have one-on-one meetings with my executive team, and we have an opportunity to exchange information and listen to one another. I also have a president’s cabinet meeting every week, where we have a pretty full agenda that allows us to discuss and talk about a lot of things.
I also entertain regular meetings with faculty members. I have breakfast with the faculty members routinely throughout a semester and discuss whatever they want to discuss.
I don’t think you will find and benefit from the listening if it’s not strategic and intentional. People say, ‘Well, listen. You have ears. Can’t you just listen?’ Well, listening goes beyond strictly having ears. You have to be intentional and strategic about gaining information that will be useful to you in terms of effecting positive change.
In the final analysis, that’s what good leaders really do: They effect positive change in a graceful fashion that lifts the institution or organization.
Do the who. A lot of leaders sometimes want to do the what before the who. The best leaders do the who and then the what.
CEOs need to take the time to ensure that their executive teams not only are capable but also are compatible. Sometimes it’s better to select someone who has a stronger compatibility with the leader’s vision more so than the technical capabilities and skills.
It’s good to see the candidates both in small group contexts, when they’re interviewing with other people, but also being able to have a one-on-one interview process with that person maybe even one that’s more informal in terms of either lunch or breakfast. Those give you a good feel.
It’s always possible that the person that you bring on board may not measure up. Strong leaders typically are going to be looking at what is it that the organization and its constituents need. If the person or persons on the management team are not allowing those people to be served in the way that you feel is satisfactory, then sometimes an adjustment is called for.
HOW TO REACH: Indiana University of Pennsylvania, (724) 357-2100 or www.iup.edu
When traversing the chasm between client and firm, experience is crucial. The best executives are not only seasoned leaders of their own staffs, but they also share an intimate understanding of their clients’ situations and needs. However, in the field of clinical research, that intimate understanding can prove slightly harder to come by.
Take Victoria Tifft. Before founding and serving as president of Clinical Research Management Inc., she endured several bouts of malaria while working as an infectious disease control biologist for the U.S. Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa.
Upon returning to the U.S., she worked as a biologist for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and later joined the staff at the Ronald McDonald House in Washington, D.C. Her time spent working with chronically ill children solidified her interest in disease treatment and prevention.
Such personal insight has proven an invaluable resource for CRM’s 210 employees. Over the past five years, Tifft’s shared knowledge and experiences have spurred a 50 percent, or $7 million, increase in revenue.
The company which supports the development of FDA-regulated vaccines, pharmaceuticals and medical devices has since emerged as a reputable player in the realm of clinical research.
Under Tifft’s guidance, CRM has also become a valued asset in Northeast Ohio. The company serves on or volunteers in numerous state, county and community groups, as well as educational boards and steering committees, such as The Medina County Economic Development Corporation.
The research firm has pledged $25,000 since 2005 for projects and training in local school science programs. Hinckley Elementary School most recently received a gift of $5,000 to provide a Science Resource Center to increase exposure to science at an early age. CRM also began hosting an intern from Brunswick High School in June 2007.
As CRM was expanding into other realms, Tifft realized overhead costs to government interests were increasing. To combat this trend, she launched M3 Clinical in October 2006. This sister company focuses on monitoring, auditing and data management for drug and device trials in commercial and academic areas. CRM now focuses solely on government business opportunities.
Given Tifft’s extensive experience, she will undoubtedly bridge the client-firm gap across whichever sector she chooses to explore next.
HOW TO REACH: Clinical Research Management Inc., (330) 278-2343 or www.clinicalrm.com
Get involved in the community. For any of us that have had the good fortune of financial success, it’s our responsibility to give back and help support organizations that can strengthen our culture and young people and inspire people to be successful themselves.
Some of the most important things in many companies are character and commitment. I donate a lot of time and resources and try to demonstrate the kind of character and commitment in other areas that we’re hoping to drive in our team.
We encourage our people to get involved with nonprofits on their own. We want them to be on boards. We want them to help organizations because we think it helps them feel better about themselves, and we think it can also help their careers.
You’re going to meet people in these organizations. You’re going to be able to develop business through those meetings. It’s a networking system. It’s a winwin for everybody. The organization wins. The employee wins. They feel good about themselves, and they may also reap some business benefit. It benefits them indirectly because business might be better because of it.
People relate to people that they think are being helpful throughout the community. People like that and tend to support businesses that are supporting nonprofits and helping the community. A lot of it we’re doing because we want to do it, but it does have a positive impact on business along the way.
Exceed customer expectations. Have customer satisfaction indexes that every customer is interviewed and followed up with. We have ways of monitoring that and making sure that our customers are being taken care of the way that we want them to.
We get results from these surveys daily.
If there’s ever any issue with the way a customer’s been cared for that is not to the level that they’re entitled, then we take steps to correct it.
If customers have issues, maybe the issues are not really our responsibility, but they’re perceived as our responsibility in the consumers’ eyes. In most cases, we will make that customer happy as a result, in spite of our responsibility.
It’s not black and white here. It’s kind of how the customer perceives the situation. If the customer perceives that they were mistreated or something wasn’t done fairly here, we remedy it quickly. We do everything we can to exceed the customer’s expectations.
The happier the customers are, the better business grows.
Look for happy people. You constantly have to be trying to find the right people to grow. That seems to be the single hardest objective of all to find the kind of people that fit in to your culture and are going to be able to represent you to your clients the way you want to be represented.
We look in all industries, not just our own. We look throughout all business industries for opportunities to find people with the right attitudes, the right character and the right commitment.
I’m after happy. I’m after happy people. People either see the glass half full or half empty. You’re happy or unhappy, and I don’t know that we as employers can change that.
Look for it on the surface, in people that just sort of breed or enthuse happy, and an ability to relate to people.
The initial thing would be just through your first interaction. Then have them interviewed by three or four (employees) and make sure everybody sees the same thing.
We want their input. Plus, we want them looking for those kinds of people every day, in every little thing that they come in contact with in their personal lives. If they come across someone in a different industry that has a wonderful way about them and the character and the attitude that we’re looking for, then we might reach out.
Your people are the assets of the whole operation. Finding the right people is a constant endeavor, and it’s not easy.
Look at every detail. Don’t assume things are going to operate smoothly. You’ve got to constantly keep an eye on everything. I know that sounds microish. To be very candid, I am a little microish. I measure and monitor continually. I watch every detail as close as I can without demonstrating micromanagement.
Have management meetings weekly. Constantly monitor progress and evaluate ways to improve progress and efficiency and customer relations and employee relations. Inspect what you expect continually.
It can be very tedious. That’s not the Harvard way, but I’m always working to improve the process.
HOW TO REACH: Crevier BMW, (714) 835-3171 or www.crevierbmw.com
How to communicate your vision to your employees
The walls in Robert Nickell’s office are floor-to-ceiling whiteboards. So are the walls of most of the offices at HNP Pharmaceuticals, a 100-employee pharmaceutical compounding laboratory.
“We started off with just a basic whiteboard that you’d buy from Office Depot,” the founder, president and CEO says. “It’s just not big enough. You can actually go to Home Club and buy the whiteboard material in 8-and-a-half-by-11-foot sheets, and it’s just like paneling on your wall.”
Now, when Nickell or his employees start brainstorming, they can literally write on the walls. The process has proven invaluable at the rapidly growing company, where revenue has grown from $3.2 million in 2003 to $8.6 million in 2007.
Smart Business asked for Nickell’s two cents on how to communicate a vision in a fast-growth environment.
Q. How do you communicate your vision to your staff?
The growth of the company is always due to the vision of the leader. My goal is to always be three steps ahead of my staff as far as vision so that they can understand what I’m trying to do.
Each one of your key staff people will comprehend it in a different way. The way my CFO thinks as opposed to my pharmacist in charge as opposed to my COO as opposed to my operations manager they all think differently. The job of the CEO is to be able to explain it in their language.
I’m ... writing an entire outline and then including, ‘OK, so from an attorney’s standpoint, this is what we need to do. From a finance standpoint, this is what we need to do. From an operations standpoint, this is what we need to do. From a software standpoint, this is what we need to do.’ It kind of gives them a blueprint.
Q. What else do you do to make sure your employees understand your vision?
In some cases, I whiteboard it. It’s a teaching technique. We can be in the boardroom or in my office or in a meeting room and somebody can stand up with a marker and we can start drawing out a flowchart.
If your walls are white-boarded, you can draw a huge flowchart. Then what we do is we take a digital image of the wall, and we forward that image, or we save that image. So later on, if we’re having a meeting, and we’re like, ‘Wow, we flowcharted that before,’ we’re able to pull up the digital image and put it up on the big screen, and we can go back and review it.
Q. How do you hold people accountable for that vision once they understand it?
The way I did it was through e-mail. So I’ll track e-mails as far as deadlines.
The other thing we have is we have conference calls with action items: We need a new contract for this professional medical corp. Were they done?
If not, why not? Where are they? People know they’re going to be accountable, just like they do in school.
Q. How does that benefit your staff when you follow up?
It increases their comprehension. My whole goal is continue to push the level of comprehension until they can take it on their own. Once they get it, then they implement it, and it becomes part of their operational maintenance, and I’m off onto something else.
Q. Once you’ve successfully communicated the vision, where do you begin to look for new opportunities for growth?
You’re not always right. I try to keep at least 10 things going. Some of them are not profitable at all, and some of them end up being profitable. It’s similar to a venture capitalist who’s looking to invest in 10 biotech companies knowing that only two of them are going to be successful. I look for which opportunity is throwing out the highest profit structure, and that’s the one I’m going to focus on.
You just accept risk as part of the game. You can’t mitigate it. There’s going to be losses, which is again why you want to be in a high-profit opportunity. If you’re a 1 to 2 percent wholesaler, you can’t afford risk. But if you’re making 200 to 300 percent profit, you can afford risk.
That’s my goal. I try to go into businesses that have high profit, so you’re allowed to make mistakes.
Q. What advice do you have for other leaders who are seeking opportunities to spur rapid growth?
Don’t give up. They’ll fall, they’ll falter, they’ll be plain wrong. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. In fact, that’s what I tell my CFO: ‘If we’re not operating at the brink of disaster, we are not pushing hard enough.’ They have to accept that that is the way the business works.
This is what happens in a growth-oriented company. It’s very, very difficult. Absolutely do not give up, and when you stop growing is when things will settle down. <<
HOW TO REACH: HNP Pharmaceuticals, (800) 272-4767 or www.hnppharmaceuticals.com
When Bill Burke was appointed president of Fire-Dex LLC in 1996, he stepped into what he bluntly refers to as a terrible situation.
“When my former partner bought the business in 1983, he thought he was buying a low-cost, Southern factory; it was only Southern,” he says. “For 13 years, we went through plant manager turnover to the tune of one every other year. We went through rank-and-file production employees to the tune of 50 to 100 percent per year.”
Burke was no stranger to the problems plaguing the manufacturer of firefighting turnout gear before assuming the role. He had joined the company way back in 1983, which at the time contained a separate, more successful entity. In his time there, he soon realized that part of the problem was that Fire-Dex’s manufacturing plant and corporate headquarters were more than 600 miles apart. There was no way to effectively manage the company’s day-to-day operations, so in 1998, he moved the manufacturing portion from Rome, Ga., to its current location in Medina.
“Having everything under one roof was phenomenal for Fire-Dex,” he says. “We had top manager and ownership involvement on a daily basis.”
By being able to walk the factory floor five days a week, Burke began to notice subtle areas where small changes could yield big improvements. For example, he realized his sewing team wasted considerable minutes changing between different colored threads on its machines.
“We were using six different colors of thread to make these suits,” he says. “I was standing by a sewing machine, and I see all these thread colors everywhere. I see the sewing machine operators stopping to change thread. It takes a while, like 10 minutes to change over. I went to the customers, and I said, ‘You currently buy a red suit. Do you care if it’s sewn in red thread? Would black be OK, or white?’ And the customer said, ‘Yeah, black’s fine. Actually, black kind of looks cool.’ So we went to two colors.”
Though seemingly isolated at the time, Burke’s simple change started an avalanche of improvements that have since been harnessed in a formal system of suggestions called Opportunities For Improvement, or OFIs. The program allows employees to submit ideas that are immediately reviewed and, more than 70 percent of the time, implemented.
“If it’s a good idea, we’re going to implement it,” Burke says. “Instead of just having one guy thinking the president and CEO let’s have the whole fricking organization thinking.”
Fire-Dex has seen positive growth every year since the inception of the OFI system. Previously a break-even business, the company reported revenue of $10.3 million in 2004, its first year over the $10 million mark. Last year, that number jumped to just under $17 million.
Here’s how Burke boosted revenue by encouraging employees to think of opportunities for improvement.
Share the wealth
While Burke may have initiated it, the avalanche of OFIs didn’t continue on its thunderous rush without some additional prodding. A few ambitious employees did offer suggestions right off the bat, but the majority was far less enthusiastic.
It wasn’t until 1999, when Burke tied the program directly into Fire-Dex’s newly instilled profit-sharing plan, that it really took off.
“We said to the employees at about the middle of ’99, ‘We’re going to have profit sharing; in order for you to be eligible, you need to write up one OFI. That’s it,’” he says.
Participation increased in a predictably dramatic fashion after the announcement. Even though Burke now requires his 105 employees to fill out eight OFIs per year one per quarter individually and one per quarter with their departmental team there has still only been one instance in which an individual chose not to participate.
“Most of them are like, ‘How simple is that?’” he says.
Whether you offer profit sharing or a similar form of encouragement, Burke suggests keeping the submission process simple. At Fire-Dex, for example, an employee need only fill out a one-page form describing the opportunity and its root cause. The OFI is then turned in to one of two employees who spend a portion of their time reviewing them.
Though Burke says that devoting so many man-hours to the program is a considerable expense, he also says the benefits you’ll reap are well worth the investment.
“It’s clearly an investment,” he says. “Fire-Dex has a couple of people that spend a portion of their life on OFIs. It’s probably equivalent to half a person at 30 to 40 grand plus benefits, but I think it’s phenomenally invaluable.”
To help weed out the good ideas from the bad, Burke also suggests giving employees some guidelines before they’re even submitted for review. First, is the suggestion more of a complaint than an improvement? Second, does the suggestion provide a permanent benefit to a process, product, work group or environment? Finally, will your customers benefit from the suggestion?
Other than that, the only distinguishing criteria involves pay and benefits.
“The only thing you cannot do on the OFI is you cannot change pay or benefits,” Burke says. “You can’t say, ‘Pay us all a dollar more,’ or, ‘We need free health insurance.’”
Once a given OFI gets approved, most are passed to the supervisor who oversees the department in which the suggestion will be implemented.
“Most of them, I don’t even see,” Burke says. “They’re just implemented on their own from a supervisor level. I can’t see them all
because there are too damn many of them.”
The supervisor must then check in with the employee who first came up with the suggestion to make sure he or she fully understands it: “‘All right, I think I got it. What you’re saying is that if we got this size box versus the size we have today, then this would fit perfectly, and we would save a half a buck a box or whatever. Is that right?’ And the person says, ‘Yes. That’s exactly what I meant.’”
If a certain idea would prove too time-consuming or costly, it must instead be passed up to one of Burke’s direct reports, if not Burke himself, to get the go-ahead.
“Supervisors can do $500,” he says. “Their boss can do a grand. Any of my direct reports can do 10 grand. There’s a chain of command and a process for approving. Anything over 10 grand, I’ll sign.”
Implement and review
A few months ago, Burke began his day announcing implementation of a substantial OFI at a companywide meeting.
“This was a huge one,” he says. “The OFI was go to four 10 [hour work shifts per week.] The employees will save 20 percent on their gas costs and wear and tear on the cars, and the customers will still get 40 hours of production. On Friday, we will shut down the factory, turn off all the lights, turn off all the air conditioning, and the company will save some energy costs.”
Burke already knew that not everyone was happy with the potential change in work hours. Before making the announcement, he first had each department supervisor conduct a survey with his or her team members to gauge whether or not they’d be opposed to the change. Though 93 percent of employees were in favor of the idea, it still left 7 percent of people who weren’t.
“Of all of our employees in production, they can’t all do that,” Burke says. “It’s not great for everybody.”
When you embrace a culture of change, certain people will always be unhappy with a given decision. As Burke explains, “Change isn’t comfortable. Most people don’t like change. There’s no way that 100 percent of everybody will be happy.”
That doesn’t mean you should carelessly implement any change as you see fit. Burke says conducting an informal survey within departments is a great way to avoid large-scale opposition when enacting a major OFI. And as long as the majority of employees are for it, you shouldn’t hesitate.
“It’s going to change,” Burke says. “Embrace it. Plan on it. Bank on it.”
Once you implement an OFI, regardless of its size, you should always go back to review whether or not it’s producing the desired results.
“The supervisor’s responsible for verifying that 30 days after implementation, that it’s doing what it was supposed to do,” Burke says.
Train for change
Burke was walking through the factory floor one morning when he literally ran into an OFI: “I’m walking by the table, and I hit the table with my hip. One of the girls standing next to me says, ‘I hit that thing all the time.’ I say, ‘Why don’t you write up an OFI to have it cut down?’ She wrote it up, and just before I took this call, the maintenance department was cutting it. It’s so simple. It’s a shelf on top of a table, and the shelf is screwed in, and there’s no way to move it, but you can cut it. It’s just a wood shelf, so we just trimmed it. She’s been running into the damn thing for a year. That’s empowerment.”
Though opportunities for improvement abound, that doesn’t mean your employees are always going to recognize them. They need training, examples and a model to follow. Just as Burke pointed out that OFI to his employee on the factory floor, you will invariably need to help your own employees identify instances where change can lead to improvement.
When an employee first joins your team, Burke says the best way to bring them up to speed is providing a plethora of examples from both ends of the spectrum.
“‘Here’s a colossal OFI one that took six months to implement and has sort of changed the whole chart of this big ship,’” he says. “‘Here’s one that was a very simple, common sense thing where we just turned it this way instead of this way, and it happened to save us 12 seconds.’”
To strengthen the habits of new and old employees alike, Burke holds a monthly OFI meeting in which he reviews changes and shares the top three suggestions.
“Every month, we have a companywide OFI meeting,” he says. “It’s a state of the business, how we’re doing, what’s happening. ‘Let’s deal with some OFIs. We got in 52 or whatever that number was. We implemented 40. Let me give you three examples of three great OFIs, and then I’m going to tell you the OFI of the month.’”
Though each of these practices will better enable your employees to identify opportunities for improvement at your own company, Burke says the best way to hone their skills is to personally review their suggestions one-on-one. “I personally hand out the profit-sharing checks,” he says. “I review with the employee the OFIs they’ve submitted. In some cases, I might talk to somebody, and they might not have had any OFIs implemented. It happens. I say, ‘What were you thinking? Explain it to me. I think you got something there. Maybe if you did it this way; what do you think of that?’”
The practice clearly entails a bit of extra work, but Burke says it’s all worth it. By walking your employees through the process, they’ll become the agents of change who will continuously improve your business.
“Make the employees the change agents,” he says. “Give them the forms to make the change happen. ‘You don’t like something? Write it up as an OFI. We’ll look at it. What don’t you like? Let’s see if there’s a way to do it better.’”
HOW TO REACH: Fire-Dex LLC, www.fire-dex.com or (330) 723-0000