Before co-founding KIT Solutions LLC, Xiaoyan Zhang taught sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. But now, the president and CEO plays the role of student.
“To be able to be a good student is the first step to be a good leader,” says Zhang, who leads 70 employees. “Our customer becomes our partner because we’re willing to learn from them.”
Instead of lecturing agencies about the IT solutions he offers, Zhang’s first priority is understanding what customers need.
With that mindset, Zhang propelled KIT from 2007 revenue of $2.8 million to $5.3 million in 2008.
Smart Business spoke with Zhang about building a learning community with your customers.
Q. How do you learn customers’ needs?
You can work with your client as a pharmacist or as a doctor. When you walk into a pharmacy, you say you have a headache, so they’ll give you Advil, and they’ll accurately describe to you what each medication can do. But they’re not in position to diagnose your problem.
If you go to see a doctor, before they offer you any medication, they first try to understand what is your problem, what is your root cause of your symptom. Once they understand that, then they’ll prescribe certain medications.
We should come in thinking as a doctor. Our first step is to understand their problem, and then you offer some solution.
I go to our customers, before I even show anything, I start talking to them about their need and talking about the pain they have to go through.
So I usually go in to say, ‘Based on my study of this field and what I learned from other customers, these are typical problems you face. Is that true?’
And then have your customer start talking to you about their problem. So I usually try to ask customers, ‘What is your biggest headache you wish you [could] solve today? What are things you want?’ Then I try to find out whether we have already run into similar situations before.
Then I open up to say, ‘Do you like to know how the other customers I work with deal with this kind of problem and what kind of solution we have worked out for them?’
Before I show a thing to them, they already jumped on board. They want to see what that is.
Q. How do you share other customers’ solutions?
They have these close-knit professional communities. No matter how slick your brochure is, no matter how much you talk to them, no matter how much benefit you can demonstrate to them, they will not make that final purchasing decision until they talk to some of their colleagues.
The best way is to share with them what we do with other [customers]. Say, ‘This is what we learn from them. This is the kind of problem they run into. This is how we offer a solution. And they’re happy with this solution.’ Then we can offer to them the contact person. Let them talk to the other [customers] objectively.
It truly is a learning community. They talk to each other constantly. You have to be involved and know what they’re talking about. To establish yourself as a leader in that market, join those [professional] conferences. Sponsor learning communities.
We can’t pay for their travel, so we tag onto their professional conference. Usually we tag on the day before the conference officially starts. We’ll host a learning community. We actually open that to other people who are interested; they don’t have to be our customer.
We usually invite about four or five [customers] to do a presentation of themselves and about the feature they [use] and how that benefited them. Besides that, our tech support people will give an overall profile of the tech support phone calls we got from all different customers and what they tell us. They like to hear what kind of problems we run into most. And then we also have project managers of different states highlighting the new features and potential new development.
We videotape some of those and we have photos. We have a Web site [where we] post all those things after the conference so everybody from the learning community can come back to post their questions, to have blogs and to look at videos. People who were not able to attend can also view those videos online.
So we begin to create a little professional network. People like to learn from their professional peers. That’s their best information source.
Q. How do you entrust customers to represent your company?
If our goal is to produce the very best solution for the field — not just for one [customer] — then we shouldn’t be afraid, whatever our customers say, good and bad and ugly. That brutal honesty, in the end, truly establishes [us] as honest and as a company they can trust.
Many companies pay others to test their product to find out what’s working, what’s not working. Here we have free advice from our customers. Isn’t that a benefit?
We [have a] win-win-win philosophy. As a business, we have to win so we can sustain our business. But at the same time, we also want our customer to win. That means the customer has to get the true value out of this. But that’s not enough. We have to have a third win. That third win is working together as a partner building this learning community, so together we actually can make a contribution to the entire field.
It is one thing to make a business. It is another thing [to have] your customers like you. But the best is [if] you can say we made a difference for this whole field.
How to reach: KIT Solutions LLC, (412) 366-7188 or www.kitsolutions.net
Mike Castellano is like a compass. He knows that to move his company forward, he must first point his employees in the right direction.
At Esse Health — a physicians group with 78 physicians and Castellano as CEO — that alignment comes from shared values. With the company stretched across 28 locations, that common ground is especially important.
“No matter what business you’re in, (your values are) your ideologies,” says Castellano, whose company reported fiscal 2009 revenue of $85.6 million. “That’s the glue that holds people together. You’ve got to get a consistent ideology, because if you don’t, you’re at odds all the time. You are oil and water.”
Using his networks, Castellano starts by recruiting employees who already share his values. He then reinforces those core beliefs so his 410 full-time and 100 part-time employees can focus on moving the company forward.
Smart Business spoke to Castellano about building a value-driven team to achieve your goals.
Network first; recruit second. First and foremost, you have to have an eye for talent. You have to surround yourself with the best and the brightest managers. I look for people that share values with me personally. That’s how I was attracted to the organization.
We can always go out and buy a book of business, spend a lot of money and bring people in through that mechanism. But if they don’t have the same value structure, that’s a short-term proposition.
Conversely, if you recruit people based on values, you can accomplish just about anything because you’re the same kind of person. The challenge is it takes a lot more time to find people because you have to spend a lot more time to get to know them.
Before we even have a position, I am always on the lookout for good talent. You just sit and talk to them. When you’re recruiting somebody for an open position, you’re restricted with some of the questions you can ask. But when you’re not recruiting for a position, you’re just trying to get to know somebody, you can ask whatever you want. So you ask about their background, their family, of course professionally, and then you ask other people that they’ve come in contact with.
Take time to identify values. In our particular case, we look for people with compassion. If I’m talking to somebody and they tell me, ‘Gee, I’m interested in making the most money,’ and that’s the first thing or second thing they said, that’s probably not gong to be a good fit. If they’re looking for the next step, not a long-term relationship, that’s probably not a good fit. So a lot of things really relate to family values, integrity, work ethic. Anybody would look for their educational credentials and their work experience. You see all those on paper. You can’t get the things I’m looking for, related to values, just from a piece of paper. You’ve got to sit down and get to know the people.
Other leaders probably wouldn’t like to hear this because it takes so much time, but always be on the lookout for good talent. Whether you need somebody today or not, you keep up with them and you keep your network alive. Somewhere down the line, you might need somebody. I’ve had more success finding key management people through the informal networking process than through job boards and recruiting.
It really is just an investment in a cup of coffee. It takes 30 minutes, a cup of coffee at one of the local coffee shops and now I have another contact. Then when I have a position that I have to fill, I’ll either pick up the phone or e-mail specific contacts that I know that may be interested or may know someone that is interested in that role.
It’s an investment in time upfront, but I think that investment in time is well worth it because when you hire people based on their values, you have people for a long-term relationship.
Define and reinforce your values. We have an exercise we go through with the new employees, and this is after they’ve been here for several weeks. We go through the orientation and part of that is the value exercise. So we’ll go through each value and ask each new employee what that value means to them, give us their definition of the value. Our HR department does that and I actually get a copy of all those notes. It’s interesting to see how consistent they are with each other and with our values. It just tells us we did a good job in recruiting.
You just keep reinforcing them. I don’t walk into one of our offices without reinforcing or recognizing someone for doing something that relates to our values, our mission, our vision, part of our strategic plan. When I see somebody spending extra time in a clinical setting with a patient — more time than they actually have — that’s consistent with our mission. And as I see that, I’ll either send a note or if I’m there I’ll just recognize them for it by saying thank you. I’m a note-writer; I send a lot of notes around. I think that personal touch is important to reach out to the people.
We use an acronym [REALITY] that helps us remember those (values as respect, excellence, accountability, leadership, integrity, teamwork). And then at the end, we put the letter Y and say, ‘You make it reality.’ It helps people remember it. At one time, I had them written on my wall, but that’s not even necessary anymore. It’s not like next year they’re going to be different.
If you pick up this group of people and now they’re making motors in a manufacturing environment, the values are going to be the same because that’s what people are about, that’s their ideology. It’s not like you have to reinforce the values. You have to reinforce the rest of the plan, which are the objectives, and keep everybody together on that common path.
How to reach: Esse Health, (314) 851-1000 or www.essehealth.com
Michael W. Hartmann wouldn’t get far ruling his firm like a king. If he sat on a throne and handed down mandates, he’d surely butt heads with his 736 employees worldwide.
So instead, the CEO and principal of Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC takes a democratic approach.
It starts at the law firm’s strategic planning meetings, where leaders can contribute topics to a loose agenda. As he contemplates those ideas, Hartmann strikes up conversations with other associates to get feedback.
Of course, this takes time.
“It’s the old story about democracy,” he says. “It takes you a little longer to make decisions. But once you make them, it’s easier to get everybody signed up.”
For Hartmann, whose firm reported 2008 revenue of $146 million, it’s worth the time and effort to let employees participate in decision-making.
“You have to build relationships with the people you work with,” Hartmann says. “The better you know them and the better they know you, the more information you’re going to have.”
Smart Business spoke to Hartmann about getting input and building consensus with your employees.
Keep in touch with employees. Your principal constituency is your partners, and it’s important to listen to your partners and find out what’s important to them. That’s probably got two aspects. One, you need to schedule up some pretty periodic meetings. I’m also not a person who sits at my desk, so I visit offices and I walk the floors. That encourages people to say what’s on their mind.
You have to ask them what’s on their mind and what their issues are. It’s not like they have to be overly encouraged to tell me what’s on their minds.
We have a management group and we meet once a week, and we’re probably on the phone almost every day. An activity that occurs in virtually every meeting we ever have is [asking], ‘Who have you talked to in the last week, and what issues are being raised by people that are out there?’ We still, on a regular and consistent basis, talk among ourselves about issues that have been brought to our attention during the week.
Get buy-in through persuasion. You have to convince them [a change] is in their best interest. So you have to have a long-run vision and convince your partners and employees that whatever you want to do a little different is, in the end, in the long-term best interests of the organization. Everybody’s worried about their economic health, at least in today’s day. Everybody’s worried about keeping their culture intact, making sure that what brought people to the firm in the first place is still there. It’s also important to keep in touch with the leaders in your firm on a regular basis to see what’s important to them.
It’s not like you can say, ‘Do it,’ and everyone follows along. It’s like 95 percent persuasion. So that means you have to get out there and talk to your people. E-mail’s wonderful, but I think there has to be a lot of face-to-face contact. You have to get out there and talk to people.
Every time I see a partner, I ask him how business is, what’s going on, what are the issues, that sort of stuff. Ask them how their business is doing. Ask them what they need.
I send e-mails out to the firm on assorted topics every single week. There’s no week that goes by that I’m not communicating by e-mail to all the personnel. Every time we add a person, we send out an e-mail. I send out dozens of e-mails a week.
Some of it’s written, some of it’s group meetings. It depends on what the message is. If you’re just trying to get out information, I’d say an e-mail probably is sufficient. If you’re trying to change the way the firm is going to do something, I don’t think you can do that by e-mail. If you’re going to do something different, you’ve basically got to get out there and talk to them.
Allow dissent. I don’t think we’ve ever made a major change that we haven’t discussed pretty widely inside the partnership before we’d done it. So most everything here that gets done gets discussed pretty widely.
I don’t think there is an idea that someone doesn’t disagree with. In our firm, dissent is tolerated pretty widely. People are allowed to express their views. Generally, most substantive issues are debated openly and enthusiastically.
The most important thing management could do is not ever take punitive actions against people that express divergent views. And I also think it’s important that whoever expresses a view knows that it got heard by the management group. Not necessarily agreed with, because no one’s going to agree with everything everybody says.
It’s important to be able to go back and say, ‘Well, you know, you made this argument. We actually talked about that. We might not have agreed with you, but we discussed it.’ I think that’s important.
Check results with customers. If you try to do something differently, see if people actually do it. [See] whether there’s a rear-guard action to resist it. Pay attention to the general business climate. Do people have enough work? Are people fully engaged? Are our clients satisfied?
It’s really important to get a steady stream of repeat business from existing clients, so it’s important to know that our clients are satisfied with our services. That’s without question the most important thing out there. So we measure that and talk to people about that constantly.
Some clients come and survey us and give us reports. Some clients, it’s just a history — are they still sending work? Some of our partners and I meet with major clients on a periodic basis and ask them how things are going. Certainly, with our major clients, we make an effort to check in on a quite consistent basis to see how things are going.
How to reach: Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC, (313) 963-6420 or www.millercanfield.com
Alfred Sanchez probably won’t see his vision fulfilled at the YMCA of Greater Miami. Not because it won’t happen, but because he set the bar higher than he’ll reach during his tenure as president and CEO.
The goal is to serve one in 10 people in Miami-Dade County by 2025 — or about 250,000 people, compared to its current reach of 40,000 at the $15.3 million organization.
“The vision is like the summit of a mountain, and you don’t climb the mountain all in one swoop,” says Sanchez, who leads 95 full-time and 448 part-time employees as well as 250 volunteers. “You don’t just go out one day and climb Mount Everest. You break it out into what elevation you can reach each day.”
Sanchez realizes communicating with his employees is more important than ever — both to sustain their focus on the destination and to remind them how far they’ve already ascended.
Smart Business spoke with Sanchez about communicating your vision with clarity, variety and passion to keep employees on course.
Keep it simple. We understand sound bites. That stays with us. Keep it short — think about something that can fit on a T-shirt. If you can condense [your vision] to that, then people can get it. And then constantly expand using that tag.
We’ve got a very simple theme: growing to serve one in 10. Everything is ‘one in 10, one in 10.’ We’re just constantly hitting that home. Obviously, it’s much more complicated and complex than that, but that’s a good, easy thing to remember.
Then every time we talk about it, we expand upon what that means. For instance, growing to serve one in 10 means a lot of things to us. One of the things is we have to build more YMCAs. So we are; one’s opening up at the end of this year. We want to tell the employees about how that’s going. We’re constantly showing them progress photos on the Web site in terms of how it’s being built, and every single time we say, ‘Hey, remember we’re growing to serve one in 10, and one of the ways we’re going to do that is build more Y’s. This one’s opening up this year. We’re going to get our first notch under our belts.’ And that’s how you get the message out.
Shake up communication methods. One of the things I’ve learned is you never really are finished communicating it. Whenever you think, ‘Boy, I’ve really done a good job getting the message out,’ think again, because you haven’t.
You’ve got to communicate constantly, consistently and through multiple channels of communication. It’s not just good enough to put framed posters on the wall. We habituate to those things. You have to constantly change how you’re communicating it so that people don’t just get used to it and it becomes part of the background.
We do the employee retreats where we go over it; we do the posters, the wallet cards. We do monthly updates. We give out DVDs and flash drives to employees so they always have it.
And the other thing is that we’re constantly keeping an eye on different ways that people are receiving information. For instance, we started an employee podcast where every month, either myself or one of the leadership team is educating our employees about, ‘Here is our vision. Here’s what we’re doing. Here are the accomplishments toward that vision.’ They get to see their leadership. Because we have [more than 700 employees and volunteers], I don’t get to see them all, but that’s a way to personally take the message out.
You just constantly have to communicate, communicate, communicate. And then communicate more after you think you’ve finished. You’re never finished communicating.
Speak with your actions. You, as a leader, are an extremely important part of getting the message out. You can’t leave it to your marketing people; you can’t leave it to your direct reports. You have to be out there and, as they say, walk the walk and talk the talk.
We put together this initiative called ‘Healthy Lives Under Construction,’ where we were going to get our employees to live healthy lives. You wouldn’t go to a dentist [who has] a mouth full of cavities. Well, would you go to an organization that doesn’t look the picture of health to get healthy? No.
That’s a great concept, but it’s easy for employees to dismiss. So as a leader, I said, ‘If I’m asking you all to be an example to the community, then I’m going to be the first to be out there.’ I put myself on the line and said, ‘I’m going to lose 50 pounds, and I’m going to get off my cholesterol medication, and I’m going to get off my sugar medication — or I’ll shave my head bald.’
And you know what, I still have a healthy mane of hair and I lost 65 pounds.
But I put myself out there. I could easily have failed; I led the way. I showed enthusiasm for the program. And I think because of it, people were encouraged. They saw me, their CEO, in a more human light, and so they connected with me much more on a human level, rather than an employee-boss level.
If you’re going to ask employees to do things, be out in front of it. Take risks. Risk failure because … success is just the end of a long line of failed attempts. You don’t reach success unless you risk. And if folks see you risking and really putting yourself out there, you’re more human and people are encouraged by that.
If they see you as communicating the vision personally, they’re more apt to believe that, ‘This is really something that’s important to the organization; it should be important to me, as well.’ While I don’t think you can train passion, passion is infectious, you can motivate others by having them see how passionate you are about your vision.
How to reach: YMCA of Greater Miami, (877) 969-9622 or www.ymcamiami.org
Employees at the Pittsburgh headquarters of UBICS Inc. know their boss isn’t looking over their shoulders. Because for most of the year, Sunil Patil, the president of global operations, works out of the company’s office in Pune, India.
So naturally, empowering those 100 employees — and another 400 globally — to act without supervision is a priority for Patil and UBICS, whose U.S. operations of the IT and business process outsourcing company posted 2008 revenue of $12 million.
“If I waste my time micromanaging what somebody else is supposed to do,” he says, “I’ll never be able to do the job that I’ve been asked to do.”
Smart Business spoke to Patil about how to empower your employees.
Q. What’s your advice for empowering employees?
To believe in your employees, you have to first believe in yourself.
When you have a clear thought process [and] you have a clear vision, it’s a lot easier to communicate and make your employees part of it, as opposed to you having a very sketchy picture and communicate that, ‘OK, we’ll get there and then we’ll see what we do next.’ That’s a sure formula to kill any achievement, any performance or any aspirations.
Unless I’m 100 percent sure what we want to do and how we want to do it, I put a lot of time in, I collect all the information so I know. Once I’m clear, it’s really easy for me to let everybody else know what is expected and then it becomes clear for them also.
As far as achieving something or being successful, I don’t think anybody can be 100 percent sure. There are significant components that are outside of your control. What you can be 100 percent sure of is your plan to go and achieve it.
Q. How do you empower your employees?
Responsibility and freedom come together. It would be unfair to ask any employee [to do something] and dump a ton of responsibilities on him without giving any freedom on how to get it done. That’s when you are going to basically kill his creativity and kill his productivity, and you’ll have nothing but a mushy man to work for you.
Instead of telling anybody how to do it, I will tell them what needs to be done. Basically, ‘This is what I want you to do. And, in fact, not only do I want to see you succeed, but probably I’m going to learn something from you.’ In some cases, I would say the way I would do it, but not necessarily would I come down and say, ‘Well, this is the way I want you to do it.’
Plus, I’ve always believed that each and every employee in the company is there because he does something that I cannot do. Letting him use his strength and talent to achieve that not only addresses the question of motivating them, but letting them achieve in ways that I’ve not seen, I’m not used to or I’m not expecting is a new way to learn for all of us.
At the end of the day, we also need a sense of achievement. I don’t know how much sense of achievement I’ll be able to cultivate if I give a Plan A to Plan C to somebody and say, ‘This is the way you’re going to do it.’
Say, ‘What we’re looking [at] is the destination, the end result. But we have the flexibility to achieve it in the best possible way.’ The biggest difficulty would be if I asked each and every one of them to take the same path that I think is right. That will only ensure that this company will never grow.
If I want this company to grow, it is important that the employees grow. And for the employees to grow they have to be given the freedom to try to achieve something their own way — which could be a better way of doing things going forward.
Q. How do you avoid micromanaging?
You have to trust their capabilities and their expertise. Second, you have to have confidence in them. And third, most importantly, is the employee or the manager himself has to have confidence that you are supporting him 100 percent.
You can appreciate as you try to go global how important it is that you get out of this micromanagement and let your managers run it. I would say the challenge is not even whether I should micromanage or not. That’s not even the question. The question is: It’s important for me to teach my managers that they shouldn’t be micromanaging. Otherwise, our growth will stop at a certain level.
Q. How do you make sure empowered employees stay on track?
When I’m in India, I’m in constant touch with my team in the U.S. They know that if they’re doing something, they have full authority to go ahead and do it because they know what my views are, my vision is and what the company interests are.
Managers report to me on a formal basis. Every week we’ll take stock of what we’re anticipating to do, what are the challenges and so on.
But on an informal level, it happens every second. Anytime you’re working on something, you will see whether they are on the track or not on the track.
A lot of times, the results themselves speak of it. That could be your closure whether you’re on the track or not. If, for example, the results are not what you are expecting, then you know there is something wrong. You need to intervene. You need to take a look at them or maybe the expectations were not right. Either way, there needs to be some change that has to come in.
How to reach: UBICS Inc., (724) 746-6001 or www.ubics.com
Yuval Brisker helps his customers help their customers.
He co-founded TOA (Time of Arrival) Technologies, a software provider for companies managing mobile work forces, to improve the customer experience by coordinating technicians’ schedules.
But the basis of his business isn’t enough to prove how important customer satisfaction is to him. Brisker, the president and CEO, knows that it really comes from relationships.
“It’s not always about making money from them right on the spot,” says Brisker, whose company has grown to about 140 employees from 60 at the beginning of 2007. “If you can secure a relationship of collaboration in the long term, that will yield benefits for both sides, for the customer and for you.”
The first key to building that collaborative relationship is showing that you’re ready to respond to a customer’s needs.
“It’s about showing up,” Brisker says. “It’s creating that kind of environment to have a dialogue.”
So let customers know how they can reach you without interruption, whether it’s face to face or over the phone. Then follow through by keeping appointments and returning messages promptly. Make it easy for customers to reach you.
“If they’re waiting for you to respond more than a day or two, then that’s way, way too long,” Brisker says. “The speed of response helps increase and enhance the collaborative approach. So the speed that I’m talking about is not speed of producing the result, but just the speed of interaction and how readily you’re available, how quickly you’re willing to be there, how fast you’re basically putting yourself into the dialogue.”
You have to establish that willingness upfront. Before customers even ask anything of you, let them know that their needs are your priorities and you’ll do what you can to satisfy them.
Brisker calls this the yes approach.
“You first have to come in with a yes. We say, ‘The answer is yes. What’s the question?’” he says. “I think that changes the way that customers will interact with you. They’ll know that your point of departure is flexibility and your desire to actually listen to them and work with them to find a solution. You’re already saying, ‘I’m here to listen and I’m going to try and figure out a way to make my response positive, not negative.’”
But actually listening to their needs is only half of the battle. The real challenge is showing them that you’re listening, which you can do with simple body language cues.
“Come out there with your ... body language about it, leaning forward to understand what people are saying,” Brisker says. “It’s not furrowed brows, it’s not a low forehead, and it’s not a look of anxiety and tenseness. It’s not sitting in a scrunched up way or leaning back but more like leaning in and looking relaxed. All those things come together in a way that says that you’re open.”
Just because you’ve approached the relationship with a yes on the tip of your tongue and collaboration as your goal does not mean that you roll over and give customers whatever they want, though. When possible, look for ways to stretch your abilities and offer extensions of your services.
But if their request is clearly outside of your company’s realm, be honest about it.
“Then there’s an option to say either, ‘This is going to be a collaboration; we need to invest in it jointly in terms of our time and our efforts,’ or, ‘I’ll do this, but it’s going to take more time,’ or, ‘This is just not something that we do,’” Brisker says. “It’s really about just saying it and being clear.”
Measure the effect
Yuval Brisker thinks that if something is worth doing, it better be measurable, too.
Sure, his focus is on building collaborative relationships with the customers of TOA Technologies Inc. But he thinks you should be able to apply metrics to that relationship.
Brisker, the co-founder, president and CEO, recommends establishing a goal with your customers upfront. Then your whole relationship will be guided by the end results.
“Set a path to more steps,” he says. “Because the key to successful interactions is having a continuous dialogue, not just taking one big step and that’s it. It’s about the continuity of communication.”
When Brisker meets with customers, they look at every service TOA offers and how it can benefit them.
“We go through every single line item of potential expense and reduction and enhancement that could be affected and see how we can make that more profitable for them,” he says. “Again, it’s collaboration. It’s understanding where they see opportunities, where they see holes in the value proposition and making sure that we’re aligned with their goals.”
Whether it’s increasing business, reducing cost or improving the customer experience, you and your customers should agree on the goal beforehand. Also set criteria by which your success will be measured in the end.
“If you’re not helping your customers become more successful,” Brisker says, “then you’re not really contributing.”
Jackie Rybka knows how to get employees excited about training: cookies.
“That used to be the standard fare at every training session,” jokes the human resources performance and development manager at 2,400-employee Westfield Group. “But it’s only good for so long.”
The initial lure of free sweets will quickly disappear, so build a training program that’s ingrained into your company’s culture.
“What I think helps support learning in our organization is the fact you’ll hear our leadership talk about their own developmental needs,” Rybka says. “So it kind of creates an environment where people know that there’s an expectation that we’re trying to better ourselves and that it’s OK to admit that you’re not perfect.”
Emphasize how training can contribute to your company’s growth, as the means to an end rather than training for the sake of training.
“If you look at it as a training department and an investment in a training department, [that’s the] wrong way to look at it,” says Bob Joyce, chairman and CEO of the insurance, banking and financial services firm that posted 2008 revenue of $1.64 billion. “The training department has to be a business partner with the businesspeople. And it has to be the business process that drives the training process — and not vice versa.”
So take your training beyond a plate of cookies by developing solutions around your corporate goals, packing each session with interaction and reinforcing the material with follow-up information.
(See related story: Teaching leaders)
Find a focus
It sounds simple, but begin with your business needs and develop a training solution to fit them. Then instead of aligning the two, you’re just finding the most effective answer to an existing problem.
“Select your training priorities based on your business plan,” Rybka says. “Because if you just go out with a general needs assessment, people are going to tell you everything they want, everything they heard was cool but not really everything they need.”
You can’t afford to pull employees away from their daily tasks and pay for their training if you’re not teaching skills that will improve the company overall. So Rybka and her team pick through Westfield’s corporate goals, looking for behavioral or knowledge gaps that could be bridged with training.
“So if we say, ‘We want to increase our risk appetite,’ we think, ‘I wonder what we have to help reinforce how to assess risk and risk appetite in our courseware,’” she says.
Once you pinpoint areas for improvement, take the suggestions back to the executive team — not only to get approval for your ideas but also to better understand their training vision for the company.
“That partnership that you have with the business — so that you understand where they’re going — is even better than a business plan,” she says.
Departments may then request additional training beyond the companywide goals you address. Rather than giving each manager what he or she wants, dig in to what the managers really need.
All you have to do is ask. A sales executive asked Rybka to create a team development plan, but his employees had already been through team-building exercises. So she investigated beyond the initial request.
“It was the probing question, ‘Well, OK. But why?’” she says. “And then he got to the, ‘For seeing if we’ve got the right people.’”
By simply asking him to explain what his team actually needed, she was able to target the selection of salespeople rather than just developing the existing team. So instead of the traditional get-to-know-you-better icebreakers, she developed competency assessments to identify qualified candidates.
But the solution never stops there. Always look for opportunities to make training cross-functional by tying it into other areas of the business — in Rybka’s words, “an end-to-end solution.”
In this case, Rybka also transferred the results of the sales team’s personality assessments to the hiring process, crafting interview questions that would indicate competencies the team already displayed.
Offer something for everyone
Maybe you were a visual learner in school. Or maybe you needed hands-on practice. You can’t cater to each individual learning style, so make your training sessions as multifaceted as possible.
“We try to appeal to all learning types,” Rybka says. “There’s some people that need to read it to get it. Some people that need to hear it. Some people that need to do it. And some people that need to think about it.”
Start by brainstorming all the possible ways to present a topic, covering visual and oral presentations and individual and interactive techniques. Once you lay out all the possibilities, you can see where your best resources lie.
“When we’re deciding whether or not to purchase or build something and then whether or not it should it be instructor-led or computer-based, whether it should be a simulation or case study, we’re working backward from what the objective of the training is,” Rybka says.
So for example, an introductory course in the insurance industry would require less customization and interaction than a leadership development class, which is specific to Westfield.
Also consider the size of your audience and, frankly, whether you have the resources and experts available in-house.
“Our motto really has been, whenever possible, to have the expert up in front of them,” Rybka says. “Then you can ask questions that go far beyond what’s available on the PowerPoint slide.”
Look within your company first for recognizable experts that fit the role. If they’re not there, then expand the search to your industry or your region. Go see potential presenters lead a session somewhere else before you confirm or at least seek references from other companies that have used them.
But you don’t necessarily need to find someone who can woo a crowd. If the expert is more adept at his or her specialty than at entertaining, add some interactive games as accompaniment or pair the speaker with a passionate, recognizable figure from your company.
“Sometimes people will come because they really want to know more about that subject,” Rybka says. “And quite honestly, some people come just because they want to see what Scott or Steve has to say about the topic. So it really gives a credibility boost to the material.”
That can also weave a solid security blanket when the subject matter itself is a little dull.
Just don’t let the speaker dominate the session. Even an impassioned speaker will struggle to secure everyone’s attention for an eight-hour lecture. Rybka recommends breaking the presentations into 20-minute segments separated by activities.
“Whenever you can get people from new knowledge to application of new knowledge in a training class, that’s powerful,” she says.
The activity can be as simple as a skill assessment. But a simulation can increase the interaction and allow employees to actually practice the skills you’re teaching.
“We have to get them to demonstrate the skills and knowledge that they have,” she says. “So the way to do that is to draw them out. Make them interact with each other.”
Westfield’s leadership development course includes the creation of a mock business where participants pretend to run various departments for several days, interacting with one another as an executive team would.
“It’s like role-play on steroids,” Rybka says. “We create an atmosphere where people are in a role; they’ve got a business that they’re running. So there’s the computer simulation that they have to react to as well as ‘actors’ that are doing role-play that provide even more challenge: Here are the results, but how do I explain it to my investors that I haven’t met my business plan?”
Along the way, provide plenty of feedback to applaud what participants did well and point out areas for improvement.
“Say, ‘These are the behaviors you exhibited. This is what we thought was effective about that, and this is what we thought was less effective,’” Rybka says.
Reinforce the teaching
Even the best training will fall flat if there’s no follow-up to reinforce it.
The first step is gathering immediate feedback with a reaction survey, what Rybka refers to as “level-one metrics.” Your basic evaluation should include questions like: Were the materials useful? Was the facilitator informative? How did you feel about the length and the pace of the session?
“And we do get some good feedback there, if the room was too hot or cold,” Rybka jokes. “But it’s really that post-session follow-up where you’re asking the manager if they have demonstrated any new skills or if you’ve driven it to a level-four assessment, and you can see it in their business results.”
But it’s tricky to calculate a single session’s impact on the results of the whole company or even a specific department. So your best bet may be to bring the program’s effectiveness down to an individual level by following up with each participant.
Have all the employees who participated in the training set one or two goals based on the session. By doing that, you are empowering them to adapt the session to their needs, getting their buy-in on what is most important to them and building a way to check their progress afterward.
“Ask for the learner to decide what they’re going to do to further that [material you presented],” she says. “So in other words, I’m not going to say, ‘Everybody take this action plan and go revamp your performance goals,’ but, ‘OK, here’s the expectation. Here are the tools. Here’s an example of what it looks like. Now, you tell me: What would you like to do to improve this skill?’ Then it’s their plan.”
The biggest key to measuring the success of your program is knowing what you’re measuring before you begin. And that can often be half the battle.
“Getting [executives] to say what success looks like is a painful exercise. They’ll usually defer to, ‘Oh, I’ll know it when I’ll see it,’” Rybka says. “You’ve really got to say, ‘Hold up. What do we expect people to be able to do when they walk out?’”
How to reach: Westfield Group, (800) 243-0210 or
In the ideal executive meeting, Tom Hosack would sit sans jacket and tie with BlackBerry in hand. But his older colleagues at Northwood Realty Services aren’t so quick to ditch tradition.
Two years ago, at age 37, Hosack replaced a president 25 years his senior at the real estate and financial services firm, steering 105 employees and 850 independent contractors to 2007 revenue of $30 million.
“The key is the beginning,” says Hosack, who is also the company’s chief operating officer. “You get your reputation in first couple months, and you live with it forever.”
Smart Business spoke with Hosack about how to build a reputation that spans the generations.
Q. What’s the first step for a young leader to begin building a reputation?
The older work force is very resistant to change. The more you try to change without understanding why the systems are built the way they are, the more they’ll ignore you.
Find the people that have been around the organization the longest and listen to them. Oftentimes, they actually saw the creation of a lot of the policies. If you listen to a history of the company and why certain things were formed, it will give you a much better understanding.
Identify a key person in the structure that’s very well-respected and try to have a mentor relationship with them. It allows you access to somebody to explain why things are the way they are. But you also get a certain amount of respect just from being associated with somebody that’s respected.
Ask them truthfully that what you want is their advice [on] how best to integrate into the system and how best to get their support. You start with asking them how they started and the challenges that they had and listen to their story.
Q. How do you get buy-in before trust is built?
You have to make sure that, especially starting out, the projects or ideas you undertake first are pretty simple, pretty concise, easy to explain and easy to justify.
If something seems really ingrained, people seem to be very loyal to it, [then] you obviously don’t want to go after that. You start with something that people aren’t that attached to. If it’s something that can be modernized, where something has significantly changed — like technology — then that’s a good place to start.
In a careful way, identify their bias toward [your ideas] by their age or by their nature. You can say things like, ‘I know to a very conservative person this seems a little wild, but if you look at it truthfully, you can see that the back side is limited.’
Throw yourself under the bus a little bit, too, and say, ‘I really want more, but I’ve tried to tone this one down,’ so that they realize that you’re trying to compromise.
If you’re dealing with people that are just like you that are disagreeing, you’re disagreeing purely on the content. When you’re dealing with people that are different generationally, you’re disagreeing on even how to judge the content. Sometimes they don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish because they don’t understand the technology.
That’s a good time to point out what percentage of your company’s business is your generation. So when you pitch something, you’re saying, ‘Hey, I represent this market that you’re trying to reach. We have to make sure we stay current with the customers that are in that generation.’
Q. How do you compromise across generations?
You have to know the hierarchy of the most influential people. If you really watch a meeting or two, you’ll find out. They’re the people who don’t necessarily say a whole lot, but when they say something, everybody really heeds their advice.
If they’re against something, it almost never gets approved. If they’re for something, it almost always gets approved.
You have to [identify] who it is that disagrees with you. If it’s somebody that’s very influential, abandon it and move on to something else. If it’s somebody that’s not very influential, go to the people that are on your side and say before you present it, ‘Do you feel comfortable backing me up?’
You should always hit at least most of the management team one-on-one before you actually bring it out publicly so they’ve had an opportunity to express their objections. If you can get a couple of those key people to say, ‘I’ve been thinking about this; I think it’s a good idea,’ that starts to create that domino effect of everybody else going along.
When people don’t like a project, ask them, ‘What could change to this program that would make you support it?’ You can’t be everything to all people. But oftentimes, in that vetting process, your idea is refined and becomes even better.
The other thing that happens, too, is some people process information more slowly than others. They need to hear an idea several times before they feel comfortable with it. So if you present it a couple times, they start to think, ‘Oh, I’ve heard this before. It’s starting to grow on me.’
How to reach: Northwood Realty Services, (800) 715-3695 or www.northwood.com
David Zick doesn’t expect his company to grow without a little stretching of his own.
“I kiddingly tell people that I try to run the company from the seat of my pants. And although I’m heavier than I used to be, the company grew faster than I was able to get fatter,” jokes Zick, the president of Group Associates Inc., whose plan for growth is more intentional than he makes it sound.
Zick founded the company in 1986 to provide employee benefit plan management solutions to companies, and Group Associates continues to soar, growing 25 percent in 2008 to revenue of $11 million.
Zick’s own growth, then, is not far behind.
“I realized that if the company was to continue to grow, that I have to grow too,” he says. “I can’t just expect the company to grow and grow and me to be the same.”
So he encourages his 80 employees to challenge his decisions and push him out of his comfort zone.
Smart Business spoke with Zick about empowering your employees to stretch your limits.
Avoid micromanaging. You can’t micromanage growth. You have to empower others. Only by multiplying yourself through other people and letting them make decisions can you grow.
What I do instead of micromanaging is I just ask for very regular updates in terms of the progress. I want to know as you go through this process what you’re doing and that you’re making progress toward getting it done.’
But then you have to back away and not watch them do it. You have to walk away from it.
Tell employees they’re empowered. I told the employees in the newsletter that if they know of a better way to do something, don’t just assume that somebody else figured out that the way it’s being done right now is the right way. If they see something that’s being done that they think is wrong, it might not be wrong, but ask. Say, ‘I see that this is happening. From what I know, it doesn’t look like it’s right,’ recognizing that they don’t know everything.
I’d rather somebody question something before it’s in front of our client than to have our client come back and say, ‘This is wrong,’ and then have an employee say, ‘I thought it was wrong.’ So we encourage employees to come to us.
Take questions and ask your own. When they come to me with a question, I ask them what they think we ought to do. Then I say, ‘Have you considered this factor?’ And many times, they haven’t considered all the factors that go into making the decision.
Then I want to find out, ‘What do they know that I don’t know? Maybe they’ve talked to the client that I haven’t talked to. Maybe they’ve been doing a process I haven’t actually physically been doing. So what you need to do is find out what it is they know that you didn’t know.
The best way to help a person make a change in their decision is to tell the person, ‘I understand you made this decision. I’m wondering if you understood this fact, and that your decision is going to do this. If you weren’t aware of it, if somebody hadn’t told you,’ — so that you try to make it so it’s not their fault — ‘then maybe you might have a different decision. Or maybe you already considered this fact, and despite it, you’ve decided to do it. My job is just to make sure that you know everything that you should know to make a decision.’
Lead by example. It was a problem with some other managers [that] when people would confront them, they were defensive instead of open to suggestion and [to] receive criticism in a positive manner. [I tell them,] ‘We’re not talking about this because we’re unhappy with you or because your work is bad. We’re talking about this as a positive for the organization.’
And just as employees have seen me be open to criticism, I point to myself and I say, ‘Remember the meeting we had where everybody was upset with me [because] they didn’t think that I was doing [what] I should be doing? I listened to that, and I’ve incorporated that in what I’ve done. You need to do the same thing.’ It can’t be just, ‘Do as I say.’
Try to grow. One hamburger is not going to change your life. But 1,000 of them over five years could put 10 or 15 pounds on you. If you don’t exercise one day, you’re not going to have a heart attack the next day. But if you don’t exercise ever, then you’re going to be far less healthy than had you exercised.
In the same way in business, if I don’t try to improve, it won’t really affect me tomorrow. But when you compound a lot of tomorrows, it will have a big impact. Do the thing that’s a little bit more difficult. It’s more difficult to confront an employee with some behavior that’s not quite what you want than it is just to ignore it and hope that it goes away.
A new employee was not interacting well with other employees. So I sat down with the employee and I said, ‘When people are going out to lunch, then once in a while you need to go out to lunch with them. It’s not that that one lunch matters, but sometimes a lot of work is discussed at lunch. You don’t have to be buddies, but you need to have respect for each other and you need to like each other at some level in order to work effectively.’
How to reach: Group Associates Inc., (248) 593-2000 or www.groupassociates.com
With Latin music blaring and dancers twisting on stage, it’s obvious that David Wallack founded Mango’s Tropical Cafe on fun.
But don’t be fooled — Wallack takes the restaurant and nightclub business very seriously. With 20 to 30 job applications coming in daily, his 240 employees know that they can’t afford to slip up or they could possibly pass their positions to the next in line.
Wallack takes communication beyond rules and regulations by making it personal. The company’s president makes sure employees understand his expectations and the price for not performing. His approach keeps them at the top of their game, contributing to 2007 revenue of $19.7 million.
Smart Business spoke with Wallack about how to cultivate your employees to perform like superstars.
Q. How do you communicate your expectations to employees?
[We have] a manual that dictates everything from demeanor to dress to meetings and conduct and what’s expected out of each person in each position.
The first thing is to get someone else’s company manual and use it as an outline. I say that literally. I’m sure in the beginning [that] I did the same thing. And then you just adapt it to your own needs, your own company’s needs and your own personality.
Over the years, I began (the manual) and others in the organization have contributed substantially. That keeps growing each time you run into a situation that’s not covered [and] you add a section and cover it, and so it continues to evolve. You bring in your experts in that division, have a meeting, make notes and then draft.
Then notify and send out the modification to every staff member and, if necessary, review it at the next staff meeting so that it’s not just written but everybody also knows about it.
Q. How do you make that communication personal?
[We have] regular, mandatory staff meetings, which, when needed, were once a week and moved to once a month. [We have] mini-meetings, shift meetings run by managers. Those can be departmental as well as entire shift.
And regular contact between me and my management and me and my staff and an open-door policy directly to me for anyone if they have a problem that is unresolved.
The way I [make myself approachable] is I show up. It’s a hello, a handshake with everyone from the manager to the bartenders, the security, the dishwashers, the line cooks. I’m in there with them. They’re seeing me. There’s a touching. There’s maintenance of a connection there.
With the women that work for me, there’s a hug and a kiss on the check, looking in their eyes, letting them know they’re special and letting my staff know they’re special. … It’s realizing even within the management set, there’s a heart to it all. While we have the rules and the level of professionalism that we have to maintain, it’s also acknowledging the human factor.
Q. How do you empower employees to perform?
I let my managers manage. If they have a problem, they’re going to bring it to me for my guidance, but I let them manage.
They hire; they fire. I don’t stand in the middle. When an employee comes to me with a problem, I don’t put myself in the middle of my manager and that person. If a person gets fired or they’re disciplined, I don’t put myself in the middle unless I see an overriding legal issue or an unusual problem that my manager may not know of, then I may inject myself.
However, if there’s something that I would have my manager know that they may not have known, I’ll do that in a meeting with my manager, but it would be my manager who would then still either bring that person back or not.
Q. How do you handle underperformers?
Disciplinary action takes many, many forms, from minor to major. Once you invest in a person, you want to give them every opportunity to succeed, from just a little private meeting with no write-ups involved and encouragement and understanding what’s holding a person back, to a write-up, to a suspension, to a fine, to whatever it takes to motivate that person into performance. Everyone responds to different stimuli.
I’ve always likened that to the more you ride, you understand a horse. Some horses, all you’ve got to do is [click your teeth] and you have the best ride of your life. Others, you’ve got to break a stick off a tree, not hit them with it but just show them it’s in your hand. They’re going to pick their ears up and rock and roll, the best ride of your life.
And others just need a little tap. And some, you can hit them and it won’t even matter.
In many ways, people are the same way.
We don’t beat people with a stick, but showing them the stick means you can be fired, a suspension. Certainly for us the stick is, ‘You are fired.’
Everybody has a different motivation.
How to reach: Mango’s Tropical Cafe, (305) 673-4422 or www.mangostropicalcafe.com