From franchisee to franchisor and from both sides of the Atlantic, Jim Hunter has seen all the faces of franchising.
Through it all, the president and CEO of the handyman franchise operation House Doctors, has observed some secrets to success that are steady across oceans and industries.
“Most successful franchisees have energy and enthusiasm and pride in their business,” says Hunter, a native of Scotland who oversees the national operation made up of around 450 employees in 103 territories. “If you get that in your office and in your team, then that overflows.”
So Hunter starts with enthusiastic franchisees. Then he accelerates the training process to get them up and running before their energy has time to fade.
Since he started this “Fast Start” program, his franchisees are opening their operations 70 percent faster than before. And last year, the program paved the way for both the fastest-growing and the highest revenue-generating franchises in House Doctors’ history.
Smart Business spoke with Hunter about how to build enthusiastic franchises.
Find enthusiastic candidates. I’ve seen some great franchisees who have built a fantastic business and went on to create great wealth. All of these very successful franchisees had three main traits: One, a very strong determination to succeed that enabled them to overcome any challenges that they had. And they had a real energy and enthusiasm and pride in their business and what they were doing. Finally, all of the really successful franchisees are able to work in partnership with franchisors and follow a proven system.
[We] always start with a discovery process where the franchisor is learning as much about the candidate as the candidate is learning about the concept. It’s very much a two-way interview process, first by telephone and then when we meet during discovery day at our home office.
As part of our discovery day, we have the candidate complete a personality profile questionnaire. We compare the results to existing successful franchisees and look for similarities. We’re not only looking for the personal traits like determination and enthusiasm for the concept but also certain business skills based on their work history.
We start off with an overview of the company: how it started, where it came from and where we’re going. The vision and the buy-in really start with the discovery day. [You can see] they’re excited and they’re giving a response like, ‘Oh yes, I see what you mean,’ and, ‘Yeah, I agree with that. Wow, that’s the way to go.’ They’re giving positive responses to what we are telling them. If they didn’t, then we wouldn’t award them a franchise.
Get details out of the way. Training starts before the actual classroom training. We have to prepare the new franchisee for business ownership. The Fast Start program is made up of over 100 items on a checklist, and we go through every step with new franchisees over a four- to five-week period before they come to classroom training.
It covers everything from putting together your business plan to ordering your first van.
The Fast Start includes things like, ‘Have you got an accountant?’ and helping them set that up, right through to starting to do their business plan and the marketing plan.
It’s all in order of when you need to get it. For example, you can’t get your fliers or your business cards printed until you have your telephone numbers.
A CEO probably has had the experience setting up a business or being involved in these types of things before. But you’ve got to imagine that the new franchisee may not have. Based on our experience of what’s needed as someone sets a business up, we started right from the basics. It could be something as basic as registering your computer and ordering fliers that are going to go out after you open. But they’ve all got to be thought of and done prior to you starting the business. If you start up your own business without something like this, then possibly you could forget something.
Attention to details is important and getting the details in the right order. We’ve done a lot of the details before our training so when they’re coming to train, they’re already enthused.
Involve your team in training. When they go into the classroom training, it takes them right from the basics to completing their business plan, completing their marketing plan, completing their budget, and everything to do with personnel to marketing their business to dealing with customers. We term it as, ‘How to run your business.’
We use all our internal staff because these are the guys and gals who will be working with them. Obviously, the marketing manager comes in and does some marketing. The graphic designer will come in and do the stuff on controlling the logo, for example. We have the legal department tell them about insurance and trademark stuff.
Each member of our team takes part in the training. We don’t have a trainer, per se, but that’s good because it obviously gets them familiar with the people who they’ll be dealing with.
Hit the ground running. Everything is aimed at opening them as soon as possible after training because we don’t want to lose the vision. We don’t want them losing excitement. We want them to get out into the marketplace fresh with what they’ve learned.
We intend them to go straight from training. ... They have everything they need to start their business as soon as they finish their training.
Other franchise systems struggle with getting their people out and up and running quickly after training. They would be sitting in training and still trying to organize their company, still trying to organize the fliers and still trying to order their van. They’d be coming out of training still trying to do these things.
By doing that Fast Start, they’ve done all that stuff before they go into training. During the training, they’re focused. And then when they finish training, they can actually hit the ground running.
How to reach: House Doctors, (800) 319-3359 or www.housedoctors.com
After all, he’s in charge of protecting those who protect us. As the president of the Security & Survivability division of global defense contractor BAE Systems, he provides products to keep government officials and military personnel safe in high-threat areas. Russell heads three lines of business that produce vehicle armor and restraints, protective materials, and personal gear.
To do that, he has 4,000 of the parent company’s 106,400 employees under his wing.
And, as if those responsibilities didn’t demand enough of his attention during regular office hours, Russell also took his senior staff on a recent tour of all 10 locations — including one in Germany — to conduct town-hall meetings at each office.
So with all that weight riding on him, Russell’s schedule is understandably packed. But no matter how busy his day is, he makes time for one thing: his employees.
“You’ve got so much on your plate,” he says. “It creates anxiety as a leader because you’ve got this long list of things you need to attend to. If somebody comes in, you spend time with them. You’ve got to force yourself to do that.”
After seeing other leaders bark out orders like a commander-in-chief, Russell knows the difference that interaction can make. When you take the time to listen to employees’ viewpoints, you make them contributors rather than just assets.
Whether employees come to him to share ideas or receive their evaluations, Russell espouses the philosophy of listen first, talk second.
“In my career, I think what’s helped is listening to people,” he says. “That’s one of the key leadership aspects that has been important.”
But a listening ear is just the beginning. Russell also engages employees in conversations to explore all the facets of an issue and eventually land on the same page.
The time Russell spends listening to employees manifests in improvement all around — whether it’s their development, his growth as a leader or the overall sense of buy-in that comes from understanding each other’s perspectives.
“I very much rely on key talent around me to help me make good decisions,” Russell says. “If you don’t have people around you that you trust to give you advice that you can take, then you’re just a very limited leader.”
Give questions, not answers
The quickest way to get employees pointed toward your desired outcome is to simply tell them how to get there. But Russell has learned that the best way to rally his troops is to take the time to guide them toward the answer — not just hand it down as an edict.
“There is a cliché, old-school style of pound the fist on the desk and demand results and yell and scream,” he says. “It might get people to jump for a little while, but ultimately, it generates a lack of respect that, in the long run, doesn’t work toward good results.”
Like many others, Russell has reported to those leaders in the past. Before you even finish explaining the problem, they start spouting their solution.
A more motivating approach requires not just a patient ear but actually engaging in a two-sided dialogue. After you discuss their ideas, take time to explain your own.
“Listening is engaging people in the process,” says Russell, who takes the same disciplined approach when making family decisions at home.
Even if you don’t adopt employees’ ideas, you can still achieve agreement. Focus your efforts on bringing them on board with the direction you do take.
“It’s certainly easier just to say, ‘Well, I’m the boss. We’re going this way,’” Russell says. “Then they may not be fully engaged behind the idea.”
Employees want to be involved in the creation of a solution — even if it’s your solution, not theirs. To get their buy-in, give them questions instead of answers. Approach it like a gentle debate, presenting information and counterarguments to help them see a perspective other than their own.
Russell, who doesn’t like the connotations of conflict carried by the term “debate,” thinks of it more as a realization process.
“Obviously, turning back to them and saying, ‘OK, so what do you want to do about this?’ is a good thing to do,” Russell says. “[Ask,] ‘Have you thought about it this way?’ Bring up points that they may not have thought about.”
Of course, you won’t have to personally lead each employee to a revelation. While some of them are conditioned to present an issue and immediately ask for direction, others will offer their own suggestions without a nudge. In those cases, you’ll just serve as a sounding board while employees arrive at the solution unassisted.
Regardless of how involved you are as a guide, the sequence should always be the same: Listen first; talk second.
“Generally, I try and give people the opportunity to chime in [and] give their idea before I give mine,” Russell says. “You’re anxious to move on to other things but spend the time to listen to people. The biggest reason is it motivates them. It empowers them.”
Reflect on employees’ progress
Thanks to his busy schedule, Russell doesn’t have time to evaluate every employee’s performance on a daily or even per-project basis. But that doesn’t mean he neglects his employees’ development altogether when their personal development review comes around every year.
He does, however, rely on them to carry some of the weight. The process begins with their self-assessment. Russell asks employees to come to their review prepared with their own list of personal strengths and weaknesses. After they evaluate themselves, he steps in.
Instead of keeping track of an employee’s every high and low, Russell takes the time to review their big-picture strengths and weaknesses a few times a year. It’s sort of like throwing the spaghetti on the wall and seeing what major issues still stick after several months.
“It’s only when you sit back and you reflect that you highlight more high-level positives and negatives,” he says. “Sometimes you deep-dive into a project or a program and how somebody behaved or specific incidences that have occurred, but it’s just a reflection.”
Even though hindsight is 20/20, you can’t rely on memory alone to judge an employee. For example, plenty of performance-measuring data and feedback from others feed into Russell’s reflections. Engaging these other resources not only saves you from having to know everything about each employee, but it also provides a more complete assessment than you alone could.
“Tangible measurements are a good thing,” Russell says. “Unfortunately, not all businesses are set up to provide tangible measurements to all functional areas.”
“Some people you can hold directly accountable, especially if they’re running a business and you’re looking at profitability or customer satisfaction metrics,” he says. “But it’s the functional support areas that are a little bit tougher to get tangible measurements on.”
So when specific data is lacking, yo
u can make up for it by turning to the people around that employee for their input.
Throughout the year, their feedback comes informally as either complaints or kudos. But Russell also asks for it directly through 360-degree evaluations of directors, vice presidents and other managers. Colleagues above, below and beside those employees are asked to rate them on topics such as performance, customer focus, interest in developing others and teamwork skills.
“When the person who’s doing the assessment isn’t known — a discreet type of evaluation — you’ll get more honesty,” says Russell, who lets employees choose whether they want to leave their names on the online form.
Even if you’re not doing every aspect of the assessment yourself, the combination of cut-and-dry data, employees’ own observations and evaluations from co-workers will give you enough fodder for a conversation. Even meeting with your direct reports — and having them do the same with the employees under them — illustrates that the leadership cares about the development of its team members.
Don’t rush through reviews
Employees who walk into Russell’s office for their personal development review shouldn’t expect to stay at the receiving end of the table. Instead of rushing through the process, he uses their assessments as a quid pro quo opportunity, opening his ears to their criticisms so he can improve, too.
“That’s another one of those old-school approaches: a superior fills out an assessment, you go into a room for 15 minutes and the superior tells the employee what they did bad and good, and that’s the end of it,” Russell says. “It’s got to be much more than that. There’s got to be open dialogue, not just a one-way assessment.”
But it’s not as easy as simply asking them to evaluate you. Thanks to the innate hierarchy of corporations, you have to create an environment where they feel comfortable pointing out their boss’s flaws.
“Humbling yourself goes a long way,” he says. “People are typically nervous sitting across from a superior. When you let that person know that you don’t know it all, you’ll generate an openness.”
You can tell employees frankly that you welcome their feedback. Russell, for example, opens the meeting by saying the review is as much about their improvement as his own. But that won’t erase the apprehension if employees are scared to point out a superior’s weaknesses or prepared to only play defense and justify their job.
They’ll be more likely to follow your initiative than your invitation, so you have to set a pace that shows you’re receptive to criticism.
“One of the biggest things to do is get somebody to relax, because a review is worthless if they’re intimidated,” Russell says. “One thing that you can do is point out things that you know that you need improvement on yourself.”
When they hear you admit that you don’t know everything, they’ll see you as a leader who’s willing to learn and eager to improve. If you take the first crack at yourself, they won’t be as intimidated to offer their observations.
Russell reiterates to employees that he relies on their support because he rose through the organization so quickly, riding the wave of a series of acquisitions. Most recently, for example, he held the position of senior vice president of Armor Holding Inc.’s Ground Vehicle Survivability Division. So he had already proven himself capable of running a billion-dollar business by the time BAE acquired Armor in 2007.
Still, he realizes that the experiences and observations of his employees can make him an even better leader as the company grows. Taking the time to hear employees’ praises and criticisms is a small price for the payoff: the opportunity to improve yourself and your leadership style.
“I just may not have as much experience as somebody else who’s been doing this for a lot longer,” Russell says. “I would be foolish not to take the advice of a bunch of smart people around me.”
How to reach: Security & Survivability, BAE Systems, (513) 881-9800, (800) 697-0307 or www.baesystems.com/sss
Terry Horne had a why. He just needed a how.
He knew newspapers had to change because of the trends he’d watched during his 30-plus years in the industry. He saw Internet competition creep up, combating newspapers’ recruitment advertising revenue with free job listing sites like Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com.
So when Horne stepped in as president of Orange County Register Communications Inc. in September 2007, he’d already been touting his case for several years. He called his presentation The Perfect Storm. At industry gatherings, he repeated the message that newspapers must diversify because of Internet innovation and changing readership patterns.
In his new position, which included the role of publisher for the Orange County Register newspaper, he introduced himself with that presentation. He adapted it to the Register with local data that showed classified revenue and audience levels spiraling downward while advertising prices scaled up.
He shared his vision of the Register — like any newspaper that would be successful in the future — becoming a multimedia corporation, stretching its Internet base as it diversified advertisers.
“When you’re expecting an organization to change, you have to create a vision of what it looks like when the change is complete,” Horne says. “You’ve got to create a vision of what happens if the change doesn’t happen.”
He was blunt about the alternative, using the worst-case scenario to motivate employees.
“You have to say there will be [companies] that go out of business,” he says. “My commitment is that this change is definitely going to happen because it has to happen. You have to express confidence that you know what needs to be done in big, broad brushstrokes — maybe not specifically —because they’re in a better position to know that.”
So Horne’s missing piece was his base of about 1,300 employees. He knew the industry had to make changes, but he turned to them for the details, like how the company would fulfill that broad vision and what changes would take it there.
“Most people that make big changes in businesses that are effective are not coming in [saying], ‘I’ve got answers. You guys go do them,’” says Horne, whose company saw estimated 2008 revenue of $245 million. “They’re saying, ‘We need answers. You help me find the answers,’ and then you help make them reality.”Bring employees up to speed
Horne spent his early days at the Register explaining the problems they faced and, very broadly, what the solution might look like. He says that debriefing must be transparent. You can’t steer away from bad news; it can remind employees why change is so crucial.
“It’s a little easier to create change when people are clearly aware that a lot of bad things are going on,” Horne says. “It’s harder to do change when a business is pretty successful and you’re anticipating difficult times so you’re trying to pre-empt it. It takes really strong communication and transparency to create urgency in people, because change happens from urgency.”
For example, when Robinsons-May department stores merged with Macy’s, Horne explained to employees that meant a $3 million advertising loss for the Register.
When you deliver bad news, articulate which factors are out of your control. Then turn your message to the things you can control, encouraging employees to tackle those instead.
Horne used the Macy’s merger to illustrate why the company couldn’t depend solely on large customers. He took the chance to remind employees that one of their goals was diversifying by broadening their advertiser base.
You can keep these sessions from becoming overwhelmingly negative by motivating employees. For Horne, that meant giving them the power to find and implement solutions.
“Rather than an executive team sitting in a room handing down edicts, we decided to communicate with people and help them understand why change was necessary and that, in fact, they were going to have to help lead the change,” Horne says. “They were going to have to help determine what the change was specifically, and they were going to have to implement it.”
By telling employees that they will be responsible for the change, you stir passion that you’d lose if you forced them to follow your mandate. Involving them in the creation of the plan gives them a stake in the company’s success.
“You should make sure your associates know what’s going on with the core business and why we are making changes,” says Horne, who sees failure to do so as the root of most job dissatisfaction. “The best way to do that is to have a continuing dialogue and involve them in solving the business problems.”
That approach also eliminates the step of securing buy-in from everyone. When employees create the plan, they’re already committed to it.
“When it’s time to implement, you have a bunch of willing followers — in fact, you have a whole lot of leaders — within the organization forcing the change, as opposed to a handful of managers trying to force the change,” he says.Charge teams with change
Horne created eight “transformation teams” to take responsibility for the change. He looked for peer-respected opinion leaders from every area of the business — sales, marketing, finance, etc. First, he considered candidates who had contributed to changes and special projects in the past. It’s also good to include several managers who visibly lead decision-making, although they won’t necessarily head these groups.
Above all else, attitude is a key factor in identifying change leaders. You shouldn’t have to convince people; just go after the ones who express willingness to participate in the organization’s success.
Even though you’ve worked to bring everyone into the same change-driven mindset, these cross-functional teams require additional training. These “boot camps,” as Horne calls them, should reiterate the urgency and teach the groups what to change and how.
Horne brought about 50 or 60 people into each of three two-day boot camps. Although this is the third time he’s been brought into a company to lead a change like this, he still relies on a hired consultant for this training.
Open the camp with a definition of how you’ll view the coming change to get everyone on the same page.
“We view it as a gateway to innovation and something with phenomenal upside potential, rather than focusing on the potential downsides and simply sticking to what we know,” Horne says.
Although optimism is key, you have to be honest about the problems. Keep reminding the groups why change is necessary, providing data as proof.
“Part of our shift is about understanding the realities,” Horne says. “Delivering news and information is a business just as much as it is a community service. And as a business, we have to make money. If we don’t, we have to rethink any cost-draining processes or products.”Empower employees to change
By including employees from all departments on each team, you already have eyes looking at each issue from all sides. But you need to equip them to ask the right questions to identify breakdowns and improve efficiency.
“Every decision we make is about providing more value to our customers,” Horne says. “If weȁ 9;re not producing products that are cheaper, better and faster than anyone else, we will not remain relevant. Our associates have to ask themselves one simple question in everything they do: Is it growing audience or revenue? And if not, it’s time to stop doing it. It’s that simple.”
If employees uncover a process that meets those criteria, Horne trains them to ask whether it can be done cheaper, better or faster by partnering or outsourcing.
Give the teams additional frameworks for each issue you charge them to examine. Put their task in context of what you expect the outcome to look like and what types of solutions are acceptable.
“I tell them what I want from an outcome, either from audience or revenue or expense, and then I tell them what they can and can’t do,” Horne says. “For example, if I’m telling a revenue group to grow revenue any way you can, [I’d say], ‘Come up with $1 million a month in new revenue next year.’ I might say, ‘But you can’t open a Starbucks drive-through. You can’t go out and do something that’s totally outside of our core competencies. But you can invest money in a product that serves our customer base better.’”
Then step back and let the teams do what you trained them to do.
When teams present their proposed solutions to Horne, they have to verify that it meets each facet of the framework he gave them — for example, the team would include research that shows how its plan would bring $1 million in revenue every month. The team should also figure the cost of implementation.
There may be some back and forth as you ask for additional details or rethinking. But once you give approval, send the plan back to the team for implementation.
“That’s why I don’t allow them to be called committees — committees talk about it and recommend, and somebody else implements,” Horne says. “These are teams that solve the issue and implement the issue.”Communicate progress
Your effort to involve certain employees in change teams can multiply across the rest of the organization. Group members can serve as missionaries, passing their passion to other employees. But for that to take root, you have to communicate transparently.
“We can reiterate a sense of urgency to meet financial goals, but it requires more than that to achieve a change-driven mindset across the organization,” Horne says. “In the face of adversity, we’ve improved interactions with one another to help reach a collective goal.”
Horne holds five town-hall meetings every month or two to keep the company updated on the progress of the transformation teams. Encourage the teams to do their own presentations so employees can hear success stories straight from their peers. You can also use those settings as a stage to reward players who have been pivotal to the plan’s success.
Solidify their testimonies with hard facts, sharing financial information to show effects objectively. For example, one change the teams instigated was a redesign of the Register’s Web site that lets readers customize their content. While print readership stayed flat this year with the previous year, the number of unique online users increased 92 percent.
In 2008, the teams helped Orange County Register Communications Inc. reduce expenses by $22 million, and the company is tracking to meet its goal of eliminating another $40 million this year. The company achieved operating profit margin every month for the first half of 2009, exceeding their six-month profit goal by 25 percent.
As other employees hear accounts of change transpiring, more of them will buy in.
“When actual change happens, people see they’re empowered because they see they’re doing it, not me,” Horne says. “People begin to believe that real change is happening when it’s coming from within the organization as opposed to coming from the CEO.”
To totally drive the change, you should also take the message outside to customers. Regardless of the audience, Horne says he’s trying to send the same message about why the company does what it does and why it is changing what it does.
For each group, you should focus on how the changes affect that group specifically, rather than bogging all groups down with unnecessary details. Show employees how the company will be more effective and poised for growth, and provide evidence of that along the way. For the end users, explain the changes they’ll see in products and why those are occurring.
“Talking directly to customers is still the most effective way to communicate, and I’m very comfortable doing that,” says Horne, who holds open houses for advertisers and readers to explain changes and answer questions. “If you’re doing things to customers that you don’t feel comfortable enough to stand in front of them and talk about, you might be doing the wrong things.”
Just like your cross-functional teams can be ambassadors to other employees, educated customers can carry your message further than you alone could. But for the message to take hold, you must consistently provide proof of your success.
“[Change] doesn’t happen with the flip of a switch,” Horne says. “It’s definitely not a matter of just talking differently. It’s a matter of walking the talk, doing business differently.”
How to reach: Orange County Register Communications Inc., (877) 469-7344 or www.ocregister.com
Roger Weiss once dropped from the ceiling of his office dressed in full combat gear. The president and chief operating officer of CACi understands the stress his 320 employees endure, and he does what he can to break the tension with unexpected silliness every once in awhile.
As debt collectors, some of their pressure comes from flawed public perceptions of being cruel and overdemanding. To combat the false stereotypes, CACi became the first Missouri agency to sign a trade association’s Collector’s Pledge. The agreement promises to treat clients with dignity, respect and understanding — principles that Weiss and Chief Financial Officer Shawn Farris have been enforcing since they bought the company.
“Flip the boat upside-down and start with a clean slate,” says Weiss, whose company reported 2008 revenue of $12.3 million. “Realize change in one area typically catalyzes change in most areas.”
Smart Business spoke with Weiss about battling negative stereotypes and rewriting public perception of your company.
Nip negative perceptions in the bud. The keys to combating negative stereotypes are to realize that they exist [and] realize what they are. Do a self-assessment to see if any truly apply.
You have to step outside yourself. Take a look around at the culture and at the front-line employees and observe: Do I see any of the characteristics of the stereotypes being emulated? I have to do a paradigm shift and look at things from the perspective of a consumer and say, ‘How would this affect me? How would I react to it?’
By wanting to eliminate those negative characteristics, you have to know what you want to replace it with. Identify the perception that you would like to have associated with you; build your practices around the positive perception.
As an example, one of the negative stereotypes is, ‘A debt collector is overdemanding.’ To me, overdemanding means they don’t care about a person’s personal situation or finances. What we coach our collectors to do is use empathy and put yourself in the consumer’s shoes. It helps reduce the characteristic of being overdemanding, and it replaces it with the characteristic of empathy.
You’ve got to take (stereotypes) head on. You have to say, ‘What am I going to do to eliminate this?’ each and every time.
Get employees on board. Know the road that you want to travel and commit to traveling it. Make sure it’s clearly communicated in simple statements to the staff: ‘This is the road that we’re going to take. You’re either on this road with us or you’re not on the road.’ We show them the benefits of why we do something in a particular manner and how doing it differently might damage a process or lead to a broader failure.
If you keep trying to pull people on to that road, they’re going to keep fighting you and they’re going to spawn some other bad seeds. You’ve either got to get them on your team or get them off your team. There’s no middle of the road.
We always start with taking the approach of maybe they don’t understand. So we’re always going to pull them to the side; we’re always going to have an informal conversation. We’ll ask people, ‘So this change is coming up. What are your thoughts? What ideas do you have?’
And after that, then we ask them to occasionally summarize: ‘I want to make sure that people understand what we’re doing here. Can you tell me how you understand it?’ We make it as informal as possible.
We’re going to tell them, ‘Here’s the reality of the situation, and here’s the correction action we anticipate you taking.’ In an informal conversation, it’s obviously a whole lot softer than that.
If that doesn’t work, we’ll have a formal conversation. If that doesn’t work, we may have to take disciplinary actions.
Investigate employees’ perceptions. Identify key peer leaders, meaning someone not in supervision and not in management. They’re going to be the ones who are driving the weekend plans in the group of friends or the ones who are driving where they’re going to go for lunch or even who’s going to take the lead at their break time to get up to go on break. They’re the ones that tend to be more outspoken.
You’ve got to make them an ally — not a spy but an ally. I will pull someone in and bring up the change. And then I will stroke that person’s ego a little bit. I tell them, ‘Hey, I know that people really look up to you a lot, as do I. I would really like your input on how we’re going about this. How are people perceiving it?’
It’s not always pretty, but it’s honest, and that’s what’s needed. We don’t just take one person’s word for it, because most people have personal agendas to advance. So we’ll get a sampling from various departments or various peer groups and see what information tends to be across the board.
Communicate transparently to clients. In order to have a clear, consistent and simple message, you have to be pretty much an open book. If you have hidden agendas or hidden information, there could be a disconnect in the understanding of what your sense of mission is. If you have a mission that is beneficial for all parties involved, you want to make sure that mission is shared uniformly with everyone.
It’s part of our responsibility to make sure they understand what we’re doing on this end. The best way we can do that is to communicate it to them and then to let them come in and listen to phone calls or come into our system and monitor and audit [their] accounts to see that we are actually doing what we’re saying we’re going to be doing.
Perception, like trust and respect, is earned through actions. Simply telling the public one thing and having never backed it up does nothing to modify the perception. <<
How to reach: CACi, (800) 777-7971 or www.cacionline.net
Manu Shah doesn’t measure success in a vacuum. When it comes to setting and achieving goals, he believes that comparison fuels improvement. So he uses competitors as benchmarks and even encourages employees to stack themselves against each other.
“We try to look at our competition, and then we can tell pretty much whether we are growing or whether we are not growing,” says Shah, who founded M S International Inc. after he emigrated from Bombay, India.
That quest for superiority fuels Shah’s goal-setting. He sets targets that push his 400 employees to improve, driving growth for the natural stone distributor.
Educated as a mechanical engineer, the chairman and CEO is understandably meticulous about those goals — not only in setting them but also in measuring progress along the way. For example, he gives his employees access to a slew of statistics — measuring MSI’s gross profit margin on more than a dozen different scales and a handful of various timelines — so they can monitor their own progress.
By empowering employees to adapt the company’s long-term goals, Shah taps into their potential.
“Employees are the most important assets you have as a corporation,” he says. “It’s up to the management to use the assets the best possible way.”
He maximizes that asset by involving employees in goal setting, which he says is one of the most important priorities of a CEO.
So by using one to achieve the other, Shah makes the most of both — and unlocks his secret to success.
Find adaptable people
If you’re going to trust employees to break down a broad goal, you need to start with the right kind of people. Shah looks for adaptable employees who will be able to make adjustments as they track their progress toward a goal.
“Because the world is changing so fast, we wanted to make sure that the people we hire are adaptable to the changes and they don’t mind multitasking,” he says. “If you have adaptable people, you can adapt them to the changes much faster.”
Look for signs in candidates’ backgrounds that suggest they’ve had to adapt before: transferring colleges, relocating for jobs, being promoted to a new position at the same company or simply switching jobs.
During the employee’s first three months, Shah keeps a close watch to determine their strengths and reveal their weaknesses.
“When an employee’s new to the company, most people don’t realize that that’s the time they are ready to adapt to the company’s core culture and make whatever changes are necessary,” says Shah, who uses the three-month evaluation to ask employees to work on one or two weaknesses. “If you don’t pay attention to the first three months, a lot of things get set in their mind, and then it becomes more difficult to change what they’re doing.”
During that first evaluation, Shah also listens to employees’ self-assessed strengths. If those aren’t being tapped, he may give them additional tasks to test their aptitude in other departments. You know they’re in the right spot when they stop requiring much help and instead start encouraging other employees in their tasks.
“Every musical instrument vibrates at the natural frequency and produces beautiful sound. You don’t need much energy when somebody dances at natural frequency,” says Shah, borrowing from his mechanical engineering terminology. “It becomes the source of energy. So similarly, rather than consuming energy, [employees] become a source of energy to other employees.”
Once they’re in place, Shah teams employees up by specialties: sales teams, which are generally geographically based; product teams, which are determined by end use, such as countertops or landscape; or service teams, which are divided into functionalities like accounting or shipping. Each is decked with a fancy name — like Topaz Team, Emerald Team or Sapphire Team — to give employees a sense of ownership when they talk about their team.
Shah designates a leader in each team. To find your top players, go back to the initial hiring criteria of adaptability and multitasking. Shah examines how they’ve performed so far, looking beyond execution to examine how well they’ve adjusted to new product lines or new customers.
Shah does consider the chemistry of the people he puts together, but the team’s needs trump personality types. He relies on their adaptability to make up for it. Beyond that, the common goal glues each team together.
“Most teams work together much better if there is a bigger enemy, and that bigger enemy is the goal,” Shah says. “By working together, we will meet that challenge.”
Lay outlines for goals
Before you can empower employees to reach a target, you need to meticulously define each goal.
Shah’s goal for MSI never really changes. He always wants to outdo — or at least contend with — the biggest competitors in any given realm. And by defining that realm, he clarifies the overarching aim.
“We like to have the goals be something we can measure in a small geographic area or small product line,” Shah says. “Twenty years ago, we said our region was California and our business was monuments. When we become a little bigger, we find out that now, not California, but we want to be national in monuments. Then you say national in granite. Then you can say national in slate.”
“So our goals, our definable measure, kept expanding,” he says. “But in each case, we had a very clear goal that we should be the No. 1, 2 or 3 player within that goal, within that region or territory, or that product line.”
Because competitors don’t just hand over their information — and conducting your own research can be unreliable — Shah also uses easily accessible national data, like import statistics, to broadly set his goals. He relies on industry standards, such as average revenue generated per employee and average sales per square foot of material, to estimate competitors’ financials.
By giving employees the role of gathering this data, you automatically involve them in the goal-setting process. Using the data they gather, helps them set the end goal by defining specifics, like the timeline.
“The definable goal should be achievable within six months to three years,” Shah says. “The company doesn’t change in less than six months. If you say, ‘Next month I want to double your sales,’ it’s just not going to happen. It’s better to set goals which are measurable but achievable.”
In addition to the timeline, Shah defines goals in a range. For example, import goals are set between the third-place importer’s numbers and at least half of the top competitor’s imports.
“It’s always a range. We don’t set up fixed criteria,” he says. “We say we should, in the first three months, import five to 10 truckloads. Then we bring up what is the best another importer is doing.”
But breaking those broad goals down into steps — that’s up to the employees.
Teach employees how to fish
Don’t just tell employees how to reach a goal; give them tools to figure it out themselves.
Shah’s goal-setting meetings with team leaders go beyond recaps of what the data revealed and where the targets are. He asks them to plan how they’ll achieve that goal, from breaking it into monthly targets to requesting the manpower and equipment they’ll need.
“Don’t just solve the problem; create people who can solve the problem,” Shah says. “Give them tools to solve the problem. Teach them how to use those tools and show how those tools can help solve one or two difficult problems.”
As the adage goes, it’s the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him to fish. So, for example, Shah doesn’t break the main goal into quarterly objectives. He gives employees access to their performance measurements, empowering them to make adjustments by seeing how far off they are — and where everyone else is.
“We never give individual sales goals to a salesperson. … We set the goals by measuring and comparing with others,” Shah says. “The best solution is a tool in which they can compare with somebody else. Then it becomes a yardstick from which they can measure. Let them be judged with the data they can see.”
These performance metrics should be available to everyone on your intranet or some other accessible medium. And they should measure as many things in as many ways on as many timelines as possible.
“We measure everything by every different way, and we allow everybody to see it,” Shah says. “We measure sales and gross profit margin by individual item, by product line, by warehouse, by salesperson, by team, by branch, by customer, by channel of distribution, by region, by state, by ZIP code, by vendor, by country of import, all of that.”
Employees should be able to see these stats in context, so provide trends across the last week, month, quarter and year. It’s also important that the data is updated in real time so employees can continuously track their progress and monitor how much slack they have to pick up.
“We don’t believe in annual or quarterly goals but rather long-term goals, missions and making real-time changes to achieve those missions,” he says. “We believe that having annual or quarterly goals means we are taking too long to assess what changes need to be made. Changes should be made in real time: weekly, monthly, quarterly.”
Giving employees the power to make those adjustments increases productivity all around.
“We let people compare with other teams how much other people are shipping per employee,” Shah says. “And pretty soon, those who were ahead were feeling proud and wanted to stay ahead. Those who were behind want to see what they can do to [improve].”
That’s where you should step in, guiding employees to self-improvement while trying to dodge the jealousy this kind of comparison can foster. Shah works one-on-one with employees to reveal personal growth opportunities, but mostly, he relies on the incentive system to curb competition.
“That’s the risk we are taking,” he says regarding jealousy. “The power we get by letting people make their own decision is too powerful for the occasional bad apple we may lose.”
Reward employees’ initiative
Complete the process by rewarding employees who meet their goals. That means striking a balance to recognize individual achievement while fostering the teamwork that makes it possible.
Shah breaks his bonus plan into individual results — which determine the largest percentage of the incentive — as well as team and companywide results. That way, bonuses are pretty consistent across the board. But the weighted system still motivates employees to improve.
“Any plan should have a component where everybody wins when one area or product or team wins,” Shah says. “So if they lost sales but another team got it, they still win. Not as much as if they got their own, but they still get it.”
Companywide rewards ingrain a mindset of teamwork in employees. It will help them think of success in terms of the company rather than just themselves. But the comparison piece also lets them see what role they play in that.
“Plans should have a component in which individual performance, team performance and company performance are measured and visible,” Shah says. “I can see what I did, what my team did, what the company did.”
While results drive the bulk of employees’ rewards, Shah also looks a layer deeper by conducting 360-degree reviews for everyone. Have people who work with, under and above each employee evaluate that employee’s performance. Shah divides the review into 15 categories, from oral skills to market knowledge to planning and organization.
Shah makes those reviews available on the intranet, as well, where ratings are compared against groups and the entire company.
This transparency and comparison encourages employees to look beyond themselves and consider how they can make the company successful.
“Before we do any firing, we really encourage them to change, and change based on the numbers, based on visibility and transparency,” Shah says. “We are not asking him to change because we think he could have done better. We are asking him to change [by saying], ‘Look what other people have done.’”
By motivating employees to meet goals through empowerment and rewards, Shah fuels his company to keep growing.
“It took the first year to reach $1 million. Another 10 years to reach $10 million. Another 10 years to reach $100 million in revenue,” says Shah, whose company has grown for 14 years and reported 2008 revenue of $261 million. “And we are on the way to some day becoming a billion-dollar company. We are still growing.”
How to reach: M S International Inc, (714) 685-7500 or www.msistone.com
When Gary Marowske bought back FLAME Heating, Cooling & Electrical, it was not the same company he left two years earlier.
In 1998, a utility company bought the company, founded by Marowske’s father, Robert. The purchase was part of a roll-up of three HVAC contractors.
But the new owners didn’t prune the three cultures.
“They just let everybody do what they wanted to do,” says Marowske, who was let go along with his father. “[When] I bought the company back, we still had three different cultures.”
So he reclaimed control to get the 60 employees back on the same page with a clear set of core values, which included traits like integrity, professionalism, safety and compassion.
“One of the first things you have to do is get everybody on the same bus,” says Marowske, now president of the company, which reported 2008 revenue of $9.3 million.
Smart Business spoke with Marowske about bringing your employees together under a consistent culture.
Articulate your values. [Your company values] depend on what the leader’s values are, because the leader’s values end up being the corporate values. If the leader doesn’t believe in them, he’s not going to live them.
Every leader of an organization has some kind of vision, whether it’s written down or in their head, as to where they want it to go and what they want it to look like. When they walk in their office in the morning, how do they want the surroundings to be? How do they want their customers to be treated? You can work from there.
It just starts with attitude from the top, setting examples and communicating with people, ‘Here’s what it’s going to be.’ The people at the top have to believe in them. If they got all these things and the owner comes in, says, ‘We want to do it this way, but I don’t really need to because I’m the boss,’ that’ll never work. That top person has to set an example, and he’s got to be unwavering in doing the right thing.
Live what you preach. We have a whole-company meeting every other month where everybody comes in and we give them a state of union. When we handed these core values out, we changed the way we do things. We bought a flag and we do the Pledge of Allegiance. When we started doing that, it really changed the tone of the way we’ve done our meetings.
We had little business-card-sized things, one side’s got our core values and the other side’s got our vision and mission and they’re laminated. And we’ve got big posters in key areas of our business. And then whenever we have a gathering of four or more of our employees, somebody reads the vision and the mission statement.
The more you share with the employees, the more you post it around your office or you communicate it and have it on whatever you’re doing, the better off you are.
You communicate those and you just start living them. You just have to act in your beliefs.
We were debating whether we should require our technicians to have a certain tool. We sat there and we looked at our core values. Does this it make us professional? Yeah. It shows we have integrity in the way we’re going to check and do service in our customers homes so we’re not just guessing. It increased safety. It made us a leader in the industry. It could make us more responsive.
So we take a look at each of the core values and say, ‘How does it match up? Does it help us?’ And that’s how we made a decision.
Squelch rumors that contradict your values. It took a long time with department meetings before they went from just being a gripe session to being productive, and people realized that management wasn’t the enemy. [It takes] constant communication.
You have to say, ‘Now, here’s the truth. Here’s what we’re doing.’ And then you have to make sure to set the example and ensure because some are still skeptical: ‘Yeah, they say they’re going to do this. They’re not going to do it.’ You have to make sure that the pendulum swings way over so everybody understands what you’re doing and that it’s going to happen.
We’ve divided our whole company into four teams without any managers. Every Wednesday, a different team meets with one person in charge of training. They just have an open discussion. Sometimes maybe somebody heard something and rumors get started. It’s a great way to squelch any rumors and get right down to the truth.
Get rid of skeptics. There’s a part in the movie, Patton, where the troops are all backed up and aircraft are coming down striking them with bullets. Patton’s in the back of his jeep and he says, ‘What’s the problem here?’ He drives up to the front, and there’s a gypsy with a mule blocking the bridge. They’re trying to coax the mule out of the way and all of a sudden he just pulls his pistols out, shoots the mule, and they push it over the bridge. All of a sudden, everything’s moving.
Sometimes you get that one person that doesn’t want to change and it causes you more problems. You need to shoot the mule. It also sets an example, too. The people say, ‘This really is going to happen. They really are serious about it.’
After a while, other people come and tell you, ‘So-and-so’s really not pulling their weight.’ They’re fine in the meeting, and then you hear later they’re out in the parking lot griping about everybody.
We had to shoot a couple mules. They just didn’t want to go with the flow. Finally I just walked in one day and I said, ‘You’re not part of the team. It’s time we parted ways.’
The problem is, you’ll never know [if they’d eventually buy in]. You can’t second-guess your judgments all the time.
The sooner you do it, the better. Everybody else knows who they are, and every day you wait, they lose more respect for you for not doing it.
How to reach: FLAME Heating, Cooling & Electrical, (888) 234-2340 or www.flamefurnace.com
Mark Sneider has been watching competitors expand in an attempt to combat the down economy. They’re offering discounts and looking beyond their core markets for business.
But Sneider knows he doesn’t have to do anything new to succeed. Instead, he zooms in on best practices his employees have been using all along.
“It’s all about staying true to approaches that have been effective and adopting new approaches that we know have been effective for others,” says the founder, owner and president of RSW/US and its sister company, Lead Architects. “It’s staying true to your core. The last thing you want to do is look scattered, not focused and not value-added.”
Sneider encourages employees — nearly 20 between the two lead generation and business development consultancies — to share their best practices to add value to the company. That approach has led RSW/US to double-digit growth since its 2005 inception.
Smart Business spoke to Sneider about instilling a value-added mindset in your employees and encouraging them to learn from each other.
Establish a value-added mindset. When new employees start, I tell them there’s one thing that they need to remember, and that one thing is adding value. Tell your people to constantly add value to your existing client base. Add value when we reach out to prospects, and then the last value-added dimension manifests itself internally — let’s think about ways we can add value to our own organization by finding new ways to improve processes.
Adding value is a hard thing to do because it’s easy just to take the staid and set course of action. The hard thing to do is to take the step back and think about what extra step can I take to improve this situation.
It’s really just showcasing the variety of ways beyond the expected that you can bring value. I tell prospects that we don’t like to think of ourselves as just a lead generation firm. By positioning ourselves that way and talking about all the other things that we can do, that’s how we set ourselves apart.
Showcase and share best practices. Get your salespeople to think about ways that they can add value to the prospects’ world. It could be things as simple as find an interesting article and push it out to that prospect. If they happen to click through to that article, use that as the mechanism to then circle back with that prospect and try and engage with them. It’s giving them a reason why they should sit down with you. It’s fairly 101ish kind of stuff, but people forget about it when they’re in desperate straights. Learn what their needs are, and then showcase how the solutions that we’ve provided for our clients parallel their situation.
You’re going to have salespeople that just follow the predictable course of action. And then you’re going to have some salespeople who are constantly adding value — they’re probably selling more than anybody else. Let’s find out what they’re doing and how they’re talking about it. It’s getting them together to brainstorm, to speak to all of the things they do for their clients. The salespeople need to be talking about those other things. Then draw those that we think present the greatest value and package them to help others figure out how to talk about them.
One of our good performers … put together a whole PowerPoint presentation and presented her ideas to the organization. The organization knows that she’s one of the star performers, and they know that the benefit to them in mirroring some of those approaches is going to be of value to them in their own selling efforts.
It’s easy to say they shouldn’t feel threatened or like less of a salesperson because of it. The key is getting a peer to make those presentations versus having management push those things down.
There was some collaboration between this woman before she made this presentation and myself, making sure that she was sending messages consistent with the messages that I wanted to be sending to the rest of the organization.
Mandate practices to get results. Then make sure that we’re following through on those things, whether it be managers managing these salespeople or weekly status meetings talking about what’s going on, how programs are going — as long as they know that the intent is not to single out and punish but to get them to a better place. So I think a lot of it has to do with how it’s positioned, and it’s got to start at the top.
If you’ve got some butthead running the organization who focuses more on mistakes and doesn’t applaud successes, then that’s going to be a tough thing to effectively move forward to an organization. So if you recognize you’re the butthead, maybe you have other people kind of manage that through the process and follow through on it, people that are a little bit more forgiving.
You have to be able to show results, certainly. Like in our case, [employees] clearly see the success that this person has achieved as a result of the work that they’re doing. Some of it has to be forced upon [others] in order for them to see results. So there are certain things you just have to mandate and make sure that they’re following through on.
Every quarter, we set specific objectives for the team as a whole. It’s just going back and reviewing those objectives, making sure that what we’re doing is helping us achieve them, having open dialogue about the things that they’re doing, the tools that they’re using.
It’s communicating that there’s some basic requirements that have to be set up upfront, that, ‘These things have to be done this way in order for this organization to move ahead. We have data points that suggest if it’s followed through on the way we’re suggesting you follow through on it, here’s what it can do for you. You can sell more. You can get more commission. You can have happier clients.’
How to reach: RSW/US, (513) 559-3101 or www.rswus.com
Everyone around George Vincent is cutting back. And that’s reason enough for him to do the exact opposite, because he can pick up their losses to fuel his growth.
“In a tough economy, it’s easy to cut expenses,” says Vincent, the managing partner and chairman of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP. “But you can never cut your way to prosperity. At some point, you’ve got to continue to add high-quality people.”
In 2008 alone, the law firm welcomed 91 new lawyers, bringing the total employee count to nearly 800. Many of the new employees came from downsizing firms. Vincent says they’re attracted to a firm that strives to grow while others hunker down. And he, of course, is attracted to talented employees who can bolster his firm against the dwindling competition and position it to be stronger when the upturn comes.
“A lot of firms were not looking to grow last year,” says Vincent, whose firm reported 2008 revenue of $133.3 million. “There were a lot of unique opportunities because of the economy that allowed us to grow.”
Vincent’s plan for growth is twofold: strengthening the firm’s presence in the 10 regions it currently serves and expanding geographically beyond those. But it all starts with finding the right employees and integrating them smoothly into the firm.
“No matter what the economy looks like, on a relative basis, high-quality people will outperform,” he says.
Hire for future growth
When you hire, you’re adding new employees today with the hope they’ll contribute to growth tomorrow. To make that transition smooth, measure them on both aspects to see how they’ll fit your company now and in the future.
First, consider how candidates will mesh with your current focus and culture.
“You want to have people who are compatible with the rest of the folks here,” says Vincent, who tries to detect a sense of humor in addition to the obvious requirements — legal skills and integrity. “If you don’t have a sense of humor, the day’s awful long and it’s hard to interact with folks.”
When Vincent hires new lawyers, it’s not as simple as adding another body to the ranks. In most cases, new hires come with specialized practice areas and existing clients in tow, so he’s not just evaluating individuals. It’s more like vetting tiny self-contained businesses.
Similarly, you have to compare candidates’ strengths with your company’s core. Vincent stacks their expertise against his firm’s existing practices and also considers requests for additional services that clients have made. If you can match an incoming supply of employees with existing client demand, your growth is automatically tied to future customer satisfaction.
That takes you to the second half of the vetting process, in which you look at the candidate in relation to your company’s future.
“You want to bring in people who you think will succeed longer term, who will be able to utilize our platform to expand their practices and will be able to ideally use other services that we can provide that their [previous] firm didn’t provide,” Vincent says.
It’s important that employees care about improving their own careers. To get a glimpse of their personal drive, just ask where they see themselves in 20 years.
“You can’t predict the future,” Vincent says. “But you’ve got to decide whether the people you’re talking to have the drive and the passion to succeed and to take their practice further than it’s previously gone.”
If a candidate has a vision to grow and succeed, he or she will feed your company’s vision to do the same. But you need to make an effort to tie the two together from the very beginning. Explain your firm’s outlook so you can see how the candidate matches up.
“Let’s talk about your vision for your practice,” Vincent tells candidates. “How can we make 2+2=5? How can we be accretive to each other?”
Finding employees who fit your company would be wasted time if you didn’t then integrate them into it.
“Integration of new folks is the hardest task that a firm faces,” Vincent says. “You can explain things many, many times. But until folks actually join, they can’t understand how we do things.”
So about 10 years ago, to further instill the firm’s expectations, Vincent started a leadership academy with a yearlong program for new employees as well as other courses geared toward preparing associates for partnership. The academy covers technical skills as well as practical skills like relating to people.
“A lot of folks don’t really understand what it takes to succeed,” Vincent says. “Some folks are lucky and can do it almost intuitively. Other folks, you’ve almost got to say, ‘Here’s what it takes. Here are the things you have to do. Here are the things you’ve got to start thinking about now.’”
Any orientation should start with broad explanations of your firm’s core beliefs. At Dinsmore & Shohl, one of those overriding principles is client service. New employees are inundated with the repetition of how important it is.
“You have to have a handful of overriding principles that you enunciate over and over again so everybody understands, ‘OK, here’s what the vision, the philosophy, of the firm is. Let’s try and manage our work against those philosophies and against that vision,’” Vincent says.
As you continue to drive those principles in, you should also break them down into actionable examples for employees to practice. Define what each one actually means.
“You try and instill in folks, ‘It’s a service business. You’ve got to deliver the service to get the business,’” Vincent says. “What does that mean? You enunciate the principles: ‘Return a call the day you get it. Empathize. Understand the client.’”
Zoom in on those details, but you should always keep them within the context of the big picture.
“It’s keeping your focus on … the core beliefs of the firm and making sure that that continues to be enunciated,” Vincent says. “It’s easy to become diffused, but let’s come back to the core values and let’s maintain that focus.”
Repetition alone won’t make the vision sink in, even as you explain it in details and definitions. You need to personalize the message, showing employees examples of those concepts in action.
Vincent starts by giving employees self-assessments to help them realize their strengths. Then they know what tools they’re best suited to use when they begin practicing the principles.
“You tell folks that you have to utilize your strengths and maximize those strengths because everybody approaches people in a different way,” he says. “What works for you may not work for me, and vice versa. So it’s really knowing who you are, what strengths you bring to the table and how you can deliver those strengths to somebody.”
The next step is showing a path to success by letting new hires observe employees who use a variety of approaches to put the principles in action. You want employees to see that whether they are out entertaining clients or just researching intensely — or anything in between — there are others like them in the firm who have been successful.
Vincent assigns new employees to mentors based on similar traits, interests and even backgrounds, such as where they went to school. But finding a perfect personality match isn’t crucial, because the mentorships are revolving rather than long term.
“We try and make sure that the associates are not assigned to just one partner, that they’re interacting with multiple partners and seeing different ways to do the same thing,” Vincent says. “The message is, ‘Look at what other people are doing. Take the things that work and understand the things that don’t work so well.’”
The goal is to show employees that underneath the umbrella of core principles, they do have several options to exercise their freedom. Once they see there’s not a right or wrong way to do things, you begin empowering them to take their career into their own hands.
“You’ve got to get people to think outside of the moment,” Vincent says. “A lot of folks don’t think that way. You’ve got to help them to see, ‘I’m not just an employee. I’m building a career that’s going to pay dividends, not just for the firm but for me, as well.’ You want people to personalize the success of the firm.”
Letting them observe other employees’ personal successes will encourage that mindset.
Vincent has already seen the benefits of the leadership academy as new employees develop more consistent perceptions of his expectations.
“It helps people to understand expectations in a much more concrete way, as opposed to having someone in the office take you aside and say, ‘You need to be doing the following three things,’” he says. “People hear a common message from different people, which is a good thing.”
Check employees’ integration progress
After employees exit the leadership academy, you still have to keep following up with them to make sure they stay aligned with the vision. That’s partially done by continuing to repeat your core beliefs.
“You can never communicate enough,” Vincent says. “The communicator always thinks he’s communicating plenty. The people hearing it always want more. You never know [when you’ve communicated enough] because some people tell you straight up, ‘Hey, I still don’t get it.’ Other folks will say nothing.”
Besides keeping your outward communication flowing, you also have to make sure employees are receiving your message and acting on it.
Vincent spends nearly two months pooling partners’ evaluations of each associate whom they’ve worked with throughout the year. Trying to distinguish common themes from case-by-case rarities, he compiles the data into a written message for each associate. But the annual basis of those kinds of evaluations can leave a lot of gaps, so he also relies on informal evaluations throughout the year to check employees’ behavior.
“The informal process, which we encourage, is talking to the associate about each project: ‘Here’s what you did well. Here’s what you didn’t do well. Here’s what you should be thinking about the next time,’” he says. “That daily teachable moment thing is more beneficial than the formal process.”
So don’t wait for the annual evaluation. You should always be gathering information about how employees are integrating into the firm. Ideally, that information should come from a combination of metrics and personal interaction.
“You can look at statistics. You can look at billable hours. You can look at fees collected,” Vincent says. “You can look at things like that, but those are kind of sterile. They really don’t tell you. You’ve got to be out and about and answering questions.”
He says that the hardest part of his job is making time to go around and talk to employees about their transition into the firm.
“How’s it going? Is it what you expected?” he asks them. “Are there things you’d like us to be doing or things that you’re thinking about that we’re not thinking about? How do your clients feel?”
Vincent also looks at how often his associates are cross-selling and directing clients to other people within the organization, which shows their comprehension of the entire firm’s offerings and how to use them.
As you evaluate employees, keep in mind that you empowered them to personalize the firm’s priorities to make them work for their particular practice. That means you need to expand your idea of what successful employees look like. You have to consider what their strengths are and evaluate them based on those rather than expecting them to excel at every single thing they do.
“Some folks, it’s easy to see [success] because you can see it in everything they do,” Vincent says. “Other folks, it’s in their written work; they bring passion, style and flair to what they write. Other people, it’s interacting and mentoring folks in the office and managing projects internally.”
“One size doesn’t fit all,” he says. “The goal is to understand people’s strengths [and] put them in positions where they can maximize those strengths.”
How to reach: Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, (513) 977-8200 or www.dinslaw.com
You could say Mike Winner crunches numbers. Give him parts of four insurance companies, for instance, and he’ll come out with one. Or start with a territory that expands across 47 states, and he’ll condense it to eight.
But he explains his math with a simple — albeit improper — “1+1=3.”
Don’t question his computing skills, though. He became chief financial officer of Ohio Casualty in May 2004, three months after joining the company as senior vice president controller. Then Liberty Mutual Agency Markets acquired the company, closing the deal in August 2007.
At that time, Ohio Casualty’s CEO retired and Winner stepped into the role of president and CEO. Then the crunching began.
Liberty already operated eight regional companies that covered most of the U.S. So rather than overlapping footprints, Winner had to condense Ohio Casualty’s coverage to a regional focus, which meant picking up business from three of Liberty’s existing companies to complement some of Ohio Casualty’s existing business.
“One of our challenges then was how did we take parts of four different companies and merge them into a new organization,” Winner says. “We didn’t want to lose anything, so we tried to … take the strengths of all four of those organizations.”
That focus on magnifying strengths translates to Winner’s 1+1=3 philosophy. That guided him as he named a new management team by looking into all four merging companies for the right talent. Together they built a plan and a vision to carry Ohio Casualty forward, keeping the rest of the 530 employees up to date with constant communication.
Find change drivers
Winner could have been overwhelmed with all of the changes swirling around his company after the acquisition. But when the deal closed, he locked his focus on the search for a new management team.
While some acquisitions veer toward a win-lose situation — where the acquirer stays in power and the acquired company loses people — Winner implemented Liberty’s 1+1=3 philosophy.
“That incorporates trying to pick the very strongest and the very best talent from the new combined organization,” he says. “It’s easy for you to immediately go back to people you’re familiar with and want to pick them and not challenge yourself to really consider, ‘OK, what are the strengths of some of the other people coming on board?’”
You have to lay aside your background and look at each potential executive objectively. This process should start before the acquisition is even finalized.
“One of the key areas you evaluate prior to closing any acquisition is the quality and depth of the management team of the acquired organization, including their ability to assimilate into the new combined organization. That would include employees that may be ready to step into a larger more significant management role,” he says. “You would compare their strengths and weaknesses to those of your current management group.”
In addition to spending time with the candidates when possible, Winner scrutinized their past performance reviews to find their strengths.
Specifically, he suggests keeping your eyes open for signs of their ability to adapt and drive change, traits that a newly merged company will require. Examine the demands of each role to identify additional characteristics.
“For each role, you should identify what core competencies are critical for success in that role, especially as you integrate companies together,” he says. “You then evaluate the individuals’ strengths and weaknesses in those core competencies to determine whether or not you believe they have the necessary skill set to achieve the objectives and goals for that role.”
To gauge those competencies during the interview, ask the candidates for examples of the traits in action.
As you zoom out to consider how the team will mesh as a whole, opt for diversity.
“By picking people from different parts [of the organizations], what you do is you bring different philosophies,” he says. “You bring different backgrounds and different mindsets, which allow you to then, over time, challenge each other.”
Make a plan of action
Winner’s second step was crafting a plan with his new team to direct the rest of the integration process. Because every function of the organization was affected by the acquisition, they wanted their plan to reflect them all.
“One of the challenges is you can try to do too much,” he says. “And what you end up doing in that case is you don’t do any of them well.”
They quickly realized they had to boil down their outlook to three to five critical objectives.
But they couldn’t do it alone. The first move was bringing in an experienced project planner — something Winner highly recommends doing.
He then asked not only the senior management but also the regional vice presidents and their territory managers, as well as agents — which the company views as customers — what was critical to them in the new organization.
As the responses came in, they listed them on a spreadsheet and assigned someone to summarize the key themes. This helped categorize responses by culture, product or service, and so on.
“That allows you to dig a little deeper into what were some of the key themes and then say, ‘What do we need to do about it? How do we need to plan?’” Winner says. “Coordinate the integration to address the concerns that are coming out.”
While they evaluated input, Winner and his team were also debating the changes they knew the acquisition would require.
“That’s one of the benefits of having a management team that came from all parts of the organization,” he says. “They brought different viewpoints, and they brought different experiences and so we had a very open discussion and dialogue about, ‘OK, if we had to narrow it down, what are those three to five critical things we have to get done?’”
They also brought in experts from across the organization to help them predict any challenges that their plan might present.
After you identify your broad goals from senior team discussions and other input, draw out the details by breaking initiatives down into steps.
For example, Winner’s objective of rebuilding relationships in the company’s shifting footprint encompassed steps to transfer underwriting support to offices inside the new territory, to tell agents who they would report to now and to open two new offices.
“The important thing is you have to have detailed project plans,” says Winner, who relied on his project planner to drive the team to the right level of detail. “You have to have specific dates as to when you’re going to accomplish something and who’s got responsibility for it. They’ve got to be detailed enough and actionable enough.”
The integration plan Winner devised with his team outlined what to do without directly stating the desired result. He realized that he couldn’t just lay out the steps and hope the vision decanted itself.
“People can take that more informal communication and they can kind of weave it the way they want to weave it,” he says.
So his team got more specific about the end goal of their plan. The process begins as a conversation about the backgrounds of your management team. That’s why it’s important to build a diverse team so it can serve as a repr
esentative from all sides of the organization.
That conversation forms a base of understanding where your employees are coming from. But you have to be willing to move on from there.
“We all bring our own backgrounds of what’s made us successful in whatever we’ve done, and so your first move is always to go back to where you’re comfortable and what’s made you a success in past,” he says. “As a leader, you have to be very willing to set those types of things aside and be very willing to listen, to adapt to change and to take a different process.”
So you start talking about the future. To overcome the differences surrounding who you were as separate companies, build common ground around who you want to be as an integrated company.
Your integration plan can serve as a guide because it lays out what you’re working toward. You can’t just skip the step of defining what that is.
“You think about it when you’re growing up: ‘Who do I want to be when I grow up?’” Winner says. “Well, in this case, it’s, ‘Who do we want to be when we get through this integration? How do we want ourselves defined?’”
Asking those kinds of questions, like, “How do we want competitors to think of us?” or, “Where do we want to be in five years?” can direct you. Simply articulating the answers can provide a clear goal to give employees direction and encourage their buy-in.
“It allows employees to then feel a greater sense of the organization they’re a part of,” Winner says. “Then it positions them much better to communicate that message and support that message to our agents as they work with them.”
Communicate to build consensus
As he got people and plans in place for the integration, Winner’s main priority was communicating to keep the company unified. But no matter how much communication he did, he wasn’t satisfied.
Fortunately, he got a chance to increase his efforts the second time around.
Just more than a year after Liberty acquired Ohio Casualty, it completed the acquisition of Safeco Corp., adding another company for Winner to integrate. Safeco will gradually become Liberty’s exclusive source for personal lines of insurance, and regional companies, like Ohio Casualty, will begin to focus solely on commercial lines.
This ongoing process will make constant, consistent communication even more important for Winner.
“The one lesson that I came through that process with is take what communication level you think you need and double it,” says Winner, who’s increasing his communication commitments by attending town halls at each office every quarter and setting up agency visits and dinners. “You can’t underestimate how much it takes to communicate, not only to employees but to your … constituents. You have got to stay in front of them and communicate constantly through that process.”
The first round of communication should strive to reassure employees and customers about the changes. To do that, share your plan, outlining how you’ll tackle the integration. It helps to deliver this message personally.
“That face-to-face communication from the leader of the organization, I think that helps to send the message of confidence,” says Winner, who also uses those environments to get feedback directly from employees.
Then keep everyone informed of your progress throughout the process, reiterating your main objectives as you do.
Use a variety of methods to make sure the message gets out. For Winner, written communication is the easiest way to circulate updates.
Winner’s updates often combine past and present. He’ll identify what the company has achieved in the past month as well as the goals on deck for the next couple of months.
That, he says, encourages consensus by building employees’ confidence in the plan.
“They can become overwhelmed with all the change and everything that’s going on,” Winner says. “But if you can show them the accomplishments along way, that, ‘Hey, we are getting things done, we are on project plan, and here’s what we’re going to do in the next 30 to 60 days,’ I think it starts to help break it down into something more manageable.”
While Winner still has some work to do, it all comes down to finding the strengths of everyone involved.
“You have to be very open to change,” says Winner, who led the new Ohio Casualty to 2008 revenue in excess of $700 million. “To be successful, you’ve got to be very willing to listen to the strengths of both sides of the organization — in our case it was four sides of the organization — and try to pick the very best aspects.”
How to reach: Ohio Casualty, (800) 843-6446 or www.ohiocasualty-ins.com
Aldo Zini once spent several weeks sitting in a pharmacy.
It may not be the fast-paced, high-tech task you’d expect for the president and CEO of Aethon, a developer of robots that attach to hospital carts and deliver anything from linens to lab specimens. But Zini was there to connect with potential customers.
“Too often, companies come up with neat ideas or neat products but they haven’t thought through how you actually solve a problem,” Zini says. “You have to do an analysis around what benefit your product could bring.”
That interaction-based analysis can build a base for success, and Aethon is proof. On average, the 75-employee company has doubled its revenue annually since 2005.
Smart Business spoke with Zini about building relationships with potential customers.
Q. Initially, how do you get to know customers?
First and foremost, you want to understand their operation. You want to understand how they currently do what you want to help them with. Is what’s important to them that things get delivered within a certain time, or is the quantity of what’s delivered more important? How do they interact with the receiver?
You’ve got to talk to people. You’ve got to go visit the industry. At a previous company where we developed a pharmacy robot, I was in charge of selling that first robot. I went to a local hospital and I asked them if I could spend a couple weeks just sitting in their pharmacy and observing what they do. I’d talk to people; I’d watch what they do.
You have to listen to more than just one person. There are a lot of things that are common among [companies] but there are also differences. The mistake I’ve seen people make is they’ll talk to somebody who’s very credible, but they draw all their conclusions from that one interview. Then they try to apply it in other places and it doesn’t work. Don’t just take the word of one person.
Once you understand how they do it, then you can start saying, ‘Now, how about we do it this way or that way?’ You start exploring alternatives.
If you go in and try to tell them, ‘Here’s what we want you to do, and here’s how you do it,’ they’re going to say, ‘Well, they don’t even really know what I need from them. How can you come in here and start telling me what to do?’
So you’ve really got to develop that relationship and understand what they do. And then you can start talking to them about a new technology.
Q. How do you know if your product will benefit them?
You have to be sales-driven, not engineering-driven. When you have that mindset, you develop a product around what the customer wants, not what the engineers want to do. We have to listen to the customer. You’ve got to get in their shoes, and you’ve got to feel their pain.
You have to find customers who like to be early adopters of something new. There are people that say, ‘Look, I don’t want to be the first one to buy your new gizmo.’ They are more risk-adverse. And there are some customers that like to be the first. They say, ‘I want to be a trendsetter. I want to try new things.’
Sometimes you just ask and then other times you look at their history. For instance, we look for people that have implemented new technology. You can do some research and you say, ‘Oh, they were the first to implement this.’
Good salespeople are people that first listen. You want to go in, and you want to listen. You want to ask questions.
In fact, on your first sales call, we train people to never even talk about the product. Your first sales call should be just to go in and ask questions and see if they’re a good fit for the product. There’s a lot of questions we have to ask, like do they have the money, first of all. Do they like technology? Have they used technology in the past? And then you go back and start talking about our solution and our product.
Q. How can you develop that relationship to build their trust?
You develop trust early on when you listen to them. When people are willing to just listen to you, you’re willing to share more and open up. You’ve probably met people who talk more than they listen; it kind of turns you off. You don’t want to do that.
One way to [be a better listener] is just to prepare well. When you first meet with people, do your homework and have good questions. You have to go in with some knowledge. They are more open when you show them that you’ve done some research.
If you go to [someone] and you start asking dumb questions, they will turn you off and then you’re done. So first, try to do a lot of research. Understand the environment you’re going into a little bit. Have some good questions and then listen to what they say.
HOW TO REACH: Aethon, (412) 322-2975 or www.aethon.com