Brooke Bates

Thursday, 25 June 2009 20:00

Aldo Zini builds relationships at Aethon

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

Tuesday, 02 June 2009 20:00

Teaching leaders

Bob Joyce knows what his replacement looks like. Maybe the Westfield Group chairman and CEO can’t pick out the face, but he can at least describe the person’s traits.

If you know what makes you successful, you know what to look for in future leaders. And you know what training to offer.

To develop a leadership profile, look at your current leaders. Westfield identified nine competencies, including business acumen and the ability to motivate others.

“Involve focus groups with several different sets of leaders and the folks that report to them, people that can answer questions like, ‘What uniquely describes success in this role? What attributes do you value most in a high-performing leader?’” says Jackie Rybka, human resources performance and development manager.

“Sometimes, competencies are selected based on what you want to be rather than what you are,” she says. “If you have an aspiration that your company is going to more effectively manage change, then you would force that into a profile just to try to further the development of that competency.”

Measure employees against that list to detect potential leaders.

“We define the role first, the competencies around that role and the right person,” Joyce says. “You can close the loop if you’ve got training.”

So if you want a leader with business acumen, teach your employees how to make profitable business decisions.

Westfield turned to Kevin Cochran of Aarthun Performance Group Ltd., who customized a training program called Profit Specialist for the company.

Profit Specialist teaches financial metrics and, by showing employees how each measurement affects the results, improves profitability. The course features a Monopoly-like board game with spots for the company’s quarterly measurements, from underwriting expenses to investment income. Players move around the board plugging in numbers for a mock year in business. At the end, they complete practice financial statements.

As soon as you can, apply the classroom teaching to its real-life application — in this case, by going over your company’s financial statements with them.

“One of the best ways to really reinforce it and find out if people are getting it is go back and actually show them the actual score,” Cochran says. “It’s kind of like a football team; if you cover up the scoreboard, they don’t understand the score. They’re not as compelled to compete. So we’re taking the cover off the scoreboard.”

How to reach: Aarthun Performance Group Ltd., (281) 580-5705 or  www.aarthun.com

If Kevin F. McKeegan didn’t have a rein on communication in his law firm, things might turn into a zoo — or at least a rowdy game of telephone.

“Sometimes being a managing partner is a little bit like herding cats,” says McKeegan of his position at Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP. “I have ideas and goals and aspirations for the firm. But to make them happen, I’ve got to get everybody rowing in the same direction.”

He repeats messages to make sure the 80 employees and 19 equity partners are hearing the same thing.

Smart Business spoke to McKeegan about how to communicate consistently with your employees. 

Q. What are the keys to communicating across a company?

It’s important to keep in mind that what you say to one group doesn’t necessarily filter through to other groups. If it does filter through, it doesn’t necessarily filter through in the way you intended it. So it’s important that you don’t think that just because you’ve talked to one constituency and communicated what needs to be communicated, that that message has gotten across to everybody in the organization. Communicate up and down and across the lines.

I make sure that I attend as many group meetings as I possibly can. I think that’s important for a number of reasons, particularly for the staff and the associates. They know that I’m there if they have an issue or complaint. I’ll hear it directly rather than second-hand. And it gives me an opportunity to repeat the same message that the owners have heard and discussed.

Q. How do you keep your message consistent?

You try to work out the articulation of it in advance. Aside from using the same words, you have to make sure you’re articulating as much as possible the same goal all the time. No plan remains the same once it starts meeting reality, but articulating the goals consistently is the important thing. 

It’s critical that you don’t just walk into a meeting and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ You have these discussions ahead of time — for example, with the COO, with the management committee — and, frankly, even outside of those formal meetings: informal discussions. Take a partner to lunch, kick an idea around, stop somebody in the hallway, ask if they have a few minutes to discuss it.

Out of those sorts of discussions, you tend to get an idea where people’s thoughts are, where a consensus can be reached and, oftentimes, maybe even better ideas as to how to implement something. Very seldom do I expect anything I say to be met without a question or a comment. You talk to as many people ahead of time as possible so you hope you’ve anticipated all the questions.

When you’re reporting to owners, they expect that you be more forthcoming — which isn’t to say you’re not transparent with other constituencies but maybe not quite as detailed. Financial information, that’s information that, with a private partnership such as ours, should be limited mostly to the ownership group. But you can tell people in general terms, without revealing specifics, how the firm is doing: ‘We made budget this month. We were profitable last year.’ That’s sufficient usually to get the point across.

Q. How do you gauge whether your intended message is getting through?

I keep my door open. I listen to what people are saying. I try to get around the office. I try to have as many informal contacts with people as possible during the day. You just have to be out there and be seen and keep your ears open. Communication is a two-way street, and oftentimes you learn as much by keeping your mouth shut and listening as you do by talking.

Are they repeating, in their own attitudes and words, what you’d like them to be saying? Are people upbeat or are they down? Is the griping more than usual? You can have a pretty good sense of where people’s attitudes are just by paying attention.

People sometimes have different views of where priorities ought to be. Making them understand that their individual priorities might have to be subordinated to what’s good for the whole firm is probably the most difficult challenge. How do you do that? You keep talking. You keep explaining. You keep listening. I’m not in a situation where I can just demand blind allegiance. So patience is probably the biggest virtue. You gradually explain and you build consensus with the other owners. So at the end of the day, the more people that have bought in, then sooner or later everybody gets the message.

It’s just a constant process. There’s just so much information available to anybody who turns on their computer these days, so much information that may, frankly, be wrong. If you just expect people to buy in without constant explanation and constant repetition, it’s not going to happen. You keep coming back to it at subsequent meetings, subsequent discussions. You just don’t let it stop at one. We’ll have items on the agenda three or four months until everybody is fully aware, [until] you start seeing some actual objective results.

At some point, you can only work the soft side so far. You just have to lay down some hard and fast rules: ‘You will get your time sheets in every week or maybe you don’t get your paycheck at the end of the week if that’s not done.’ So at some point, you just have to draw a line and say, ‘Look, we’ve talked this thing to death. Everybody’s on board with it but you. Now you’ve just got to get in line.’ You hope it doesn’t come to that too often, and usually, it doesn’t.

How to reach: Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP, (412) 456-2800 or www.muslaw.com

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Finding a balance

You probably wouldn’t envy Mike Riehl’s situation. The president and owner of Mike Riehl’s Roseville Chrysler Jeep even admits that the auto industry isn’t an easy place to be right now.

“If it was, lots of people would have the job that I have,” says Riehl, who also runs neighboring Roseville Powersports and Roseville Collision Center under his name for total 2008 revenue of $73 million. “But if we have the proper balance, then we can survive in these very tough times.”

For Riehl, who has been in the family-run business for 38 of its 42 years, that balance comes from depending on his 85 employees to lighten his load.

Refusing to cower behind bad news, Riehl stays visible and approachable. But he isn’t afraid to admit that he struggles with the stress. He encourages his employees to follow his example for coping, taking breaks and asking for help when they need it.

Smart Business spoke with Riehl about keeping yourself and your employees positive in trying times.

Stay visible. You have to be visible. You have to try to keep positive. … I’m here almost every day. I start at around 7 a.m., and I work through the whole day. I walk all the different departments and shops. I say hi to the employees and visit with them from time to time.

Being here and being visible and working through the day-to-day challenges enforces that I’m here with them and we’re pulling [in the] same direction.

Go to work. Get out of the office. Visit your employees or say, ‘Hello, good morning,’ to them, or, ‘Good evening.’ Or from time to time, ask them how they’re doing, how’s their family, ‘How was your weekend?’ It doesn’t seem too hard.

Try to keep your spirits up. That’s the hard part, trying to stay positive, trying to be educated on the world and the national issues and then trying to stay engaged in Michigan and Detroit metro issues. There’s a lot of negative.

Just think, it could be a lot worse. We’ve had many ups, and we have many downs, and hopefully this too shall pass sooner [rather] than later.

Always be as positive as possible in a group. If you have to reprimand or if you have to be firm with an employee, do it behind closed doors.

Take a break. You have to maintain your health and a proper diet and [limit] your consumption of alcohol. I think those basic things could probably help you in challenging times. If you keep yourself healthy, you’ll be able to handle more grief.

If you’re at a point in the day that you’re stressed out, put a coat on and take a long walk outside. Get some fresh air into your lungs and think about something different for a few minutes, and then go back in refreshed and start over. It works.

I ask [employees] from time to time, ‘If you feel yourself frustrated, if you feel yourself stressed out and you’re on the showroom floor, if you’re in the eyes of a customer, please take a break. Please go take a long walk. Take an early, long lunch to try to refocus yourself.’

Admit your struggles. You can’t stay positive all the time. And if you know you’re very stressed out and you’re very upset, sometimes you have to ask for their forgiveness because you are stressed out and going through a tough time. So just hang in there and apologize before you start. And just say, ‘I have to get this off my chest. It’s important that you people share some of this stress.’

And then once I get it out and it’s off my chest, then we have to work with the group. But the manager has to deliver the message. And sometimes if you say it, it’ll go in one ear and [out] the other. But if you have a lot of emotion, if you’re very upset and they see that, then they know it’s a real issue that people have to figure out how to get behind and solve the problem.

They’ll see that the leader is serious and they’ll see that the leader is upset and stressed out, and then they put the afterburners on to try to take some of the burden off of that one person: ‘How can I help you?’ and, ‘Let me get involved.’

Ask for help. They have to use each other. They have to use me, and I have to use them to get through these day-to-day extreme challenges. That’s why they call it a team.

I think you have to [tell] them how important it is to take care of each other: ‘Use each other’s talents and skills. If a manager’s not available right at that point, ask your buddy — have like a buddy system — to review something, or [ask], “Does this look like it’s doing the right thing?”’ And they help each other out.

You just have to keep instilling it into the group that we’re all into this together, nobody’s better than the other person, we’re all equal.

There are small teams within the large teams. There might be two or three salespeople that kind of work together; they try to help each other out. There are parts people that help out and pick up the phones when they’re ringing, greet customers. They automatically help each other with the phones and meeting and greeting the customers. If one person’s at lunch and a customer comes in, they will [say], ‘Hey, let me start with you, and I know he’ll be back in 15 minutes.’ It’s a team within a team.

How to reach: Mike Riehl’s Roseville Chrysler Jeep, (586) 859-2500 or www.mikeriehls.com

Douglas W. McNeill knows better than to think that one day he’ll hear a magical click as his corporate culture snaps into place.

More likely, he’ll spend his entire leadership lifetime making tiny adjustments to keep the 1,913 employees at Atrium Medical Center on track. The president and CEO even has a name for those little nudges, and identifying those “coachable moments” is a key component to how he develops his employees every day.

Sure, caring for patients is inherent in the health industry. But McNeill — who served as the president and CEO at Middletown Regional Hospital for 14 years before it moved and donned the name Atrium in December 2007 — realizes that you have to care for employees, too. By staying on the lookout for learning opportunities and encouraging his employees to adopt the same awareness, he can keep them equipped with the tools they need.

“Culture is not like making a cake, [where] at the end of adding all these ingredients, you have a final product and you’re done,” he says. “Culture is really a lifelong exercise because circumstances, the environment, the organization and different generations of people are changing all the time. And therefore, organizations have to keep adapting.”

McNeill — who led Atrium to 2008 revenue of $233 million, up from $184 million in 2007 — keeps communicating the expectations that shape the changing organization.

But it’s not just lip service. After all, he’s not the kind of coach that orders his team to run laps while he loafs on the sidelines.

“The most effective way you teach people after you set the expectations is walking the talk,” he says. “They’ve got to see you do it. And then you have to take a genuine interest in helping others along the way.”

Find employees who fit

Atrium’s culture begins with employees who embrace the values of service, respect and compassion. McNeill calls for help to find them, drawing several people from his staff into group interviews.

“It’s helpful to involve people where a candidate may end up working and to involve, also, people at the highest level,” McNeill says.

For example, registered nurses who apply at Atrium may interview with their potential manager, other nurses they’ll be working with and even the vice president of nursing. The variety and amount of interviewers will paint a more complete picture of the candidate than one or two isolated conversations.

Besides the traditional questions about aspirations and expectations, McNeill and his team look for a cultural fit during those interviews.

“The key is really making sure that they embrace our values,” McNeill says. “We talk to them in terms of, not so much, ‘Is this a value that you can identify with?’ but really talking to them about their experience and how they can express those values and how they have expressed those values in prior work experiences.”

So rather than asking general questions like how they work with other people, ask for specific examples, such as how they reacted to a conflict with a previous co-worker. Current employees can pull other questions from their recent experiences.

“Several nurses might take a recent example of how we were dealing with a patient and a really concerned group of family members,” McNeill says. “[The nurses ask] how they would deal with those kinds of situations, how they’ve dealt with them in the past. It’s almost like a conversation.”

You should inform the candidate about your company, your culture and your values, as well. The interview is your first opportunity to begin setting expectations and requirements for new employees. But it shouldn’t just be a forum for you to preach about how you do things at your company.

“Really, what we try to do in these interviews is allow the candidates to do most of the talking,” McNeill says. “We’re really trying to learn from them how they’ve applied their life experience as they’ve dealt with opportunities that have been successful and those that haven’t, and what they’ve learned from it, what they’ve applied from those experiences, how they think that those experiences might apply this time.”

While new hires must adhere to the same set of values, McNeill treasures the diversity in how they apply them. In the same way, you must corral a group of individuals under the common ground of company standards.

“People come in many different packages. That’s OK. It’s not the package that separates one from success,” McNeill says. “Every package has the potential of embracing the right attributes. You’ve got to have a passion for helping other people.”

Coach employees to coach each other

McNeill’s passion for helping other people isn’t like a surgeon performing brain surgery. Instead, he’s more like an ever-accessible first-aid kit, mending his employees’ daily bumps and bruises.

“We’re all about helping people, and part of that definition is coaching and mentoring folks, helping people grow and learn,” he says. “And people grow and learn probably more from making mistakes than from success. So what we’re trying to do is find these little teachable moments.”

While annual evaluations can check employees’ general progress, more meaningful lessons are spurred by everyday behavior. McNeill watches employees interact with each other and with customers to find opportunities for adjustments.

“It is more often outside of the formal evaluation process, where we have opportunities to take a manager and say, ‘I was in that meeting that you led the other day; how did you feel the meeting went? What went right? What didn’t go so well? Here’s what I saw.’ Every day there are lots of opportunities.”

During his rounds one morning, for example, McNeill noticed a nurse struggling to communicate with a patient’s family. So he pulled her aside and asked her to switch roles, imagining herself as the family and considering how she would like to hear the news.

“Part of our job as leaders is daily helping find those coachable moments and act on them,” he says. “And frankly, the sooner you can act on those moments, the more meaningful they are.”

But you can’t spot every opportunity for improvement, nor do you have time to tend to every employee. So encourage managers to step in and coach each other and have them do the same with their employees.

Pay attention to which employees tend to socialize together in order to pair up employees who are already comfortable with each other. Then encourage stronger employees to offer insight to their struggling colleagues.

“If you can have someone that you trust and who is not threatening help you along or at least ask the right questions, make you think about it and weigh one approach over the other, those are the best moments,” McNeill says.

He guides employees through the conversation in three steps. First, ask how your co-worker feels about the decision he or she made and whether he or she would have done it differently.

“We’re always asking the question, ‘Now if we had that one over to do again, how would we have done it better?’” McNeill says. “And I think that that kind of nonthreatening discussion leads to a lot of growth.”

Second, pull examples from your own experience to illustrate a different scale for measuring the options. Explain not just what you did, but why you decided to do it.

“Say, ‘Hey, you know, here’s how I kind of sized it up. Here’s what you might have said instead,’” he says.

Finally, ask for feedback to make it less like a confrontation and more like a conversation.

“Say, ‘Well, what do you think? What are the pros and cons of that approach?’” McNeill says. “And so, in a way, it’s more intellectual and didactic than confrontational.”

These conversations aren’t necessarily about correcting behavior with the right answer. They’re more about opening employees up to other perspectives.

“Having robust discussions about the different approaches we took in certain situations leads to a lot of enlightened thinking,” he says. “A lot of it, too, is just developing the experience and judgment that you can apply. What we’re trying to do is just elevate our fund of common sense and judgment, and we do that by spending a lot of time talking to each other about stuff that’s happened.”

Because other employees could be struggling with similar issues out of your sight, don’t let teachable moments become isolated incidents. McNeill takes examples back to his executive meetings for them to share with their teams, as well.

Ask for feedback

When you make learning a continuous process, you need to balance it by constantly asking for feedback to make sure your lessons are getting through.

This is an obvious step if employees are clearly not meeting your expectations. Asking for their input may help you distinguish between an employee who doesn’t fit the role and one who just doesn’t understand the expectations.

“More often, you will find that it’s either a situation of clarity — they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing — or they thought they were supposed to be doing something and it turned out to be different,” McNeill says.

“Perceptions have to be aligned with your intentions. And the only way you’re really going to know is to continuously solicit feedback.”

After meetings, for example, McNeill asks for reactions when he runs into people, asking what was clearly articulated and where the ambiguities lie.

“It can be as direct as, ‘What’d you think of the meeting?’ or, ‘What’d you think of the message?’” he says. “And then you say, ‘Well, why? Why did you think that?’ Another key to developing people is always asking open-ended questions.”

But the communication loop still isn’t complete. If you ask for employees’ feedback, you need to use it. For example, they may fire back ideas about how to improve your message or your delivery of it. And those suggestions can’t be ignored.

“Your critics can offer you a very valuable service if you take it constructively and not make it personal,” McNeill says. “Think about what they’re saying and why. Put yourself in the shoes of the critic; why would [he or she] see it that way? Try to understand it from a different perspective.”

And even if employees’ ideas won’t work, you need to let them know why so they don’t think they’re going unheard.

“Usually, the biggest problem you have is someone will say, ‘Well, this is what I think.’ And then if you don’t do it, the common reaction is, ‘Well, they really didn’t listen to me,’” McNeill says. “So … get back to people and say, ‘Thanks for your idea. We tossed it around. This is where we came out. Here’s why.’”

This final step can be done formally. At Atrium, for example, submissions to the suggestion box are printed in the newsletter with answers. But informal personal responses can be even more effective — whether you discuss it at a departmental meeting, send the employee a follow-up note or just stop the person in the hall.

“Look, leadership is a team sport,” McNeill says. “And yeah, there’s only one CEO, but the CEO’s prime responsibility — in addition to serving customers — is to develop a strong team. So you’ve got to learn how to be a good team member. Part of being a good team member is developing this trust so that you can talk candidly about what went right and what didn’t and how you fix it.”

How to reach: Atrium Medical Center, (800) 338-4057 or www.atriummedcenter.org

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Engage Employees in Planning

Blueprints are essential in Chip Reid’s business.

But the CEO of Current Builders has taken the planning aspect beyond construction and applied it to the direction of his company, guiding his 250 employees with a strong vision that they helped create.

The general contracting and construction management company underwent its first strategic planning session in 2005. Reid then revisited the plan in 2008, revamping the process, minus the mistakes of the first round.

After surveying employees and customers to gauge the company’s strengths and weaknesses, Reid set up five committees to tackle the goals for the next five years.

“The goals that we set within our company are really employee-driven,” says Reid, whose company posted 2007 revenue of $125 million. “The employees have to embrace the goals that we establish because if they don’t, then sometimes we may set goals that are not achievable and not for the common cause.”

Smart Business spoke with Reid about how to empower your employees to pick up the planning process and run with it.

Build a bigger committee. Initially, we only had six to eight people in it. You’re trying to come back and address 150, 250 with what your plan is, and it’s harder for them to get buy-in into it.

So what we elected to do this time … is we brought about 25 people into the strategic planning process. It’s a lot easier then to get the buy-in by these upper- and middle-level managers who are going to be facilitating the plan when they actually participated in the process.

I think setting too many goals would be a mistake and setting goals without the consensus of the people that are going to do the heavy lifting. A lot of times, the people that do all the heavy lifting in this plan are not the people that create the plan; it’s the people that manage it and execute it. If they don’t buy in to it and they weren’t part of the process of setting it, then it’s very difficult.

We found this out through our mistake of the first strategic plan. We didn’t have enough people involved in it, and getting the message out and getting the buy-in was much, much more difficult. And as a result, some of the committees failed.

Keep committees on track. Each one of the partners here is assigned to a committee. We call them sponsors, and the sponsor is basically there to, not necessarily drive the meetings, but to monitor them — potentially guide them if they start to get off course but not make decisions for them.

It’s kind of like taking the training wheels off of a bike. You have to let them fall down and get up and try again until they get it. That’s kind of what we’re doing. We know the answer to the problem, or at least we think we know it, but we want the committee to come up with the same conclusion that we came up with or would have come up with or something close to it so they feel like they were part of the solution rather than someone just dictating, ‘OK, we’re going to do X, Y and Z.’

When we see that they get off track or they’re going in the wrong direction, then we challenge them in a positive way and throw out other ideas without giving them the answer. Just say, ‘Well, what if we did this, this and this?’ Then let them chew on it, and all of a sudden, you see the creative juices are going, and they’re steering it more toward where you would like it to go without directly steering it for them.

Pat them on the back if they’re almost achieving [goals so] they feel like somebody’s recognizing their efforts. Keep them constantly engaged by just consistently being attentive to what they’re doing, asking them questions how they would handle things that may be outside of their committee, where they feel like, ‘Wow, here’s an owner of the company asking me for my advice.’

Empower your employees. Every quarter, we have a company meeting with our other two offices in a broadcast so they can see it. What we allow each of the committee heads to do is give the company a quick report.

They come up and stand and talk about the progress their committees made, some of the challenges that they have, some of the goals that they set [that] they already achieved. We set short-term, midterm, long-term goals so people see that they’re actually meeting some goals. If everything’s long-term, sometimes it’s difficult for them to stay focused.

We let them communicate the progress rather than the owners of the company.

Find outside guidance. In order to stay committed to the plan, you really need to have somebody there to monitor your progress other than yourself. So it’s really about having the right strategic planner that knows the business that you’re in, has done this before and that is a highly motivational type [of] person.

The best thing is word-of-mouth, talking to other people that are in your industry through your industry relations group. That’s how we found this person because he spoke at a lot of the functions that we went to. We talked to some contractors that used him.

Talk to people that have done this, your peers. There’s always companies that you might look at that are possibly more advanced and more organized. We would watch what these other companies do and try and do the same things and ask them, ‘How did you do it?’

How to reach: Current Builders, (954) 977-4211 or www.currentbuilders.com

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Something to blog about

Ask Clyde Miles whether you should advertise your product on TV, and he’d probably tell you to ditch the commercial and air your own show instead.

“You have to have this mindset of, ‘Let’s create our own media,’” says the chief strategist at Optiem, a Web marketing agency with 35 employees. “How can we develop our own content and get it out there?”

The answer: with cheap and increasingly accessible social media. A blog can build your brand by opening a conversation with your customers, stopping short of a sales pitch to provide valuable content that they can use.

But, Miles says, “You have to find a context first before you know the content.”

In other words, you’re not writing about the product or service you provide but about how it helps your customers.

“So if you make widgets, what is the compelling thing, what is the essence of widgets?” says Miles, whose company grew 40 percent last year. “If that widget makes someone’s life better in this way, then start writing toward that versus just, ‘Hey, buy our widgets.’”

Your industry and brand positioning are good indicators of that essence. If you know the need you fill for customers, you know the direction of your blog.

“If you’re Sherwin-Williams, yeah, you’re a paint business, but it’s not really about paint,” he says. “What Sherwin-Williams is about is decorating my house, so obviously they’re going to develop content around decorating.”

Once you find your focus, resist the urge to just promote yourself. Instead, you need to look past the product to see objectively the essence of your message.

“In general, you should avoid overt ‘buy our product or service’ messaging,” he says. “But you might use a description of a situation using your product.”

Look at it as research into the customer’s mind, a chance to read the buzz about your product or your field. The objective is to secure a place in that consciousness by providing relevant stories about the need for your product.

With easy one-click options for customers to comment on the content you post, blogs provide an opportunity for an immediate two-way conversation, taking the relationship to a deeper level than one-way advertising, such as TV spots.

But the danger is that you relinquish part of the message.

“You may no longer be in control of all your brand messaging,” Miles says. “You still are to a certain extent; people are still talking about your brand. But it’s more of a dialogue and more of adding value to that relationship versus just all your communications being about selling stuff.”

To counter that danger, monitor the comments on your blog to rein in the responses to help mold the image you want.

“You may get negative comments,” he says. “In answering those comments, you can turn a negative into a positive by your willingness to engage and be transparent.”

Any response at all will show customers you care. React to complaints, for example, by explaining how you’re addressing the problem.

And the key to those reactions is consistency.

“The other critical thing is to keep doing it,” Miles says. “Before, it was like, ‘Well, we created this TV spot. Now we’ll play it for six months, and then that’s it.’ With this, it’s constantly evolving and changing. It’s not just a one-time thing; it’s a long-term strategy. You have to keep at it, or people won’t follow you.”

So add posts and updates regularly to give customers constant reasons to come back.

“They’ll realize that you’re meeting them where they are and are engaged with them on a much more direct basis that you ever were before,” Miles says. “Hopefully, the relationship is deeper as a result of the fact that you’re actually providing value to that relationship and not just trying to sell.”

Calling all bloggers

Clyde Miles has seen a new position popping up at a lot of companies. Directors of social media — or sometimes, more specifically, chief bloggers — are proof that the business world is hip to the Internet.

But you shouldn’t create a position without experimenting first.

“You may find that there is someone within your organization who is out there doing it now, maybe on their own blog or in other social media,” Miles says.

Ask around your company to find out who is familiar with the online format, who is either reading or writing blogs on sites, such as Blogspot or Twitter or even Facebook or MySpace.

While any of your employees may have the passion to blog about your business, the person you choose also has to be able to write. Start your search in the marketing or public relations department, where employees are already penning promotional material.

Your potential blogger also must have the time to post regularly. Eventually, you’ll have to compensate that commitment or tie it to a job description.

But it’s worth the cost to give your brand value through online interaction.

“The thing about blogs is that it’s a person, versus monolithic content like a corporate Web site,” Miles says. “There’s a voice to it, a style to it, a point of view. You can talk to a brand. It’s like they have a personality.”

HOW TO REACH: Optiem, (216) 574-8700 or www.optiem.com

 

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Changing the view

Gary S. Shamis thinks about his clients everywhere — even in the bathroom. The managing director of SS&G Financial Services Inc. is so attuned to the idea of improving customer service that he looks for it everywhere he goes.

So when he walked into the restroom at his firm’s Cleveland office and noticed a supply of single-use toothbrushes and swigs of mouthwash, his internal service alarm went off.

“It was like, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do: Make somebody feel more comfortable,” he says. “We’ll probably extend that to all our offices.”

It’s not uncommon for Shamis’ employees to test those ideas because, like him, they’re looking for ways to improve the client’s experience every time they take on the customer role outside of the office. When they get a flash of service do’s and don’ts from their everyday transactions, they take the lessons back to SS&G, where customer service is ingrained into the culture.

The firm’s strong approach to service has contributed to its steady revenue growth, an average annual increase of 20 percent for the last five years. So if you’re losing business, your customer service philosophy may be the place to start.

“You can’t really grow unless you do a good job of retaining the clients you bring in,” Shamis says.

Sure, price and other factors may come into play, but service can make or break a deal.

“There’s an old adage in the restaurant industry that between food and service, what brings somebody back to an establishment is not the food, it’s the service,” Shamis says. “You can have great food and bad service, and they won’t come back. But you could have lousy food and great service, and they will come back. It’s the way that they’re treated.”

Shamis starts off that culture at SS&G by scheduling lunches with all new employees to establish the importance of service in the company. Beyond that introduction, service stays on the forefront through several manifestations, from training and retreats to special committees and customer surveys.

Think like a customer

Sometimes, even the most skilled employees need some steering when it comes to customer service.

“All these smart people we have here could pass the CPA exam, [but they] have never had a course in customer service,” Shamis says. “And what are they really doing? They’re servicing customers.”

So even if it seems like common sense, remind your employees how to treat their customers through training. After all, he says, “One of the fundamentals of having good customer service is to be able to teach people what customer service is.”

Shamis teaches an in-house course at SS&G designed to illustrate customer service from the perspectives of both the servers and the ones being served. He uses an industry study from the 1980s that surveyed both of those groups and backs that up with feedback from SS&G’s own clients.

He starts the training sessions by asking employees to list attributes of customer service. Their answers go up on a board and then everyone votes on a couple of defining characteristics.

But then Shamis unleashes the customer’s perception. And usually, the answers don’t match.

“A lot of times, people don’t look at it from a client’s expectation,” he says. “They try and define what quality is based upon what they think it is. … Most of the time, the professionals are looking at a good value proposition. Their [definitions] are more analytic and results-oriented.

“And then when you go to the client side, what you find out is they want phone calls returned timely and they want information to them on a timely basis. They’re more interested in the interaction.”

After employees see the gap between the two definitions, in what Shamis calls an aha moment, they begin paying closer attention. The next time they become the customer, they’ll be more aware of what separates good service from bad.

“It’s really something that’s just so simple,” Shamis says. “What we talk about is how do you like to be treated and what are your expectations and how does your experience of the way you’re treated correlate with the way you should treat your customers.”

Even companies with established service education programs often fail to include this simple role-playing in their approach, souring their whole service philosophy.

“I think they fail mainly because they don’t put themselves in the customer’s shoes,” Shamis says. “[It’s] basically asking myself, ‘Well, if I was a customer, how would I like to be treated?’”

He has also taught his course for other firms. If you’re just developing an educational element for customer service at your company, begin by checking with others in your industry to see whether they can help you launch your program.

For the second half of service training, Shamis takes all 425 employees from every office on an annual retreat. The topics rotate every year between the company’s three cultural elements: service, growth and employee-centricity.

Look for local experts on the topic to speak at your retreat. In some cases, you might be able to stretch the value of these sources by having them speak more intimately with the senior leadership before they present to the entire company.

Brainstorm for better service

SS&G originally created a Super Service Group as a way to reinforce superior customer service, but it has since evolved into a brainstorming group that initiates tactics for improving customer service.

“Some tactics that we come up with [are ideas] that we’ve seen other places that we think we should implement in our office,” Shamis says. “Hopefully, people are so aware of it that it becomes something they’ll look for in the way they deal with other people.”

Just like the training session will flip on their attention to customer service, involving them in a group like this will give them an outlet to actually share their observations and ideas.

Your service group will inevitably draw from other service factors in your culture, such as training and listening to customer feedback. Because of that overlap, the committee can’t just be tacked together as an afterthought.

“It only works if you culturally want to do it and understand that’s what you want to do,” Shamis says.

Include employees from all of your departments in your service group, both to get a range of input from people who connect with customers in different ways and to maintain a single vision of service throughout the entire company.

“We tried to get representatives from all over the organization — people who touch clients in different ways in different offices, so we can try and be consistent wherever we go within the organization,” Shamis says.

One of the Super Service Group’s big ideas was a lobby overhaul. Committee members equipped the waiting areas with flat-screen TVs, ready with business channels for adults and video game hookups for kids.

Other everyday tactics seem more like common courtesy and don’t require such a shove to implement. These surface in the employee handbook as telephone and e-mail protocol.

“Most of it is really just the attention to (customers): returning phone calls on a timely basis, returning e-mails on a timely basis, checking your voice mails if you’re not going to be available,” Shamis says. “Let them know you’re going to be out of town on vacation and not returning e-mails and give them an option.

“There’s nothing worse than calling somebody’s office and asking for Gary Shamis when the receptionist knows that he may not even be there and they put you right into voice mail. What we attempt to do is say, ‘Well, Gary’s not there, can somebody else help you? If not, would you like his voice mail?’”

Ask customers for input

But even the best service training and implementation strategies would fall flat if you leave out the other half of the equation: the customer. Previously, SS&G employed an outside agency to survey clients every few years. Even when the process switched to the Internet, Shamis realized it was a lot of effort for a few responses.

“What we brainstormed was that instead of every two or three years going to market and asking how we’re doing, why don’t we ask every time we do something?” he says.

The end result is a postcard that is sent out to the customer every time SS&G provides a service.

The more often these postcards or customer surveys go out, the more value customers will think you put on their opinion, the more responses you’ll get and the more efficiently you’ll be able to gauge overall satisfaction. Otherwise, your reaction to mistakes and lost customers might be several years behind.

“Now every piece of information that comes out of our office — if it’s an audit, if it’s a tax return, if it’s a valuation — in every one of them we include a postcard and we provide (an) opportunity for the customer to feedback to us specifically,” Shamis says.

That’s more than 10,000 opportunities a year to get direct feedback, and he says usually about 2,000 of those are returned.

Provide a range of questions on the cards that will measure the client’s entire experience. At SS&G, customers can fill in their name and company or remain anonymous. Then, they rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, their service in terms of timeliness, value and effective communication.

By filling out what service they received, clients route the response directly back to the appropriate department. Copies of the feedback go directly into employees’ mailboxes for affirmation. Or, if it’s negative — which, for Shamis, only amounts to three or four postcards a year — it should go straight to the top for investigation. He usually calls the client to better understand the problem and find a solution.

“We try and not become defensive, but we try and be realistic as to what happened and then address it,” says Shamis, who begins by examining the legitimacy of the responses, determining if it was just a one-time misunderstanding or a more widespread complaint.

The feedback can also be used in employee evaluations, as if clients are reviewing employees based on their service skills. Shamis also uses the postcards to research the changing expectations of customers for his in-house training.

Shamis ties together all these attempts at improved customer service by distributing pamphlets to clients that explain the firm’s efforts. After all, you want customers to know what you’re trying to do for them.

“If somebody wants to buy a Mercedes Benz or a Chevy, there are 10 different places they could buy it, and they’re probably going to be relatively the same price,” Shamis says. “How are you going to differentiate yourself? Usually, that’s going to be on the service side.”

How to reach: SS&G Financial Services Inc., (440) 248-8787 or www.ssandg.com

Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

Give and take

Rick Schultz used to pay $35 an hour for mostly his own advice.

Earlier in his career, the president and CEO of Spectrum Surgical Instruments Corp. approached a speaker after a meeting and asked if he’d meet with him. He became Schultz’s mentor — but with a fee attached.

Schultz started searching for a pool of ideas that went deeper than a single mentor, and he landed on a question facing many leaders: Where can you get unbiased advice without the bill?

“Mentoring for a CEO, you either go to a lawyer or an accountant,” Schultz says. “But how do I talk to an accountant about my problems? He wants me to put up good numbers. The lawyer, he’s billing me. The banker wants to make sure I pay. There are CEO coaches, but that’s a billable thing.”

So Schultz looked for a true mentor instead of a paid consultant. And instead of one, he found a dozen. He joined Vistage, an international organization of CEOs, presidents and company owners that claims 14,000 members around the world.

“The CEOs have no vested interest in each other [other] than to help each other,” says Jim Mazzella, chair of the local Vistage International group. “They’re not going to benefit from their advice. It’s straight advice that you’d pay to get from an attorney.”

Mazzella facilitates monthly meetings with about a dozen CEOs and meets with each one individually just as frequently.

“The best practice here isn’t as much about finding a mentor as it is a whole system of a way of interacting one to one in a group setting so that you get the whole package of mentoring,” Mazzella says. “I’m selling them short if it’s just me and them, because the real power is all the membership together.”

Here’s how they create an open atmosphere of input and ideas in their mentoring group.

Building the base

The first step to building an open, honest group is bringing in open, honest members. The first trait Mazzella looks for when he interviews potential members for his Vistage group is the desire to learn. To uncover that, ask what books they read, what seminars they attend or how they’ve developed, both in business and personally.

Second, test whether they’ll be open to input they’ll get from the group.

“I’ll actually talk to them about their business,” he says. “If they identify an area where they are having an issue, I may give them some feedback and see how they react to it — are they defensive or willing to talk about it?”

And if they claim to be challenge-free, take note.

“If they tell me everything’s going great, that’s a big red flag,” Mazzella says. “That’s not true of any business. Even if you’re being successful, you have problems. They’re not open to feedback if that’s how they view the business.”

When discussing their business, you can also judge their goals for the future. This covers Mazzella’s third criteria, which is the CEO’s drive to improve his or her company.

The makeup of the existing members also determines who can join. To protect the cornerstone of confidentiality, competitors and vendors of other members shouldn’t be considered.

You may want to consider the size of their companies, too. In Vistage, CEOs are often roughly grouped according to their companies’ revenue. In Mazzella’s group, revenue ranges from $6 million to $85 million. Spectrum fits in with more than $25 million in annual revenue and about 85 employees. Leaders of companies with similar organizational structures and number of employees seem to encounter many of the same issues.

Beyond that, a CEO’s line of business shouldn’t be a factor when building a group of mentors.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re a paint maker, a plumber or a manufacturer of shelving,” Schultz says. “Dealing in business, the CEO issues are pretty much the same.”

To become a Vistage leader, Mazzella went through training that focused on facilitating group interaction and running one-on-one sessions. The organization looks for leaders with a wealth of business experience, and in his case, the organization got someone who has led a family business and started his own, staying involved in several boards along the way.

Once the group meets, it needs to work together to lay ground rules that will satisfy everyone’s needs and shape how the group will run. Use the first couple of meetings to draw this outline while you get to know each other.

“We create, as a group, a general framework under which we’re going to operate and interact,” Mazzella says. “Right at the top is obviously confidentiality, but respect, candidness, an openness to share.”

Establishing openness

Although many members may jump into the mentoring group ready to divulge all their issues, others may approach the environment with some hesitance. Encourage them to start small and pose questions that will draw out their problems. Ask what their greatest challenge is or what major decisions or opportunities they’ll face in the next six months.

Mazzella takes members’ temperature when he meets with them individually, asking them for the state of their business and their personal life on a scale of 1 to 10.

When issues come up individually, the facilitator should point the CEO toward a solution, whether that means encouraging them to bring their problems to the entire group or taking a smaller step.

“Part of my job is to connect the members,” Mazzella says. “Rick, for example, had some success in an area, and I know that this other member is struggling in that area. I might let them know that this is going on: ‘Why don’t you two talk?’”

To break the ice at the beginning of each meeting, take five minutes to go around the room and get updates on everyone, both in business and personally.

“I’ll say how things are going, if there’s anything big with my kids getting any academic awards or achievements of my wife,” Schultz says. “You’ll throw that out there, so it’s up to each member. There are no rules of engagement, [like] ‘Now it’s personal time to talk.’ It’s an open forum.”

Once you’re ready to bring a serious issue to the table for some advice, prepare like you would for any presentation. Mazzella’s Vistage group uses an issue preparation form that outlines the history of the problem, why it’s an issue, an ideal outcome, possible options and questions for the group.

“You frame in your issue, and it asks you a bunch of probing questions,” Schultz says. “Once you put your issue on paper, you’re 89 percent there. It even asks you, ‘What do you think the outcome is going to be?’ It’s like, ‘I bet we’re going to end up on one of these points.’”

But often, self-analysis of the problem isn’t enough to find the solution. While the outline helps you articulate your issue, your mentors may offer alternatives beyond your realm. Discussions reveal the benefits of the group setting: both the range and amount of input.

“We’ve had CEOs say I hate selling,” Schultz says. “I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you do telemarketing?’ Another guy will say, ‘Why don’t you do mail marketing?’ Another guy may say, ‘Why don’t you just get out there and see if you can do it?’ Having a table full of those people [is] different than just having one mentor.” ;

Even if the perfect solution doesn’t come straight from another member, the open atmosphere may knock something loose in your mind.

“Sometimes interaction will produce a better answer than anyone around the room,” Mazzella says. “The opinions of the other people will get them out of the box a little bit.”

In the end, you must make your own decision, weighing the advice of your business peers against your personal insight to the situation.

“Once the CEO makes the decision, he can move forward with his eyes wide open with respect to what his alternatives were, what the potential pitfalls are and really be able to weigh the options with more info than we would have had otherwise,” Mazzella says.

To keep members on track and establish accountability, have them define their decision to the group and divide it into smaller action steps. That way, you can hold them accountable to achievable goals and ask them specific questions about their progress.

More than solutions

Your mentoring group shouldn’t solely serve as a problem-solver though. You should also adopt a classroom atmosphere to learn about new ideas and discuss opportunities. For example, eight of Mazzella’s 12 meetings a year are planned around an expert speaker who presents a topic for discussion.

Before scheduling guests, Mazzella surveys his group members to gauge their interest in various topics, ranging from work-life balance to financial management to search engine optimization.

In addition to the nationally recognized speakers from Vistage’s bank, he also invites local experts — a more feasible option for start-up groups that aren’t internationally backed. Even if local experts can’t make it to a meeting, encourage your group members to contact the expert if they need help in that certain area of expertise.

Schultz and other Vistage members often leave those meetings with pages full of notes and heads full of ideas. The facilitator should follow up with each member individually to make sure they aren’t overwhelmed or tempted to implement everything at once.

“Part of my job is to help them set some priorities and decide,” Mazzella says. “‘You took away a half-dozen things that you’d like to add. What is really the most important? What’s going to have the greatest impact?’”

Have them keep their notes from previous meetings or at least a list of ideas they’d like to eventually consider. As they knock priorities off that list, you can keep track of what to tackle next.

“A lot of the learning that takes place is osmosis,” Mazzella says. “Over time, this helps individual members. Now when they’re faced with an issue, they can just recall speaker information or another member’s issue.”

Also provide an opportunity for the members themselves to present information. About once a year, encourage everyone to conduct a business review, recapping the company’s progress through the past year and laying out its vision for the future. Some may just share trends and key indicators, and others may open all their financial details to the group. Besides just reminding members of the group’s confidentiality agreement, return financial papers to the respective speakers so no private information leaves the room.

Sometimes, mentors don’t need advice or even new ideas. They might already know what they need to do but lack the confidence to proceed.

“Very often, it’s just hearing other people say, ‘You’re on track. Do that. That’s the right thing. We agree,’” Mazzella says.

That affirmation means more among CEOs than it may if it were coming from your management team underneath you.

“A CEO needs those strokes,” Schultz says. “I don’t need acknowledgment by the employees, but I’ve just got to make sure that other people are saying this is a best practice.”

If done right, the mentoring process should equip leaders to consider every side of an issue each time they encounter one, not train them to automatically unload their problems on others and expect answers. That development aspect is key to any group mentoring.

“It’s not just one-to-one coaching. That’s a piece of it,” Mazzella says. “Then it’s the group interaction with a facilitator. They’re learning from each other, and they’re mentoring one another.”

How to reach: Vistage International, www.vistage.com; Spectrum Surgical Instruments Corp., (800) 444-5644 or
www.spectrumsurgical.com

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Agreeing to disagree

As a child, Tori Haring-Smith earned her dessert with debate, thanks to her father who encouraged dinnertime debate.

“You did not get dessert and you couldn’t leave the table until you’d argued the proposition,” says Haring-Smith, a third-generation college professor. “And this could be an hour and a half. The propositions were things like, ‘The United Nations is inhibiting rather than promoting world peace. Argue.’”

Now Haring-Smith brings that impassioned table talk to her position as president of Washington & Jefferson College, which has a 2008-2009 operating budget of $47 million. There, she fosters an open environment by encouraging her 280 employees to challenge her with their varying perspectives.

So by the time Haring-Smith makes a decision for the school of more than 1,500 students, she has already considered most of the alternatives and arguments.

Smart Business spoke with Haring-Smith about how to encourage healthy debate among your employees.

Fill your staff with debaters.
Be open to opposing points of view. Put people in your senior staff who will challenge you, who will debate issues with you, who won’t just adopt your point of view, either naturally or to be conciliatory.

You have to hire people who are smarter than you are. If you hire people whom you respect because you believe they have raw intelligence, then you will naturally listen to them. If, when you’re listening to somebody’s feedback, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t really trust this person,’ or, ‘I don’t respect their intelligence or their expertise,’ then you’re going to dismiss what they say.

Part of it is calling references and not letting the reference get away with, ‘Yeah, he’s a nice guy.’ You can get at that more descriptively by saying, ‘Tell me what this person did that impressed you the most.’ I sometimes will ask, ‘If this person stays in your employ rather than my hiring them, what would you set as their goal for the next year?’

I say [to applicants], ‘Tell me what you think is a primary challenge confronting this department. How would you address it?’ I will poke away at them. ‘Why would you say that? Give me an example.’

I will keep pursuing them. I can tell then whether they’re going to get defensive.

Explain yourself.
All you need to do is have a really good exchange with one person and then they’ll tell other people, ‘It’s OK; she didn’t fire me for disagreeing with her.’

I don’t think you just do it; you explain to people what you do. You say, ‘I really value this kind of debate.’

Just today, somebody took a stance and said, ‘Well, maybe we could do this.’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, but here’s the downside to that. I really don’t have an opinion; I’m just presenting the other side.’

The person I was talking to got a little defensive. I said, ‘Look, you can take my side; I’ll take your side. I don’t care. We’re just going to debate this.’

Tell people what you’re doing. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Now I have an opinion. This is not debate anymore. I’ve listened to the debate, and here’s the decision.’

People will say, ‘Look, we can debate this, but my mind’s not going to change. This is really fundamental to me.’ That’s OK, and I can do the same thing.

The good thing is that people, especially in a small group like a senior staff, get to the point where they’ll say, ‘Well, we know that you’re always going to stand up for this.’ You can get to know each other that way.

Find the common ground.
You have to find what the common ground of the decision is. You have to be very obvious. What we all want is the health and security of our students. So starting from that, here is the decision that I’ve made, and I made this decision because I think it promotes the health and security of students the best. You can disagree, but at least there’s a reason why it was made.

Consensus is the agreement to disagree. Consensus is not a group hug. You work at it by saying, ‘Where do we agree? What’s our common denominator?’

When we’re sitting around the senior staff table, we can disagree all we like. But when we walk out of the room and we’ve made a decision, it’s like America has now elected a president; we agree to abide by that.

You can come back to me privately and say, ‘I really think you made the wrong decision,’ but you can’t go out publicly and say that. If the administration doesn’t act with a single voice, then everybody gets confused, and people begin to play one person off against another.

But that doesn’t mean that the next week that the staff is together, somebody won’t say, ‘I really think we need to look at this because it’s eating at me.’ And we can back down and talk about it again. So you build in time for that.

The challenge is not so much around the senior staff table as when you’re working one to 120, so you’re talking to the entire faculty. You have to step back and say, ‘Look, I understand that you want X. I want X, too, but you’ve got to see the larger financial picture here. We just can’t go there, or we can only go part-way there.’

You have to always start with, ‘You and I are on the same page at some point. We have the same goal. What we’re arguing is means.’

HOW TO REACH: Washington & Jefferson College, (724) 503-1001 or www.washjeff.edu