Dennis Seeds

Simon Crookall knows more than a wee bit about chemistry. But the native of Scotland is especially interested in the kind that pertains to relationships, rather than mixing baking soda and vinegar in a test tube and watching it bubble over.

Crookall, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, has chemistry on his agenda as the orchestra this fall officially welcomes its new music director Krzysztof Urbanski ? who at age 28 is one of the youngest conductors of a large U.S. city orchestra.

One of only 17 full-time, yearround major orchestras in North America, the organization, with annual revenue of $28 million, has to find the answer to this question: Can a new leader and his charges make beautiful music together?

Crookall points to the careful work of a search committee as the crucial stage in developing the potential chemical success. To seek and identify potential candidates, a team should be composed of staff, board members and other representatives who can work together well ? and not like oil and water. The next steps include, as is often done traditionally, interviewing candidates, holding tryouts, narrowing down the choices and then making the final choice.

During the decision-making process, comparing the skill sets of candidates may be an easy job for the search committee, but getting below the surface to the inner person takes an ability to see intangible qualities that will come into play.

“Some of it is totally inexplicable,” Crookall says. “I've seen it many, many times for instance when you’ve had guest conductors that have been very successful at other places coming in and it just doesn't work. It's just not a good mix.”

Intangibles such as the strength of a handshake or the time length of eye contact add to the fundamentals that leave lasting impressions.

The empirical formula for good chemistry has to be a good fit for the culture. You look for talent and innate leadership factors. For example, some of the most successful communicators use their hands and facial expressions and don’t need to talk.

“But there are obviously times when you need to explain what is wanted and convey it in words so that it can be easily understood,” he says.

While he is not about to abandon the role verbal communication has in establishing the chemistry between a leader and his team, Crookall recommends you remember that each person is unique, that human relationships are different from person to person.

“You might find somebody very interesting and enjoyable to be with and your friends may say they don’t like him,” Crookall says.

Then on the other hand, don’t forget to consider the chemistry a new leader should develop for the organization if success is to be achieved.

“One of the things that attracted Urbanski to this orchestra was the players’ willingness and ability to adapt to his interpretations and his styles,” Crookall says. “He found them incredibly responsive.”

Employees who are receptive to trying new ideas will make you feel comfortable that your ideas will be taken seriously. In short, this type of chemistry opens the door to a collaborative relationship. Gaining respect quickly from an experienced workforce is a tribute to the leadership skills of the new executive and the workforce’s ability to be open to new ideas and suggestions.

“That's another part of the relationship ? it's having a willing and responsive partner in the arrangement,” he says. “If you do want to change something, if you do want to do something differently, their reaction of course should matter if they are to accept and embrace your ideas.”

How to contact: Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, (317) 639-4300 or www.indianapolissymphony.org

Building bridges

Simon Crookall offers a new leader two tips about crossing hurdles with his or her new staff: Set expectations accordingly, but if those expectations aren’t being met, move on.

CEO and president of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for the past six years, Crookall puts it succinctly:

“Either build bridges and try to assimilate their ideas or just give it up and be done with it.”

A crucial factor is the time available. If you have the luxury of a liberal deadline, you can grow the relationship between management and employee.

“I think if you have an ongoing relationship and you come across some issues, obviously there are ways to start to work with them and start to explain your ideas more fully,” he says.

“But when pushed for time, like any manager, you have to assess what is achievable in the time available and eventually you set your expectations accordingly.”

When it’s a short deadline situation, you have to deliver quickly and adeptly.

“Go in there. Don't waste any time. Get on with the music. Make sure you get to know everybody very quickly.

“That's a very important part of management, not setting your expectations too high, but also not giving people too low expectations. Make them reachable goals,” Crookall says.

How to contact: Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, (317) 639-4300 or www.indianapolissymphony.org

Sue Horn and her brothers Michael and David Held knew for some time that their company’s logo had an old-fashioned look to it. But updating the logo for Old Trail Printing Co. brought up the question: If you design the logo, why not go for a total rebranding strategy, as well?

Founded in 1928 in Columbus when Main Street was also known as the Old Trail, the company was purchased by Horn’s father Bernie Held in 1964. He designed the logo to include a stagecoach as a symbol of the company’s early beginnings.

Old Trail Printing had become a $25 million commercial printer, and it was time to enter the 21st Century with a new look and new strategies.

Horn, co-owner and principal, and her brothers started the rebranding project with the familiar business planning method of a SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

“One of our weaknesses was not enough exposure with our logo and our brand,” she says. “The logo was definitely a weakness, and we wanted people to see that we are a more forward-looking company than we were back in 1928.”

Horn felt it was important to take a fresh approach to how the company was being marketed to current and prospective customers. The company hired an experienced marketing director as an effective way to ensure the campaign got a good start.

“The first thing that our marketing director did when he came on board was to put together the strategy we were going to have to move forward, and part of that strategy was changing our logo,” Horn says.

While the 92-employee company was approached by customers who offered to redesign the logo, the marketing team that was assembled to shepherd the project chose to use internal talent to develop a modern logo better reflecting what printers do.

“We were fortunate to have some people in-house that were very creative,” Horn says. “But I don’t think every company in America has that talent in-house. That’s where they would want to reach out to an agency that specializes in branding.”

While doing the SWOT analysis, Horn incorporated the company’s strengths into the campaign. For example, in addition to promoting the company’s services, she promoted the fact that Old Trail Printing had the latest technology, used green manufacturing processes and was the largest woman-owned commercial printer in the Midwest.

Another aspect Horn felt was important to advance was the company’s commitment to continuous improvement.

“In today’s business environment, being successful is to be constantly looking for ways to be more efficient,” Horn says. “Sometimes it can be difficult to create an atmosphere to encourage employees to think outside the box, but through leadership, you’ve got to encourage them to find how they can do their job the most efficient way and to be continually thinking about that.”

Old Trail’s website got a facelift and an added bonus — a social network link with Twitter. The company hired an individual familiar with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to help it move forward. The new animated logo is prominently featured on the website home page and adorns promotional materials that help generate enthusiasm about the company.

“Make this an exciting time at your company,” Horn says. “Show your solid base of customers that you are committed to bringing more value to them.

“Listen carefully to what they are telling your and respond with a solution that exceeds their expectations.

“Exhibit your company at events like business expos as one more component of your marketing strategy,” Horn says. “You have a great story to tell while meeting new businesses and having a conversation about how you can contribute to their own success.”

How to reach: Old Trail Printing Co., (614) 433-4852 or www.oldtrailprinting.com

Networking for business

While a company’s new marketing initiatives often focus on ways account executives can generate more sales, the plans shouldn’t leave out the contributions other employees may be able to make.

“My line of thinking has always been that everyone in a company is a sales representative to a certain degree,” says Sue Horn, co-owner and principal of Old Trail Printing Co.

The company recently went through a rebranding effort that featured the first new logo in 47 years and new marketing efforts focused on creating brand awareness and generating solid leads for its sales team.

One initiative to involve more employees in the sales process is through an employee referral program for new business.

Basically, it involves a networking approach. Employees may have friends, relatives and other contacts who may be potential customers. They can use their connections to create a win-win situation for themselves and the company.

“If they bring us a new account opportunity and if we land that account, we actually pay the employee part of the salesman’s commission for the first year,” Horn says. “We’ve had employees step up and bring us some opportunities, which has been pretty exciting.”

Employees can also contribute to sales efforts in an indirect manner.

“Everybody’s a sales representative, and everybody needs to have a positive attitude because when customers visit and prospects tour the facility, they can tell whether you have a happy work force or not,” Horn says.

It is often said that you only get one chance to make a first impression, and if a potential customer sees contented workers, if often leave a favorable memory and creates a better chance to make a sale.

“We’ve had a number of people visit and comment about our plant, and I think it goes back to the pride that the employees have in this company,” Horn says.

How to reach: Old Trail Printing Co., (614) 433-4852 or www.oldtrailprinting.com

Steve Germain had some tough decisions to make. Even the area’s largest auto group, Germain Motor Co., hadn’t been immune from the 2008-09 economic recession.

The auto industry overall experienced a 35 percent drop in sales in November 2008. The next month, Germain had to lay off 60 workers. The following August, he closed Germain Chevrolet, a dealership earmarked by General Motors to be shut down.

“It went from bad to worse, and it really did force me to re-evaluate my strategies and priorities, and once we got through that time, we fortunately were in a position to review the way we did business,” he says.

Germain, president and CEO of the $914 million company, saw the situation not only as his biggest challenge, but also his golden opportunity to improve what he saw as the key to getting more done with less ? employee engagement.

If he could get employees more engaged in their work, it would offer a long-term solution to lower costs and boost productivity. And with 1,042 employees in 18 dealerships over four states, that was a tall order.

“The only way that you can do that is that employees need to have a better understanding of the direction of the company, and you have to get more people going in that same direction,” Germain says. “Then you can get more done with less. You can’t get more done with less if they are less engaged or no more engaged than they were five years ago.”

Germain was committed to the idea and felt it was crucial for employees to understand that he and his top level managers supported the initiative.

Here’s how Germain has been able to get employees more involved in their workplace environment, more willing to contribute ideas, and on the way, earn more for themselves and the company.

Seize the opportunity

To help employees get a better idea of the direction of a company, Germain realized there may be no better time than a recession when employees are concerned about job security. Employees are more willing to make changes, at least in the short term, which could lead to long-term benefits.

Germain first studied the importance of employee engagement, understanding the value of increased productivity and attendance, customer focus and generating support of change. Those areas would define the direction of the company.

“Those things are all tremendous benefits,” Germain says. “When you’re trying to drive down costs and increase productivity, engaged employees, in my mind, are the low-hanging fruit.”

He found that new employees, in general, are more engaged than older employees ? and it gave him an opportunity to use that information to look for ways to sustain that engagement in new employees and rekindle it in older employees.

“Sometimes your best salespeople are the new ones that you hire,” Germain says. “Their first month is their best month. Then their sales start to fall off.

“Why? It’s perhaps because their level of engagement starts to drop. Their engagement drops, their productivity drops.”

Statistics show that employee engagement drops 9 percent in the first year and 12 percent in the second year.

Germain established that the key was to keep the engagement level where it was, to keep employees as excited and feeling as good about their decision in year five as on day one.

“If you can do that, there’s no question that you can be a leader in your industry as it relates to revenues,” he says.

He realized that he had the opportunity to engage employees now more than before because they were more willing to listen to senior management.

“Prior to the recession, they didn’t listen to me quite as much as they listen to me now, right or wrong,” Germain says. “I think my message is better, and I think I’m communicating better, I have dealership meetings every six weeks, and I have the opportunity now to influence the way that our employees go about our business.

“But you have to work at it. It’s a lot of work to engage employees, even in today’s environment, but there is an opportunity now that maybe we didn’t have prerecession.”

Once Germain made the cost-cutting moves to weather the recession and sold himself on what needed to be done, it was time to recover ? and discover the hidden talents of his employees.

The second step was to determine the current level of workforce engagement. Simply put, the engaged employee is one who will go the extra mile to bring a high level of satisfaction to the customer. If you don’t know how willing your employees are to give the extra effort, you’re not going to be able to know where you need to be. One of the simplest methods is to conduct a survey.

“If you go around asking your employees are you engaged, what are they going to tell you?” Germain says. “Or, what are they going to tell their superior? Through a survey, they will be more honest than they will be otherwise.”

Germain made sure the survey asked frank questions, such as “Do you feel valued as an employee?” and “Do you feel your opinion counts?” It was important to cover all the bases to get as true a picture as possible.

“That’s part of the pain,” he says. “We did see a higher than average score (with an overall grade of 3.83 out of 5 with a 54 percent response), but we also saw a lot of opportunities where we could improve.”

To get the information, Germain chose online survey company Survey Monkey, which he felt was aligned with what he was trying to accomplish. Employees were assured their responses were anonymous.

“It’s important that if you go through the survey process, you encourage your employees to return it,” Germain says. “Do the survey by department; it’s important to understand by department, but you certainly don’t want to know by individual.”

Germain and his staff decided that to be of continued value, surveys should be taken on a regular basis, perhaps twice a year. That way, results could be compared over time and any progress or setbacks could be noted.

Choose where to start

Once he thought he had a good idea of the pulse of the work force, it was time for Germain to devise plans to get people going in the same direction.

The first task was to review the survey results to see what was suggested most often ? and to determine if it supported the goal of more employee engagement.

Employee surveys often point out several concerns, and Germain expected to find some enlightening comments.

“I was surprised that the level of engagement wasn’t higher; we pride ourselves on knowing our people as best we can, but we still saw huge gaps between what we think and what they think,” Germain says. “It’s as important to understand what they think as it is for them to know what I think.”

Common themes that are often mentioned by employees on surveys are management and communication. Openness between management and associates is necessary if the goal to generate support for change to succeed.

In that respect, Germain felt that employee suggestions for mechanisms to express their views should be taken seriously.

As a response to employee concerns, Germain and his management team created employee committees, one for each dealership. The director of human resources initially chaired the committee. Managers selected the members in the first go-around, and the hope is that the committees will become such a voice within the dealership that employees will actively seek positions on the committees. Feedback is expressed in a forum-like atmosphere.

“That’s something we are very excited about,” he says. “Members include one representative from each department, and they meet once a month.”

“You put together your ‘worker bees’ and they are going to be the ones to address employee engagement,” says Tessa Pekarcik, director of human resources. “Steve or I can talk until we are blue in the face about how we think this is the way the operation should run, and if employees don’t agree with it, that doesn’t increase engagement. Employees are going to be more receptive to their peers.”

Germain wanted to make members of the committee aware that the group is for the employees to help make the best work environment that they could have. In that respect, the committees are composed of members who aren’t necessarily going to tell you everything you want to hear ? they will be brutally honest.

Work with your findings

As committees started their meetings, employee members were encouraged to express their ideas and concerns. Now the real work began as discussions focused on potential solutions.

One of the first orders of business was to stress how important it was for employees to know that the committee members were going to be their voice ? as in a representative government. Results of the survey were shared with members at the first meeting for discussion, and the groups were urged to maintain their focus because it is easy to fall into the trap of just talking about grievances. Random discussions are avoided because they lead nowhere.

“With the committee, we try not to go off on tangents complaining about what is wrong,” says Jessica Germain, general manager of Germain Honda of Dublin, who attends her committee’s meetings.

“These things are issues that you can’t change, but working with what you have, what you can do ? that will have a positive impact on the community of employees.”

Once she found that issues such as trust among departments, accountability and teamwork were initial concerns in regard to improving employee engagement, employees were able to put the concerns in the context of having all departments’ best interests in mind.

When it comes to specific solutions, employees will decide what they think is the best manner to improve employee engagement.

“If you allow the employees to decide what they think is the best way to increase engagement, you’re going to end up increasing engagement even more,” Pekarcik says. “That is going to earn them money. That is going to end up making the company money.”

While employee engagement may be measured more in intangible results rather than sales volumes, Germain thinks that having the employee committees says that management does care, and that he and the dealership general managers are willing to listen.

“I really feel that having the employee committees has sent the right message and created more of a teamwork-type atmosphere,” Jessica Germain says.

As Steve Germain began the engagement efforts, he was willing to allow that it would take some time to see results of the initiatives.

“It’s a long-term strategy,” he says. “We’re not going to see our score go from 3.83 to 4.2 overnight. It’s going to take years.”

The initiatives, after all, are for the long-term survival of the company, and Germain hopes to turn it over to the fourth generation some day.

“You start that now, and 10 years from now, you will be a highly engaged company, and your margins will be greater than your competition,” he says. “You will have more sales than your competition, you will be able to attract and find the best people in the industry and they will be willing to stay longer.”

How to reach: Germain Motor Co., (614) 416-3377 or www.germain.com

The Germain File

Born: Columbus, Ohio

Education: Denison University. A good school and a good experience. I was a physical education major and got my teaching degree and thought maybe I might want to teach history and football. But I got into the car business. I never taught. I felt that there was more opportunity at that time to support a wife and perhaps children down the road by getting into the family business.

What was your first job?

My first job was a salesman down at my grandfather’s Fort Lauderdale Lincoln-Mercury dealership in 1978. That was a lot of fun for 22-year-old kid. I had a great time and learned how to sell cars. If I didn’t sell anything, I didn’t make any money. It was straight commission. I did that for a year. I finally talked my dad into hiring me into the family business and coming up here. The rest is history.

What was the best business advice you ever received?

My dad, Bob Germain, made it very clear that our employees are our greatest asset. He told me that early on, and he believed that. I’ve communicated that to our employees for the last 30 years. Every time I have a meeting, I would say that our employees are our greatest asset. Regardless of the franchises that we have, the buildings or the facilities that we utilize, our employees are our greatest asset.

What is your definition of business success?

Obviously, revenue over expenses. But it’s more than just that. It’s about running a good business, and a good business is not all about the bottom line, bottom-line sales, bottom -line profits. It’s about improving the lives of not only the family but of your associates. It gives me great pride when I see employees get married, have children, buy houses and invest in real estate or college education. I feel some sense of being a part of that. It’s a good feeling because as they are successful, I know that I’m successful financially and personally.

[caption id="attachment_38406" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Jim Camp, general manager and partner, Cutler Real Estate"]

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Jim Camp has seen his share of mergers and acquisitions. The general manager and partner of Cutler Real Estate, Camp has guided 12 mergers or acquisitions involving smaller companies over the last 15 years. However, it’s not the number alone that he sees as a success indicator but the way company cultures have been merged successfully.

“Our mergers fortunately have gone pretty well because we have experience and know how to do it and try to minimize concerns and issues,” Camp says about the firm, which has 300 Realtors and a support staff of 60.

The biggest issues with M&As often tend to be in terms of processes. Employees from the acquired company are anxious to find out the procedures of the new company and want answers to questions such as “Who will be my boss?” and “How will I be evaluated?” Their concerns have to be answered. If they are not, there is a chance that key employees could decide to bail out and take a job with a competitor.

“When combining two offices, probably the biggest thing is the issue of ‘We never used to do it that way’ or ‘You’re favoring your people instead of our people,’” Camp says.

If you reassure the incoming employees throughout the transition by listening and communicating with them, it will show your willingness to resolve company culture issues.

“You have to be very careful, pay attention and listen,” Camp says. “You may learn that there is a new way to do something that isn’t necessarily your way but may be a better way to do it.”

Keeping an open mind is one of the fundamentals when going into a merger. Take the attitude of nothing should be cast in stone, and everything is on the table for discussion.

“Look at it from an open view of not being close-minded to think, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it so we are always going to do it that way,’” he says.

You may be gaining some valuable employees that can benefit your company who may bring some good ideas with them.

“One of the biggest benefits from some of our mergers and acquisitions has been some of the folks who have come along and the talent they brought to the company,” Camp says.

On the other hand, realize that you can’t accept all the ideas presented by the company acquired.

“But also don’t reject them out of hand,” he says. “Work very hard at saying, ‘Yes, we will consider that,” and actually consider it. Don’t just blow them off.”

In the end, it is a high level of communication that can best lead to a successful merger or acquisition.

“Don’t jump to conclusions about what people want,” Camp says. “Encourage your managers to sit down with new staff and ask, ‘What are your goals; what are you looking to do?’”

More can be accomplished when you try to listen as you talk to new employees than when you try to guess or assume what they are looking for. Get to know the people and listen to them.

“It’s important that they know you care about them,” he says. “They aren’t just a number and that kind of thing.”

A final piece of advice is that there are always some surprises in mergers and acquisitions. By doing your homework, you may be able to find trouble spots before they become problems.

“Try to do your due diligence but you have to continue that due diligence after the merger happens because there are some things that you may not know until you actually are working more closely with folks,” Camp says.

How to reach, Cutler Real Estate, (800) 423-2004 or www.cutlerhomes.com

Jump on the ‘brandwagon’

When Cutler Real Estate left the franchise world in 2005 and became an independent company, General Manager Jim Camp saw it as an opportunity to jump on the “brandwagon.” Instead of having to use the franchise’s marketing guidelines, a whole new world opened up.

“We had the opportunity to decide who we wanted to be,” Camp says. “We chose the very strong colors of orange and blue and maintained them all the way through the company signage and collateral.”

Making those types of decisions should involve professionals, even though you may be tempted to have your own marketing department run the show. Working with a professional can be an eye-opening experience.

“The difference in terms of working with a professional is significant,” he says. “The first decision to make is to interview companies to find somebody to work with, and go in with an open mind.”

Cutler Real Estate chose Innis Maggiore Group Inc. for its rebranding.

Once you have hired an agency, you will need to abandon any preconceived notions of what you want your brand to look like ? what you want it to be. Invite the agency to generate a variety of options.

“Just ask the marketing folks to do their vision,” Camp says. “You obviously have some thoughts but you should also be open to ideas.”

You will need to have some patience as well. The time frame may run from 12 to 18 months from concept to rollout, but it can be definitely worth the time and expense.

“I wouldn’t do it any other way, knowing now what we were going to face in the next four or five years,” he says. “We might have cut our budget in some areas, but frankly, we had a very successful rollout ? our competitors were hoping that we would stumble in terms of the conversion of our brand.”

How to reach, Cutler Real Estate, (800) 423-2004 or www.cutlerhomes.com

If you are worried about how technology issues are impacting your business, how management issues are demanding more time and how federal regulations are often a challenge to understand, you are not alone.

Setting aside bottom line concerns, these three areas are among the top legal challenges that companies are facing today. But don’t despair. The best advice is ? get legal advice, and do it sooner rather than later.

“The biggest pitfall to avoid is not involving your lawyers until there is a problem,” says Steve Zack, former president of the American Bar Association. “Legal counsel is much more cost-effective if it used preventively rather than as the crisis begins to brew.

“Any issue where your lawyer has not been a partner in your decision-making process is going to become costly,” he says. “Lawyers are there to look over the horizon with you and help you weigh your options. You’ll make more fully informed and better decisions that will save you time, money and legal headaches.”

Here are some tips to find solutions to some of today’s common problems.

Avoid the legal pitfalls of technology

Issues with technology, be it over social media, privacy or data security, are among the top concerns of companies. Many employees today are from what might be called the “TMI Generation” because they reveal too much information ? and information leaks could lead to problems.

“They don’t have a good sense of the walls that should exist between a public personality and their private life,” Zack says. “So they could wind up tweeting information on Twitter about an account or an internal project.”

Too much information can also affect the hiring process. One of the tools employers have started using to screen job candidate applications is to search Facebook and MySpace pages to eliminate the people that might not be desirable to represent their company.

“The problem with using social media is that it gives the person making the hiring decision information that in many ways that person should not have while making that decision,” says Rick Bales, professor at Northern Kentucky University Chase College of Law. “So, for example, you go on to Facebook and get somebody’s birth date, you now know how old they are.”

To avoid a possible age discrimination suit, you should have a low-level staff member do the screening.

“You should have one person who is not a decision-maker do those social media screenings who will report only that part of the information to the person actually going to make the hiring decision,” Bales says.

To protect the company, rules and policies drawn up by your attorneys for use of the Internet and social media should be included in employee manuals.

“It’s important that companies set clear standards and then train and retrain employees on those issues,” Zack says.

Issues that should be considered in the policy will vary because of the nature of the business, how it is operated and what kind of electronic devices are provided to employees. Most concerns are over limiting what can be said through social media about a company and that any social media policy will have to pass muster under the National Labor Relations Act ? employee use of company computers during work time is subject to being reviewed at any time for security and other purposes.

Data security is another technological concern. With a number of companies using cloud computing, where data is stored over the Internet at remote sites, how secure that data is and who can access it are major issues.

“It’s crucial that companies protect their customer data from hackers,” Zack says. “There could be serious liability issues otherwise.”

A data security breach can be devastating for a company, and you need to have steps in place internally in the event that something does happen. Just the case of losing a laptop computer with company information on it can cause major problems.

The cloud computing concept opens new chapters on areas of law that are evolving. If the wrong people get access to your data, do you have a claim against the Internet provider who is managing the data? What about an employee who leaves the company and has the ability to hack your site?

You should consider both the upside and the downside of social media, privacy and data security concerns with your legal counsel.

“Good legal counsel will make the journey easier,” Zack says.

Take training seriously

When it comes to management issues, there is no shortage of pitfalls to be concerned about. Probably the most historical involves promoting a high-performing worker into a management job and failing to give that person the training to be a supervisor.

“This is a perpetual problem from hundreds of years ago ? the training of low-level supervisors,” Bales says

There is a huge difference in the skills that it takes to go from a front-line production worker or sales associate to managing people.

“The skills are not necessarily transferable, and the new managers are often not well-trained,” he says. “They don't know the slightest thing about sexual harassment law or the meaning of nondiscrimination. They haven’t had any training with working with people or dealing with workplace conflicts. They don’t necessarily know how to motivate people.”

The proper approach involves training the person and monitoring the results.

“Start at the bottom and make sure that somebody promoted from the line or the sales force or whatever into a supervisory position for the first time has adequate training and is supervised closely enough so the folks at the top can figure out what challenges that person has and what kind of training that person might need,” he says.

The downside is that there are many potential problems, for example, discrimination suits, claims of bullying and group dynamics issues.

“The person needs to be an effective manager ? very often union campaigns grow out of employees being upset with a manager or supervisor who doesn’t know how to manage,” Bales says.

Sometimes not keeping your house in good order causes headaches that could have been prevented with some foresight.

Take, for instance, employers who have the idea they should document what happens with their workers. Having records of incidents and situations may not offer the security desired.

“Employers still do a terrible job of that, by and large,” says Josh Fershee, associate professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law. “Giving someone a difficult time in one department and moving them to another department, sometimes even with a promotion or a perceived promotion, and then they get to the point where they want to terminate the employee and everything in the records indicates no problems.”

What typically goes hand in-hand with that is not having some clearly stated policies. If that is an at-will employee, he or she can be terminated at any time for cause.

“But employers periodically will make promises that as long as you do a good job or as long as sales are good, you have a job here,” Fershee says. “Well, that can change that status to some degree and those relationships are certainly something to watch out for.”

Play it safe with the feds

The number of federal regulations keeps rising over the years, and along with it comes concern of not just complying with them ? but what do they mean?

One area where misunderstanding the law is creating problems involves compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Discrimination is something that they have to take a real amount of care to avoid and obviously comply with the civil rights laws at all levels,” says Carol Miaskoff, assistant legal counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“But the positive is that the employer is able to benefit from the talents and the contributions of people with disabilities as opposed to just losing that.”

Reasonable accommodation enables employers to make some low-cost modifications that enable an injured or disabled person to stay on the job ? as opposed to being out of work.

“That seems to me to be a win-win situation for employers,” says Chris Kuczynski, assistant legal counsel for the EEOC.

Difficulties may arise over the sense of what is an accommodation for the worker.

“They need to make a reasonable accommodation, but what is reasonable?” Fershee says.  “Some instances where businesses get into trouble is that they really try to avoid hiring somebody, whether they know it consciously or not, who comes in with a potential disability, because they don't want to have to accommodate it.”

Doing so may actually create a problem that wouldn’t have existed had they had just moved forward the way they should have. For example, if they think it is going to be too hard to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, some companies don't want to tell the person that's why so they just skip the application even though the person is fully qualified otherwise.

“In fact, the law generally says if you can't accommodate, you don't have to,” Fershee says. “Reasonable accommodation is a fairly low standard most of the time.”

You need to go to an expert in the ADA area and ask what you need to do.

“Oftentimes, the answer is something that works for everybody,” he says. “Or there's something that doesn't work for everybody, but it can insulate them from liability because they've done what they are supposed to: ‘We looked into how much it's going to accommodate and we can't.’ That is often a legitimate defense.”

While virtually unheard of as a term before the 1970s, sexual harassment is a concern in the workplace. Sexual harassment policies are in place at nearly all major companies, schools, universities and the military.

“It’s always a problem in the workplace for two reasons: No. 1, the perception of the person who was on the receiving end of the harassment is always different from the person who was on the giving end of the harassment. No. 2, the legal difference between banter/flirting and sexual harassment is kind of blurry,” Bales says.

The giver may perceive that it was not harassment at all. He or she may perceive it as an expression of sexual interest or as good-natured flirting or as banter while the person on the receiving end may view it very differently and take it much more personally.

“Even a trained attorney or an HR manager may not know at first glance if this is crossing the line or not,” Bales says.

An employee who has a workplace problem needs to have somewhere to go so that the employer gets notice early on and can correct the problem before it rises to the level of legal harassment.

“If this is the first time that the employer has received notice of it and the employer takes prompt action, the employer's not going to get sued or if he does get sued, he’s going to win,” he says. “If a company is big enough and can afford an ombudsman, I think those are terrific. But if not, use someone who is functioning as an HR person.”

How to reach: American Bar Association, www.americanbar.org; Salmon P. Chase College of Law, Northern Kentucky University, chaselaw.nku.edu; School of Law, University of North Dakota, law.und.edu; U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, www.eeoc.gov

There’s no finish line in technology, and Brian Deagan loves it.

“Nothing’s ever done; something new is always being created and that just intrinsically creates opportunities to build companies,” says Deagan, co-founder and CEO of digital marketing services and software developer Knotice Ltd.

But along with that comes some growing pains. The company over the past five years has exceeded 500 percent growth in employees and annual revenue; however, the need to hire at a quick pace is not the only concern Deagan has.

“Keeping up with some of the basic changes and things that are going on in the market can be disruptive organizationally, but at the same time, you need to be able to stay ahead of everything, stay on top of it and stay at the pace you are at,” he says.

One of the keys is not just a business plan, but one that is derived from an operational model that is used and leveraged on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis.

“That is one of the key things to keep the business headed in the right direction and on track,” Deagan says.

The model should drive the plan, but it tends to be more operationally oriented than, for example, a 40-page business plan, which is used more as a communication tool.

“Don’t confuse something that is a communication tool versus an operational tool,” he says. “Have them related and driven by the operational plan but don’t try to have one be both.”

The business plan is important to be able to communicate the plan of the business to external and internal constituencies. The operational plan’s role is to be effective in defining growth targets, meeting those targets, and then modeling out what is needed to support that growth.

The operational model in synch with the business plan gives a one-two punch to fight threats to derail growth.

“That is one of the key things to keep the business headed in the right direction and on track,” Deagan says.

The term “on track” for Knotice means a five-year goal of going from $10 million in revenue to $100 million.

“The primary way to do that is just sort of keep your eye on the ball and build the company brick by brick,” Deagan says. “So often, when you are growing and you are building something, if you are not really focused on the here and now, you have to have an idea where you’re going.”

If you spend too much time worrying about the future and not just building the business the way it needs to be done today, you’re not going to go anywhere.

“There is a point when you are supposed to climb up to the top of the trees, get a good lay of the forest and understand where you need to create that path through the forest,” he says. “But at some point, you just need to get back down on the ground and start chopping down trees.”

Hire a complementary management team in terms of personal and skill sets, and it will serve you well over the years.

“It’s much different when you’re in a room with six people banging something out to take the company to the next level versus when you are closing in on 100 people and you need to take the company to that level,” Deagan says. “I think it’s important that as the company evolves, you are tapping the characteristics and qualities that are most important to company growth. I’m a firm believer that everybody can do that to some extent. You just need to be conscious and aware of it.”

Weighing feedback

Consumer trends rise and fall daily, and a company needs to be aware of huge shifts that may influence its long-term direction.

By evaluating customer feedback, it can help you sort out consumer behavior to see if it is a trend or just a fad.

“There may be a consumer behavior or a new technology that you need to address in the short term, and you work with your customers to understand how to help versus just reacting to a trend in a manner that might not be prudent or well-thought-out,” says Brian Deagan, CEO of Knotice.

Categorizing customers may involve some judgment decisions, but it is necessary.

“It’s critical to get feedback and engage customers that are both early adopters, as well as customers who aren’t, to make sure the things you are going to do have a broader appeal and don’t just focus on a specific niche,” he says.

Getting perspective from both is a key step.

“You may not necessarily want to do something for an early adopter ? and it could be indicative of the future, but it could also be indicative potentially of a niche segment,” he says. “Get feedback from different segments of early adopters and the majority users and balance accordingly.”

How to reach: Knotice Ltd., (800) 801-4194 or www.knotice.com

When Hittle Landscaping Inc. lost 30 percent of its revenue during the recent housing market crash, President Jeremy Hittle had some difficult decisions to make. The first one was how to bring the $10.4 million family-owned company out of the funk. That took teamwork and some painful choices.

But equally as tough was to decide whether or not to hire a pricey leadership coach who could teach the Hittle management team the skills needed for long-term prosperity.

“It was expensive and it was difficult to spend the money in times like those, but it had to be done,” Hittle says.

“When the housing market crashed, we had to react to it quickly. Getting the upper management team together to fight the fight was a lot better than me just fighting it myself.”

The decision to hire an executive coach often requires considerable discussion. A business must tie it to an analysis of expenses, how to increase revenue and how to increase efficiency.

“You need to discuss what’s a better way to manage your business, manage your people, manage your customers,” Hittle says. “The lists will get very long and very hard to manage. How can you ask the employees to work harder? You can, but what’s that going to get you? So better leadership skills are a great way to improve efficiency, morale and communications. That’s where efficiencies come from. Efficiencies don’t just come from working harder.”

Hittle asked consultants to suggest a coach, and he hired one who had also written a book on leadership. Weekly and biweekly sessions helped the management team set goals and provided different ways to think about situations.

“It really makes a difference,” Hittle says. “There is a lot of frustration today in leadership. Frustration just doesn’t help. It’s kind of like carrying around baggage when you’re trying to be a leader.”

The personal leadership development benefits can be significant.

“It’s been great. It’s fascinating when a person does decide to consider his own leadership style, develop upon that and grow on what he’s found,” Hittle says. “I know it’s been huge for me, and I have had several employees step back and say, ‘Wow, I better understand my job now. It’s not just to tell people what to do. It’s about being supportive. It’s about accepting better who you’re managing.’”

The term “supportive” is a key operative word that is stressed in the leadership sessions.

“Employees need to know how valuable they are to the organization,” Hittle says. “You don’t want them to feel like they are employees ? you want them to feel like business owners. They all should feel like they have their own small business that they run beneath them. They feel like those beneath them are the employees that they employ, that they support, encourage and direct.”

That support helped the company reclaim 60 to 70 percent of the revenues that were lost and racked up near-record profitability for 2010.

Compassion is another focal point of leadership training.

“Listening, understanding what they want, and giving it to them,” Hittle says. “It’s not being a leader by directive. That’s not what to shoot for. Shoot for trying to nourish their needs, and your needs become their needs.

“A lot of leaders don’t quite understand it because they just want to have the first and the last say-so, and they expect it to be done that way. I don’t believe that works very well.

“Usually people that excel to a leadership position are firm-minded thinkers,” Hittle says. “They don’t realize that you have to open up, be a little vulnerable, and ask for some help and do some self development ? to try to pass along the message that we can all be better.”

How to reach: Hittle Landscaping Inc., (317) 896-5697 or www.hittlelandscape.com

Trimming and pruning

With a significant portion of its business tied to the housing industry, when the market hit bottom in 2009, Jeremy Hittle and his management team had their plates full learning how to be better leaders while they trimmed and pruned Hittle Landscaping’s operations to weather the storm.

“It was my job to not give direction but to convey a message,” says Hittle, president of the 140-employee company.

“The message was that we are in trouble, and we need everybody's help. I spent a lot of time in 2009 making sure that nobody thought otherwise. I tried to make sure that they knew that the company’s challenges were their challenges ? that we were all in it together.”

The solution was plain and simple: Everyone needed to be in concert and do some brainstorming.

“The only possible way to get out of a downturn like that was to come up with 50 ways that would help,” Hittle says.

“Obviously we had to lay off some employees, and we changed things around,” Hittle says. “Nobody worked any overtime. We worked four days a week instead of five. We saved on travel.”

Steps taken to recover from the downturn are lessons that likely will be retained.

“We are constantly working on reorganization. Even today, it’s about how we are going to change today to deal with tomorrow, just like we did back in 2009.”

How to reach: Hittle Landscaping Inc., (317) 896-5697 or www.hittlelandscape.com

Jim Hallett sees his termination as a CEO in a 2005 corporate shakeup as a very humbling experience.

“It was a good thing,” he says. “I needed to leave the company because the culture was getting so bad, and I needed to go away, but from the day I went away, I always knew I was going to try to raise the money and be able to come back.”

But that goal was not out of vengeance.

“There was no retribution whatsoever,” he says. “I was not interested in retribution; I was not interested in getting even. I was interested in getting the company back, getting my job back and putting people in place with the passion, experience and energy to run this company.”

The company, ADESA vehicle auction and its finance division, was doing well financially when Hallett was fired, but by 2007, times had changed, particularly with its culture. Unbeknownst to Hallett, the company had put itself up for sale while he was looking for backers.

“The building was not a very happy building,” Hallett says. “I would be taking over a company that was floundering ? a company that was not performing, a company that was bureaucratic, political, stale. People didn’t enjoy their jobs, people didn’t like to come to work, people didn’t talk to each other. They didn’t interact with each other.”

Hallett solidified a $3.7 billion deal with the help of private equity investors for ADESA, a finance division and a salvage auction division, named it KAR Auction Services Inc. and as CEO, set out to transform the culture in 60 days.

Here’s how he accomplished it in 30.

Lay the groundwork

Turning around a company culture takes analysis and effort. But Hallett had a position of advantage with his firsthand experience. He was familiar with the players in the organization, and even after his termination, he followed the company, tracked the stock and anecdotal information on the street.

He was faced with the realization that turning around the dysfunctional situation would be his biggest challenge.

Hallett would be the CEO, the cheerleader as it were, and he envisioned a loyal and passionate work force listening to his encouragement.

“A cheerleader is what companies sometimes lack,” he says. “They need that guy who can rally people, who can create a culture, create a vision, and then get everybody to line up and march in the same direction.”

Hallett told his new management team he would have the company marching in lock step in 60 days. By using his skill at getting people to line up and buy in to a common vision, it took half that time.

Evaluating the senior management was a critical experience, and it led Hallett to decide to clean house.

“I looked at everybody,” he says. “Every one from the old guard left. I brought some people back into the organization. I recruited some people into the organization. The most senior management completely exited the building. They did an ‘exit left’ and I entered right.”

The evaluation process was straightforward and involved a simple formula.

“I was really identifying people who knew and understood this business, who had experience, who were passionate about this business and loved what they do every day and then who were relationship-driven with our employees internally and our customers externally and with the industry,” Hallett says.

“Anybody who had any of those qualities was shoved aside when I got fired because the new chairman didn’t want to have anything to do with anybody who had dealt with me. If he thought they were somehow still speaking with me, they were history.”

The procedure requires a bit of intestinal instinct as well.

“You use your gut,” Hallett says. “Use your uncommon common sense, street sense, people sense and knowledge, passion and drive for the business. Know what the company needs and know what the industry wants.”

About three to four months in advance of the takeover, Hallett had the plan for his team in place.

“Know exactly who you want, know exactly what you want the organizational chart to look like,” he says. “Quietly and confidentially put the chart in place and have everyone show up on the first day.”

Spread the culture

Sharing the message among employees that a new culture is entering the building takes the skill of a negotiator and the charisma of a leader. Sometimes a bold statement at the beginning of the transformation shows it’s not business as usual anymore.

Hallett removed the main entrance reserved parking spaces for management executives on the first day, and the message was clear ? all employees were going to be treated equally.

“So if you get there first, you should pick your parking spot,” Hallet says. “That in itself says more about the culture without saying a word. You’ll hear, ‘Oh, my God. All this reserved parking’s gone. We don’t have to look at the expensive cars. We don’t have to go by these things when we walk into the building.’”

Next on the agenda was setting the frame of mind for management. Much as military forces have rules of engagement in dealing with the enemy, management alignment spells out standard operating procedures and rules.

“Then hold a management alignment meeting; it could take a couple of days,” Hallett says. “What you’re doing is aligning management and establishing the rules of engagement with your senior management team saying, ‘This is the way we are going to behave. This is the way we are going to talk to each other. This is how we are going to conduct ourselves, how we will handle conflict, how we will handle these different situations. This is how we are going to act with each other.’”

Management needs to commit to the program.

“If you can’t sign up, then walk out,” Hallett says. “Because you know what? The biggest thing we do as human beings is we need to know how to talk to each other.”

It’s important that the CEO and senior managers need to be secure.

“They need to understand what they do well,” Hallett says. “They need to understand what they don’t do well. They need to give everybody the opportunity to be able to express themselves and bring a good idea to you.

“Sometimes the best ideas come from the most unlikely sources. We just need to give them an opportunity to tell us. And I have to be willing to talk about it without feeling threatened or without feeling somebody’s overstepped their bounds or that someone’s taken over my job.”

Being direct needs to be the standard approach.

“When I want to say no, I need to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’” Hallett says. “On the other hand, people have a hard time doing that. They want to beat around the bush, and they want to hem and haw, and they want to take days to do something that you can do in 10 seconds.”

Establishing the rules of engagement allows you to create a culture where employees feel that the door is open.

“They can walk in and we can agree to disagree, but we are always going to be respectful of one another,” Hallett says. “Have the rule in writing. So when senior management agrees to that, make sure you take that a level down, to your direct reports, and make sure your direct reports take it to their direct reports and all of a sudden, it filters through the entire company, and you’ve really created a culture.”

Along with the rules of engagement, Hallett created a mission statement and core values. “The first thing is, somebody said, ‘If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing,’” Hallett says. “So you’d better stand for something. We created our core values, such as honesty, integrity, customer service. So what do those core values do? You need to reference those whenever you’re making decisions. That’s how simple it is.

“When you have to think about whether you’re going to do something or not, whether something is within integrity or whether it has to do with employee relations or customer service, or if it has to do with one of the values of the company, you reference your values, and they’ll pretty much guide you as to what decision you ought to make.”

Build the success

Getting employees to engage in the new culture is a process that is accomplished a little bit at a time. It requires coaching, with frequent huddles to make sure everyone is on the same playbook.

By holding breakfast meetings every Friday with 20 employees from different areas of the company, Hallett got the chance to meet the entire company over a year and a half.

“I told them about me, the history of the company, the vision for the company and some of the things we wanted to do and where we’re going ? however we are going to get there ? and got them to tell me something about them,” Hallett says.

“I’d start those meetings with, ‘OK, let’s go around the room, and let’s tell the group something that nobody in the room would know about you.’ It’s amazing how people engage. Then tell them something they didn’t know about you.”

Gestures like that established employee willingness to buy in to the culture. To make the transformation less intimidating, managers should be aware that cultural learning experiences will be many, and at many locations.

“Culture happens in the hallways, culture happens in meetings, culture happens in the parking lot, in the coffee shop,” Hallett says. “Culture happens everywhere around you.”

Watch for red flags that could derail the infusion of company culture ? gossiping is a sign that there could be a problem.

“Nobody would ever walk into my office and complain about somebody else without bringing the other person with them,” he says. “When you feel people being political, people might be saying something but meaning something else and that’s just street sense — you know the guy’s full of it. He’s really making a statement about something else but he’s really trying to make a statement about himself. That just comes to bad street sense, right? It’s pretty hard to get that stuff past me.”

Hallett says that he must not only set an example for employees but set the pace.

“The speed of the boss is the speed of the game,” he says. “I know that everybody watches what I do, what I say, how I behave. I think that rubs off very quickly. I’ve gone to people and said, ‘Hey, you know what? I think you maybe need to not have sharp elbows — maybe you need to be a little more careful with the way you handled that situation or the way you spoke to that person.’ I’m not afraid to tell someone, ‘You know what? That probably wasn’t the best way to handle that situation.’ We are really a company that tries to focus on these values.”

Aside from the intangible aspects, tangible improvements such as upgrading technology go far in enhancing company culture.

Hallett realized that employees were becoming disenchanted with outdated computer systems and had to address the situation and those feelings. It meant spending enough to bring office technology up to speed.

“First of all, it really reinforces to your employees that you are committed to the industry, and you’re committed to them,” Hallett says. “Secondly, the customers absolutely feel it in the way that they do business and transact with you. If they’re not feeling the technology spend and the investment in technology, quite frankly, they’re not going to trust you to do business with you.”

The results of the culture change were dramatic, and business exploded at KAR Auction Services for its 13,000 employees. Revenue topped $1.8 billion in 2010.

“It was like hitting a light switch,” he says. “Customers were basically saying, ‘Where do you want me to send cars?’ ‘How can I help you?’ I mean, not every single customer, but our business took off like a rocket.”

If management is committed to employees, that fact will encourage a harmonious working relationship that leads to longevity — and low turnover.

“Make everybody feel like they’re loved, and they’re well-compensated and they’re fairly taken care of ? and yes, there will be challenges, like everybody else,” Hallett says. “But at the end of the day, nobody will be looking to get out the door.”

The Hallett File

Born: Kingston, Ontario, Canada, on the beautiful St. Lawrence River. My father was a railroader and my mother was a stay-at-home mom with three little babies. My dad died when I was 8 months old. So I never knew my dad and my mom never remarried. We were dirt poor. I lived in a house that burnt coal in the winter and had an outdoor toilet.

Education: I went to Algonquin College in Ottawa, Canada. I got a degree in recreation management. I was going to college because all my friends were going to go, and I didn’t want to have to study anything really hard.

What was your first job?

I mowed lawns and shoveled snow. Then I became a newspaper boy. If you’ve ever had a newspaper route in the country ? in the city, you can deliver 100 newspapers in 20 minutes ? in the country, it would take you an hour and a half.

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

A guy once told me, a great mentor, a great friend of mine, ‘You know what, Jim? There’s nobody better than you.’ And he elaborated, saying, “You’re no better than anybody else, but there’s nobody better than you.’  The same guy also told me, ‘You know what is the difference between you and the guy you admire or the guy that you look up to or the guy that you want to be?’ And his answer was, ‘One good year.’ And that’s the truest thing that’s ever happened in my life. It took me one good year. That’s all it took.

Whom do you admire in business and why?

I admire a guy by the name of Pat Butler. He owns multiple car dealerships and multiple RV dealerships in Canada. I admire him because, first of all, of his entrepreneurialism. He is very quick, very fast, very decisive, very agile — all those words that go with an entrepreneur. I’ve kind of modeled myself after that. I like the fact that on the outside he’s a crusty, rugged old character and on the inside he’s the most compassionate man I’ve ever met in my life. We talk every week.

What’s your definition of success?

Professionally, when everybody wins. Employees, customers, shareholders. And you know, that was really the big thing. When that management team was here for two years, there were some that took care of themselves and ran off with a pot of gold. When I’m done, there will be hundreds, thousands of people that will be taken care of. I think I can say that with a great deal of clarity.

How to reach: KAR Auction Services Inc., (800) 923-3725 or www.karauctionservices.com

Kim Shoemaker had a major dilemma in 2009.

Not only was her company, Acloché Staffing, trying to pull out of an economic recession, but its longtime CEO had died unexpectedly at the age of 56. Grief was high, morale was low, and employees needed to be reassured and inspired that the company was going to go forward.

Shoemaker, who previously held leadership roles in the company, had been named the new CEO and set out to overcome the heavy challenges.

“My first charge was to increase morale, to show appreciation and to really build on the staff,” Shoemaker says. “I think that’s extremely important to make your team feel appreciated, improve on that and lift their spirits up. There was a lot of uncertainty among our staff and the business community regarding the future of our company.”

As a first step, she found it effective to have one-on-one conversations with staff members to determine what they were feeling, what they needed and what they thought they were lacking professionally.

“Then, you need to deal with those individually to help them grow, to be stronger individuals and to be stronger team players,” Shoemaker says.

“We looked at our processes first and went through how we did things and redesigned them ? we streamlined them, made them more efficient,” she says. “We tried to help people with their day-to-day productivity.”

While proposing what to do to improve morale, Shoemaker hit upon the idea to redefine the company to reassure the market that Acloché was alive and well, ready to assist.

“We had been in business since 1968, and there had to be something that we could be doing to market ourselves better ? to let people know that we were here and that we were here to help the business community,” she says.

She brought in an outside consultant to work with the sales and marketing team to reinvent the company’s image, keeping the same branding but introducing the company again to its clients and embedding itself in each of the communities where its 10 offices are located.

When employees are encouraged to participate in the decision-making process when new ideas are formulated, successful results occur.

“Present the processes or procedures that you are going to consider to your sales and management team, get their thoughts, opinions and feedback; then take that information and fine tune it,” Shoemaker says.

When the final tweaks have been made, let the operations team review the proposal.

“This is very successful because staff members see that their managers are excited about this innovation or this new process and they’re getting their team members’ input before decisions are made that affect the entire team.”

As with many changes, there may be those a little hesitant to get on board. However, if they give their input regarding the change factor, it makes it a lot easier to accept and implement the change.

“They have a voice and an opinion in the entire process,” Shoemaker says. “I think people feel more at home with it. They feel more involved with it and part of the entire process.”

For Acloché , the approaches Shoemaker took to step in as the leader, improve morale and redefine the company continue to pay off. The next year saw $33 million in revenue, and the company is ranked among the 100 largest privately held companies in Central Ohio.

“Any time that you’re doing anything new, get the buy-in from your internal staff because it’s important for them,” Shoemaker says. “It’s important in order for the entire process to go well if they have buy-in on the decision-making end.”

Turning over a new leaf

Some say if you don’t make innovation a priority for your success, you’re bound to fail, and Kim Shoemaker, CEO of Acloché Staffing, can testify to that.

“Innovation is critical in any business,” she says. “In order to compete, you need to regularly redefine your strategies and reposition yourselves in order to continue to grow.

“The only way to stand out is by constantly offering new services and presenting new ideas.”

Client feedback is worth its weight in gold when it comes to innovation.

“Go in, listen to what their needs are, to what their challenges may be and what their successes may be, and redefine yourself to that specific client to help them so they can focus on their core business needs,” Shoemaker says.

Failing to keep fresh may lead to a loss of your place in the market.

“You would stagnate,” she says. “Employees would not grow to their potential to be able to service their clients.

“I think it’s an ever-evolving business community, and if you do not keep up with it and evolve and even try to stay a step ahead of it, you’re going to be losing market share,” she says. “You will not be the partner that people would need you to be.”

How to reach: Acloché Staffing, (614) 416-5600 or www.acloche.com

Friday, 30 September 2011 20:40

Digital direction

There’s no finish line in technology, and Brian Deagan loves it.

“Nothing’s ever done; something new is always being created and that just intrinsically creates opportunities to build companies,” says Deagan, co-founder and CEO of digital marketing services and software developer Knotice Ltd.

But along with that comes some growing pains. The company over the past five years has exceeded 500 percent growth in employees and annual revenue; however, the need to hire at a quick pace is not the only concern Deagan has.

“Keeping up with some of the basic changes and things that are going on in the market can be disruptive organizationally, but at the same time, you need to be able to stay ahead of everything, stay on top of it and stay at the pace you are at,” he says.

One of the keys is not just a business plan, but one that is derived from an operational model that is used and leveraged on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis.

“That is one of the key things to keep the business headed in the right direction and on track,” Deagan says.

The model should drive the plan, but it tends to be more operationally oriented than, for example, a 40-page business plan, which is used more as a communication tool.

“Don’t confuse something that is a communication tool versus an operational tool,” he says. “Have them related and driven by the operational plan but don’t try to have one be both.”

The business plan is important to be able to communicate the plan of the business to external and internal constituencies. The operational plan’s role is to be effective in defining growth targets, meeting those targets, and then modeling out what is needed to support that growth.

The operational model in synch with the business plan gives a one-two punch to fight threats to derail growth.

“That is one of the key things to keep the business headed in the right direction and on track,” Deagan says.

The term “on track” for Knotice means a five-year goal of going from $10 million in revenue to $100 million.

“The primary way to do that is just sort of keep your eye on the ball and build the company brick by brick,” Deagan says. “So often, when you are growing and you are building something, if you are not really focused on the here and now, you have to have an idea where you’re going.”

If you spend too much time worrying about the future and not just building the business the way it needs to be done today, you’re not going to go anywhere.

“There is a point when you are supposed to climb up to the top of the trees, get a good lay of the forest and understand where you need to create that path through the forest,” he says. “But at some point, you just need to get back down on the ground and start chopping down trees.”

Hire a complementary management team in terms of personal and skill sets, and it will serve you well over the years.

“It’s much different when you’re in a room with six people banging something out to take the company to the next level versus when you are closing in on 100 people and you need to take the company to that level,” Deagan says. “I think it’s important that as the company evolves, you are tapping the characteristics and qualities that are most important to company growth. I’m a firm believer that everybody can do that to some extent. You just need to be conscious and aware of it.”

How to reach: Knotice Ltd., (800) 801-4194 or www.knotice.com

Weighing feedback

Consumer trends rise and fall daily, and a company needs to be aware of huge shifts that may influence its long-term direction.

By evaluating customer feedback, it can help you sort out consumer behavior to see if it is a trend or just a fad.

“There may be a consumer behavior or a new technology that you need to address in the short term, and you work with your customers to understand how to help versus just reacting to a trend in a manner that might not be prudent or well-thought-out,” says Brian Deagan, CEO of Knotice.

Categorizing customers may involve some judgment decisions, but it is necessary.

“It’s critical to get feedback and engage customers that are both early adopters, as well as customers who aren’t, to make sure the things you are going to do have a broader appeal and don’t just focus on a specific niche,” he says.

Getting perspective from both is a key step.

“You may not necessarily want to do something for an early adopter ? and it could be indicative of the future, but it could also be indicative potentially of a niche segment,” he says. “Get feedback from different segments of early adopters and the majority users and balance accordingly.”

How to reach: Knotice Ltd., (800) 801-4194 or www.knotice.com