Super User

Sunday, 24 February 2008 19:00

A clear view

Bobby Yazdani doesn’t have a corner office. So if you’re looking for the CEO of Saba Software Inc., you should probably search the main employee area. That’s because Yazdani, who founded the company in 1997, has learned the value of building relationships with his front-line employees. After leaving Saba in 2002, he returned in 2004 to find the human capital management software and services provider struggling and hovering around $30 million in annual revenue.

Focusing his energy on turning the company around, he made a list of core priorities centered on two-way communication and transparency, letting his 600-plus employees know where the company was going and why changes had to be made. In return for that honesty, they helped him pinpoint problems and create a greater focus on personalized employee incentives. As a result, Saba posted fiscal 2007 revenue of nearly $100 million, up from $71 million in fiscal 2006.

Smart Business spoke with Yazdani about how transparency ignites your staff and why empathy is job No. 1 for a new generation of leaders.

Maintain organizational transparency.

I fundamentally believe that everyone needs to understand the challenges you are facing, and they need to have complete transparency of what the leaders in the company are thinking all the time and what the priorities are.

A leader needs to have a clear sense of transparency in the organization. There needs to be a sense of integrity in a place people work. People have to have a strong sense that there is a great deal of integrity in their leaders because that’s the people that they work for.

Transparency creates a level of integrity where people get engaged better. Whether it’s easy or hard, whether it’s challenging or if there are opportunities, they will be more engaged. An engaged employee base deals in significantly higher quality work.

You have to be enthusiastic; you have to have that energy and enthusiasm. Transparency automatically leads to a level of enthusiasm. I get a lot of energy by having a transparent relationship with my employees and our community here because when they trust you, you learn from them and get an opportunity to share that energy with them.

Take the time to be empathetic.

Empathy is the No. 1 skill a leader should have. For the new generation of leaders, empathy is a skill set we need more than ever in leadership — and that’s so we listen and learn.

It’s extremely key to try to understand where people are coming from, and that yields a level of humility. The days of the celebrity leaders are numbered — those things don’t have the kind of appeal they used to have; that’s why I don’t believe in leaders in corner offices.

Create a personal connection with your staff. As leaders, we have a tendency to know it all, and it’s amazing the wealth of information that comes from people that are closer to the problem.

Creating an environment where there is a forum, where leaders can listen, that’s where your management system really enables. We have a very stringent review process where we review our business, and everyone gets to hear everyone else. Through that transparent environment, we can listen and learn by reviewing the details, and there comes from that a lot of good data about the core issues at hand.

I report back to our employee base every 90 days. I get in front of them, and they get to ask me any questions they want. ...

... It’s my job at these key events to get in front of the employees and make myself available. It really comes down to personal connection. I want to increase the opportunity to have that personal connection and get an opportunity to learn from them. I learn from employees by just being with them and hearing about their observations — and they’re learning from the customers in the marketplace. Relationship building is at the core of it, and personally following through on that creates a training opportunity for both of us.

Tie performance to personalized incentives. There is an approach that we have that is essentially a rating of the performance that yields incentive pay.

The core benefits themselves are crucial, but we want to be able to offer even more benefits to high-performing employees, so the top 50 percent of our company gets acknowledged quite a bit — not just through the management assessment process, but they also get acknowledged with an employee reward program. Employees nominate other employees, we announce that on a quarterly basis and that leads to elevating people that, at times, you don’t necessarily see, people who go above and beyond in helping other people.

I get to present it to the employees, and we show all the nominees and color why the nominee is up there. It’s really a community-based ranking, and there is a gift that we give them, and they really enjoy it.

Focus on core changes. When you are in a turnaround situation, there is a tendency to try to do too many things. You have to pick up two or three strategic initiatives and be consistently focusing on those things and stay on the message to make sure people understand the priorities and the importance of them.

The top priority for us was transparency. It goes back to very basic things: A business has to be profitable; [it] has to be focused on a few categories that you want to excel at. Leadership is always a challenge, so make sure that leaders are always engaged and keeping a consistent culture for those supporting the turnaround.

HOW TO REACH: Saba Software Inc., (650) 581-2500 or

Sunday, 24 February 2008 19:00

Train ’em up

Paul Westlake Jr. doesn’t like to brag, but he’s proud that his firm has a specialist in computational fluid dynamics on staff. That’s because Westlake, a managing principal at Westlake Reed Leskosky, pushes his employees to do additional training in areas that interest them. By encouraging them to pursue industry specialties, the architectural design and management services firm is building a stock of niche experts and opening up more opportunities both for employees and for the firm. Not only does the push to pursue their interests help keep the 135 employees engaged, it also gives Westlake employees with talents that few others can offer. As a result, the firm has taken bigger projects in other markets and has grown revenue more than 50 percent in the last decade.

Smart Business spoke with Westlake about how to encourage employee retention in ways other than compensation and why you need to put in some Saturday hours if you want to earn employee respect.

Offer employees more than compensation. Anybody can go on and find if you’re in the third quartile for your profession for compensation, so how is that going to be a differentiator? What differentiates you is culture and the opportunities that it provides beyond financial. Compensation and reward have to be there, but the key to attracting and retaining is in all of the other things.

We give people experiences that they didn’t have growing up. There’s a woman in the firm that has been with us nearly seven years, and we put her on a performing arts project, it was a theater in Tennessee and for her to travel there and then go to the opening as a black tie event and be part of the celebration created a positive attitude about the correlation of her work to the success of the project. She just loved that; it was a life experience.

Those are cultural things where it’s not about money; it’s about life’s experiences and it’s about seeing the impacts of what you’re working on. And the broader that it is, the more success you have at retention.

Help your employees grow. We don’t hire the specialist, we hire someone who is motivated, and then we challenge them to go out and do something they haven’t done and we pay for the training.

We’re sitting here saying, ‘It may take two years before we get a dollar on this, but go specialize in computational fluid dynamics, and we’ll find an application where you can do that on a project.’ You find someone you believe is both intelligent and motivated and then incentivize them to leverage themselves with the support of the firm.

People developing within the profession, one of the main motivators for them relates to their ability to grow, develop and learn. They’re like sponges; they want to reach their professional potential. And if they don’t feel they are getting exposure and experience, they will leave.

The key is to involve them in your processes. If we design a program for them and we don’t talk to them, we have trouble retaining them. But if we sit them down and say, ‘Let’s design a program for you. What do you want to do?’ they’ll tell you. And we can map out a four- or five-part plan, and it’s training; it lets them work out whatever void they have in the ideal model of their education.

Cut through the hierarchy. There are generational differences between people in the firm, but the key in that regard is that when I’m working with people, I want to be working with them in a nonhierarchical framework where we’re both contributing to the same goal. Then people see you as a contributing, collaborative resource, and that’s kind of a quiet mentoring, as well.

We typically gather people around the table, explain a problem and ask each of them to independently work on an idea or a concept to solve that problem. A principal would have the same assignment that a 28-year-old might have, and we come back and share those ideas and see what seems to be working.

At that point, people don’t care about individual authorship or ownership; it’s the team trying to figure out what seems like the best approach to the problem. Typically, some part of every investigation seems to find its way into the solution, and then it’s not necessarily Paul Westlake’s scheme or this person’s scheme, it’s a collective work. That kind of involvement really helps to break down the hierarchy, so my ideas aren’t any more important than your ideas, unless the group thinks so.

It’s critical to the business, but it’s also critical to the motivation. Being immersed at the highest level and the lowest level is exciting, and it helps you create change, and forces you to [create change], because you can really see a lot of the consequences; you really know the business in a deep sense.

Lead by example. You have to lead by doing, and you have to be seen as the hardest worker within the culture. I wouldn’t ask anybody to do something that I’m not doing. For example, I’m often here on Saturdays and Sundays. If we have a deadline, I’m going to be here with the staff.

The point is that you’re present with them at the table regardless of the logistics of travel or whatever else there is. And if they think it’s important to me, then it becomes important to them.

If they don’t think it’s important to me, then they don’t think it’s important to the firm.

HOW TO REACH: Westlake Reed Leskosky, (216) 522-1357 or

Tuesday, 29 January 2008 19:00

Take your time

Just once has Maryles Casto hired someone on her own — and she’ll never do it again. Casto, founder, chairman and CEO of Casto Travel Inc., has long trusted others in her 200-employee, full-service travel management firm to help her hire. But when she found a young woman who embodied the many things she thought she wanted in an employee — a graduate degree and a shining resume — Casto ignored those who said she wouldn’t fit in and hired her anyway. After just six months, she realized she couldn’t ignore how poorly the woman blended in with the culture and had to make a change. Lessons like that have helped Casto learn that success is a result of the culture at her travel company, which had 2007 revenue of about $150 million, and that comes directly from who she hires.

Smart Business spoke with Casto about why you have to hire first and then grow, and how consistent kindness keeps employees happy.

Take the time to hire right. The most important thing you can do for your company is bring in the right team, and you have to make the time. If I’m interviewing someone, I won’t just slot 10 minutes, I will slot probably an hour and a half.

I walk them around, I introduce them to everybody, and I’m watching how they interact. You’re watching them, and they’re also watching you.

I want them to interview me. I want them to know that this is going to be their home and take the time to get to know the company. It takes awhile, but how much you put in is what you get out of it.

You need to feel that you belong in the company, and it takes a little while for both parties to really feel that blend. Very rarely have we made a mistake. Sometimes it will take two months before we will hire somebody, but we make sure that we interview everybody, and they come back a few times.

One person told me, ‘I’ve never been interviewed this way,’ and I said, ‘Well, you’re getting to interview us, as well.’

If you can’t take the time to interview the person that is joining your firm and is going to be part of the future, then you’re not worth working for.

Slow growth to meet quality. I was here when the valley was just exploding and had to make a very quick choice that I wanted to be part of the explosion. I had a very small window, so I started hiring people just to fill bodies because of the growth.

That was a big mistake because I couldn’t service the explosive growth and finally had to say, ‘No more business.’ I had to stop growing until I could refocus and get the right people because I wasn’t taking the time and effort in interviewing and hiring, I was just hiring.

I learned I can’t do that — not if what I say is that quality is important, and we’re the best at this and that. I learned that if you say you are going to do something the right way, stick with it.

Be consistently kind. The most important thing in leadership is ethics and kindness. You have to be kind to everybody and communicate with them. It’s not when we’re doing well, it’s when something happens to employees that we really show we are a different company by taking care of them — and that builds loyalty.

You show your kindness in how you deal with people daily, and people respect that and respond to it. It’s not one day you are this and the other day you are not; that confuses people, and it’s very hard on them.

But if you consistently make your decisions with compassion, people understand that. They trust that you’ll guide this company, and that this company is the most important thing, and then you get them to buy in.

Make your word count. If you have to choose between integrity and the easiest way to do something, you have to really look at it and say, ‘How should we be doing this based on who we are?’

My father used to always say, ‘Your word is your honor,’ and I really believe that. If I give my word, that’s the way it should be, and you can’t do anything otherwise. You know what’s right and what’s wrong, and you have to do what you feel is right.

If you take pride in what your name is, you take pride in what you do. That should be your guideline.

Let employees leave with dignity. I’ve had to let people go, and I make sure I personally do it because it has to be done in a way that takes into consideration who they are and what they’ve done for the company. I make them understand that it’s not about them, it had to be done.

Help them in any other way you can in trying to secure another job or giving them a good recommendation. Don’t just cut them off because they left.

After they’ve gone, I’ve called and said, ‘How are you doing, and what can I do to help you?’ I’ve had people who left and who are still really good friends and have called us and come back and visit.

HOW TO REACH: Casto Travel Inc., (800) 832-3445 or

Tuesday, 29 January 2008 19:00

Lean and mean

You know the old saying: Go lean and watch your company grow by 18 percent a year. What, you’ve never heard anyone say that? At Cleveland-based Swiger Coil Systems LLC, which is a manufacturer of electric motor coils, transit motors and a remanufacturer of transit motors, the idea to go with a lean implementation system has changed the daily production for the 160 employees at the company.

The process began in 2007 when Swiger CEO Brad Roller and his other senior leaders undertook an initiative to identify and prioritize the application of lean tools and understand the savings potential. Once they were able to do that, Swiger implemented the practices at the employee level by working through a series of changes and underlining the importance of each one so that the new focus would be recognized. Then Swiger followed up on the plan with a checks-and-balances system to make sure things were running neatly.

All told, Swiger was able to eliminate waste, reduce cost and become more competitive by simply changing the layout of the warehouse work flow, moving items needed at different machines closer to where those machines were, removing unnecessary machines and furniture, and clearing up congestion to more directly let employees walk where they needed to go. Other machines were also made mobile so that they could be brought to different workstations as needed. As a result, on-site production travel was reduced by more than 80 percent. The time employees didn’t waste moving from one place to another was instead spent working. Products and tools in the office were labeled more clearly so that they were not misplaced and to ensure that no extra time would have to be spent looking for them. The end result was a 12.5 percent reduction in labor hours per coil and a reduction in set-up time by 50 percent.

Further proclaiming the success of the project was its return on investment: The total cost was just $9,000, but the yearly savings and increased profits for the company was more than $230,000. The company itself has been able to continue its growth, with revenue of more than $23 million in 2006, an 18.3 percent increase from 2005.

HOW TO REACH: Swiger Coil Systems LLC, (216) 362-7500 or

Friday, 26 October 2007 20:00

Jerry M. Kennelly

When business at Riverbed Technology Inc. grew from $2 million in revenue in 2004 to $23 million in 2005, Jerry M. Kennelly was ecstatic. But when it jumped to $90 million in 2006, he had a problem. Sure, Kennelly, Riverbed’s chairman, president and CEO, was tickled with the results, but suddenly the staff that he and Steve McCanne started with was unable to keep up with the demands. As a result, he had to make some tough decisions about the wide-area data services company. With employee numbers mushrooming to almost 500, Kennelly had to put his personal affection for the people he started with aside and make some management changes to fit the scale of the company. The result has been a company on pace for 2007 revenue of $225 million. Smart Business spoke with Kennelly about why hard work boosts morale and how today’s leader is less of a general and more of an orchestra conductor.

Keep a high-energy atmosphere to boost morale.

If you don’t have a lot of hard work, it’s impossible to have high morale. If people don’t have a lot to do, then there is this ho-hum, lazy attitude about the place.

There are companies where you get to sit in beanbag chairs and get free food, but what happens, over time, is the high performers don’t want to work in that environment because it becomes a slower environment — like a kindergarten or a college dormitory. High performers want to be proud, see success and move forward.

Success is a tonic; people like to feel successful. We have aggressive challenge targets that go out to the teams, and early on, we made the cultural point that it wasn’t about making money but about being focused on our customers and on winning as a team. Those values will endure through ups and downs financially. It’s an unselfish goal to be focused on your team success, so it’s uplifting — as uplifting as you can get for a commercial enterprise. We’re not feeding starving children or anything, but it’s a higher-level goal than, ‘How is the stock doing?’ and they respond to that. I call it psychic income — feeling like you’re part of something good — and psychic income is important.

Make tough decisions to move forward. If people can’t perform here, we ask them to leave. If you don’t do that, you’re not demonstrating a performance environment.

At the end of the day, it’s all about performance; it’s not about free coffee and doughnuts. Those people get in the way of other employees, and people resent having someone in their way.

As we were growing, some of the senior staff wasn’t the exact right fit to go forward as a bigger public company, and you become close to those people, but it was important for the business that I change out those positions, and that’s where a lot of companies stumble.

When you go from 20 employees to 500, there are people who have individual skills that just don’t scale up. They work well for that person or for managing a small group, but when you extrapolate doing that at a larger scale, with hundreds of employees, you can’t imagine that person, either their personal energy or intellectual capacity, dealing with the bigger challenge.

When someone does leave, we treat them very honorably. We respect people in general, but also, every other employee is watching, and they say, ‘God, if they did that nasty thing to Bill or Mary, they could do that to me.’

Give employees the instruments to succeed. I’m not the general ordering the forces; I’m more like the conductor of an orchestra getting people to share their talents with us. What’s coming from their brains is what we want, and what causes burnout is when you’re held responsible but you have no control. We hold people responsible, but we give them control, the resources to do their job.

You try to have people be the masters of their own fate, so you say, ‘Mr. Sales Manager, your job is to deliver this amount of sales revenue,’ and we hold them liable to that. But we say, ‘To do that, we have resources to help you, here’s your budget for the quarter, here’s a guy who can help you with leads,’ so you hold them responsible, but you also give them resources and control.

Hire carefully, even — and especially — during growth. Over the years, you develop a network of people that you know, but that doesn’t mean hire someone just because you knew them. You know 10,000 people, but maybe there’s a half dozen that you’d want to work with again. You can build a core from that, and then start doing it the old-fashioned way: recruiters, networking and recommendations. You have to be careful and take every hire very seriously.

It’s the everyday work blocking and tackling of building a company, so have multiple interviews for every candidate. There’s an old saying, ‘When it comes to hiring, a single person’s opinion is like no opinion at all.’ So have at least three, sometimes as many as 10, people interview each candidate. Then, you do it the old-fashioned way: Hire one person at a time.

Be careful with advice. The challenge for any CEO is you have a lot of people giving you advice, and there’s the 20-80-100 percent rule in dealing with advice. In any given situation, informed people will give you the right advice 80 percent of the time. It’s the common wisdom of them saying, ‘When this happens, you do this.’

The problem is, it’s wrong 20 percent of the time. So your job as CEO is to figure out, ‘Am I in the 80 percent chance where I should take this advice, or is there something about my company, my industry, my particular situation that puts me in the 20 percent case?’ And I have to think of the right answer for myself.

It’s a subtle thing that a lot of leaders don’t appreciate, but that’s the key to the job. There’s no place to hide at the top, so you have to decide when to deviate from the basic advice.

HOW TO REACH: Riverbed Technology Inc., (415) 247-8800 or

Sunday, 26 August 2007 20:00

Jim Steele

Jim Steele doesn’t want any of the lip service employees often give bosses. Steele wants to know exactly what’s going on, and he

finds that out by regularly getting on the front line with his team at inc. To Steele, president of worldwide sales and

distribution, the only way for a leader to really know the company is to see the trends up close and listen to the people who are fighting

the battles every day. That’s why he spends a big portion of his time at the on-demand customer relationship management services

company speaking to customers and getting feedback from its 2,000 employees. So far, the results are solid: Company revenue grew

nearly 60 percent to $497 million for fiscal year 2007. Smart Business spoke with Steele about getting in the trenches with his team

and what you can learn from your employees.

Go to battle with your team to get better answers.

My style is to be down in the trenches and

side by side with the sales team. I always

tell them, ‘I’m down here to help you guys

communicate to the customer and to negotiate deals.’ That means considering myself

the face of the company and being side by

side with my team and not making them

feel like, ‘Oh, jeez, the boss is coming, so

we have to put on our best face,’ then giving me a lot of lip service on everything.

I would rather hear what’s really going

on, and I don’t want them to think the boss

isn’t listening or doesn’t care. From my perspective, if I can show good listening skills

and really understand the issues, then the

team feels better for getting those issues

teed up and feels better about their

chances of success because someone at

the top cares.

Learn from your employees. All the things that I do with them as far as coaching, I also ask

from them. I ask them, ‘What could I have

done better to help you make this sale,

what would you like to see me do to help

you with this customer, what can I do to

make you, the company and the team more


I don’t stand on protocol because of my

position in the company. I’ve got to earn

people’s respect every day. I don’t put

myself above anybody and say, ‘Well, I’m

the president, so you have to listen to me.’

I want to truly understand what the issues

are; I have to make sure that I’m always

open to new ideas so that I’m not stuck in

my old ways.

Don’t brag. You have to be unselfish and

modest and not do all the talking. I can’t tell

you how many times I’ve seen executives

just spending time talking about all the

things they’ve done and how great they are.

Nobody really cares. When I’m out with my

team or customers, I want to know about

their families and their kids and just kind of

break down those barriers.

People want to know that you care about

them as people and don’t just see them as some part of the system that is there to generate revenue for you. I think employees

are a lot more loyal when they feel a connection to their leader. I know I am. That’s

the key thing, be unpretentious.

Inspire confidence. People want to deal with people that are stable and can inspire confidence. Show them that you’re not frantic

— it’s good to have a high sense of urgency,

but you don’t want to be frenetic about it

and make everyone think that you’re in crisis mode.

You have to present yourself as someone

who is calm and cool and collected under

fire because if you can alleviate some of

that pressure from your team, it really

makes them feel like you’re taking some of

the load off of them.

Focus on the victories. When anybody does

anything that either helps drive additional

revenue, helps drive better customer success or somehow enables better teamwork

or morale, I want to make sure that they get

credit for it.

People need a lot of positive reinforcement, they’re putting their necks on the line

every day, and the positive reinforcement

from their peers and management is what keeps them going. When we get praise from

our customer, it’s like we’ve been given a

million dollars; there’s just nothing better.

Promoting any praise we get is a great

way to boost morale and commitment and

loyalty. It’s one of the things that we do all

the time because it’s cheap to do; it doesn’t

cost you anything. It takes a little bit of

time, but the return is so high that it just

amazes me when people don’t do that on a

regular basis.

Be an evangelist for the company. We’re like evangelists. We continually tell people who

we are and what our vision is and what our

values are. We’re the face to the customer,

and if they look at us and they don’t think

that we’re inspired and excited about this

model, then they’re going to question, ‘Is

this really the right way to go?’ The way

that we beat the other guy is we become an

army of evangelists that are so excited

about selling and using our own products.

Make sure you’re getting there with metrics.

There are a lot of people who say they care

about their customers and their people, but

we track it religiously. We always look for

proof points on that, and we communicate

that to everybody.

The metrics are the validation points. You

can have all these great values and visions

and methods, but unless you can actually

track the progress of it, you’re not putting

the points on the board.

We have a site where you can look at any

of our systems on any given day and see

how many transactions are going through,

and you can see the response time. These

are important metrics that anyone can see.

It’s like the power plant; if your lights are

out, you can’t fake it. Before, we’d always

take things anecdotally and say, ‘I’ve heard

this 25 times,’ but now we have this site

where it’s all right in front of you accurately. If you’re not close to the customer, if you

don’t work to get feedback and do something with it, that’s death.

HOW TO REACH: inc., (800) 667-6389 or

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Martian family

It’s a true story — Martians saved Marilyn Barnett’s company. When MARS Advertising Co. Inc.’s office burnt down three years ago, the retail consumer marketing agency was in serious trouble. But Barnett, the company’s president and CEO, has always worked to foster a family atmosphere at MARS — lovingly dubbing her 340 employees “Martians” — and that paid off as the team pulled together after the fire.

After the building burned down on a Friday, the team gathered Saturday and vowed to move forward. Employees began calling clients and promising that deadlines would still be met and projects would be finished.

“The family feeling kept the family together,” Barnett says. “The building burned down, but we were fine, and they broke off in their teams and moved forward and achieved what they were supposed to.”

Smart Business spoke with Barnett about how to create that family atmosphere and how it empowers employees to succeed.

Q: How do you foster a family feeling at your company?

When someone makes the decision to be part of the MARS family — we call them Martians — their department leader tells this employee that we are really a MARS family, and who they are and what they are is very important to us.

Whatever an employee does, it leaves a lasting impression. Whether it’s a client or a supplier or a vendor, it’s the impression that they leave, which is kind of like a family because they’re representing your name, and you don’t want them to go out there and make you look bad. So we work to promote a family-type atmosphere and environment, and we have a lot of events focused on bringing that specific idea to the forefront during the year. We have picnics during the summer, and we go to a ballgame, and we have parties — all the events that bring people close together.

It’s really important that they do fit in to that family feel. It’s important that they are team players because there are no silos here. We all are part of that team, including me, and if it’s good for you, it’s good for me. So the person has to have a happy spirit and has to feel like they want to be a team player.

Q: How do you grow into new markets?

If you believe strongly in what you’re going to do in this other city, then it’s easy because the person you sent to this other city is a leader you trusted; so then you just stay close with communications. We have a division in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the reason it’s in Scottsdale is because the leader is in Scottsdale, and in this day and age, you don’t have to be in this office in order to work well with us. Technology allows people to be other places.

They come to Detroit once a month, and one of us goes to these offices once a month, but we’re also on the phone all the time and doing e-mail, so it’s really not as hard as it used to be to keep that going.

Q: What is the main component to empowering employees?

I never say I want us to do something because I said so. I try to get everyone that’s involved in the discussion. I have the ultimate decision in my group, but I want other groups to come to their own decision.

Sometimes they aren’t right, but we give them that authority, and most of the time, they are. It helps build a feeling of responsibility.

We go to a meeting, and we’re in the car and we’re driving, and normally I’ll say, ‘OK gang, are we all in agreement that this is what we’re going to do? Let’s talk about it and make sure.’ And we do. And normally people add what they think, and we say, ‘Yeah, that’s good,’ and before we walk into the door, we are in accord, and that makes for a happy group.

There aren’t people there who feel like they have to be the hero today because we work it out together.

Q: What’s the key to hiring good people?

You don’t ask them a set list of questions that probably they’ve heard and rehearsed for. You talk about life, and talk about where they worked and why they want a new job, and what is their motivation for getting into this business, as opposed to where they were before.

Or, if they worked in the same field at another agency, what did they do before, and why didn’t they like it, or why do they want to move on? You kind of get into a conversation with people.

HOW TO REACH: MARS Advertising Co. Inc., (248) 936-2200 or

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

David J. Hooker

If you can’t find David J. Hooker in the office, it’s probably because he’s out trying to learn what more Thompson Hine LLP can do — either for its employees or for its clients. Hooker, the $172 million business law firm’s managing partner, believes that the best way to produce a vision for tomorrow is to take time today to listen to both the marketplace and its people. That drives his desire to build consensus with the 850 employees across the firm’s eight offices. Smart Business spoke with Hooker about how to create an environment where everyone is involved and about the importance of repeating the vision.

Build a consensus, build a happy company. You need to bring people together and help them form a common vision and a common direction. That’s what makes an organization successful.

The most important thing is to create an environment where everybody feels a part of the firm. We want people to understand how everyone — whether they are a secretary or a senior partner — can contribute. You have to look at individuals and make sure that we understand each one and what his or her career aspirations are and how we, as a firm, can help them meet those aspirations.

We have a program where we ask the associates to meet by themselves to identify the issues and concerns that they have about the firm. That process is invigorating for all of us because we have great dialogue on things they want us to work on, which they might not have otherwise had the opportunity to bring to us.

We document the meetings and report to the entire firm about what was raised and what our responses were. We’ve made changes coming out of that meeting because associates have suggested it.

Alternatively, there’s been times we can’t make a change, but we say, ‘No, and here are the reasons.’ Our associates feel like this is something that really distinguishes our firm because of the openness with which we approach this communication process.

Listen to everybody. One of the most important skills is to be able to listen to people. That’s listening to people both inside and outside the firm.

A leader has to be able to form a vision for his or her organization but that cannot be done in a vacuum. You first need to listen to people in the marketplace to set and revise the vision to keep the organization competitive. You really have to soak up as much information as possible on what clients want and what your competition is doing.

Then you have to listen to people in your own organization because you have to understand where they’re coming from — what their fears and concerns and needs are — so that, as you communicate with them, you help them understand what we’re doing so they can buy in.

If you find out something, or if you develop a point of view that things are happening in the marketplace, you have to survey, you have to ask questions, you have to probe to put yourself in a position to make a conclusion.

I often meet with clients as the managing partner of the firm. I do that to express our appreciation for the confidence they place in us but also to make sure that I understand what they’re thinking so I can respond to any issues or problems they have.

Fix today’s problems through tomorrow’s plans.

The trick is to put today’s problems in context of the vision for tomorrow, and what that means is, you first have to have the long-term vision in place as you deal with the daily problems that come up.

If we’re all in agreement of the longer-term plan, then we can really solve today’s problem in that context. We know what we’re trying to achieve, and the decisions become easier.

If somebody comes in with an opportunity to hire a new lawyer, well, if you have this vision of the firm that you’re trying to build, you can pull back and say, ‘Does this lawyer fit in with the vision of what we’re trying to build?’ And it becomes a much easier conversation.

Repeat your communication. You have to communicate to make sure that everything is understood across the firm. I know that takes repeating things so that everybody has the opportunity to hear it, think about it, ask questions and, ultimately, embrace it.

I know it’s successful when I hear others talking about it. It takes a lot of work to get there, but it’s a great feeling when you hear someone explaining the vision in the same language you started with or when you see it being communicated by others around the firm. Then, of course, as groups get together in the firm, and I sit in on meetings, I always take that as an opportunity to reinforce the messages that we’re focused on.

Make new employees feel at home. We’ve developed a process to bring new people into the firm and integrate them into our practice — and the key is the integration piece. Too often, firms will hire an experienced lawyer, they’ll come in, get their desk and computer, and the firm will say, ‘Go to work,’ and then nobody pays any attention to them.

We have a process where each new person has an individual integration plan. And that process looks at the clients they’ve been working with, the clients we have, the people in our firm who have similar or complementary skills sets, and then we map out the first year of their tenure to take advantage of their specific skills so both sides can get the most out of that time.

Say what’s on your mind. Don’t be reticent to say what you think. When a new leader takes over an organization, he or she naturally wants respect, but he or she can’t be shy about what their vision for the organization is.

You have to get out there and say what you think. People look to leaders for direction, and the leader has to give it. There are going to be times you need to refine your direction or vision based either on judgments or market forces pushing you in different directions, so you have to be willing to go out in front of everyone and say, ‘Hey, we have to make a change in plans, and this is what we’re going to do.’

HOW TO REACH: Thompson Hine LLP, (216) 566-5821 or

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Flex performance

Ronia Kruse doesn’t care too much if her employees are in the office 40 hours a week.

Instead, the ultimate test for Kruse, president and CEO of OpTech LLC, is a set of metrics to ensure that the work is being done — and being done well. With that standard in place, it doesn’t matter much to Kruse if it gets done from a living room couch or an office desk, so long as it meets the standards for the $12 million technology consulting and business solutions firm.

Smart Business spoke with Kruse about being a motivator and letting employees keep a flexible schedule.

Q: How did you create a flexible schedule with your staff?

We set everybody up at, and everybody has a wireless network from home, and they can log on from there. With that, they have all the tools they need at home to do their work.

A lot of our people actually are working moms that have children, so they often log on at 6 in the morning before the kids wake up and then come in until 2 p.m. when the kids get home from school, and then they’ll get back on during the night. This way it doesn’t matter if they have to be home because they’re sick or anything.

A lot of people say, ‘Aren’t you worried that they’re going to take your list of recruiters; aren’t you worried about security?’ There’s a trust factor, and I think that element is missing in most companies. There’s a loyalty and a trust that they have all the tools, and we trust them, and they have every means of being successful.

We’re trusting them to work from home, and they appreciate that.

Q: With that flexible schedule, how do you know you’re getting the most from employees?

We have a system where people are compensated based on their performance. The whole theory is, I don’t care who you are, what color you are, what sex you are; it’s all about performance.

You can come and go as you want, but you will be evaluated based on your performance. We have a very, very supportive culture, and we make sure to provide all of our people with the best tools. They have a flexible schedule, they can work from home, they can work from pretty much anywhere and come and go as they want, but the bottom line is performance.

We have a lot of metrics that we create on a monthly and quarterly basis. I know, for example, how many resumes were sent to clients. I know how many interviews and how many hires were made. And if they’re not hitting their mark, then I know that they’re not putting in the quality time.

My whole theory is I want quality, not quantity. What that means is, I don’t want people working 60 or 70 hours a week. I don’t care about that. If you can work 20 hours a week and hit your mark, that’s great. I don’t need them to be at work 40 hours then.

They know that we treat all of our people the same, but the difference is in their commission, and that’s where the incentive for performance comes in.

Q: What is the most important skill a leader should have?

You have to be a hell of a salesperson. You have to be a great motivator. You have to be a person that your people look up to. You have to set an example.

If you’re working hard, there are certain things that you’re doing to set the tone. You have to be a mentor; your people have to look up to you. You have to be somebody that they would aspire to become, and that will hopefully motivate them.

Q: What is your philosophy on hiring?

The most important thing is to surround yourself with good people. I’ve seen it in so many companies, where people say, ‘You know what, I’m going to bring in my friends,’ or, ‘I’m going to bring in someone who is a little less expensive, even though they don’t have the knowledge base’ because they want to save money, and what that ends up doing is, it kills the company. If you surround yourself with junk, you’re not going to get the performance out of them.

I don’t care what type of motivator or leader you are, you aren’t going to get performance from the wrong people. And that doesn’t mean you get people from Harvard.

I have people that don’t have degrees and I have people with very high degrees, but what I’m saying is, you have to look at the person and see if they have the drive to be successful.

Some people have it, and some people don’t.

HOW TO REACH: OpTech LLC, or (313) 962-9000

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Designing culture

To work for Mary Ann Lievois, you have to have a flare for sales, an eye for design and the ability to talk to customers. But if you don’t have all that right now, Lievois, CEO of iscg inc., is willing to teach, if you’re willing to try. By cross-training all of the workplace design and furnishing company’s employees, Lievois has turned everyone into a specialized commodity for the company.

Lievois doesn’t want people to look at cross-training as a hazard but instead as a boon to their skills.

“I don’t have a problem with change,” Lievois says. “I look at it as an opportunity and embrace it.”

By embracing change, Lievois has kept her staff together and pushed revenue to $20 million at a time when many of her competitors have faced layoffs.

Smart Business spoke with Lievois about cross-training and celebrating victories.

Q: How do you keep your employees motivated?

I focus constantly on how to refresh someone’s job, how to take the best skills of somebody and create something unique about that. I prioritize job enrichment by allowing employees to wear many hats. They want that ability and embrace it because it’s a job enrichment tool.

If you have a good attitude, that employee is inspired to grow and open up that opportunity to look for empowering positions, but it’s all about attitude.

There’s no place for somebody to have a very narrow job description. We haven’t laid anybody off, but our competitors have had to. A lot of that is about cross-training, and there’s not a niche position in this place. There’s no time for niche positions in this economy.

Q: What’s the key to hiring people when employees wear so many hats?

The first obvious issue is how aggressive they are and how creative they are in seeking us out. That says a lot right there.

But we don’t hire people without putting them within a peer group, and then with a group of one person from every department to talk to them about how they work together and ask questions about how they work with others and how they would see themselves in that position. Because we’re small, the training takes a long time. We don’t have a training department to send someone off to, to go learn.

For all the energy and time we invest in training and educating them, I can’t afford to have someone spend four months here and then decide they don’t like what they do.

We make sure they completely understand the job. We have a customer support person or designer talk to them about what they may have to do, and what their personality will have to be, and that they may have to step into another role where they deal with customers. If you’re an administrative person, for example, and you know that you’re an introvert, and you hear that, you will think twice. I want all that on the table early.

Q: How do you encourage people to make decisions?

When you’re empowering people, you need to take that fear away of making a bad decision. We’re very clear about telling people that no one gets fired for making a bad decision.

Making a bad decision or a mistake, it’s not some fireable action; it’s hiding those mistakes or not addressing them early enough. We work hard to let everyone know that so that everybody understands that if there’s a problem, let’s all jump on it and find the best solution.

Q: What do you consider your most important job?

Understanding who you work for. I say that I work for my 30 employees. I have to create efficiencies and remove roadblocks so that people work smarter, not harder. It’s our job to keep people focused by fashioning the way for whatever it might be we do next.

If there’s a problem, I want to know about it first thing, and we’re going to drop everything and take care of it. That becomes my priority for the day.

I have to ask myself questions every day about if I’m helping them. Did I really do everything I could to make the whole team more productive? Was I keeping everybody as efficient as possible? Was I making sure they were working together and stepping in to help with any conflicts?

Q: When things get tough, how do you keep up the energy?

We try to always focus on finding the celebration of the day. We have something on our wall called ‘Celebrate the yes.’ It was just questions about how the employee gets through their day, asking what they did to help iscg get through the day. There were questions about whether or not they helped with new business opportunities.

It’s just keeping the positive, celebrating the yes. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll leave or I’ll close my door. Sometimes I go out and try to find someone who I know did something positive that day and talk to them about that.

HOW TO REACH: iscg inc., (248) 399-1600 or