When partners Steve Goodman and Craig Swill purchased Welcome Wagon International, Inc. in 2009, the business was still the world’s largest welcoming service for new homeowners at 82 years old. They decided to keep the company updated and relevant moving forward by refocusing the company completely on sales and marketing. The problem was, the company’s corporate culture was very negative and communication between the corporate and sales sides of the company was poor.
“You kind of had a sales versus corporate clash going on within the organization,” says Swill, the company’s CEO.
The corporate side cared more about technology and was insensitive to many sales-oriented issues. The sales employees felt cut off from many changes at the corporate level, with some of them working as individuals in remote parts of the country.
“When people do not have communication and are out in the field by themselves, they kind of get this paranoia. … So you have a lot of missed communication when there is lack of any communication,” Swill says.
To get employees re-engaged in the vision for Welcome Wagon, especially on the sales side, Swill and Goodman needed to reopen some lines of communication that hadn’t been open for decades.
Together, they went on a “world tour,” visiting every company region to give presentations for the sales teams and to discuss their vision and goals for the first 12 months of their leadership transition. Most of the people they talked to had never met anyone from the corporate office, much less the heads of the company.
“They were very touched that we felt enough to go out and really learn about their challenges in selling and about their challenges in the economy,” says Goodman, Welcome Wagon’s president.
“We asked them questions to learn what they were looking for within the organization. From the very beginning, we opened lines of communication between the corporate office and our field organization.”
They implemented weekly meetings to provide sales training for corporate employees, so they could better understand the experiences of their sales counterparts. On the sales side, they offered representatives and managers training opportunities to learn new technology and skill sets, giving them the resources needed to be most effective. Now, sales officers communicate weekly and daily with field officers to reinforce and align their goals.
After their one-year anniversary in 2010, Goodman and Swill did another world tour to discuss progress and go over their five-year strategic plan. Their reception this time around was a lot different. They’d grown sales every month, and in less than a year, they made Welcome Wagon a debt-free company.
“We started receiving hugs. Literally, people wanted to come and hug us,” Swill says… “We were able to check off bullet point by bullet point, page after page, all of the things we promised them, and we hit everything that we promised them. We were able to gain their trust, and that is huge.”
Today, Swill and Goodman continue to make themselves very accessible to the organization’s employees by talking on the phone to address sales problems, questions or issues, and always looking for ways to support the sales team with the resources they need to succeed.
“Some of the most negative people that I could give examples of a year ago were so positive this year and saying thank you for taking this organization and totally revamping it, turning it around, giving us products and giving us a company that we can now go out and truly be proud of in the way that we sell it every day,” Goodman says.
How to reach: Welcome Wagon, www.welcomewagon.com
Law of limits
According to Steve Goodman, successful strategic planning isn’t just about winning people over to your vision. That is one part of it, and so is communicating that vision effectively. But another key part of executing a strategic plan is recognizing and understanding other people’s limitations.
“You have to always understand, that just because we can get something done and we see things going from A to Z, that doesn’t mean that all of the people that you lead see things in the same way,” Goodman says. “Some people are really pigeonholed in what they do 100 percent; they don’t understand how to tie things together at different levels within the organization.”
As a business owner, CEO or entrepreneur who is used to fast-paced change and goal-setting, you may be tempted to push hard and move fast in carrying out your plan. However, leading people isn’t about pushing people in the direction you want them to go, it’s about guiding them, showing them you are aware of their capabilities, and giving them the resources needed to get there.
“It’s the ability to get people to see things in a way that makes sense as they move forward and to help them further their careers,” Goodman says.“You have to see people’s strengths and weaknesses to see how to move them.”
Are you reluctant to call out an employee who is not meeting your expectations? Do you worry about the conflict you might create by raising these concerns? If you answered yes to these questions, you’re not doing your job as the leader of your business.
“You read a lot about making sure you’re not hurting people’s feelings and not being over the top and too aggressive when you talk to people,” says Greg Harris, founder, president and CEO of Backhaul Direct LLC. “You need a level of aggression. You’re paying someone to do a job. They need to know where you stand. If you’re not happy with the productivity of an employee, you have to let them know.”
Before you get the wrong idea about the corporate culture at Backhaul Direct, you should know that Harris loves to have fun both at work and away from the office. The 75-employee freight management and logistics firm sponsors a collegiate bowling tournament each February and has a group of employees who bowl regularly.
“You have to be able to come here and enjoy what you’re doing,” Harris says. “That’s the last thing I want is for someone to come here and hate everything about their job.”
Harris considers it part of his job to foster a strong and healthy workplace culture. But it’s also his job to expect and demand the best from his employees and give them a kick in the butt when they need it.
“It’s the job of a manager, just like a personal trainer, to always be pushing you a little bit,” Harris says. “I tell my guys all the time, ‘You’re always going to feel some resistance from me. I’m always going to be pushing and challenging you.’”
Harris takes the physical fitness and training analogy a step further.
“I’m not going to tell you to fire off 10 reps at 15 pounds when I know that you can fire off 20 reps at 30 pounds,” Harris says. “At the same time, you don’t want to establish goals that are so far out of their range of capability that they will be disheartened and disgruntled with their job.”
The key in establishing goals is to make them a priority. Put them down on paper so that there is a record of what you and your employees have determined to be goals worthy of pursuing.
“You absolutely have to put them in writing,” Harris says. “You also have to create a plan on how you’re going to hit those goals.”
Backhaul Direct has made the pursuit of sales goals more fun by creating groups that employees can aspire to join. Newcomers are “Lottery Picks,” a nod to the elite rookies picked in the NBA Draft.
Next is the “Contenders,” a group of employees who have risen above the first stage but aren’t at the top of the heap yet. And at the top is the “Top Dogs,” the sales reps who handle the company’s most important accounts.
“They have the big clients, the flexible schedule and the company work card for unlimited lunches,” Harris says.
The idea is to create a sense of competition that energizes employees and drives growth. It’s a fun way to keep the motivation level high at a company that has plans to add more than 300 jobs by 2015.
“We try to maintain a competitive atmosphere where everyone is privy to the company sales goals, their numbers and the other sales reps’ numbers in our office,” Harris says. “We look at that as a motivating factor. You don’t want to be the low man on the totem pole.”
How to reach: Backhaul Direct LLC, (800) 518-1664 or www.backhauldirect.com
Ask the questions
So what happens if goals aren’t being met and revenue isn’t growing in your business? Greg Harris says you can start by appraising your own performance.
“Are they responding to your message?” says Harris, founder, president and CEO at Backhaul Direct LLC. “Are you giving employees the proper tools to meet those goals? Are they targeting the right clients? Have they not been taught appropriately from day one?”
If you determine that you’ve done your job, start looking at what’s going on with the employee.
“Do they not like the product they are selling?” Harris says. “Do they not like they are selling? Are they just not interested in what they are doing anymore? Is there something else I can challenge the person with? Maybe they have outgrown what they are doing. Ask the question: ‘You seem burned out. You seem complacent. Is there a reason for that? Can I do something different? Is there something within our scope that you can do in the company?’”
In addition to these questions, you also need to make it clear that there is a problem if an employee is not performing to expectation.
“Show concern and try to set something else for them to do,” Harris says. “But let them know, ‘Right now what you’re doing, it’s just not working for us. Is there something we can do to help?’”
How to reach: Backhaul Direct LLC, (800) 518-1664 or www.backhauldirect.com
Neil Mortine needed to show people that he had a plan. It was something he needed to do three times in 2010 as Fahlgren Inc. made three acquisitions to its business.
“You have to be able to convince people that you’re taking them somewhere good, somewhere that is a better place,” says Mortine, president and CEO at Fahlgren Inc. “You have to have clear goals and plans of where you want to go and what you want to achieve. Then it’s not that hard.”
Mortine’s 160-employee public relations firm has added Edward Howard & Co., Grip Technology and, most recently, Sabatino Day Inc. to its organization in 2010. One of the biggest challenges that comes about in acquiring a business is integrating the two cultures.
Fortunately for Fahlgren and the companies that were joining it, cultural integration was part of Mortine’s plan in each case.
“Culture is king,” Mortine says. “It is the primary driver for what we’re doing. … If the culture is not solid, I don’t know how it all hangs together.”
Mortine initiated the creation of cultural integration teams that would be made up of employees from both Fahlgren and the company it was acquiring.
“We wanted to have people involved that really understood our culture,” Mortine says. “We didn’t want it necessarily to be the senior executives. We wanted it to be people that had spent some time here, maybe some of the ones who had come to us just out of school but were still young in their careers, up-and-comers and overachievers. We purposely put those people on the team on our end. We asked the executives at the other company to do the same.
“The executives are always talking before, during and after. But we wanted the rank and file to be talking to each other just as fast as possible. We put the teams together and introduced them.”
When you put together teams for anything, be it cultural integration or some other special project, you need to empower that team to do its job. It can’t just be for show.
“Give people the ability to fail and the opportunity to be heard and to go out there with ideas and not be afraid of failing,” Mortine says. “Empower folks and act with a sense of urgency and give guys a freedom and authority to take action and influence change. We support that. We give them tools and resources they need and the confidence to stand up there. Part of what I need to do is build leaders that can move this thing forward after I’m done with it.”
You’re looking to convince people, especially the ones at the company that you are acquiring, that you’re not simply imposing your will on them.
“We told them it wasn’t going to be our way or the highway,” Mortine says. “We were looking for recommendations to make us even better and stronger. We didn’t want to force anything down anybody’s throats.”
Make sure the team members meet on a regular basis and feel free to check in on their progress. But for the most part, let them do their job.
“We gave them parameters of what to look for,” Mortine says. “But the ones we selected, we knew their credentials and we knew why we wanted them on the team. They would dig for information, they were collaborative and they were our overachievers.”
If your team comes back with ideas that you’re not sure about, don’t just reject them without consideration. That power and freedom to fail is something you need and your people need in order to achieve success.
“That’s what life is all about,” Mortine says.
Neil Mortine has been on both sides of the table when it comes to business acquisitions.
“Fahlgren acquired my company eight years ago, so I know what it’s like to be acquired,” says Mortine, president and CEO at Fahlgren Inc. “I know what it’s like personally to be part of a new team.”
With that experience, Mortine also knows what it’s like to be the CEO one day and an employee at someone else’s business the next.
“It can be pretty emotional,” says the leader of the 160-employee public relations firm. “Try to work through the title and roles and responsibilities very early on to see if they are interested. ‘Here are some new areas you can work in that can be exciting now that you don’t have so many administrative responsibilities. Can we take advantage of all that you’ve learned and your relationships?’”
If the person seems open to working with you, do yourself a favor and listen to what he or she has to say in terms of ideas for the business.
“I tend to come off a lot smarter to people if I’m quieter and just listen as opposed to just putting my opinion out there on day one when people meet me,” Mortine says. “People want to work with me a lot better and a lot more closely if I give them the lead and let them talk a little bit and give their point of view and ask questions.”
How to reach: Fahlgren Inc., (800) 731-8927 or www.fahlgren.com.
Chris Blase never intended to go into the cleaning business as his career. It was something he decided to do with a couple buddies to supplement his full-time job.
Then he and his buddies lost their full-time jobs and the cleaning business suddenly became a lot more important.
“I thought it would be a pretty simple, straightforward business to start, and I found out it was a lot more difficult,” Blase says. “The biggest challenge by far was recruiting people that were motivated to do a good job. I hired and fired over 1,000 people over a five-year period.”
What followed was a time of stress, struggle and, ultimately, satisfaction as Blase learned what it took to find the right people and build a business that could thrive.?He says his first lesson was to stop trying to be all things to all people.
“I was getting to the point where it was not unusual for me to work straight through the night,” Blase says. “I was doing things like driving away from the gas station with the hose still in my car. And I walked out of my apartment one day and I hadn’t put my pants on.”
Blase was taking all comers as clients, no matter the size or location, and it was burning him out. After selling the business and working for a couple other companies that were suffering from the same problems, Blase decided to strike out on his own again. This time, however, he took a different approach.?He quit trying to do it all and focused on a specific segment, office buildings between 50,000 and 300,000 square feet.
Just as importantly, he made it a point to bring in motivated managers who could help him lead and grow his business. Buildingstars Inc. now provides cleaning services for more than 1,400 customers and took in $20 million in 2009.
“If you can find a way for your key managers to have a vested interest in the company, you’re going to get a totally different attitude toward work and just a totally different approach,” says Blase, the 48-employee franchise cleaning company’s founder and president. “Especially if you’re expanding on a large scale.”
Blase decided to get into franchising. And lest you think this story suddenly doesn’t apply to you anymore, Blase says, ‘Think again.’
“In theory, almost any business is franchiseable,” Blase says. “Companies are going to be faced with a decision where, ‘I’m happy here in St. Louis. I really don’t want to expand beyond this because I don’t want to make the investment and manage remotely.’ They should be asking the question: Would that make sense under a franchise model?”
Blase says franchising is a much more comfortable way to manage people.
“It’s like working with supporting partners versus managing employees,” Blase says.
So the next question is: How do you find people to fill these important roles of leading your franchise units?
“The key is not really looking to sell a franchise,” Blase says. “It’s more based on qualifying or recruiting a franchise owner that’s qualified. It’s not all about the initial investment. It’s more about the recruiting process. You should turn the process around and look at qualifying that person just as strong as you would when you’re bringing on a manager in your company.”
Blase says the difference in providing someone with equity and a stake in the business versus just being another employee in the company can be immense.
“I was able to attract a totally different type of individual that maybe wouldn’t normally go to work for a cleaning company,” Blase says. “It’s all about creating the right kind of management and development system for your key people.”
Put in the time
One of the first things Chris Blase does when he’s looking at a prospective franchisee is ask the person to put together a business plan.
“Have the prospective franchisee go through a very in-depth process to prove that they are competent or capable of managing that unit,” says Blase, founder and president at Buildingstars Inc. “The biggest mistake that companies make is they base the decision on that person’s ability to invest versus their ability to perform.”
The 48-employee franchise cleaning company has more than 1,700 customers and took in $20 million in 2009 revenue.?If you find that you’re not recruiting effective leaders for your business, assess your recruiting style and the questions that you’re asking.
“Am I identifying the same skills and using the same criteria that I would use in hiring a competent manager?” Blase says.
Set aside the investment aspect of franchising and focus on the basics of leadership skill and competence. Make it clear that you want to work with the person to help them grow.?At the same time, you need to stay in touch with customers to get their feedback on how your leader is doing.
“It’s important to be in touch with the perceptions of the customers and hear their positive viewpoints and negative viewpoints,” Blase says.
How to reach: Buildingstars Inc., (866) 991-3356 or www.buildingstars.com.
Lea Bailes saw great potential for Valerie Eaton to become a valuable leader at Guier Fence. The only person he needed to sell on developing this untapped talent was Valerie.
“She came into our organization as an associate doing material sales and not getting paid a whole lot to do that,” says Bailes, the 70-employee fence company’s president. “I saw a lot of potential in her to do a lot more than maybe she thought she was even capable of doing or that somebody would allow her to do. I started approaching her about changing roles.”
Bailes wanted Eaton to become involved with outside sales and residential sales, but she turned down his offer several times.
“One day, I guess something changed, and she came back and said, ‘Yes, I want to do it,’” Bailes says. “She ended up being our top residential salesperson for that year. After seeing her accelerate through that, we saw a whole different side of her. We saw this competitiveness and this drive come out.”
So what’s the key to discovering this kind of hidden talent in your organization?
It starts with a patient approach.
“You may see something and you may want something, but it may take time,” Bailes says. “You may be dealing with someone who has a totally different personality than you.”
If you see talent in one of your employees, you need to get that person to recognize it in themselves. You also need to see how committed they are to you and your company. So give the person a small challenge that takes him or her out of his or her comfort zone.
“Move their cheese a little bit and see how they respond,” Bailes says. “If they get upset and start throwing a fit, they’re probably not your most loyal employee. But if they move into the problem and move to what you’re trying to get them to do, they’re probably a very loyal employee.”
It may be as simple as just rearranging the person’s job responsibilities a bit or asking them to take on a small but important project. Whatever it is, the way you present it to the person can go a long way toward their acceptance of both that task and future assignments.
“The way I present it is, ‘This is the greatest area of need in the company; you have an opportunity to come in and be a hero and fulfill this need,’” Bailes says. “We try to portray it like they can ride in and save the day. Try to motivate them through the thought that they can do that. It’s not false. We’re not trying to trick them into doing anything. We really are trying to fill a need.”
If the person handles the project successfully, be vocal with your praise. But you need to go beyond a pat on the back to create true engagement. Show people how their effort helped your business.
“Appreciation motivates people, but so does a sense of getting a job done,” Bailes says. “Crossing something off a list or providing a certain result is something that really motivates people. Review the results with them. Tell them, ‘You did X, and this is exactly what you’ve accomplished, and you should be proud of that.’ Give them that feeling of accomplishment.”
Keep feeding the person challenges and increase the difficulty based on how well they perform.
“You have to be patient and look for those small daily changes,” Bailes says. “I’ve seen managers that weren’t patient and they just run good people off.”
It was through a patient approach that Bailes was able to groom Eaton into a leader who is now responsible for managing her own sales staff.
“Find someone who has an intense passion for what you’re doing and the company itself and then train them how to manage,” Bailes says. “Take the loyalty and instill the management skills.”
How to reach: Guier Fence, (888) 782-6508 or www.guierfence.com
Make your business interesting
Lea Bailes won’t try to convince you that his is the most exciting business in the world. But he will argue that Guier Fence is a lot more than just 70 employees who dig postholes in the ground.
“I struggled with this myself for a while dealing with telling people what my job was,” says Guier, the fence company’s president. “You have to figure out how to make what everybody is doing meaningful. For us, the meaning for what we do is we beautify people’s properties. We protect children and dogs. We keep people from falling into pools or falling off of balconies.”
If your employees feel a sense of purpose in their work, they’re more likely to stay loyal to your business.
“You have to look at it from a consumer perspective,” Bailes says. “There is a reason why someone is buying what we’re selling. If you start looking at your business too introspectively and you look at the day-to-day stuff that you grind through, we all have that. You have to get past all that and not get bogged down in what you don’t like and really look at it from the end perspective.”
Joel Portice sees one problem with meetings: You have to be there. The president and CEO of Intelimedix LLC, a company that provides predictive health care analytics, thinks that’s too restrictive.
So when Portice created advisory groups of Intelimedix customers — who are health plan providers — as sounding boards for needs and opportunities, he leveraged their collective knowledge by blowing the doors off the boardroom.
“Rather than just relying on set meetings where everybody has to be there and if you’re not there, you’re not participating, it’s open 24/7,” says Portice, who has 50 employees. “What we’re saying is: Take away the physicality of this and make it digital. Our view was [that] to digitize the meetings would help promote participation and sharing and use.”
That was the inspiration behind Tru:Connect, an online platform for communities of customers to share experiences and best practices.
The first key to building customer communities is staying on the sidelines.
“If a vendor comes in and dominates the discussion, then it becomes just a big sale session,” Portice says. “If we are encouraging the conversation and helping to create discussion topics and engaging the participants, then that’s going to keep them further involved.”
Facilitate conversations by asking for problems and issues, then let your customers take it from there.
“The biggest way to get the feedback and to get the participation is having them lead it,” Portice says. “We think about it from the perspective of: You’re going to lead discussions. You’re going to lead the identification of things you want to address. They’re your ideas. We’re going to help you monetize those ideas.”
You step into an active role later by identifying and validating ideas that bubble up through the community.
“We’re involved to help synthesize the issue,” Portice says. “If the issue’s coming in different words or it’s being articulated different ways from five different perspectives, it’s our job to really understand what the issue is and synthesize that for everybody so there’s a single view of what we’re trying to achieve.”
Once you’re clear on the key issues, confirm they are issues you and your customers can solve.
“It really is about understanding our circle of influence,” Portice says. “As we’re looking at things, we have to be very honest with ourselves and with our customers as to not only what we can do but what we should do. If it’s going to be shared across a lot of our customers, then it’s going to be worth our effort.”
To turn feedback into strategic business moves, position yourself behind the problems with the broadest influence. Examine the scope of the problem and of the potential solution by questioning other customers.
“We’ll look and say, ‘Is this a persistent issue? And if that issue were resolved, what does that mean to the users? How does that benefit them?’” he says. “It’s really understanding: Is it really an issue, what kind of a lift does it provide the customers if the issue is resolved [and then] what does it take to do that? Is it repeatable and ongoing or is it just a one-time deal?”
Online communities not only identify needs and opportunities for your business, but they also create loyal customers — after all, they’re benefiting, as well, by learning and leveraging best practices from others on issues that matter to them.
“The core issue here that’s underlying all of this is listening to the customers and listening to the market,” Portice says. “You see a lot of companies that try to pursue and develop things that are interesting and cool to them rather than saying, ‘What is it that the market is really feeling the pain with, and how can we help that?’”
How to reach: Intelimedix LLC, www.intelimedix.com
Joel Portice wants feedback from his customers, but he knows better than to throw open the floodgates. When the president and CEO of Intelimedix launched Tru:Connect, an online community for customers, he did so with limits.
“The information is compartmentalized based on the specific areas that we’re covering,” he says. “Somebody who connects to Tru:Connect — no pun intended — for analytic reporting, they’re not seeing what’s going on in the Tru:Connect that’s dealing with cost containment or the Tru:Connect that’s dealing with fraud detection. You’re part of a community on a specific issue.”
Of course, one customer may participate in several groups but only after agreeing to some terms to ensure that nobody is hijacking the output for their own purpose.
Portice monitors each customer’s engagement, contacting idle participants as a warning and a way to keep the group rich.
“If somebody’s not engaging, then we will reach out to them and say, ‘We need to make room for somebody else because this time is too valuable for everybody,’” he says.
That keeps participation high, and the selectivity even entices customers who aren’t involved.
“We want to make it useful,” Portice says. “But we also want to make it a little selective because it keeps the folks involved engaged. It also sparks opportunities for people that may not be involved to say, ‘I want to create my own subgroup.’”
Robert Eves has been using a technology for 20 years that is still relevant today and has likely saved him millions of dollars in that same time period.
As founder and president of Venture Corp., a commercial real estate development firm, he began using content management software about 20 years ago as a way to keep all of his contacts, to-do lists and projects organized in one place. As the company grew, it became even more important to the business.
“This is Ground Zero — it’s the base of our operations,” he says. “Everything that we do is controlled by or metered by or recorded by Commence (the software Eves uses). It is, without a question, the most important program that we use in our company, by far. It’s far and away the most important software that we use all day, every day.”
To start, Eves uses it for to-do lists, notes on topics of interest to him, quotes he’d like to remember and other things along those lines. If he needs to schedule a lunch meeting with a co-worker, he can go into the software and put it on the calendar. A second later, it copies over to his Outlook, and a second after that, it copies over to his iPhone. At that same time, it sends a message to the person he’s having lunch with and puts the time on his or her Outlook calendar, as well. Everything is updated for everyone in real time.
It also reduces clutter because he keeps all files and records in the software instead of having manila folders everywhere — in fact, he has the equivalent of about 80,000 manila folders stored in the program.
Additionally, he uses it to target customers and manage the relationships with them. His target client isn’t necessarily someone who’s looking to buy his commercial spaces. Instead, it’s the commercial real estate brokers whom he’s trying to reach, and the software allows him to do just that. He now has more than 210,000 broker contacts in there to customize his searches.
“We can go into Commence and say, ‘Give us all the commercial real estate agents within these ZIP codes surrounding my new project,’” he says. “I enter those search parameters in Commence, and it takes me about 15 seconds, and there on the screen is every broker that fits those qualifications.”
He sends out about 100,000 e-mails a week, and because brokers want to know what’s available for their clients, they’re not going to delete these e-mails, so it’s highly effective marketing.
The program is also helpful for his website. He creates spreadsheets of all the available real estate centers that Venture has available, and these include asking price, square footage, property taxes, acres, how many phases there are and will be, and other numbers along these lines. Using SQL Server technology, the software is connected to the company’s website, so if he makes an update in the spreadsheet in Commence, it’s then updated to the website in real time, so customers always have current information. These updates can be done in real time like Eves does, or they can be programmed to update at a certain time on certain days.
“That kind of connectivity is great,” he says. “We don’t need a programmer, we don’t need anyone to go to change the price — it changes dynamically.”
And not needing a programmer saves big bucks on his IT budget, which can add up very quickly.
“We measure it more in increase in efficiency and productivity,” he says. “I would say that the savings are perhaps millions over the years and certainly many hundreds of thousands in payroll to make changes to it — there are changes to it every day. Just to have it, productivity goes so much higher.”
How to reach: Venture Corp., (415) 464-2000 or www.venturecorporation.com
Set it up
If you want to save money and efficiency by using content management software like Robert Eves, founder and president of Venture Corp., then it’s simple. First, find the software that fits your needs. If you don’t want to deal with IT people, then find one that has templates that can help you get started.
“Use the templates that come with it and then begin to customize them,” he says.
For example, you may have a contacts template, but you may add to it a column to put people’s spouses names, so when you see that person at a function, you can also greet his or her spouse — you remember the name because you had it in the program, which translates through to your smart phone, too. Or maybe you’re a car enthusiast and want to keep track of the type of car all your contacts drive — you can do that through customization.
“If you want your notes to get linked to your to-do list or your to-do list to be linked to your appointments, that’s what a relational database does.”
Mike Jackson was asked to bring some order to Adayana Inc. when he arrived nearly three years ago. The training outsourcing company had grown through numerous acquisitions, and the result was a cultural mishmash that left employees searching for an identity to latch on to.
“People wanted to have more rigor,” says Jackson, the 380-employee company’s president and CEO. “They wanted to understand how to do what we should be doing.”
Jackson began to work collaboratively with employees to develop a corporate framework that would provide everyone with a better sense of identity and purpose.
“I had some perceptions, but you can’t go only on perception,” Jackson says. “You need to validate. So I talked with some folks and just asked them how we could strengthen the company together.”
When you’re seeking feedback from employees, you need to make it personal.
“Don’t just talk with your employees or your leadership team or your direct reports about today’s business and what’s tactical and what’s on your plate,” Jackson says. “You have to ask them where they see both themselves and the company in three to five years. You have to do that regularly.”
If you don’t do this, you end up with the situation that faced Adayana: You have employees doing work without a clear idea of what it means or what it is leading them toward.
Jackson saw desire in his people and he saw energy to succeed. They just needed to know what their leaders wanted them to do to make that happen.
“If part of the aspirational vision for the company is to be a market leader, unpack what that means to individual behaviors,” Jackson says. “It’s about creating a tight linkage between the dreams of your employees and the aspirational vision for the company.”
Give employees a chance to contribute to how you’re going to accomplish your goal to become a market leader. Let them offer opinions on what needs to be done or what’s holding your company back from becoming a market leader.
“When you do that, you’re creating engagement, you’re building inclusion and you’re building ownership,” Jackson says. “‘The CEO is asking us to craft what we should be and what we should do.’ That’s powerful stuff. If you follow that activity with engaging others to actually build a tactical action plan to implement the strategy and initiatives that come from the senior leadership team, all of a sudden, you have a fully engaged team of employees who feel they are making a contribution to not only the what but the how. That’s where most employees live, anyway, in the how.”
It’s about putting an idea out there, such as becoming a market leader and letting your people play an important part in figuring out how to get there.
“You have to pass along that accountability and all the things that go with that,” Jackson says. “It’s about trusting people to pull it forward.”
Trust your people to carry some of the weight while you monitor their progress, break down barriers and offer assistance to help them achieve the big-picture goal. Show them that what they are doing is important.
“If I never ask how you are doing on progress toward that goal, you’re likely to believe that maybe it really wasn’t that important to begin with and it’s certainly not very important now,” Jackson says. “It’s the idea of creating feedback systems and making sure people are in the know about progress. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to empower anybody. You’re going to basically demotivate them because of inattention.”
Adayana has made progress toward becoming a market leader, evidenced by the growth in revenue from $20.8 million in fiscal 2007 to $44.2 million in fiscal 2009.
“There’s no magic. What there is,” Jackson says, “is execution.”
How to reach: Adayana Inc., (317) 415-0500 or www.adayana.com
Mike Jackson could hear the clock ticking as he assessed what was happening at Adayana Inc. Employees were part of the plan, offering him their feedback, but they also were eager to see results.
“You, as a CEO, have to act quickly to deal with the things that are patently ineffective in your company,” says Jackson, the 380-employee training outsourcing company’s president and CEO. “Fix those. If you don’t do that, after a period of time, employees will run out of the hopeful energy that you might have brought to them in the first few days, weeks or months you were walking around asking them how things were and what you should do to improve the company. You have to act.”
That doesn’t mean you should panic and make rash decisions.
“I’m saying once you get to an 80 percent confidence level that this is the right thing to do, do it,” Jackson says. “You actually put together a set of, ‘Here are the things that need to be done on a department-by-department and division-by-division basis.’ Make that part of the accountability of the respective manager so that he or she is able to see that you mean business.”
Howard Wander likes to joke about his wife’s claim that he makes at least one wrong move every single day. He doesn’t question her opinion, and in fact, he is comfortable adding that his partners on the management committee at Fort Lauderdale-based Kelley Kronenberg feel the same way about him.
“I think that’s a sign of strength to be able to say that you’re wrong and admit that you’re wrong,” says Wander, one of the managing partners at the 140-employee law firm. “That’s a key essential to leadership. Nobody is right all the time.”
But it takes more than humility to succeed in today’s business world. Wander credits his ability to work with his management team and work through their collective mistakes for the firm’s growth over the years from two offices and seven lawyers to eight offices and more than 50 lawyers.
“Part of it is questioning each other,” Wander says. “We are all different, and we come from different backgrounds, and we approach things differently. But we have a shared vision of our future. Sometimes we think it’s a different road to get where we want to be and we don’t always agree on that, but we have that shared vision of what we want to obtain.”
The key to coming up with a good model, where you sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, but you ultimately get to the same place, is constant communication.
“If I have something that I don’t agree with with one of my partners that I think is important, I’ll contact him, and we’ll talk about it,” Wander says. “Communicate and get it off your chest. You can’t let things build up. That’s a recipe for disaster. We try to be very open with each other and talk things out, should there be a question.”
For instance, if you’re in a management team meeting and someone else on the team says something you don’t like, don’t just bury your disagreement.
“There are times I may call one of my other partners afterward and say, ‘Hey, you made that comment about something. Let’s talk about that a little bit,’” Wander says. “There are times I’ll say, ‘You know what, you were right. I was wrong.’ That’s the opportunity for growth.”
You need to make yourself available for these conversations to take place. For Wander, that means being available on his cell phone or at his home whenever someone needs to talk to him. It may not be convenient, but it comes with the responsibility of being the leader of your business.
“Someone asks me a question, they want it now,” Wander says. “They don’t want to hear about it two days from now.”
When you make yourself available and open your literal and figurative doors to your people and your clients, you encourage your employees to do the same.
“The important part is to have everybody on staff sharing that vision and sharing that passion that I have and that others have to attain that vision,” Wander says. “They are part of that team that is going to help make that vision occur.”
Wander says the reason the firm has been able to grow is that everyone is committed to finding solutions to problems quickly and effectively resolving differences so that business can move forward.
“I need those people to have the confidence in me and the other partners on the management committee that we’re making good decisions and we’re all on the same page and we’re all working toward something together,” Wander says.
How to reach: Kelley, Kronenberg, Gilmartin, Fichtel, Wander, Bamdas, Eskalyo & Dunbrack P.A., (561) 684-5956 or www.kelleykronenberg.com
Use your resources
Do you talk to your current employees when you’re looking to make a hire? If you don’t, you might be making a big mistake. Your staff can be a great resource for finding people who will be a great fit in your organization.
“I need my key people to find new key people,” says Howard Wander, one of the managing partners at the 140-employee Kelley Kronenberg. “They are recommending people to me who they know fit our image and fit our mindset of who would be a successful person in our firm. Occasionally, we do go out, but it’s hard because you don’t know who you are getting and if they are going to share the passion and vision of what you’re trying to attain. It starts with talking to your people and letting them bring people to you.”
One of the essential parts of any successful business is continuity. As people advance or leave your organizations, others need to be able to step up and fill their roles. When you’re working with your employees to find new people, that continuity is much easier to maintain.
“You’re only as good as the guy next to you or the support staff you have,” Wander says. “If there is a weak link next to you, the whole team falls.”
Al Bell saw the future for Moochie & Co,. and it looked quite promising. It was 2008 and the pet supply retailer was about to close a transaction with a private equity firm that would have made available significant growth capital.
And then suddenly, the opportunity was gone.
“Due to the stock market and economic conditions, they walked away,” says Bell, the 102-employee company’s CEO. “They put us in a difficult situation with our lender.”
At the time, Bell was part-owner of the business. He owned 35 percent, a partner owned 35 percent and seven other investors owned the remaining 30 percent. Bell knew his business had growth potential, so he made a bold move to basically go it alone. He felt it was the best path to realize the potential he saw.
“I’m a strong believer in the company and our niche in retail and the growth of the pet industry,” Bell says. “That led me to essentially acquire full ownership of the company, renegotiate our store leases and really focus on cutting expenses.”
Expense reduction was critical. Bell wanted to take things back to square one and be a whole lot more careful about how money was being spent.
“Instead of accepting the historical expense model as a given, we built our expense structure from the ground up and really challenged and explored every expense,” Bell says. “We also asked the entire organization to accept the challenge and bring forward their best ideas, and we acted upon the better ones.”
When looking at expenses, you need to separate fixed costs from variable costs.
“We looked at every variable expense and we said, ‘Is there a way to control that?’” Bell says. “In our case, we’re looking at the percentage of revenue spent on a given expense at a particular store. So if utilities were excessive at a given store, you went in and tried to discover why that was and if there were opportunities to reduce it.”
You also need to get your employees involved to make any initiative effective.
“I very clearly set out specific objectives for the company, one of which was expense reduction,” Bell says. “It was a detailed review of the full-year profit and loss statement on a unit-by-unit basis and then a line-by-line basis. You begin to decide what are truly variable expenses that can be attacked as compared to fixed expenses that you have to accept.”
Bell did not hold back when explaining the importance of this investigation into expenses.
“One of the rallying cries I shared with the group is, ‘You may have bigger jobs at some point in your life, but you’ll never have a more important job than you have right now. We’re talking about the survival and potential success of a small company of which you are an integral part,’” Bell says. “I believe the team really embraced the opportunity to play a vital role.”
The result of Bell’s effort was a new business model that everyone at Moochie & Co. strongly believed in.
“We started with very modest revenue increase expectations and then examined every expense line carefully,” Bell says. “As the leader of the business, it fell to me to make the difficult decisions.”
The tough choice was two stores in Detroit had unacceptable occupancy costs and needed to be closed. But that proved to be only a bump in the road as the company soon was in a position to begin growing again as the economy began to recover.
The company had gone from 10 stores to eight, but it now has 12 stores and 20 Mini-Moochies at pet boarding resorts and veterinary clinics.
“Our major expenses have been brought down to affordable levels, and we have a culture within the company of challenging every expense and trying to reduce every dollar spent,” Bell says.
How to reach: Moochie & Co., (877) 666-2443 or www.moochieandco.com
Find your leaders
Al Bell wanted to reduce expenses at Moochie & Co., so he needed to find out who was ready to march with him on his quest.
“I’ve always believed in management that you need to articulate the goals, share as much information as is reasonably possible and then listen and be receptive to suggestions,” says Bell, CEO at the pet supply retailer. “It is a process that allows you to really learn who is with you and who is not.”
When you are open about a plan and forthcoming with details, you’ll be able to see who is buying in to the plan and who isn’t interested.
“Be brief, be clear and be consistent,” Bell says of your communication strategy. “You ask a lot of questions and give encouraging responses when people contribute.”
When you’re having a meeting, give people a clear sense about what it’s going to be about.
“We actually prepared and promoted the meeting for two months prior and gave people topics and an agenda and really tried to set the tone that it was going to be participatory and not a monologue,” Bell says.