More communication with employees wasn’t possible for Tom Baugh at Marketplace Events. When the downturn hit the home and garden show company, rumors swirled.
“We didn’t pull punches,” the CEO says. “We let them know when we had challenges. We encouraged them to keep things in the family. That’s hard. We knew there was a risk in that, because we were sharing more financial information than ever before, but they responded very well. Since we asked more of them, they gave more to us out of respect.”
Smart Business spoke with Baugh about how he built trust with his team during tough times.
What advice can you give to build confidence with employees?
There is a huge difference between earning, what I would say is, compliance and commitment. When leadership actions and leadership communications fall behind leadership promises, then there’s a credibility gap.
We work really hard so our communications are authentic and that they’re consistent. For example, every Monday morning for the past five years, I send a message to the business. The message is varied. When we’re in our show season, here’s where we stand with sales, here’s what’s happening with our people, etc. When we don’t have shows, I’ll talk about what we’re doing with growth opportunities, things I read or just a view point I found of concern or encouragement. The one thing that they can count on, no matter what — whether I’m traveling, busy or the power goes out in Cleveland — they know that every Monday morning there’s going to be a message about the business. When I’m on vacation, there’s other people that give guest versions.
The consistency and authenticity of our communications separate us a bit from other companies in the fact that we share a lot of information with our people, and we trust them to keep it in the family.
How do you trust people to not share that critical financial information?
I think we’d be naive if we thought some of it didn’t get out. I will say, since 2003, there have been two situations where professionally I’ve been really disappointed by breaches in that trust, but that’s only twice in that period of time. The benefits we get by treating people with this kind of professional courtesy is, frankly, enormous. Despite the worst economy in anyone’s memory, over the past three years, we’ve grown our business. I find that to be extraordinary.
There are things that bind people together, and people intrinsically want to believe that they are trustworthy, so we choose to go that direction. The opportunity for trust is greater when you know that you’re in tune with your people. At the end of the day, people can tell if the leader means what he or she says, if they’re really trying to understand employees and if they’re in touch with the business or not. People want one of two things — they either want to be the leader or part of the leadership team or they want to be led. People want to be led, but that can only happen when there’s enough trust built up.
What else has been critical to building trust?
This organization isn’t afraid to make decisions and move. It surprised all of us.
It’s always helpful if you let the person in the best position to decide actually decide. Let them make the decision. We have 12 offices and 100 people throughout North America. If we have a particular weekend in March, we could have five shows running. All of those shows on that particular day might put through 75,000 paying customers. You might have 10 different media experiences by the show’s managers, you might have to make hundreds of decisions about parking or concessions or safety or the general appearance of the show. If we try to too closely grasp the decision points with just a limited number of people, it really slows down the business.
We consciously said we’re going to work really hard to share the best practices, not so you’re hemmed in, but it’s more like bumper bowling. We say, ‘Guys, here’s best practices, we know things that work and we know things that don’t work, so let’s do things that work, so it’s like bumper bowling — you can’t throw a gutter ball.’ It’s not that you’re not going to knock some pins down — it’s how many can you pin down if you take the best practices and put your individual flare on it?
How to reach: Marketplace Events, (866) 463-3663 or www.marketplaceevents.com
Two elements of leadership — trust and service — unfortunately, aren’t always obvious to us analytical types whose focus is primarily metrics and results.
Cbeyond has a unique culture, one that we diligently protect and one that creates an environment in which we are proud to work. There is a return on investment for creating an environment where employees are expected to contribute and, at the same time, have the tools and encouragement to succeed.
A leader isn’t the guy with all the answers. Rather, a leader is the catalyst for influencing others to overcome obstacles, find solutions, and seize and create opportunities. Leadership begins with trust, and leaders are most successful when they combine trust with a challenge to look outward.
Trust dangerously, protect vigorously
Here is a fact: People will not remain motivated, growing and achieving at high levels of performance if they are insecure about their place on your team. As leaders, we can create exponential levels of creativity when we build an environment where employees and teams are encouraged to share ideas and where courage and risk-taking are complemented with both reward and safety.
Encourage vulnerability. Ideas that are proposed today may not work today. However, experimentation will develop a culture of creativity and lead to better ideas in the future. When employees can count on your support, it creates an environment where there is honest and proactive conversation about what’s working and what’s not. People become comfortable with risk, which, in turn, encourages them to move into uncharted territory, expect problems along the way and find ways around obstacles. It becomes natural to learn from mistakes.
Dance with the one who brought you. Continually looking for the “100 percent” employee is a futile and exhausting exercise. Experience has taught me that bringing in the next “great guy” often exposes me to a different set of weaknesses. A better approach is to know your people — what motivates them and makes them tick. You’ll find great success and earn tremendous loyalty and trust when you leverage employee strengths by putting them in the right role rather than painfully focusing on their weaknesses.
See what you don’t like and stamp it out. As the leader, you are responsible for a healthy team. As a role model, you owe your team consistency between your walk and talk. And you owe them an environment that is free of politics, backbiting and ill will. You need to be fair, consistent and diligent about how you treat, respect and encourage each other. What you value will get done.
Promote community involvementOne of our key missions as we grew Cbeyond was to build a company of which we were proud and that would enthusiastically give back to the communities where we lived and worked. We’ve built a grassroots outreach program that has delivered more than 50,000 hours of passion-led service in our 14 markets in the last 10 years.
It’s good for our people, and it’s good for business.
Create capacity. As our world expands, so does our capacity. Engaging beyond the workplace connects us to amazing people and increases our networks and energy levels. Our Cbeyond University goes as far as to promote strategic volunteering; encouraging our employees to use their volunteer efforts to build skills, gain proven leadership experience and build resumes.
Drive citizenship. Community outreach helps our teams become citizens, not taxpayers. You know, those people who actively engage in their environment and drive the change they want to see. We find that attitude, when practiced in the community, also is reflected in our workplace.
Encourage “passion-led.” Drive community service by inspiring, recognizing and encouraging people to engage their communities in imaginative ways that are near and dear to their hearts. We call that “passion-led.” Employees may choose to focus volunteer efforts on coaching, school or church rather than board involvement. We also use volunteer events to drive team-building and have fun.
You are creating a culture — whether deliberate or not. Your employees have to feel safe, appreciated and encouraged if you expect them to make your customers feel that way, as well.
Jim Geiger is the founder, chairman, president and CEO of Cbeyond, a company that provides IT and communications services to small businesses throughout the United States and also provided the world’s first 100 percent VoIP local phone network.