When Rick Pleczko thinks about the office space his company used to be in, he thinks about a college campus. He remembers open houses with barbeques on the front lawn, free beer, a DJ playing music and all his employees enjoying themselves.
Pleczko, co-founder, president and CEO of BBS Technologies, used to throw these parties as a way to thank current employees for hard work and to attract new employees looking to join the $30 million provider of systems management software.
“We have this interesting environment where, since we founded the company, we have been in three turn-of-the-century mansions in this bohemian neighborhood,” Pleczko says. “Everybody loves it here. It’s almost like a college campus-style environment.”
Over the past few years, the company has grown to new heights and in the process, outgrown its current headquarters. The challenge facing Pleczko and his team was to find a new place to conduct business that would keep that college-campus feel.
“Our big challenge was, ‘Gee, one of the unique things about our company and our culture that attracts folks is this campus-like environment,’” he says. “It wasn’t practical for us to add more houses in this space. It just couldn’t be done in the neighborhood. We knew we would have to move to a tower. Our problem was, how do you recreate that culture in a tower?”
Recreating the company culture was a big undertaking. It took collaboration from his 200 employees to find the right place.
“We talked to our employees,” Pleczko says. “Everybody wanted to be in the same neighborhood or close to it. So we were looking for something within a couple-mile radius of where we were. Then it was going to the staff and saying, ‘What features do you want in this new environment? We can’t replicate what we have entirely, but what do you want to do?’”
Pleczko set up a committee of a few employees to get feedback on the type of things they wanted.
“You have to figure out what the key criteria are to maintain and expand your existing culture and get those criteria from the folks that work for you,” he says. “Focus on the staff and get the information and the feedback from the staff. Then you need to engage a good, talented Realtor.”
Pleczko was fortunate. He found a space 1.5 miles away with 70,000 square feet across three floors of a tower with a spiral staircase connecting all floors.
“We have this environment with a spiral staircase and we’re building it out with almost a Google-like campus environment,” he says. “We set up recreation rooms with Xbox connects, foosball tables and table tennis. Software engineers tend to work long and odd hours, so they like that sort of environment. So we built a couple of playrooms on different floors where people can get together and socialize just like they would walking down to the local Starbucks. We were able to replicate to a high degree our culture inside of a tower.”
Not only did BBS recapture its culture in a new building, but the company took a big step forward in its growth by moving to a new headquarters.
“The environment that we had was perfect for when we were in the startup stage to about where we are now,” Pleczko says. “But we are now doing business with some very significant and very large corporate entities. When they came to visit us in those funky houses, they thought it was cute and it was like visiting an ad agency in a brownstone in Manhattan or something. We always looked like we were a fun startup.
“Now moving to this new environment, it gives the impression of we’re a $100 million company. It gives us significant credibility with the environment, the space, the décor, etc. But it still enables us to maintain that culture of innovative startup.”
HOW TO REACH: BBS Technologies, (713) 862-5250 or www.bbstech.com
Not only will BBS Technologies’ new headquarters building allow the company to continue to grow and keep its unique culture, it provides change within the organization.
“Change is good,” says Pleczko, co-founder, president and CEO. “It seems to refresh everybody’s morale and attitude and I think it acts as an inflection point for growth. I’ve been able to say, ‘We’re moving into a space that a $100 million company lives in and we’re going to be that $100 million company.’ It enables you to get some pretty good motivating messages out to your staff.”
A move like this takes time and a strategic plan. Pleczko had to understand his company’s growth pattern and plan accordingly.
“This is of great strategic importance, because if we didn’t move, our growth would be constrained,” he says. “We are planning to grow aggressively this year and that growth would not be enabled without this new building.”
Failing to realize that your company is outgrowing its current space can negatively impact the productivity of your employees.
“[Employees] become inefficient,” he says. “You have too many people in not enough square feet and they are bumping in to each other. Things like conference rooms end up being turned into offices. Folks become unproductive simply because of the noise and activity level all around them. If you don’t [expand], you will tend to see productivity go down.”
David Petratis has a long background and a strong history in building products. As the former chairman and CEO at Square D Co. and CEO of Schneider North America, he is no stranger to the demands and fluctuations of the construction industry. That experience has proven extremely valuable since Petratis took over as CEO of Quanex Building Products Corp. in 2008, right in the middle of one of the worst economies for any industry.
“I think the performance of Quanex in the worst building environment maybe ever says that we’ve got a lot going here,” says Petratis who now serves as chairman, president and CEO. “And today, even with construction flat on its back, we’re on a margin basis, more profitable than we’ve ever been, are growing and are debt free.”
The strong position Quanex now finds itself in didn’t happen overnight or by accident. Petratis and the 2,300 employees at the manufacturer of windows and doors have worked tirelessly to keep the company pushing forward during a period where if you rest, you don’t wake up. Here’s how Petratis rebounded Quanex from $585 million in 2009 revenue to $798 million in 2010.
Evaluate your business
As a new CEO to Quanex, it was vital that Petratis got a full understanding of the business and how it was operating.
“What we did from the day I hit the door through 2009, we revisited our strategic perspective and our strategic plan three times,” Petratis says. “In six months, we made some observations and then we did it again. In an 18-month period, we took three hard looks at our strategic plan, our markets, and we came to some pretty strong conclusions that has driven growth at Quanex Building Products in a market environment that remains the weakest in my lifetime.”
While the economy made it tough for companies operating in any market, the construction industry was hit particularly hard. Petratis wasn’t sitting still expecting the poor conditions to evaporate quickly.
“First of all, you had an unprecedented decline, especially in businesses related to construction, but you also had a big commodity slide,” he says. “I think, No. 1, when you’re in an economic slide, don’t assume that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. You need to take aggressive steps that ensure the continuity of the business. You cannot make assumptions that the market’s going to come back and life’s going to be good again. The companies that have made those mistakes are still struggling today. You have to create your own opportunities within the business portfolios that you have.”
Creating opportunities in a weak market and an economy as poor as it has been is not an easy task. You have to be aggressive and make sure you’re evaluating your entire business.
“We took aggressive steps to free up cash on our balance sheet,” Petratis says. “We challenged the inventory on our balance sheets and in our factories and took them to historic lows and kept them there. That has generated cash, No. 1, to survive, but No. 2, to go redeploy in things that are growing. We have right-sized ourselves to the new business reality. We had a scale and infrastructure that was built to produce 2.2 million homes; today, we struggle to get above 600,000. Some major restructuring had to occur. We eliminated nonvalue-added activities. We made investments in the skills of our people. You have to give people hope that we’re going to make it through this, but also give them new skills to be able to compete. We have invested more … in the business than we made during the up cycle.”
Evaluating your business and restructuring areas that need it is a critical element at any point of a cycle.
“We looked at our portfolio in a BCG Matrix,” he says. (Editor’s note: A Boston Consulting Group Matrix looks primarily at market share and market growth). “Where did we make money? Where did we lose money? Where are our opportunities for future growth? What are the businesses that we’ve got to get out of? What are our stars, cash cows, dogs and dilemmas? You look at your business and try to emphasize and invest in those businesses that have opportunity or are generating large amounts of cash and you get out of the ones that don’t.
“The other thing that we did was went through a review of our customer profitability and looked for opportunities for price realization. You’ve got profitable customers and unprofitable customers. You’ve got to think about that in terms of just standalone profitability and then you’ve got to think about it in terms of cost to serve. There are customers that are more expensive, take more customer touch and that’s got to go into the analysis. Have a dialogue with your business leaders and your salespeople and ask, ‘What’s our cost to serve?’ A customer that has a low margin and has a high maintenance cost are the first ones that you take action on. It’s critical with a triple underline to know where you make money within your product portfolio.”
Whether the economy is forcing hardships on your company or you’re simply having a tough year, communication within your business is the most important thing a CEO has to do.
“We stepped up our communications aggressively, especially versus my predecessor who operated in a better economic time,” he says. “We cut a quarterly video. There’s a camera crew that comes in and we cut a 20-minute message every quarter. Employees get a letter from me every three-day holiday and I do site visits. You also have to put on your customer ears and get out and visit customers. We’ve done surveys to understand our ability to deliver and our understanding of the voice of the customer.”
Petratis also stressed the importance of safety among his employees and communicated how safety could help improve the business as a whole.
“As a new guy coming in, I have pushed the hell out of safety awareness,” he says. “To me, this is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If I can get our employees to believe that I care about their safety and health, I am awarded by our employees the opportunity for them to self-actualize into things like customer satisfaction and continuous improvement of our business. In a down environment, if you fail to communicate, if you fail to invest along that hierarchy of needs, I think you’ll lose your work force. We’ve certainly done the things that we’ve needed to do in terms of our cost structure, but we’ve provided extra attention to the people that are still with us.”
If leaders don’t take the initiative to get out in front of their staff and tell them the good and the bad, the company will lose direction and purpose.
“I would say to those CEOs who are not aggressively communicating where they want to go and what are the tough issues that face the business, they probably own the business or should be looking over their shoulder for the next guy who’s going to come in and replace them,” Petratis says. “Think about any human dimension. When things are uncertain because of economic crisis, family crisis, people want to know, ‘Where am I going? Help me understand the risk and uncertainties.’ People understand that times will be tough. You can’t run from them. You have to communicate and you have to do that in a variety of manners. You’ve got to do it in person, you’ve got to do it in writing, you’ve got to do it through media communications and then you’ve got to go back and do it all over again.”
Throughout Petratis’ business career, he’s been in front of the people that he’s led every quarter since 1986.
“That level of communication has rewarded me and the people I’ve worked with with excellent performance and you’ve got to double down when it’s tough,” he says. “You communicate in the good times and it’s like putting money in your checking account. You’re building in the confidence of your work force so when times are bad, you’re believable. They know who you are, you’ve made an investment and now you can make a withdrawal when you’ve got to do something tough.”
Adapt to changes
During a down economy you have to be looking for ways your company can change and adapt to keep pushing forward.
“I think anytime you’re going through a change effort you have to establish proof of the need,” Petratis says. “This is why we need to do this. This is why it will be good for customers, shareholders and employees. Once you’ve satisfied that criteria, there will be resistance. You’ve got to check for that resistance. There are people that can’t make change. For those people that can’t buy in to where you think you want to go and you give them the chance to air their opinions, they need to move into new positions or on to new companies. I think it’s one of the tougher things for managers and leaders to make that call.
“You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the talent around you to take you where you want to go and they’ve got to believe in it. If you don’t have the talent, if you’ve got people in the wrong position, you’re not going to be able to get people where you want to go. You’ve got to have the courage to help them get to where they can contribute the best.”
Through a project Quanex coined ‘Project Nexus,’ the company reshaped its sales force and is serving a broader customer base with its total portfolio.
“We had resistance when we started Project Nexus,” he says. “First of all, we socialized where we wanted to go. I believed when we first launched Project Nexus in January 2010 that we would have resistance, but I didn’t make organizational changes. I didn’t just blow up the organization day one. I let the idea percolate. I got people around it, and we sold it. Then I changed the organization. It was six or seven months after we began to share the data, share the opportunity, help our organization understand that if we didn’t go out and create prosperity, prosperity wasn’t going to come knocking at our door. We still had resistance and we continue to fight that.”
Change is an ongoing process and in the same way that people change, companies change. It’s critical that you communicate that fact.
“You’ve got to continue to communicate that goal, why it’s important we make that change,” Petratis says. “It goes back to your communications and it goes back to your vision and you’ve got to reinforce those things. Nobody likes change. I would just assume to have things the way they were in 2005 when we were building 2.2 million home starts. I wish it never would have changed from that, but it did. You’ve got to change with it, or you die.”
Change seems daunting to most companies, but oftentimes, change brings out the best in employees, leaders and the company.
“Another element to this is that you’ve got to help educate people in the change process,” Petratis says. “Give them new tools and skills. As you change things you create problems and a work force that has a solid toolbox of problem-solving tools manages through those changes more effectively. I don’t give them 20/20 vision; I give them direction. They’ve got to apply the problem-solving tools and get us to where we need to be as a company and as an organization.”
When companies undergo change, it can be very stressful to all involved. Make sure that you celebrate any successes change brings.
“The other thing you have to do in the change process is punch up your wins,” he says. “We created a lot of change with Project Nexus. In our fiscal 2010, our engineered products business grew by 12 percent and our aluminum business grew by 25 percent in a market that was negative. We could have hunkered down and not changed anything and we would have had more pain because the market wasn’t going to give it to us. You’ve got to punch up your wins and help people see there are benefits to taking on new challenges.”
HOW TO REACH: Quanex Building Products Corp., (713) 961-4600 or www.quanex.com
The Petratis File
Born: Council Bluffs, Iowa
Education: University of Northern Iowa, production management; MBA, Pepperdine University
What was your first job and what did you learn from that experience?
I’ve had a lot of jobs. My first job was mowing grass, shoveling snow and detasseling corn. I’ve pumped gas. I’ve worked in an ice cream factory where I bagged ice. My big break that changed my life was getting a job in an electrical supply house when I was 18. I learned how to work. I learned how to be accountable and responsible. I learned how to listen to customers both internal and external.
What’s the best business advice that you’ve ever received?
Take care of your employees and your customers and everything else will take care of itself.
Who is someone that you admire most in business?
I have a mentor named Charlie Denny he was the chairman and CEO of Square D Co. He played a big influence in my life. Jerre Stead is the chairman and CEO of IHS. Those guys are different types of leaders, but I benefited from my exposure to both of them.
What traits do you think a good leader needs?
I think you have to have honesty, respect, courage, tenacity and resiliency. You also have to be a servant leader.
If you weren’t a CEO, what would be your dream job?
I would be a cattle rancher and farmer. I’ve already got the farm part. I like being around equipment and being around animals and working on the land. I’ll have it someday.
Hospitals nationwide are being pressured and, in some cases, forced to adapt to changing demands in the health care industry. Rising expectations in the quality of delivering care, the cost structure of health care and a looming shortage of personnel are just a few issues hospitals are looking for solutions to. Dr. Cary Gutbezahl, president and CEO of Compass Clinical Consulting, specializes in hospital consultation. His firm helps hospitals solve these issues by improving efficiencies.
Smart Business spoke to Dr. Gutbezahl about how hospitals are streamlining their operations to combat health care issues.
What are the most pressing issues facing hospitals today?
Hospitals are facing a couple of important challenges. One is rising expectations for the processes and results of delivering care. That means things related to improving patient safety, reducing the occurrences of undesirable events and reducing hospital readmissions.
The other pressure is the cost structure of health care. The way it has been funded has generated some pretty significant overhead costs and investment in technology that have made health care costs rise to the point where they are pretty much unsustainable both for private-sector insurance as well as for public insurance.
The third challenge which is looming on the horizon is shortage of personnel. In the future, with rising demand for health care services and the aging of the existing population, there is going to be a severe imbalance between supply and demand.
How are hospitals looking to solve some of these issues?
The challenges give hospitals a number of opportunities to make some changes both in their traditional scope of operation as well as expanding their scope of operation.
One of the areas that hospitals have had incentives to work on, but many hospitals haven’t addressed is the issue of how to manage hospital care expeditiously in order to minimize the amount of time and expenses that are provided for a patient.
A number of hospitals have patients stay a number of hours in the emergency department. They are sitting in the emergency department waiting for an inpatient bed, but in the meantime, they are not getting the physician consultation and diagnostic tests that you would normally get as an inpatient. One way that hospitals can accelerate care is to make sure patients either get to a bed quickly, or that the care process begins while the patient is in the emergency department so there aren’t hours waiting for things to happen.
They also have to recognize when a patient’s care can be safely transitioned to an outpatient setting. Some hospitals are identifying and working with the physicians and nurses to say this patient can get the rest of their care as an outpatient with home health care or with outpatient rehabilitation therapies.
What is the main focus of hospitals right now?
Right now there are two things that hospitals should be focusing on and they are related. One is called throughput. That is increasing the capacity of the existing facilities, meaning both space and people, by redesigning the way patients flow through the health care delivery system so that they move more quickly.
That means people sitting in the emergency room for less time so that the existing beds in the emergency room can accommodate more patients. It means moving patients through the inpatient side quicker so the hospital doesn’t need to build additional beds in order to house people for inpatient care. If hospitals have to build more beds, then the costs are going to rise. The only way to try and keep the cost of health care down is going to be to work on these through put issues throughout the hospitals. The ORs, the inpatient beds, critical care units, emergency department, all areas of the hospital where there are backups in terms of patient flow.
The second thing is looking at how we redesign the delivering of health care services so it becomes more efficient. One technique that’s being used on the outpatient side in a number of large multispecialty medical groups is the idea of group appointments. You have a number of patients who have similar kinds of clinical problems. Instead of meeting with each of them one by one … a number of these organizations are scheduling group meetings for patients who have [the same diseases].
HOW TO REACH: Compass Clinical Consulting, (513) 241-0142 or www.compass-clinical.com
Scott Ginsberg has worn a nametag every day for more than 10 years. He loves when people ask him why. But he’s confident many would prefer a root canal over most types of social interaction.
“How many people did you go out of your way to avoid yesterday?” Ginsberg says. “How many people went out of their way to avoid you yesterday? That’s the core of what this is all about. Approachability is not who you know, it’s whose life is better because they know you.”
It’s with that in mind that Ginsberg has written “-able: 35 Strategies for Increasing the Probability of Success in Business and in Life.”
Smart Business spoke with Ginsberg about how his book can make you a more effective leader.
Why should CEOs read this book?
This book shows people how to get out there more and have a sense of visibility with people. As a result, they connect with you more on a human level. That’s what makes them work their butts off and their hearts out.
For a CEO, anonymity is bankruptcy. If you’re not visible to the people who matter most, customers, employees and people in your organization, you lose. It becomes this maze of struggle for a lot of executives that you see in a lot of employee engagement surveys and 360 evaluations.
They have an open-door policy, but they don’t have an open-heart policy and they don’t have an open-mind policy. Part of doing that is getting out there and physically talking to people.
Who did you write this book for?
That’s the whole point. I write in a way that meets people where they are. I write stuff as if I’m having a conversation. It’s one on one. I write like I talk. I don’t edit, I just write it once and that’s it. It appeals to people because it allows them to plug themselves into the equations and to think about their business and their world and their relationships and think, ‘OK, what is he saying? How does that apply to me?’
It works that way if you can write it in a way that is democratized and hits people in their own space and kind of rewards them from any angle. Everyone can read it and get something good out of it. Everything I write does that and that’s what readers tell me.
What is your ultimate goal for wearing a nametag all the time?
I want to disturb people. I use that not in a negative way. People don’t really understand what disturb means. It comes from the same Latin word as emotion. So to disturb is to invoke emotion. That’s what I hope happens. I hope that somebody reads a tweet that I write and it disturbs them to a point where they actually go do something.
Or they read the book and it disturbs them to the point where they go have a conversation with someone that’s important to them. Or if they come to a presentation, I hope they leave and decide, ‘You know what, I’m going to go do this. I’m going to start my website or get my blog going.’
I think disturbing is a good goal. That’s kind of what I want to do every day. I just want to disturb people. Comfortable people never change. If I can disturb people enough, maybe they’ll get so annoyed with me and they’ll do something just to shut me up.
How to reach: Scott Ginsberg, (314) 256-1800 or www.hellomynameisscott.com
Successful leaders know how to get in touch with their customers, their market, their competitors and their organization. They have their finger on the pulse of the overall business environment and economic cycles. These leaders know how to use this knowledge to develop a vision and show it to their team so it’s easier to analyze opportunities and obstacles, define performance metrics, drive innovation and push for continuous improvement in every facet of the business and supply chain.
When you do all this successfully, you have a clearly defined business strategy supported by a plan and performance metrics, organizational alignment and accountability and sustainable growth.
While the process and results are seemingly obvious, the ability to effectively execute is what separates successful organizations from ones which fail. Some leaders fail to realize that their products or service offerings are not in sync with their customers’ expectations. They may have become complacent, arrogant, distracted or just unwilling to listen to or accept feedback from customers or employees. Furthermore, they may have set medium or long-term goals, which appeal to analysts or to the board but affect their ability to modify current plans when things are off track. Ultimately, the company’s performance suffers.
It’s the communication and the ability to stay disciplined that lead to effective execution. After the strategic plan is created, you have to be committed to see it all the way through to implementation and action.
Try asking yourself the following questions when you’re working on your next strategic plan:
- Do we have the right leadership, talent, skills, business processes, resources and time to execute the plan?
- Do we have a means of communicating the plan and defining the accountabilities throughout the organization to operate seamlessly?
- Are timely systems in place to monitor our performance and results?
- Do we have contingencies identified if circumstances change?
- Are our people engaged and behind the plan?
Keep communicating. Take time to set a common goal that simply engages leadership at all levels in the organization to consistently communicate the vision. Communicate often and tie events back to the vision, highlighting its relevance. Create visual and frequent reminders using websites, memos, e-mails, town-hall meetings and other presentations to serve as reminders to the team of the goals and their purpose. Recognize not everyone had the time or luxury of participating in the planning sessions. Explain the logic and why the selected approach was chosen. Highlight potential risks and benefits. Describe the planned outcomes and timelines.
Define roles. People at all levels must know what work needs to be done and why their efforts are important. Conveying goals throughout the organization to all departments, managers and individuals clarifies the importance. At the same time, defining performance goals will reveal responsibility and accountability. Ideally, employees will find themselves in the vision or at least see how their role ties to the overall company objectives.
Oftentimes, teams are spread around the globe, operating in different time zones or maybe remotely. Consider if the message or communication method works across cultures, for cross-functional teams and for multiple generations. Assuming everyone is working on important projects with common or interdependent deadlines, employees should understand and value the contribution of their colleagues, while recognizing the importance of maintaining an ongoing dialogue to ensure alignment and clarity.
Create feedback channels. Presenting the opportunity to ask the tough questions or engage directly with the company leadership will allow employees to feel more involved with the vision. Utilize video chats and different forms of online communication to make the dialogue accessible. It is better to surface the differences and discuss the “elephant in the room” than have the organization assume you are not in touch with reality.
Stay focused. Clearly define the vision, strategy and plan so everyone is aware of the goals and objectives. Ensure consistency at all levels of management and across the organization. Be visible, engage the team and ask questions to validate understanding. Maintain a dialogue and open atmosphere to allow information to move timely and in multiple directions. Monitor and measure your progress. Provide timely and factual updates, highlighting the progress throughout the year. Be forthright and honest.
Tony Arnold is founder and principal of Upfront Management, a St. Louis-based management and executive consulting firm. Utilizing C-suite experience as a CEO and executive experience in early-stage startup and Fortune 100 companies, he brings unique skills, insights and perspective to enable clients to improve business performance. Arnold can be reached at (314) 825-9525 or email@example.com.
Whenever I hear somebody complaining about a boss who is clueless, inept or petty, one of Bob Dylan’s songs pops into my head — “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”
Unless your name is Gates, Buffett or Zuckerberg, you will need to persuade someone in a position of power to see things your way. That’s why two of the earliest chapters in my book, “27 Powers of Persuasion,” are about managing egos. While it’s nice to be able to manage the egos of colleagues and staff, it is absolutely crucial to manage the ego of your boss. By doing so, you can avoid conflict and increase your chances of getting your plans approved quickly.
Too often, people’s knee-jerk reaction to a supervisor’s criticism is to respond to every attack. That’s the wrong approach. Successful persuasion is not about winning arguments, it’s about aligning all the players and unifying them around a common goal. Responding to attacks does not achieve that, it just makes you seem defensive, close-minded or too sensitive.
Consensus is what you’re aiming for, and to that end a little proactive unity building never hurts. When the group first convenes, ask, “Why are we here today?” As the group decides on the meeting’s main topic, it will be reminded that there is a big picture to consider. If arguments erupt later on, you can return to the common ground of that originally stated goal.
As the discussion continues, there are several effective strategies for dealing with a boss’s negative input without threatening his ego. The first is easy: After the boss’s comment, simply nod, say nothing and wait. Ninety percent of the time, he will moderate his own position when he becomes uncomfortable with the silence. (It works with everyone, not just bosses.)
If the boss demands a response, say, “I see your point.” Pause for a beat and really consider it. Then offer another suggestion that, if possible, incorporates some of his idea or deals with part of his objection.
A few more suggestions for managing the objections of your boss:
Find one thing to like about the other person. A print journalist once told me that she used to work for an extremely difficult editor. But despite his poor news judgment and consistently condescending tone, they did share a love of the same central California pinot. If the journalist began all their conversations with a discussion of the editor’s latest wine-shopping adventure, the rest of the meeting would be relatively civil.
Make it about choice, fairness and accountability. These are three of the most popular words in the English language. Redirect any debate using one of these concepts, and if you argue correctly, you’ll never lose.
Be your own pundit. People often move from assignment to assignment without ever stopping to review their performance. By consciously taking a step back and reviewing what worked and what didn’t, you gain a fresh perspective of what you should do again and what you can do better next time. This is especially important when calibrating your next encounter with a superior.
These tactics aren’t about manipulating your boss or strong-arming your way to winning every debate. They are strategies aimed at figuring out what matters to people and how to use that information to influence them and achieve mutual goals — and learning how to evaluate your own ego and admit that sometimes, your boss is right.
Chris St. Hilaire is the author (with Lynette Padwa) of “27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences & Win Allies,” published in 2010 by the Penguin Group. He is an award-winning message strategist who has developed communications programs for some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, legal teams and politicians. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’ve taken a look at the balance sheet and your company has lost more than $1 billion in revenue from the previous year. What do you do?
If you’re Brett Good, president of the Southern California district for Robert Half International Inc., you face some very painful decisions. Good manages a small part of Robert Half and not the entire $3.2 billion specialized staffing firm. But he still felt the pressure to demonstrate leadership.
First, he had to get over his own frustration about what was happening.
“I remember sitting one day and just ticking through my head the amount of market capitalization that had disappeared over the course of three or four months,” Good says. “I got up to over $100 billion in market cap and decided I was making myself depressed and just stopped counting.”
Good, who has about 200 employees in his district, had spent enough time wallowing. It was time to make those decisions and do what had to be done to survive. He knew he had to start with his own demeanor.
“I think about the pilot who landed the jet in the Hudson River,” Good says. “He was such a consummate professional. He was poised through that whole crisis. He averted disaster just because of that poise and calmness and the way he approached that situation. When faced with crisis, calm and poise is important.”
If you’re going to get the root of what needs to be done in your business, you can’t have people who are afraid to deliver bad news to you.
“Quite candidly, you want to hear the bad news more than the good news because those represent the areas of opportunity within an organization,” Good says.
As you begin the process of feedback, you need to go out of your way to show that you haven’t already made up your mind.
“People at all levels can contribute to a really good idea,” Good says. “A lot of times, they are so much closer to the problem or the opportunity that they can provide insight that you simply don’t have if you are removed by multiple layers.”
Good recalled discussions he had at Robert Half about reducing variable expenses and cutting costs. When he met with people to discuss possible steps, his attention was on that meeting.
“You’re going to have an important staff meeting regarding a project or cutting expenses or something important to the organization and you spend the time in that meeting checking your BlackBerry or your smartphone,” Good says. “It’s those little things that can have a big impact on the psyche of the staff. How much better would it be if you call that meeting and you say at the front end, ‘Cellphones shut down, put your iPads away. Let’s sit down and really talk about what’s going on.’”
When you feel you’ve reached a decision, you need to demonstrate commitment and belief in the choice you’re making.
“You don’t want to blindly stick to it, but be committed to it,” Good says. “If you and the people around you truly feel it’s the right decision for the organization, whether it’s disposing assets or slashing variable costs, communicate to those who are the key stakeholders what decision has been made and why it’s been made. Reinforce that decision and stick with it. Then follow up on it to make sure it’s having the desired impact on the organization.”
Good is hopeful the bottom has been reached and the economy will continue improving. But when you’re still searching for bottom, he adds that hope is not a very useful tool.
“Time is not your friend,” Good says. “The longer you take to make a decision, it usually doesn’t help the end result.”
How to reach: Robert Half International Inc., (650) 234-6000 or www.rhi.com
You may never think you’re doing enough to get your company out of danger. But working 16-hour days is usually not the answer, says Brett Good, president of the Southern California district for Robert Half International Inc.
“What I found during those really challenging times was leaning a little more heavily on the personal side,” says Good, who has about 200 employees in his district at the specialized staffing firm. “What are some things that can reinvigorate me?
“I’m blessed to have a beautiful wife and three young children. Having the opportunity to watch a tee ball game with the kids all in a mosh pile on top of a baseball and a quiet time to think about something other than the business, that’s what recharged my batteries. It allowed me to put a little perspective on what was happening around me to make those decisions.”
You can’t take the whole company on your shoulders and take all the responsibility for what needs to be done.
“Rely on the input of people around you to make the best decisions possible,” Good says. “That goes a long way with helping to develop them and it may just reaffirm what you’re already thinking, or you could get a different idea that helps you solve that problem better than you would have by yourself.”
Ray Werner finds it difficult to remember a time when he had to break up a shouting match at Arnstein & Lehr LLP. Perhaps it’s because those who work for him know that the managing partner has a very simple, tried and true method for resolving disputes.
“Repeatedly, situation after situation, when you get the facts, it’s so helpful in making the right decision,” Werner says. “The facts sometimes make the decision for you. The facts solve the argument for you.”
Werner presides over 146 attorneys and 176 staff throughout the firm's offices in Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida. Each attorney his or her area of expertise and that could make it difficult for the organization to march forward as one solid team. But Werner says camaraderie is not a problem at Arnstein & Lehr.
“One thing that often works is adult conversation,” Werner says. “You have to make sure that you confront issues in a calm, intelligent, fact-oriented way. So many times when people say, ‘Well, this is happening or that is happening,’ the facts help you defuse that situation. A lot of what I do is constantly provide the facts to the people I am working with. I’m making sure they understand what other people are doing, what the firm is doing and how we’re trying to do it.”
It’s your job to be in tune with those facts, whatever they might be, to serve as a mediator when that role is needed.
“I’ll go and investigate the facts to the extent that I can and then start talking with people about what I’ve learned,” Werner says. “I’ll ask them to challenge what I’ve learned.”
If it’s a dispute of some importance, you need to focus on getting the people who it concerns together in a room to talk out their differences.
“Putting people in the same room and having adult conversations that aren’t emotional conversations is important,” Werner says. “Not shuttling back and forth with what did A say, what did B say, going back to A, going back to B. Get A and B in the same room and let’s talk about it. It’s better that people are able to see each other.”
The worst thing you can do is let disputes play out over e-mail.
“It’s so easy for people to sit behind a computer screen not looking anybody in the eye and jot off a quick e-mail,” Werner says. “The advice is often giving pause before you hit that send button to make sure that what you’re saying is really what you want to say and do. When you wake up at 3 in the morning, you won’t say, ‘Oh God, why did I do that?’”
Werner says that resolving differences among lawyers can present a unique set of challenges.
“Lawyers, especially litigators, are trained to argue and take their side of the case and make the best they can out of it,” Werner says. “That’s just the way they are wired. When they start advocating for their position, they use those same skills. You have to weigh that and say, ‘OK, is there a little bit of overstatement here? Is there a little bit of too aggressively trying to reach conclusion A out of this set of circumstances rather than conclusion B.’ If so, filter that for where the reality might be.”
Your ability to stay level-headed in a dispute is another one of the keys to bringing it to a happy outcome.
“People know they are going to get a fair hearing from you,” Werner says. “You’re going to look at things fairly. You’re going to treat them fairly whether it’s compensation, whether it’s information or whether it’s discipline, which we sometimes need to deal with. But fair treatment, honesty and integrity are absolute keys.”
How to reach: Arnstein & Lehr LLP, (312) 876-7152 or legalnews.arnstein.com.
Ray Werner likes spontaneous encounters with his people at Arnstein & Lehr LLP. He just doesn’t have very many of them.
“Frankly, I often make appointments with people or small groups,” Werner says. “I think the people know me well enough to be candid. But breaking down barriers, we don’t spend enough time getting to know people.”
Werner is the managing partner at the law firm that dates back to 1893. And he obviously has a lot more important things to do, at least in terms of the firm operations, than to talk about how someone’s weekend was.
But such seemingly inconsequential information can be quite valuable in building morale with your team.
“Be human,” Werner says. “Have empathy for people.”
That doesn’t mean you try to be their best friend. But you don’t have to be an automaton either. Seek balance and look at your people as more than just numbers on a spreadsheet.
“I just had a conversation this afternoon with somebody about somebody else’s compensation,” Werner says. “We were talking about this person and how we like them and how we respect them and how we like being with them, but we have business decisions that need to be made. We try to make those business decisions in a human way, recognizing those are people just like us.”
“The man who says it can’t be done will likely be interrupted by somebody doing it.” — Unknown
“Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.” — Henry Ford
Attitude is everything. How we think and what we believe is our own personal reality. If we believe it is impossible, it is. On the other hand, if we believe that we can accomplish anything, we will very likely succeed or at least we will get a lot closer than we would if we didn’t even try. Our beliefs have power, ingenuity and genius contained within them.
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will.” — Mohandas Gandhi
I was about 12 years old, and I was having a fight with my younger brother, Jay. Our fights were pretty close to a daily occurrence, so being older, bigger and stronger, I was pretty adept at neutralizing my smaller tormentor. As usual, I had Jay pinned, sitting on his chest with my legs on his arms. “Do you give up?” He said yes, so I let him up. Then he did something unusual. He attacked me again. I wrestled him down to the ground. “Do you give up?” “Yes,” so I let him up again. Again, I was attacked. On and on this went until I knew that either I had to run and get away from Jay or I was going to really hurt him and then I was going to be really hurt. On that day I learned a valuable lesson: You can’t beat a man who will not quit. Jay still doesn’t know what it means to quit.
My personal motto is: “I will persist until I succeed.” I recognize that I may not be good enough, strong enough or smart enough to succeed today. I know that sometimes circumstances beyond my control will interfere in my plans and no effort on my part will change that reality. But if I remain committed and continue to work, I know that I will eventually succeed. The sad reality of life is that most of us beat ourselves by not trying our best, not persevering through trial and difficulty and not remaining committed to ultimate success. To me, trying my best, giving everything that I have to give toward achieving my goal is success in itself. At the end of the day, I know that if I gave my best, leaving nothing in reserve, then win or lose I can feel good about myself.
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” — Sir Winston Churchill
No one likes to be around a pessimist, a complainer, a victim. No one likes to be around someone who always sees the problems and can never quite get to the solution. We as a company want to exemplify an attitude of optimism, capable confidence and a belief that we can get the job done. We always try to demonstrate a positive can-do attitude.
A positive can-do attitude doesn’t mean bluster or bragging. It means understanding the task and the challenge and moving forward with a commitment to doing what it takes to succeed. Can we know every problem that we will encounter? Can we always know with certainty that we will succeed? No. But we can know that we will give our best to meet whatever challenges we face and we will persist utilizing every resource at our disposal.
The way that we approach problems or challenges speaks volumes to our customers.
Customers fear the unknown and fear that they won’t be prepared. They are relying on us to quiet their fears and to solve their problems. When we address issues, questions and challenges with a can-do attitude, their fear turns toward confidence.
We need to tell them the actions that we are going to take and let them know that we are committed to meeting their needs. Let them know that we have the people, system and ability to do the job. Let them know that we will be personally responsible for insuring that our company gets the job done. When customers see that and see us as people who can get the job done, they’ll want to be part of that team.
Scott Morey is president of Morey Corp. During his 36-year tenure, the company has experienced marked growth and an expansion of service and product offerings. Morey has played a key role in developing and implementing the company’s best-in-class program management and quality systems. He serves on the board of directors for Morey Corp. and 10G (a joint venture with Caterpillar). He is also a member The Young Presidents’ Organization.
While the lyrics from the band Damn Yankees mark baseball season as “six months out of every year,” around my house, baseball is a year-round fascination. Some find it a slow-paced game that takes too long, but for those in the know, it’s a metaphor for life, especially the workplace.
You need a solid team.
Although it seems counter intuitive to not want 100 percent superstars in your organization, you must know that such an environment does not work. For one, it’s simply not cost-effective. Second, there is need for support behind the real movers in your organization. In your typical baseball lineup, you have your hitters with power in the middle and usually your players with speed at the front. Then you often have weaker hitters lower in the order or perhaps your pitcher who is called on to lay down a bunt. Each spot in the order has a purpose and plays a key role in producing runs. Likewise, each and every person in your organization has a role in the success of your business.
You want team players.
In baseball, there is more than just batting average. As a team player, you get points for sacrifice bunts and flies — moving other runners around even though you’re out. You even get credit for runs batted in, again even if it’s not you scoring. It’s the same in the workplace. We all strive to hit it out of the park, but on a day in, day out basis it’s just not going to happen. So we have to promote an environment where we work hard to do the best we can but realize that sometimes our best efforts are for the good of the organization, not just our own personal aggrandizement.
In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays should not have won the American League East. They had no stars. The team’s payroll was dwarfed by just one or two of the New York Yankees players’ salaries. But, Tampa Bay had a dynamic, unconventional manager with a bunch of players who loved the game. No one told them they couldn’t win. That’s the atmosphere that businesses should strive for — a team dynamic with no hot shots and plenty of people who are willing to take one for the team.
You want people who can contribute.
Baseball is also a sport for anyone. Although not everyone will be Hank Aaron or Lou Gehrig, for every one of these stars there are everyday players who shine. There are players who endure (Jim Thome), players who rise from obscurity (Troy Tulowitzki), and players who rise from the ashes (Carl Pavano). Every season, 750 players are on opening day rosters with the hope of being the player of their childhood dreams. Sometimes those players will be All-Stars, and sometimes in one of the 162 games that season, that player will have the walk-off hit to take home the victory for the team. Similarly, all employees should be encouraged to dream big and contribute to the overall success of the company. Every game and every workday is a new opportunity to make a name for yourself.
Look to your veterans.
Finally, in baseball, organizations look to veterans to be leaders and mentors, especially to the rookies on their teams. Whether in the role of players, coaches, or instructors, these veterans are looked to for leadership in the clubhouse, offering cohesion, wisdom and sometimes a needed pat on the back or a stern look. In our places of employment, we should strive to be good stewards of the talent available to us at all levels. Leadership is not limited to those people with titles or the highest salaries. We are all called to step up to the plate and take our best shot.
Katherine C. “Kacy” Donlon is a founding member of Wiand Guerra King PL. She has practiced in the area of commercial litigation for the past 15 years, concentrating on the defense of businesses and individuals involved in the securities and financial services industries. She also has experience in a broad spectrum of commercial litigation matters, including employment disputes, class actions, business torts and contract disputes. Reach her at email@example.com.