At a well-known Ivy League school, a prestigious new science center was to be built on the north end of campus. The price tag: $260 million. Three major construction companies were neck and neck to win the job. The primary decision-maker for the university, Alice Dvorak, communicated that the winner would be selected based on strength of team connection.

The first two presentations involved each contractor discussing its own “unique experience and approach to building.” Then, the general manager for the third contractor began his presentation.

“Dr. Dvorak, Dr. Avery, President Chambers, Vice President Allen and Madam Jameson, my name is Robert Allen, and on behalf of Elliott Construction Company, we are honored to be considered for the Leonard T. Abraham School of Sciences project.”

At that moment, the energy changed based purely on the warmth in Robert Allen’s approach. He smiled, he had a friendly, confident tone and he looked each committee member in the eyes. But Robert Allen did something that neither of his competitors considered. He addressed everyone, as well as the project itself, by name.

How are you at remembering people’s names? Fantastic? Not so hot? Embarrassingly bad?

If you are like most people, you’ve checked off either B or C. What typically comes next is a litany of excuses like, “I’m good at faces but not names,” or “I just have a block, and I’ll never be good.”

There are a plethora of reasons why we forget names, but truth is, none of them matter. To the people whose names you can’t recall, your connection with them is less effective than when you do. The following are five simple rules for names that require commitment and repetition. The results are well worth it.

Ask people their name

How many times have you been to the same church, bar or gym, see the same people and never bother to introduce yourself? Think of the personal connections and professional opportunities you could be passing up. Make asking names a priority.

Spell and pronounce names correctly

These go together because they require similar efforts in clarifying, not assuming, for accuracy. Taking time to assure the correct spelling and pronunciation is something to attend to in fine detail.

Ask again when you forget

This may be the most underused tool because most of us tend to forget names immediately. By asking a name again, you are simply informing people that you want to value and respect them.

Remember

To lock names into your mental hard drive, use all tools possible, which can include rhymes like “Dan the man,” or associations like, “Rhonda from Reno.” Write names down, repeat them out loud, repeat them to yourself. Work hard, and you will get in better name shape.

Use them or lose them

When your name is called as someone who contributed to the success of a great team effort, it feels great. When your daughter’s name is on the Dean’s list, it looks like a work of art. Knowing names increases your confidence, makes others feel valued and is a competitive advantage in business. In writing, on the phone and in person, use people’s names.

In the case of Robert Allen’s presentation to Ivy U, it is comical to think that knowing people’s names alone could win a $260 million project. Experience, knowledge and a cogent strategy must be intact. However, the execution of these components involves making a likeable, trusted connection with decision-makers. Make names your first connection.

Joe Takash is the president of Victory Consulting, a Chicago-based executive and organizational development firm. He advises clients on leadership strategies and has helped executives prepare for $3 billion worth of sales presentations. He is a keynote speaker for executive retreats, sales meetings and management conferences and has appeared in numerous media outlets. Learn more at www.victoryconsulting.com.

Published in Chicago

If financial issues are keeping you up at night, the solution could be as simple as sitting down with your banker.

“I want to sleep well at night, and I want you to sleep well at night,” says R. Eric Dellapina, the president of the Stark County/Western Pennsylvania Region of FirstMerit Bank. “The only way to do that is by talking. It’s when people don’t talk to one another that they start to guess. When a client isn’t communicating with me, I assume the worst. Likewise, if the bank isn’t talking to its clients, those clients will often jump to the conclusion that things aren’t going well. The bank needs to communicate that it understands whatever problem the client is facing and is willing to help.”

Smart Business spoke with Dellapina about the business benefits of improving your relationship with your banker.

What are the five keys to having a better relationship with your banker?

  • Clear and direct communication is key. In order to have a good relationship, businesses should realize how important it is to have a banker who communicates clearly. Make sure you and your banker speak the same language. Don’t guess what your banker is saying. Make sure your relationship is strong enough that you can ask for clarification, or talk things over to make sure you are on the same page.
  • Not all relationships are created equal. You need to seek out a banker you can count on. Often, bankers are seen as fair-weather lenders; they’re there when times are easy, but as soon as times get tough, they’re not available to help. If you have a good relationship with your banker and have established trust, that is valuable. Your banker should stand up for you, be proactive, help your business be successful and be your advocate within the bank.
  • A banker must be knowledgeable about your business. This is fundamentally critical to all relationships. Not only does your banker need to understand your business, he or she needs to understand your competition and how your operations work. This can be accomplished by inviting your banker to tour your facility or by scheduling regular meetings. The more a banker knows about your company, specifically, the better that banker can help you, whether it’s through getting additional capital or restructuring debt.
  • Meet senior management. If you are my client, I want you to meet as many of my team members as possible. I want you to meet my banking assistant, my portfolio banker, my credit officer and my regional CEO. If I introduce you to everybody, you become more comfortable with the business/bank relationship as a whole. Additionally, if I’m unavailable, there are other people in the organization you know and trust that can support you.
  • A banker should be a trusted adviser. Businesses should have a good advisory team, consisting of a lawyer, banker and accountant. Those three professionals should work together in concert with you to make strategic decisions and plans, as well as develop a company strategy that will get your business to the next level. Giving your banker that trusted adviser status helps build the relationship and drive business success. If you don’t include your banker as part of your advisory team, you’re missing a vital part of the equation.

How can you develop a better relationship with your banker?

It all comes down to open, honest dialogue. People tend to play their cards close to the vest. They don’t open up with another individual until they know that person. But a banker’s job is to say: ‘Here’s how I see your problem. Tell me how you see it differently and tell me how we can work together to find a solution that makes everyone happy.’

It takes work and effort to develop that comfort level and trust where a client feels comfortable calling and asking for advice.

What is the best way for a banker to gain knowledge about the business?

Consider inviting the banker for an operational tour of your company. Let the banker meet the management team. The banker should be able to sit down with that team and discuss financial and operational issues, such as why the company needs new computer hardware. That meeting and discussion really helps a banker comprehend what the owner is trying to accomplish. Sometimes, the owner is determined to head down a particular path, but once the banker understands the situation, he or she can provide additional solutions that the owner never considered.

What particular traits should businesses look for in a banker?

It’s important to look for a banker you feel comfortable with. Trust is such an important factor in building any good relationship. You also need someone that can communicate effectively. In order to be successful, both the client and the banker need to understand each other’s goals and strategies. You also need someone who’s going to listen to you. I think we all know people who already start formulating a solution before they hear the whole problem. Make sure you and your banker completely understand each other’s needs and ideas.

R. Eric Dellapina is the president of the Stark County/Western Pennsylvania Region of FirstMerit Bank. Reach him at (330) 498-1532 or eric.dellapina@firstmerit.com. NICHOLAS BROWNING is the president and CEO of FirstMerit Bank’s Akron region. Reach him at nicholas.browning@firstmerit.com or (330) 384-7807.

Published in Akron/Canton

If financial issues are keeping you up at night, the solution could be as simple as sitting down with your banker.

“I want to sleep well at night, and I want you to sleep well at night,” says Sue Zazon, the president and CEO of FirstMerit Bank’s Columbus Region. “The only way to do that is by talking. It’s when people don’t talk to one another that they start to guess. When a client isn’t communicating with me, I assume the worst. Likewise, if the bank isn’t talking to its clients, those clients will often jump to the conclusion that things aren’t going well. The bank needs to communicate that it understands whatever problem the client is facing and is willing to help.”

Smart Business spoke with Zazon about the business benefits of improving your relationship with your banker.

What are the five keys to having a better relationship with your banker?

Clear and direct communication is key. In order to have a good relationship, businesses should realize how important it is to have a banker who communicates clearly. Make sure you and your banker speak the same language. Don’t guess what your banker is saying. Make sure your relationship is strong enough that you can ask for clarification, or talk things over to make sure you are on the same page.

Not all relationships are created equal. You need to seek out a banker you can count on. Often, bankers are seen as fair-weather lenders; they’re there when times are easy, but as soon as times get tough, they’re not available to help. If you have a good relationship with your banker and have established trust, that is valuable. Your banker should stand up for you, be proactive, help your business be successful and be your advocate within the bank.

A banker must be knowledgeable about your business. This is fundamentally critical to all relationships. Not only does your banker need to understand your business, he or she needs to understand your competition and how your operations work. This can be accomplished by inviting your banker to tour your facility or by scheduling regular meetings. The more a banker knows about your company, specifically, the better that banker can help you, whether it’s through getting additional capital or restructuring debt.

Meet senior management. If you are my client, I want you to meet as many of my team members as possible. I want you to meet my banking assistant, my portfolio banker, my credit officer and my regional CEO. If I introduce you to everybody, you become more comfortable with the business/bank relationship as a whole. Additionally, if I’m unavailable, there are other people in the organization you know and trust that can support you.

A banker should be a trusted adviser. Businesses should have a good advisory team, consisting of a lawyer, banker and accountant. Those three professionals should work together in concert with you to make strategic decisions and plans, as well as develop a company strategy that will get your business to the next level. Giving your banker that trusted adviser status helps build the relationship and drive business success. If you don’t include your banker as part of your advisory team, you’re missing a vital part of the equation.

How can you develop a better relationship with your banker?

It all comes down to open, honest dialogue. People tend to play their cards close to the vest. They don’t open up with another individual until they know that person. But a banker’s job is to say: ‘Here’s how I see your problem. Tell me how you see it differently and tell me how we can work together to find a solution that makes everyone happy.’

It takes work and effort to develop that comfort level and trust where a client feels comfortable calling and asking for advice.

What is the best way for a banker to gain knowledge about the business?

Consider inviting the banker for an operational tour of your company. Let the banker meet the management team. The banker should be able to sit down with that team and discuss financial and operational issues, such as why the company needs new computer hardware. That meeting and discussion really helps a banker comprehend what the owner is trying to accomplish. Sometimes, the owner is determined to head down a particular path, but once the banker understands the situation, he or she can provide additional solutions that the owner never considered.

What particular traits should businesses look for in a banker?

It’s important to look for a banker you feel comfortable with. Trust is such an important factor in building any good relationship. You also need someone that can communicate effectively. In order to be successful, both the client and the banker need to understand each other’s goals and strategies. You also need someone who’s going to listen to you. I think we all know people who already start formulating a solution before they hear the whole problem. Make sure you and your banker completely understand each other’s needs and ideas.

SUE ZAZON is the president and CEO of FirstMerit Bank’s Columbus Region. Reach her at sue.zazon@firstmerit.com or (614) 545-2791.

Published in Columbus
Friday, 29 April 2011 13:58

Commanding teamwork to ensure trust

Achieving buy-in is a tough task for any leader. But when you’re Brigadier General Roger W. Teague and the people you need to get on board include senior Department of Defense leadership, Technical Intelligence community and even U.S. Congress – achieving buy-in is a grand feat, indeed.

As Commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Based Infrared Systems Wing, Space and Missile Systems Center, Teague had to build and maintain the trust of these key stakeholders after the $10 billion program faced some initial challenges and delays.

By ensuring communication through daily progress reviews and uniting teams around common goals, Teague lead the program past obstacles toward success, delivering unprecedented infrared surveillance to the country.

Because of this, Smart Business, ThinkASG, IBM and Union Bank named the decorated commander to the class of 2011 Smart Leader honorees. He shared how he leads his team to tackle tough issues, innovate with leading technology and give back to the communities they protect.

Give an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

The Infrared Space Systems Directorate is a national leader in technology. Our space and ground systems feature cutting-edge technology and provide the United States with the world’s best missile warning and technical intelligence capabilities. The Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) Program has been in development since the mid-1990s. As a new development, the highly technical $10 billion program experienced several unforeseen challenges during early stages of development. These challenges were mitigated through proactive leadership, teamwork and an unfaltering dedication to our No. 1 customer: the warfighter.

Recognizing successful programs must be based on solid teamwork and collaboration among each of the participating organizations, we placed great importance on establishing and maintaining trust, communication and mutual understanding of a common program vision and goals. We ensured an emphasis on teamwork, trust, respect, and team behaviorsguided by jointly defined core values implemented across all program elements, including team members of the U.S. Air Force and our valued mission partners from industry. The program defined core functions and responsibilities across all program segments and held key leaders and managers accountable for performance.

We also focused on daily progress reviews, tackling tough issues that were imacting program progress, and developed individual action plans to resolve each of them. Technical discussions were frank and focused on reaching solutions and consensus on a path forward. This helped the program to identify, address and eliminate dozens of technical and program risks associated with first-time integration of the SBIRS geosynchronous satellite, and to successfully field the system.

Firm program commitments were established and the team continued to build positive relationships critical to program success. The program soon began making major strides to successfully deliver this critical national security space program and fulfill our commitments and vision to deliver unprecedented global, persistent, infrared surveillance capabilities to our warfighters and the Nation.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

We receive continual feedback from space operators and warfighters that the capabilities and products from our system are outstanding. There is a strong appetite for delivery of more Overhead Persistent Infrared capabilities, more data and faster transmission of data.

As a reflection of the program’s positive performance and criticality of this mission area, the SBIRS program was given additional funding by Congress, encouraging us to continue to find ways to better exploit and deliver the data being provided by on-orbit sensors. In an era of shrinking government budgets, this additional funding was a big vote of confidence for the program and reflects the outstanding performance our systems are providing to ground troops and intelligence community users.

The Infrared Space Systems Directorate continually provides relevant “lessons learned” feedback from our developmental and operational experience, gathered across our portfolio of space-based infrared programs, to the wide array of Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) programs. Many of our ideas and experiences are cited as best practices at the Center.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

The Infrared Space Systems Directorate, as a leading member of the Space and Missile Systems Center, is involved in many local community activities. Many members of our team participate in Career Days at local schools where students are informed about how education leads to exciting job opportunities, the experiences of being deployed to locations around the world as a member of the U.S. Air Force, and the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in education.

We also organize and participate in food drives for local food banks, beach cleanups, clothing drives for the homeless and visits to Veteran’s Hospitals, as well as providing care packages to those deployed from the Space and Missile Systems Center. We are always willing to pitch in at a moment’s notice to support others.

The Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) program reaches across the United States and the world, contributing to our national and international economies. The Space Based Infrared Systems Program employs more than 9,700 personnel across 23 states and works in partnership with more than 50 large and small businesses, providing a multitude of parts for the construction, integration and launch of the payloads and ground facilities.

The SBIRS payload is built right here in Southern California, and the satellite is integrated in Sunnyvale, California. SBIRS satellites are launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and the satellites will be operated by Air Force crews located in Colorado. All across these locations are thousands of people at work daily - designing, building and integrating key systems and assemblies for the Space Based Infrared System.

Internationally, the SBIRS program employs hundreds of people specializing in payload component production and sustainment of our crucial Relay Ground Stations (RGS). Just as our domestic suppliers and their employees, our international partners continue to proudly represent critical assets to the SBIRS program.

How to reach: Los Angeles Air Force Base, (310) 653-1131 or www.losangeles.af.mil

View the Infrared Space Systems Directorate factsheet

Published in Orange County

Let’s talk about creating an environment where you achieve results. If you aren’t achieving results, your leadership won’t matter to your business. But it isn’t just about the “business of business” — it is also about people. I’ve been places where relationships didn’t matter. It isn’t pretty or successful in the long term. I vowed relationships would be the nucleus of any company that I had the opportunity to lead.

At Cbeyond, we spend a lot of time on culture and the “how” around “what” we accomplish. It is table stakes for having a successful career here. Don’t mistake my compassion as weakness. It isn’t soft — it drives return on investment. Period. It puts the focus on what is important (i.e., results) and gets us there by developing trust in each other, which drives collaborative growth and shared achievement.

Develop a legacy of trust and partnership. We call it “relationship capital” at Cbeyond.

Build the right team with the right character. Your job is to build the team and then emotionally invest in its members. Like any coach, you own the job of finding the talent and coalescing the players. And once they are on your team — invest. It is a slippery slope to think that the perfect employee is out there and you just haven’t hired them yet. Embrace the 90 percent capability you see in their talent and use sincere “frankness” and coaching to get closer to 100 percent. There’s an exception: Hire for competence; fire for fit. If they aren’t a cultural fit, get them off your team — and quickly.

Encourage vulnerability and avoid a culture of blame. We want teams that are comfortable and confident in their competencies, but we also want them to be self-aware. If we create environments where we assume good of each other, candidly declare the breakdowns and then arrive at a solution together, we create a culture where our employees feel trust, acceptance and support. If you as a leader provide positive regard for your people, they will be able to offer it to each other and to your customers. We call that “making a simple promise to each other.”

The world is a place of abundance and someone doesn’t have to lose for you to win. Benchmark against others — compete against yourself. Think this way and it will change how you lead and fundamentally how your teams interact with each other.

Focus on achievement — not status.

Stamp out bureaucracy. At Cbeyond, we all sit in cubes, we don’t print titles on business cards, and we don’t publish organizational charts. It isn’t just about bureaucracy; it is about having the ability to play as a team. Put the right talent on the proper challenges without regard to rank. When we are not trapped in “status” discussion, we are positioned to make the right decision for both our employees and our business.

Create shared values. Establish metrics, measure your business, create alignment and then celebrate success. For the past 11 years, we have rallied our troops around an essential imperative, our “Year of …” theme where we align our strategic initiatives, departmental objectives and individual MBOs (management by objective). And to make it stick, we share the same bonus objectives — everyone’s incentive compensation is paid on the same metrics. We rise and fall together and together we make decisions, drive priorities and ask the question, “If it doesn’t support our ‘Year of’ theme, should we be doing it?” You must have shared values to create shared success.

Speak in partnership language. Simply put — it is we, not “me” or “I.”

I have one final thought on all of this: Eliminate the rearview mirror. Learn from your experiences and move forward.

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. Learn more at www.cbeyond.net.

Published in Atlanta
Friday, 29 April 2011 13:39

Keeping growth in check

Surviving this economy has been a challenge for all companies, especially those in commercial real estate like Casco Contractors Inc. But it’s not the biggest challenge on President Cheryl Osborn’s mind.

Her sights are set higher – on not just surviving, but maintaining stable growth through the downturn. She achieves this by creating open lines of communication to stay in tune with her employees’ workloads and putting technology in place to manage projects and keep everyone in the field informed, as well.

These processes have helped the firm, which specializes in Commercial Tenant Improvements, keep efficiency, quality and consistency first. And now, Osborn is looking forward to projected 2011 revenues that nearly double last year’s.

Because of this, Smart Business, ThinkASG, IBM and Union Bank named Osborn to the class of 2011 Smart Leader honorees. She shared how she maintains quality during growth and applies innovative technology to better manage her team.

Give an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

Stable, managed growth is probably the biggest challenge that we have faced. Maintaining stringent quality standards can be challenging when a company is growing quickly, but our reputation has been built on the quality of our service, so quality control is something we take very seriously and always have in mind every step of the way. To maintain quality:

  • I provide my employees with every possible tool to help them manage their responsibilities.
  • I maintain open lines of communication to stay aware of workloads. And when someone is struggling, I work with them to determine if they are actually overloaded or if perhaps they need help managing time and resources better.
  • When I deem necessary, and once I’ve assessed that the company volume can support it, I hire additional people to fill positions at various levels of management or support.

Surviving in a struggling economy (is another challenge). I take pride in the fact that I have been able to maintain my workforce with no layoffs, even when the economy has taken a serious dip and other companies were closing their doors. We have done this by adapting – not only our services to our clients, but internally adapting the way we do business. By shifting responsibilities and rallying everyone to pitch in, even if it sometimes means handling tasks that aren’t generally in their job descriptions, we’ve managed to weather leaner times and keep our valued employees on our team.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

We have created processes for the field and the office that specifically focus on efficiency, quality and consistency. We also use technology to improve communication and ensure that everyone involved has the latest information – something that is critical in an industry where changes are frequent and not having the correct information can cause major setbacks to both the budget and the schedule. Our superintendents all have e-mail via BlackBerrys, access to high-tech cameras, and we can send them drawings electronically – which is something that is very cutting edge.

Our in house team uses a specialty software program to manage our existing workload, our pending projects and our projects in closeout, which helps keep our coordinators organized and able to handle all the “balls in the air.”

We communicate with our clients constantly using technology, which helps give them the peace of mind that the projects are going well. Communication is key, and technology is an amazing tool for that process.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

By maintaining a stable workforce, I provide my employees with job security and an excellent benefit package that we continually work to improve. By providing employees with the peace of mind that comes with job security and good benefits, they are more confident about their spending capability and ability to support their local businesses. I also offer them flexibility with their hours so they can implement my “family first” ideal, which furthers their performance and the company’s success.

I also encourage and support charitable work throughout the community by funding causes employees bring to my attention, allowing employees to take time off for charitable causes in order to make a difference. I am a huge believer that giving back is a definitive fueling mechanism for the local economy.

How to reach: Casco Contractors Inc., (949) 679-6880 or www.cascocontractors.net

Published in Orange County

At Tony Conway’s special events business, A Legendary Event, when any employee answers the phone, he or she is automatically responsible for whatever is on the other end. There’s no passing it off to anyone else — the person has to take ownership of it. Taking this approach to customer service is just one way that the company successfully puts on more than 2,500 events each year, which have garnered the company $15 million in revenue and more than 300 awards.

Smart Business spoke with Conway, the company’s owner and president, about how to have strong customer service.

What’s the key to strong customer service?

For leaders, they first have to make sure they’re listening to their customers and that they’re listening to their team. That’s a real key. They have to hear what their team has to say about what they’re dealing with with the customers and what the customers are asking about.

I would say, as well, if you’re going to make the decision to be a leader in any business, make sure you understand every job that everyone in your company has — what they go through, how they do it — so you can have that dialogue with them. If you come in as a leader and you spend no time with your product or your business or with what your talent is providing, you as a leader aren’t going to be effective. You can’t talk about something being hot if you don’t know where the heat comes from. You can’t talk about things being beautiful or fresh if you don’t know how it gets there and how it’s ordered and what the cost is.

There are many leaders out there who say, ‘Well, that’s why I hire the people with the strengths.’ It’s still something that leaders have to be a part of. Someone with that strength will, somewhere along the line, need some help. They’ll need guidance. They’ll need direction. They’ll need an opinion, and if you don’t understand what it is they do, how can you give that opinion? If you’re at the forefront and have no idea what your team does on a daily basis to make that happen, you’re really an ineffective leader.

How do you learn all those facets of the job?

You have to schedule the time, and go and do the job that your team does. You can’t schedule it one time. You have to constantly schedule that. It has to be a part of your calendar.

So if I decide I want to go in and work with the chefs because I want to know a new recipe, I need to schedule that with them. Get in, talk about first where is it ordered, how much it costs, what’s it being sold for, how do we prep it, how do we hold it, will those temperatures hold in a setting where we are. Same with the floral division — going in and saying, ‘Let’s talk about where in Colombia are these flowers coming from? What is the process for getting them here? If we run into a problem, what is our backup in how we will take care of the opportunity?’ [It’s the] simplest things with our team — making them stop and think through the logistics of what we do.

How do you effectively listen?

It’s listening and then repeating that question and stating, ‘If I’m hearing you correctly, what you would like to do is this and this and this. Am I correct? If I understand you correctly, you would like this to be a bright orange instead of a light orange, and I’d like to show you a couple photographs, so we’re making sure we’re on the same level.’

It’s not just listening but following up with that listening and then coming back to that client or employee and saying, ‘In this, did I answer your question, and did we achieve what you were trying to accomplish?’ so you’re really taking it full circle. If they say, ‘No,’ we haven’t solved that, so we go back through that process of coming to an agreement. You have to make sure that you’ve heard them correctly, so ask the question, shut up and let them talk.

We do 2,500 events a year. I can’t remember everything that a customer tells me, so we keep an incredible database. We repeat what we talked about. We send a note and say, ‘It was great meeting with you today, and it was great we talked about this and this and this.’ We’re building this trust and building that understanding.

How to reach: A Legendary Event, (404) 869-8858 or www.legendaryevents.com

Published in Atlanta

When Rebecca O. Bagley took over as president and CEO of NorTech, her biggest challenge was learning not only the dynamics of the company but also of the community. This was critical because NorTech is a nonprofit, technology-based economic development organization that serves 21 counties in Northeast Ohio. To overcome this challenge, communication was absolutely critical as she got to know her staff as well as the various constituents in the community that her organization served and worked with. Smart Business spoke with Bagley about how she communicated with her employees and key stakeholders.

What were the keys to effectively communicating when you started?

Being very clear with whether you’re learning and asking questions or you’ve decided on a direction and you’re getting people on board or understanding that direction. It’s important to be clear and concise in your communication and be honest about what you’re thinking at that time. That typically endears people to the organization and gets people on board with what you’re doing.

How do you make sure you’re clear in your communication?

It’s a combination of time and effort spent with the team and what words mean to different people and then going out and bouncing that off of a couple of people who are less familiar with the (organization) or the work.

The biggest thing that I see as an opportunity for lots of people to increase the effectiveness of communication is remember who you’re talking to. It sounds very simple, but talking as a CEO of a larger organization, I don’t typically bring in my PowerPoint presentation. I’ll think of a couple of things I want to talk with them about. Yet if you’re talking to someone who wants to understand more of the detail, make sure you’re giving them that level of detail.

It’s crafting the message for the person who’s listening to it and putting yourself in their shoes in preparation for that and making sure you’re spending a few minutes before the meeting about what the best way to approach it is and not just doing your normal pitch.

You’re not changing the core, but it’s important to be able to do that.

How do you make sure that what you perceive matches up with what they actually hear?

It sounds cliché, but listening is a huge part of that and asking questions — you don’t say, ‘What did you hear me say?’ but you can craft questions as the dialogue goes that can help you understand whether they’re getting it or not. Reading people’s facial expressions and body language makes a big effort — it’s emotional intelligence and making sure you’re picking up on the cues and paying attention to whether people are understanding you. When they start bringing a different topic, it shows that they’re not quite understanding what you’re talking about and that’s why they’re taking it in a different language.

How do you listen effectively?

Most of it is just honestly a commitment to pay attention to what you’re doing at the time and compartmentalizing — this half-hour is for this person. When you scheduled it, you thought it was important enough to schedule, so focus on it. It is important to this person. That level of focus and attention in a hectic environment helps to make the person feel heard. And you learn things because you’re paying attention to the person in front of you. Whether it’s at a networking event or a meeting in the office, focus on the person you’re talking to — and then move on to the next thing. It takes practice though.

[It’s hard] especially depending on what you’ve got going on. You have to leave for your flight in a half hour, so do you want to be listening, or are you thinking of if you have everything in your bag? It’s a challenge sometimes.

How to reach: NorTech, (216) 363-6883 or www.nortech.org

Published in Cleveland

The decisions that impact your company’s future might ultimately rest on your shoulders, but the process by which you arrive at those decisions can be far more collaborative.

The best leaders are the ones who solicit input from managers and employees at all levels of the organization and formulate a system by which ideas and feedback can be submitted to and considered by the company’s main decision-makers. Whether employees want to give you input on the strategic direction of the company or the new light fixtures in the restrooms, it’s all a part of keeping ideas flowing and keeping your work force engaged.

Over the past few years, Smart Business Philadelphia has talked to a number of local business leaders about how they keep their employees focused by engaging them. Here are what three of them had to say:

 

“What I tell my employees is to come back to me with a game plan, tell me what you would do to solve it, because you’re closer to the issue than me. Nine out of 10 times, employees solve their own problems. They understand what they have to do and end up bringing back great results.”

-- Richard Miller, president and CEO, Virtua Health

“Part of building a team-oriented culture is building consensus, seeking input. Two heads are better than one; three heads are better than two. So we encourage people to seek others’ opinions because it absolutely yields better decisions, and we develop a culture where we respect each other’s

opinions. That’s the way we operate.”

-- Bill Hankowsky, chairman, president and CEO, Liberty Property Trust

“It’s amazing how many people are doing some best practices that we don’t even know about. When people hear stuff from their peers at work and they get a live testimonial, it ignites them to go back and try that, it ignites their thought process to say, ‘What can I do to better please customers, to get a better spirit in my store?’ It creates such wonderful momentum.”

-- Judy Spires, former president, Acme Markets Inc.

Summary

Get your employees to think like problem solvers.

Always look to build consensus on decisions.

Never underestimate your employees’ ability to generate new ideas.

Published in Philadelphia

As A.J. Hyland sits comfortably on one of the two modern leather couches in his second-floor office at Hyland Software, it could be easy for him to look through his office’s glass walls across the maze of cubes and simply smile in contentment.

After all, the software company, which develops the enterprise content management solution called OnBase, grew 77 percent between 2006 and 2009, reaching $133 million in revenue and landing it a spot on the Inc. 5000 list last year for the fifth time. The company has made six acquisitions, won numerous awards and has more than 9,700 customers, and of that, 97 percent renew maintenance on the software each year. On top of that, it now has more than 1,100 employees and constantly has no shortage of applicants because it has gained a reputation of having a Silicon Valley culture despite its suburban Cleveland location.

Yes, Hyland could simply smile in contentment, but all of that is just the beginning for him.

“I get more excited each year because we’re getting more and more strong, but we have so much potential to grow,” the president and CEO says. “For me, it’s about building a strong foundation but never being content. That’s why we’re talking about evolving this year with all the employees. We’ve got to move forward. It doesn’t have to be this massive rip-up change — we’re doing so many things well, but let’s continue to tweak things and get better and better and better and grow and that’s key.”

Evolution is vital because the competition has taken notice of the organization and all of its successes.

“We can’t just sit here — we have to move forward,” he says. “There are way too many people coming after us in this marketplace. There aren’t a lot of barriers to entry in this space. People can develop products and services to compete with us, and a lot of people are trying to copy what we do, so as they get close to us, how do we leapfrog ahead again? A lot of that has to do with evolution.”

To continue growing and getting better, Hyland is proactive about growing the company by making sure he hires great people, focuses on customer service and effectively communicates.

He says, “If you want to grow, you have to believe that you’re going to do it and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Hire great people

As Hyland Software has grown, unlike many companies, it hasn’t waited until there is enough work to justify hiring new employees. The company has been proactive and hires employees well ahead of when they’ll actually be needed.

“We hired ahead of where we needed to hire to have people there so that when we got to a point, we were able to service the clients we had,” Hyland says. “It’s not like we held, off, held off, held off, and as soon as something hit, we hired a bunch. We hired a bunch and pushed the growth and kept on bringing people in. …You have to add good people all the time.”

Many may scoff at spending money on such expensive resources as employees before the business is there, but Hyland says that with great risk comes great reward and it’s just one part of pushing yourself to grow.

But it’s not just hire a bunch of people without any thought behind it. Hyland has a specific approach to the practice.

“It comes down to planning and figuring out what areas are going to be hotter than others,” he says.

He looks at the business and says that if it grows by X percentage on the sales side, that shows him how many people he needs to hire on the technical services or support side. He also brings into account data about how many people leave the company each year, as well.

“It’s really about looking at your business and analyzing the historical data and having some lens into where it’s going in the future,” Hyland says.

The key is that you have to be grounded in data and also be willing to use it.

“Spend some time sifting through the data,” he says. “A lot of people have the data but they don’t spend time cutting it up or slicing it from different angles. Every month we look at all of our sales, services data and figure out what’s happening. Are we seeing a couple trends over a couple months? What does that mean from an employee perspective?”

But it’s not just hard data that you have to incorporate into your hiring plans. Listen to what your customers are telling you, as well.

“You get comments from customers — ‘Hey, it’s tough to get a hold of you guys these days,’ or, ‘Your backlog for services is stretched out too long,’” Hyland says. “That immediately throws us a flag, and we say, ‘OK, we’re low in certain areas, and we want to make sure we have enough people to handle those volumes.”

As you assemble the data and the feedback, you’ll likely want to ask your department heads and managers what they think they’ll need in terms of human resources, as well, but Hyland says you also have to make sure to ask questions when you have those conversations.

“When you’re dealing with departments, people are going to ask for the moon,” he says. “If you ask what they need, they’re going to ask for a lot, and it’s good to have some checks and balances on that and check people and say, ‘Why would you need five people there?’ or, ‘Why would we need four people there?’ and make people come up with legitimate reasons.”

Once he knows how many people he needs to hire, then it’s time to focus on the hiring process itself.

“Setting expectations in the interview process is good,” he says. “[It’s] coming up with creative ways of drawing out personalities in an interview process.”

At Hyland Software, it’s a multistep process that doesn’t rely on one manager to make a decision. Applicants go through multiple interviews with both human resource staff members as well as managers they’ll be working with directly.

“Having the multi-interview process is helpful, but [it’s also] having them talk about experiences where they had to deal with adversity and see how they’re going to function in this environment to see if they’re self-starters,” Hyland says. “If you can come up with questions and approaches and draw that out, that’s going to be part of your success in bringing in the right people.”

He says it’s also helpful to be honest about their work environment and really share what it will be like.

“Have an overall tone of your department that’s communicated to the applicants so they can self-weed-out,” Hyland says. “‘OK, this is how it works here, and maybe it’s not perfect, but this is how we function, and if this is something that’s going to make you uncomfortable, maybe it won’t work.’ Setting proper expectations in both directions is very important.”

It’s also important to involve successful employees in the process. He says that if you have a couple successful individuals in a particular area that you’re hiring for, identify what traits they have that have made them succeed. Train those people to be a part of the interview process so you have more people involved, and look for those traits when interviewing.

Lastly, Hyland says it’s a common mistake to get excited about all the wonderful things you see on somebody’s resume and ignore the red flags that come up in your interview process.

“More often than not, if the HR [representative] isn’t feeling good about somebody in terms of their attitude or approach but their manager felt good about them, they’re not going to be successful here,” Hyland says. “It’s just the data shows that. There are always exceptions, but if you’re ranking fair to poor (and) a manager wants to trump that and say, ‘I want them anyway,’ we have some good data that shows that doesn’t always work out.”

Focus on customer service

When Hyland hands you his business card, you’re actually receiving access — not simply a card. On that little card is not the general company phone number or an assistant’s extension but rather his direct office line as well as his cell phone number.

“Make sure there are no gatekeepers to the senior leadership — period,” Hyland says. “Don’t have a bunch of hoops to go through before you actually talk to the owners or the senior management in any department. That would be No. 1, so customers have to know that they’ve got a final backstop with the leadership of an organization.”

This is just the start of how Hyland Software focuses on customer service, the second critical factor to growing the organization.

“Senior leadership has to lead by example because if they’re not doing it, no one’s going to do it,” he says. “If they’re not customer-oriented, they’re not taking calls, they’re not getting in front of the fire and getting out on the front lines with customers who need help or need resolution on stuff and they’re trying to shirk all those responsibilities, it will not trickle down at all.”

Hyland says that customer service starts with making yourself available to your customers.

“Customer service has a lot to do with accessibility,” he says. “[It’s] making sure that you’re projecting to your customer base that we want to hear from you — it’s not you bought our product and good luck.”

That’s why Hyland and the other senior executives at the company make their phone numbers available for all of their customers, and that’s what he expects of all of his employees, as well.

“If you’re not willing to get on the phone and help customers with problems, you’re not going to last here,” he says. There’s no way for you to exist in this organization if you’re going to take this standoffish us versus them. To us, it’s about partnership. It’s about locking arms and dealing with issues. It’s about saying sorry when you make a mistake and moving on to a solution fast.”

To get everyone to adapt this mentality, Hyland says you have to focus on training your people in customer service.

“Don’t skimp on training for people, particularly when they start with a company,” he says. “Don’t just say, ‘Good luck.’ You have to give them context on where you are in the industry and what your corporate value system is and how you approach customers in general and what we care about as an organization and what our goals are this year and what are we focusing on. People armed with those parameters are better able to serve customers.”

You also have to continue talking to them about why customer service is so important long after they start.

“It means being proactive,” he says. “It means training your people and giving your people the power to make decisions that are pro-customer and they understand that this is who signs the paycheck and building that mentality over time.”

That understanding of who signs his employees’ paychecks is critical, and to reinforce it, he talks about new customers at every Monday-morning meeting with the company, where he reads the name of each new customer that has come on board in the previous week.

“It may sound corny — I could just say the number — ‘Hey, we got seven new customers last week,’ but I think it’s important for people to hear who these companies are that are signing our paychecks and for them to see the names written in front of them,’” Hyland says.

He also wants employees to get to know customers and understand them so customers come into Hyland and present their solution to employees, and it’s also recorded so people can watch it later. They talk about the decisions they make, why they buy Hyland’s product, what have been some of the positives they’ve gotten from it, what some of the pitfalls have been, what they would like to see in the product and what they would like to see from the company. It’s not mandatory for employees to attend or watch it later, but many of them do because they realize it’s important to hear from customers.

Another way Hyland focuses on its customers is by creating user communities where customers can come in and learn from each other.

“Sometimes people feel that’s dangerous and all the bad stories are going to get out, and yes, you’ll have some individuals that will take advantage of that, but more often than not, people are good, and they’re just trying to find answers and share best practices,” he says.

Between these avenues as well as simply working with customers every day, Hyland can see when trends are starting to develop that need addressed, but the word trend is important.

“You learn through experience and mistakes that getting crazy off a one-off experience doesn’t really help,” he says. “There’s usually two sides to every story. It’s really if you’re getting a consistent wave.”

He says there are certainly situations that you need to correct right away, but more often than not, if you’re seeing many customers telling you the same thing, that shows you it needs to be addressed.

“Feedback is coming from different avenues, and you’re getting a sense that this is a problem and we need to address it” he says. “I think knee-jerking to one particular issue, I’ll leave that to the government. I don’t think that’s really smart. You can certainly address the issue, but is it a trend if it happens once? No. That’s a mistake that a lot of people make, and they’ll get all fired up and start blaming and moving a bunch of things around, and you need multiple data points before you shift focus. … If you have multiple avenues of feedback from partners, from customers, from user groups, then you know you have something to address.”

Communicate

As Hyland Software redid its large HR system, it was a huge project that touched everybody as they tried to consolidate other systems into it. It also forced managers to be more accountable on certain things, so there was a lot going on with it. Even though Hyland had talked about why they were doing the project multiple times, people were still getting upset.

“As you get further along in the project, people get angry about certain things and you have to reset everybody,” he says.

That’s where communication comes in, which is another critical element to the company’s growth. Hyland says he was naïve when he was younger in that he thought he could just go out and say what the company was doing and where it was going, and everyone would get it.

“You wonder why people wander off in a different direction — ‘Wait a minute! They’re not following me?’” he says. “It’s just getting the discipline down of talking about things fairly consistently and then creating avenue and mechanisms at the global level and departmental level that reinforce that vision or the values or whatever it is you’re trying to get across.”

So he’s become more disciplined in his communication approach. To start, he’s created a small group of several vice presidents and meets with them about once a quarter to ask them how he’s doing with his communication. He’ll ask where they think the company is on a certain issue, what they think he just communicated about it or what their team thinks about it. He’ll ask what is fuzzy about what he said or what didn’t link right with people.

“It’s been eye-opening for me,” he says. “I won’t let them talk and hear each other so they can’t mold their answers. I actually make them write them before we talk about them so I get the raw feedback before we get mob mentality.”

Doing this helps him see that he hasn’t projected the real reasons he’s doing something or what the purpose behind something was. Hyland says that when you get a group of intelligent people who know you and the business really well, they can really help shed light into your communication efforts.

“Creating that and being humble enough to take that is the key advice to just create a group of individuals who do that,” he says.

He’s also done this with employees and asked them a couple strategic questions to see if they really understand where the company is heading. Sometimes he sees that newer employees don’t get it but older employees do, and sometimes he sees that everyone gets it.

“If you’re willing to open yourself up to the feedback, people will talk,” he says. “It may take them a little time, but they will talk and they will say, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ The advice I would give to any leader is open yourself up. Put the target on your shirt and just take it. It’s going to forge you as a better leader, period. If you think you know everything or you’re God’s gift to whatever, that’s great, but you’re not going to evolve as an individual, and you’re not going to be a stronger leader three years from now.”

In the case of the HR system, it was clear from the feedback that employees didn’t understand the point. Hyland recognized that it was creating different work for everyone, and change doesn’t make people happy, so he spent five minutes at the Monday-morning meeting talking about it. He explained why it was important, why they needed to do it from an employee-development and career-development perspective, how they didn’t have a consolidated system, why it was strategically important as a business, and how people are crucial and doing this keeps turnover rates low.

“Immediately, people said there was a massive upswing in involvement and energy behind it, and it just took five minutes for the leader to say, ‘OK, everybody, I know there’s pain, but get through it – there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We’re not just doing this to put you through pain, but there’s actually something valuable here that we want to get to,’” he says. “Sometimes we need a little reminder.”

He says you don’t want to do this every single time you communicate to people, though, but rather when you get feedback that the simpler message isn’t getting through.

“If you do this every week, you drive people nuts — ‘Oh here he goes again,’” Hyland says. “But once every six or eight weeks — ‘OK, he’s actually thinking about things.’”

HOW TO REACH: Hyland Software, (440) 788-5000 or www.hyland.com

Published in Cleveland