When Hittle Landscaping Inc. lost 30 percent of its revenue during the recent housing market crash, President Jeremy Hittle had some difficult decisions to make. The first one was how to bring the $10.4 million family-owned company out of the funk. That took teamwork and some painful choices.
But equally as tough was to decide whether or not to hire a pricey leadership coach who could teach the Hittle management team the skills needed for long-term prosperity.
“It was expensive and it was difficult to spend the money in times like those, but it had to be done,” Hittle says.
“When the housing market crashed, we had to react to it quickly. Getting the upper management team together to fight the fight was a lot better than me just fighting it myself.”
The decision to hire an executive coach often requires considerable discussion. A business must tie it to an analysis of expenses, how to increase revenue and how to increase efficiency.
“You need to discuss what’s a better way to manage your business, manage your people, manage your customers,” Hittle says. “The lists will get very long and very hard to manage. How can you ask the employees to work harder? You can, but what’s that going to get you? So better leadership skills are a great way to improve efficiency, morale and communications. That’s where efficiencies come from. Efficiencies don’t just come from working harder.”
Hittle asked consultants to suggest a coach, and he hired one who had also written a book on leadership. Weekly and biweekly sessions helped the management team set goals and provided different ways to think about situations.
“It really makes a difference,” Hittle says. “There is a lot of frustration today in leadership. Frustration just doesn’t help. It’s kind of like carrying around baggage when you’re trying to be a leader.”
The personal leadership development benefits can be significant.
“It’s been great. It’s fascinating when a person does decide to consider his own leadership style, develop upon that and grow on what he’s found,” Hittle says. “I know it’s been huge for me, and I have had several employees step back and say, ‘Wow, I better understand my job now. It’s not just to tell people what to do. It’s about being supportive. It’s about accepting better who you’re managing.’”
The term “supportive” is a key operative word that is stressed in the leadership sessions.
“Employees need to know how valuable they are to the organization,” Hittle says. “You don’t want them to feel like they are employees ? you want them to feel like business owners. They all should feel like they have their own small business that they run beneath them. They feel like those beneath them are the employees that they employ, that they support, encourage and direct.”
That support helped the company reclaim 60 to 70 percent of the revenues that were lost and racked up near-record profitability for 2010.
Compassion is another focal point of leadership training.
“Listening, understanding what they want, and giving it to them,” Hittle says. “It’s not being a leader by directive. That’s not what to shoot for. Shoot for trying to nourish their needs, and your needs become their needs.
“A lot of leaders don’t quite understand it because they just want to have the first and the last say-so, and they expect it to be done that way. I don’t believe that works very well.
“Usually people that excel to a leadership position are firm-minded thinkers,” Hittle says. “They don’t realize that you have to open up, be a little vulnerable, and ask for some help and do some self development ? to try to pass along the message that we can all be better.”
How to reach: Hittle Landscaping Inc., (317) 896-5697 or www.hittlelandscape.com
Trimming and pruning
With a significant portion of its business tied to the housing industry, when the market hit bottom in 2009, Jeremy Hittle and his management team had their plates full learning how to be better leaders while they trimmed and pruned Hittle Landscaping’s operations to weather the storm.
“It was my job to not give direction but to convey a message,” says Hittle, president of the 140-employee company.
“The message was that we are in trouble, and we need everybody's help. I spent a lot of time in 2009 making sure that nobody thought otherwise. I tried to make sure that they knew that the company’s challenges were their challenges ? that we were all in it together.”
The solution was plain and simple: Everyone needed to be in concert and do some brainstorming.
“The only possible way to get out of a downturn like that was to come up with 50 ways that would help,” Hittle says.
“Obviously we had to lay off some employees, and we changed things around,” Hittle says. “Nobody worked any overtime. We worked four days a week instead of five. We saved on travel.”
Steps taken to recover from the downturn are lessons that likely will be retained.
“We are constantly working on reorganization. Even today, it’s about how we are going to change today to deal with tomorrow, just like we did back in 2009.”
How to reach: Hittle Landscaping Inc., (317) 896-5697 or www.hittlelandscape.com
David Harding knew there had to be a better way to reduce the stress at work. So he read an article about executive coaches, hired one, and set out to change the company culture with his newly minted purpose statement.
It was his “aha” moment. The revelation? Hiring the best people, trusting them and letting everyone share in the duties ? and share in the rewards.
“We dreamt that people would want to work here and would be lining up at our door to join the team,” says Harding, president and CEO of HardingPoorman Group, whose annual sales are about $30 million.
Once that vision is solidified, you develop the purpose. Harding finds this one fits the bill: “To make a meaningful difference in the lives of our employees.”
Finally, ask, “How can we deliver on that purpose?”
Then comes the action. Take away the autocratic management style. Put in a democratic style, where managers are allowed to run their departments. Take away the plant manager.
“We chose not to have one because everyone tends to go to him/her for answers,” Harding says. “Pretty soon you have a stressed-out person because the staff puts monkeys on his/her back.”
The culture revolution won’t be easy. It took Harding about two years to get his 154-employee graphic arts company turned around. Autonomy was especially problematic at first.
“It wasn’t a habit for them to make decisions, and so they would come to us and say, ‘What do I do here?’ and we would say, ‘You’re running the show; what do you think you do?’ and eventually, after you do that a few times, they understand: ‘OK, I need to be making my own decisions.’
“Instead of answering the question for them, you ask them to come up with the answer themselves. And nine times out of 10, it’s the same answer you give them, especially if they understand the vision of the company.”
Management, in a twist of the usual case scenario, should be accountable to employees, and not the other way around. This is the optimum way to benefit the customer.
“Think about it,” Harding says. “The people that can really provide value to a customer are the people that are closest to that process. In other words, the people that are closer to producing a product can probably provide more value quicker to a customer than managers. The reason is they work with that product every day and they know what improvements can be made. So it’s faster. They don’t have to go upstairs and say, ‘Is it OK if I do this?’ Of course they can do it. You should really turn the pyramid upside down and let them provide the value.
“In fact, there is a good book written on the subject called, ‘Employees First, Customers Second,’ and by making employees first they should know what the customer is wanting, too, and what the customer’s vision is, as well. So you have to connect them with the customer.”
If you hire the right people, it makes your job so much easier. Harding points out that his company’s turnover rate for 2010 was 9.1 percent. Statistics show that manufacturing companies average about 16 percent a year.
“There are a million things you can do to make sure a hire is a correct hire,” he says. “Pre-employment testing is one. Multiple interviews. Actually have the employee go through vocational-type tests.
“One time I even drove by an employee’s house, because it was a very important position I was hiring for,” he explains. “I actually could tell by the shape of his house and the garage whether he was an organized person or not.”
Did he get the job? Yes, and he’s now a partner.
How to reach: HardingPoorman Group, (888) 809-7741 or www.hardingpoorman.com
Bring on the feedback
Employee feedback through staff surveys will bring meaningful results in building a great company, says David Harding, president and CEO of HardingPoorman Group.
Each year, the 154-employee graphic arts company conducts a staff survey to evaluate where the company is headed and where it has been.
An outside firm conducts the process and answers are anonymous.
Some of the 35 questions include, “My supervisor is willing to listen to ideas I have about improving my job,” and, “I understand the values of this company and what is important to it.” Respondents agree or disagree on a scale of 1 to 10. Comparisons are made to previous year’s scores to see where improvement is needed.
“We take the average of all 12 questions about the manager and put it on their review,” Harding says. “That way we are telling the managers what’s important.
“The manager can see what his department’s low areas were. Then he can set a plan, or we can set a plan with him, for how he is going to increase those scores this year. You’re benchmarking the company. You can benchmark the manager.
“I’m proud to say that every year our numbers have improved,” Harding says. “I would hope that if you asked our staff if they ‘bought in to’ our culture, they would overwhelmingly say, ‘Yes.’”
How to reach: HardingPoorman Group, (888) 809-7741 or www.hardingpoorman.com
Andy J. Birol isn't a SBN Magazine columnist just because he's lucky. He knows about growing businesses, retaining customers, and he knows selling. After all, he sold us on writing a monthly column -- and we're tough customers.
Birol has logged some impressive success stories over his 24 years in business and five years as a consultant from companies as small as Diamond Tool and Die in Euclid to as large as IBM. He's coached and advised manufacturers, attorneys, marketing companies, software developers and computer network installers. He likes to describe what he does for clients in cinematic terms.
"I'm like Robert Duvall in 'The Godfather,'" he says. "Marlon Brando, who was like the business owner, didn't do anything without consulting the consiglieri, the Duvall character. That's me."
Birol's main expertise is his PACER process, which stands for Process for Acquiring Customers and Enhancing Retention. He was so fond of the phrase that he owns the copyright and called his firm PACER Associates until last November when he changed it to Birol Growth Consulting.
"My business grew beyond the PACER process," he says. "My corporate identity needed to reflect that."
Birol's firm name change is the same kind of back-to-basics shift that he sees as so necessary for many companies struggling during the recession. Technology, he says, has gotten in the way of that transition.
"Too many companies who prefer to stay detached from their marketplaces found technology to be an excellent crutch to help them do that," Birol says. "It's allowed them to put distance between them and the customer."
Raze the walls
Companies are too dependent on Web sites and marketing materials to help sales reps educate the potential customer, Birol says. Repeat customers are built through face-to-face meetings where you and your representatives try to understand the prospects' needs.
"I am continually stunned by the level of mediocrity in how most companies choose to run their sales and marketing and customer service," he says. "Companies have gotten fairly good at managing their costs, what they have neglected is to effectively manage their efforts to grow."
Birol servicemarked the phrase, "Best and Highest Use," which you have no doubt seen in his column. It's another way of saying "do what you're good at and what you like doing." Likewise, focus on your target market, make it smaller, and grab more of it.
"If you could sell all the left-handed chiropractors in Geauga County, you'd probably be better of than trying to target every professional services provider in the Northeast Ohio," Birol says. "If anybody can use your service then you can't be special to anybody."
Make that follow-up phone call. Tell your sales reps to send Thank You notes, and it wouldn't hurt for you to write a couple. If your customer thinks you're not paying attention and their business isn't valued, watch out.
"It's back to basics," Birol says. "Eliminate the sloppiness."
Credibility is hard to establish when moving up the ranks of a company, but it can be even harder for a family member being groomed for a future leadership role.
Blair Haas is dealing with that challenge as he brings a fourth generation his son, Josiah, 26 into Bud Industries Inc., a manufacturer of electronic enclosures. Haas says the biggest issue is making sure the other workers know his son is qualified for the job.
“We wanted to make sure he was well-qualified and would immediately gain the respect of the team,” Haas says.
The first step was introducing Josiah into the company as a teenager and having him work summers at the company during high school and college.
Although two of Josiah’s brother embarked on different career paths and another is still in college, all had the opportunity to work summers at the company.
“In Josiah’s case, he gained great credibility because, as a junior in high school, he worked in our maintenance department, which required him to start at 6 a.m.,” Haas says. “Not a whole lot of 17-year-olds are keen to be at work at 6 a.m.”
From there, he worked in sales and engineering, getting a taste of the different aspects of the organization.
Part of the process of integrating the next generation is assigning the person with key responsibilities so they are calling the shots and don’t get the sense they are “Dad’s little boy” but are instead responsible for getting the job done, Haas says. While Josiah was in college, Haas took him to trade association meetings, letting him coordinate the meeting room and making sure the meetings started and finished on time.
“But he was also introduced to the people, and joining me on business dinners giving him a sense of the business and what it involves,” Haas says. “We want to make sure he is well-trained to come into the business. Part of that is to understand what it
the business is about as opposed to the thing his father may come home at dinner and complain about what went wrong today. It’s real important to have a sense of the challenges and pluses and minuses before they mentally get on a career path.”
After college, it was important to Haas that his son get experience outside of the company in a position similar to what he would be doing at Bud. To gain that experience, he took a job in a semi-related industry and succeeded in making cold sales calls to get customers to buy products.
“He was dialing for dollars,” Haas says. “It gave him credibility because people understood that he wasn’t just getting a job based on being out of school and we were giving him a job.”
Haas says he learned a lot about how to integrate his son into the business based on mistakes his own father made when grooming him for the company.
Haas said he worked at Bud in the summers but mainly stayed in the sales area, and so lacked the experience that would have given him a general knowledge of the whole business.
“My goal was to make sure (my son) didn’t fumble,” Haas says. “He is gradually taking over various accounts. That’s how we’ve been easing him in.”
Haas says the downside of entering a family business is there is less eagerness by the older generation to let go, but he hopes he will know when to hand over the reins to the next generation.
HOW TO REACH: Bud Industries Inc., (440) 946-3200 or www.budind.com
That, in part, was why the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization (YEO) was created. The group, which has chapters all over the world, accepts business owners from all industries, as long as you join before your 39th birthday. The Cleveland chapter includes entrepreneurs from around Northeast Ohio including Akron, Canton, Alliance and Bath, says chapter President Adam Kaufman, who is also vice president of Renewal by Andersen window replacement.
"It's a forum where entrepreneurs with growing businesses can get better educated, better connected, and get more confident," Kaufman says. "I've gained a lot more confidence through my leadership of YEO and being exposed new things beyond my own industry."
The Cleveland chapter was founded in 1998 and had 32 members as of press time.
The average YEO entrepreneur age is 36 years old. The average company has $22.6 million in annual sales and 44 employees, although company sizes range from $600,000 in sales and two employees to as much as $500 million in annual sales and 140 employees.
The Cleveland chapter was awarded last year as one of the "healthiest" mid-sized chapters by the International YEO, which includes 130 chapters in 36 countries.
As with other peer groups, entrepreneurs meet to discuss how they solve problems and grow their businesses, but the YEO includes entrepreneurs from different industries for more perspectives on common business issues.
"We sell windows," Kaufman says. "If I were only to talk with window people or remodeling people, I would be limited in what type of brain power I would be exposed to."
YEO offers networking opportunities, but also partnerships with firms like law firm Arter & Hadden LLP, for legal seminars on business issues. Educational seminars are usually held about once a month.
"There was a tremendous amount of take-home value that I could take home and apply," says David Lazor, president of Lakewood-based Lazorpoint. "Having the opportunity to spend some time with firms like Arter & Hadden to educate us, when I go back to the office, I have new things to think about that I didn't even know about. There's a tremendous amount of value."
YEO Cleveland's annual membership fee is $800. International dues are $849 a year, plus a one-time $300 initiation fee. How to reach: The Young Entrepreneurs' Organization, (216) 476-8400
Many business owners jump into the strategic planning process without really knowing their company's identity. In other cases, they might have a solid vision for their company and where it stands in the market, but their employees' or customers' perception is drastically different.
So before you can plan your direction for the next five to 10 years, you -– and your employees –- need to know what your brand is and what it represents inside and outside the company. Otherwise, your plans willusually fail.
Clark Culbertson, president of Culbertson Group, a marketing communications and brand strategy firm in Moreland Hills, says developing a brand concept isn't just important for consumer goods, but for any company that needs to stand out in its marketplace.
"If you don't know who you are, how will your customers?" Culbertson asks. "Once you have a brand concept, the strategic planning becomes much easier because it dictates what you do and how you communicate. It becomes the corporate culture."
Here's how Culbertson develops a brand concept for one of his clients.
- Interviews: Culbertson interviews employees from all levels of the company. From the CEO down to an entry-level data processor, Culbertson asks them what they do, what they like and dislike about the company and what problems they've seen. If one issue keeps rearing its head, then that's an obstacle standing in the way of a successful brand.
- Research: Analyzing business databases by Forrester Research and Dun & Bradstreet for your industry can help determine how your company is seen in the market, Culbertson says. Study competitor's Web sites and literature to see how they have positioned themselves in the market.
- Survey: Talk to major customers to get their perspective on your company. Focus group research is also helpful, even if your company doesn't serve a consumer market.
Culbertson does not recommend trying to build a brand concept internally. Personal biases and company politics can stand in the way of creating a strong brand. Your employees might be wary of discussing what they don't like about the company unless it's with an objective third party.
"The companies that embrace this idea, it starts to filter through the organization," Culbertson says. "It's not just driving the advertising, it drives how they structure themselves, how they're organized and how they make sales presentations."
How to reach: The Culbertson Group, (216) 292-4881.
"Almost any project you can think of is cross-functional," he says. "Every department needs help from some other department to get almost any project of significance done."
But if CEOs are going to enhance that process and implement cross-functional teams, they must have five essential pieces in place before starting.
* Prioritization. When CEOs have too many projects that are top priority, they lose the ability to control their business.
"You're not aligning, coordinating or utilizing resources very well," Cardwell says. "And also, people are really stressed out because they think you're going to walk in and ask, 'What happened to Project 32?'
You need to have a clear strategy and a clear idea of what you're trying to do so that the project is either trying to build something or fix something to get you to that strategy."
* A good project plan. Cardwell says many project teams have a goal but waste time in meetings, trying to figure out the next step. "It's much more efficient to build the project plan before you actually do the project," he says. "It's pretty straightforward stuff."
Delineating the scope of the project is key.
"It draws boundaries around what you're going to do, and it defines the things outside the boundaries that you're not going to do," he says.
A good project plan establishes evaluation criteria up front. These are developed by the team leader and team members and approved by the sponsor -- who Cardwell calls the godfather of the team -- usually the CEO or a senior executive who doesn't work directly on the team but oversees it.
* Clear roles and authorities. Cardwell cites a study by Xerox on the makeup of a high-performance team. "Fifty percent of what made a high-performance team is what I'm calling a clear project plan, but about 20 percent of it was actually having clear roles and accountabilities," he says.
Having this information helps employees know what they are supposed to do with their project and understand who on their team has the authority to do it.
* Team processes. Cardwell suggests having team dialogues every two weeks to coordinate the work of the team. "They come in to talk about what's going on -- Should we continue this project, are we staying within the scope, are we hitting the evaluation criteria. ... What do we need to do to keep this project moving, and what have we learned?"
Two other kinds of dialogue also are required. An organizational dialogue allows team leaders to get a checkpoint once a month on the status of each project, and the team leader should meet individually with team members once a month to encourage communication about projects.
"It's these kind of touch points that reinforce and make the (project) more personal," he says.
* Leadership. "Leaders really need to make sure that there's an open data flow and clear communication around this project: Why we're doing it, what we're doing, what the progress is and why we appreciate this team, which is the second thing -- the recognition and reinforcement," Cardwell says. "The final thing that leaders do is they reward people who do good jobs on teams so they want to do it again."
HOW TO REACH:
Cardwell Group, (800) 395-1410 or www.connectionsonline.net
Arras Group President Jim Hickey fondly recalls his first "trust fall." For the uninitiated, a "trust fall," is simply where you stand on a chair or a table with a group of people standing behind you, their arms outstretched in front of them. You close your eyes, fall back, and "trust" that the people behind will catch you.
Only in this case, Hickey wasn't the one falling. It was Gino, a towering, 400-pound ex-gang member who worked for the Simmons Mattress Co. Simmons is one of Arras' clients and Hickey visited the company in Springfield, Mass. during a staff building exercise called "The Great Game Of Life," designed by Wilson Consulting in Vail, Colo.
Gino, who went to the event claiming that he "doesn't trust anybody and never would," departed the day of group bonding activities closer to his coworkers and with a genuine feeling of trust.
"Everybody was hugging everybody, charged up and ready to go back and make a difference," says Hickey, who participated in the activities. "After the evening, Gino said it was one of the best things they ever did. For a guy who wouldn't trust anybody his whole life to climb a ladder, close his eyes, cross his arms and fall backwards into a group of his coworkers – to do a real trust fall—was extraordinary to witness."
Hickey was so impressed with the "Great Game Of Life," activities and the effect it had on the Simmons staff that he decided to bring it back to Cleveland for his 62-member marketing communications firm.
The three-day event, which started on Thursday this week, involves a ropes course where workers will climb and traverse various challenges on an obstacle course about 35-feet in the air. They wear safety harnesses attached to ropes, which are run through a guide wire and then down to the ground where another coworker holds onto it. As the employees travel across the ropes the course, they shout commands to their coworker below so they are prepared when they attempt more difficult maneuvers.
"On belay!" shouts the climber.
"Belay on!" the belayer responds.
Hickey he says he chose this type of activity to help his staff work more cohesively as a team, and to encourage them to take intelligent risks in their jobs and not let fear hold them back.
"I think they'll see that there's really little to fear outside their comfort zones," Hickey says. "And that's what it's meant to do: Push them outside their comfort zones."
The next day, the Arras staff will meet and discuss their experiences, what they felt, and how they can apply what they learned about themselves and their team to their daily work lives.
"Ultimately, we want our people to be thrilled to be here, to feel that it's a positive in their lives, and that it demonstrates how important they are to us," Hickey says. "In a slowing economy, we think this is absolutely the best time to do this. It's about leaning into the headwind."