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Like every company, each day at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, all of the law firm’s employees walk out the door. They head home into the sunset to relax with their families, watch TV and pursue their outside hobbies and interests. And each night, as all of his employees leave, Ken Menges has to hope they’ll all come back the following day.

“The first thing that has to be accepted in a law firm or any other professional services firm, be it consulting or accounting, is that all of your assets are your people,” he says. “All the people leave every night and you hope they come back the next day. Having a real people-focused approach that tries to empower not only good quality work but also some creativity is one of my challenges.”

As partner in charge of the Dallas office of the $735.5 million firm, he strives to make sure his people are happy, and while a lot of leaders say that, Menges actually makes himself vulnerable to ensure that he really is doing that. So when the American Lawyer publication started polling lawyers across the country to rank the best firms to work for, many became skittish about it.

“Some law firms, reasonably so, saw that as potentially threatening — ‘What are people going to say about us? We have no control. Should we encourage people to participate or not?’” he says.

While other firms debated whether or not to allow their employees to participate, Menges sent a clear message to his team: Fill it out. But then he took it a step further and decided to create his own survey internally and ask questions about the leadership — meaning mostly him — and how different support functions were doing.

“I was greeted with some skepticism from peers that says, ‘Why in the world would you ask for an anonymous evaluation about you and others? It’s a free shot that people are going to take in terms of being critical,’” he says. “There have been a couple of free shots, but it’s been overwhelmingly constructive, and it’s another way of trying to experiment with initiatives that can expand how people see their own role and also, by the way, help us improve our delivery of services and the quality of life that we have.”

Create a system

While there was a risk in beginning to survey his employees directly, Menges was prepared to do things the right way, meaning he would have very little control over the process.

“Most of all, put it in the hands of people who have ownership of the survey, which is the associates,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to let these brilliant young people that you’ve hired … run something like a survey.”

He formed a committee composed entirely of associates whom his employees picked. He also had a few partners serve simply to be a resource for answering their questions and helping facilitate their initiatives.

He recognizes that it may be scary at first to put something like a companywide survey into the hands of your associates.

“The first time it happens, you hold your breath and cross your fingers,” he says. “You try to emphasize that we’re a professional organization, this is intended to be a constructive exercise, and then you realize that our clients are trusting these same people to handle multimillion-dollar matters in transactions and in lawsuits, and when you realize that you’re asking your clients to accept the quality and judgment of these same people, it becomes a lot easier.”

He challenged them to have questions that covered himself and the senior staff people in the Dallas office. American Lawyer typically doesn’t ask very many questions because it’s crucial they get a good response rate.

“The more questions you put out, the fewer people actually stick around to finish it,” Menges says.

But he isn’t interested in traditional logic — he wants to know as much as he can so he asks as many questions as will allow him to get the information he needs. This is typically about 45 to 50 questions centered on detailed aspects of the firm, including training, relationships with mentors and views of partnership chances.

The reason why there are so many questions is simply that they ask some of the questions in multiple ways to make sure they get a true understanding of employees’ feelings on the matter.

“You could hire a consultant to come in and talk to those same people and compile a report and pay a bunch of money or you could simply ask the people in a varied and intelligent way — not just asking the question one way but trying to get at different aspects to make sure you’ve covered the waterfront and really potentially improve the organization,” Menges says.

It’s also important to make sure you ask questions that will really help your organization improve.

“Think hard about what you already know about your organization,” he says. “What do you hear? What’s your reputation? Are you considered generous in terms of compensation or less generous compared to other firms?”

Using what you already know about your organization can help you frame the right questions to get the responses you need to make necessary changes.

Additionally, you can have all the questions in the world on your survey, but if people don’t answer them, you’ll never get the results you need, so you have to ensure you set up the survey in such a way that they’ll respond.

“Guaranteeing the anonymity of these surveys is critical,” Menges says.

None of the partners touch the surveys, and the results are sent to a separate website that only the associate committee has access to.

“They never see all the individual responses, because there’s a concern that the way a person filled it in or worded certain things, it might identify them,” he says.

Listen

After each survey is completed, Menges approaches the results with an open mind and willingness to listen.

“You always learn something when you ask for feedback,” he says. “You may not like what you learn and you may not agree with the statements that are made, but even in those cases, you’re learning about important, usually strongly held feelings that someone trying to manage your organization should be aware of.”

Within a month to six weeks after the survey closes, the associate committee will create a detailed PowerPoint presentation that shows the survey results. They present it through PowerPoint so that he and the leadership aren’t seeing actual surveys or accessing the site they shouldn’t have access to.

“We compare the results to previous years’ responses to similar questions so we can tell if, among the associates filling out the survey, the number of people who are more or less optimistic about, say, their partnership prospects, which way it’s moving,” he says.

Then he tries to correlate that to what’s actually going on in the firm and outside it. On that same topic of partnership chances, he’ll look at if the firm made fewer or more partners that year as compared to previous years to see if that affected the responses. He’ll also look if the economy got stronger or weaker and then try to figure out ways to improve their communications about that topic so employees have more clarity on the matter. He provides them with a quarterly update to talk about developments around the firm and address any issues he feels are important to focus on as a result of those survey results.

For example, if more than half the associates think they will make partner in the next five years, he may realize he needs to communicate more about what it takes to become partner, because the statistics regarding how many people are made partner would not support that many people reaching that level. As such, he may feel they need to be more realistic about their chances, because it’s such a difficult honor to achieve.

As they increase communication, make improvements and address things they learn in the survey, Menges’ committee adjusts the next one.

“From year to year, the questions are sometimes tweaked to address developments we’ve done in terms of firm policies or office practices to gauge our success at that,” he says.

Over the years, Menges has learned a lot about the organization and thinks that the survey has been extremely helpful.

“It’s been one of the best things we’ve done, because I think it’s critical in any organization, but particularly in one where you’re asking people to constantly monitor what’s concerning them and what’s motivating or demotivating them,” he says. “An annual survey is just one tool in that, but it’s a really good one.”

On top of that, having an annual survey helps ensure that his people continue to return each day.

“It’s just part of human nature that people like to have some influence over their environment, particularly when they work as hard as all of our people do,” he says. “It’s one thing for everyone to state they have an open-door policy — so whenever you have an issue, come on in my office, and I’ll always be there to listen. In practice, there needs to be some more formal, regular structure to bolster that, even if it’s a true statement that the organization’s leader has an open-door policy.”

Menges always professed to have an open-door policy, but he also recognizes that it’s usually a first- or second-year lawyer who would saunter in to give him a piece of his or her mind about something.

“The survey allows for that to happen,” he says. … “The questions aren’t preapproved or censored. If someone has something on their chest, they want to get off their chest, they can fire away. I think that’s just healthy for an organization.”

How to reach: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, (214) 969-2800 or (817) 886-5060 or www.akingump.com

Ken Menges, partner in charge, Dallas office, Akin Gump

Born: Louisville, Ky. My parents got tired of it and moved six weeks later.  My father was an electrical engineer, and it seemed that when I was growing up that he got a new and better job in a different part of the country every five or six years. So we moved from Louisville when I was 6 weeks old to Baltimore. We moved six years later to New Hampshire, and we moved five years later to Dallas, where I attended high school here in Richardson, and then they moved off again but they stopped in Arizona.

Education: B.S.B.A., Boston University; J.D., Harvard Law School

Did you want to come back to Dallas or did your career just take you there?

I loved both college and law school in Boston, but after seven straight years of Boston winters in student housing, I was cold, so I decided to look only at Sunbelt cities. Of all the Sunbelt cities I looked at, even though my family had moved away a few years prior to that, Dallas had just a fantastic prospect that it was unavoidable me coming here.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

I’ve gotten a lot of good advice, and I know I need a lot more, but the best I’ve ever received was from my father who told me a long time ago, there’s always a better way to say it. I think that advice came to me in junior high or high school. It has stuck with me because I can think of no truer words. When I think of other people occasionally who say something out of emotion or without forethought, I’m thinking, ‘Yep, there’s always a better way to say it.’

What was your first job?

My first job ever was working as a warehouse clerk for a friend of the family who had a business selling gas grills and gas lights. As a seventh grader, I worked in an un-air-conditioned warehouse in Dallas moving the boxes and loading the trucks and unloading the trucks. It was hard work; it was good work. It gave me a lot of independence, and I graduated from warehouse clerk to warehouse manager by the time I was a senior in high school. I was still the only employee, but I called myself the manager because if I was the only one there, I could be the manager.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

The first thing I remember wanting to be was either an astronaut or astrophysicist. I had a fascination with astronomy and Einstein when I was in my later years of elementary school and junior high school. In other words, I was a complete nerd, but I took the required course in American history when I was in eighth grade, and I became absolutely smitten by the law. I was fascinated by every aspect of the law from the legislative formation of laws to the appointment of judges and from that year on I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.

Published in Dallas
Wednesday, 31 August 2011 20:01

Paul Damico's tips for better listening

If you can’t read minds, the best way to find out what someone is thinking is to ask. But when it comes to marketing, so often we are talking — or in many cases, shouting — the messages we want our customers to hear, and we’re not pausing enough to listen.

As business owners, our challenge is hear these valuable opinions, make sense of them and react to them in a meaningful way to help grow our businesses.

To get the full picture, you need to know what your guests say about you and your competitors, both to your face and behind your back. If middle school taught us anything, it’s that those two versions can be drastically different.

You also need to understand how to use the information strategically to increase guest satisfaction, guide innovation, tighten operations and better your business overall.

Gathering customer insights

Some of the most common methodologies that are used to get inside the mind of your customer include the following.

Large-scale consumer research: No less than every other year, your company should invest in working with a third-party research company to gauge how your customers perceive your brand, competitors, products and service, etc. Large-scale research can help a company create long-term strategies and will let you know if you are on or off course against your company mission.

Focus groups: To answer questions like, “How does this piece of marketing make you feel? Do you prefer the taste of this product or this one?” Your best bet may be a focus group. This method is best to gain in-depth answers that oftentimes get at the emotional needs that drive decision-making. Focus groups allow two-way communication that can lead to brand-new insights.

Daily monitoring: Every day, your company should have a push-and-pull method of gathering customer feedback. A push method might be incentivized feedback like providing a link to an online survey with every receipt, and when you fill it out, you get a coupon. Or asking a specific question to your Facebook fans like, “If we had a mobile app, what would you want it to do?” The customer feedback section on your company website would fall under this category, as well.

A pull method might be monitoring chatter on Twitter, blogs, forums and business review sites like Yelp.com. This is great way to find out what your guests are saying behind your back. The informal nature of social media makes people feel comfortable to say what they really think. Social media monitoring can help companies spot trends, opportunities or issues as they develop. As an example, at Moe’s Southwest Grill we noticed our guests had a lot of questions about gluten and nutrition, so we made that information more accessible on our website and in our restaurants. Best of all, we spent zero dollars against gaining that insight.

Making sense of guest feedback

The most important part of conducting consumer research is using it. It sounds obvious, but it can be tempting to get a gigantic report full of insights and choose to move forward, business as usual.

Encourage your team to react to the research, and take the big risks that may be necessary to meet your consumers’ ever-changing needs.

For example, two years ago, research told us that organic, all-natural, healthy menu items were important to our guests. It would’ve been easier to not go after that demographic, but instead we spent the better part of 18 months tweaking recipes to meet the needs of our guests. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Your leadership team should consider insights from large-scale research, focus groups and daily monitoring to guide decision-making. Long-term strategy often comes from large-scale research, while focus groups really help steer marketing and R&D innovation. Daily monitoring is most commonly addressed through immediate response but should be tracked carefully for reoccurring themes or issues.

Bottom line, the key to understanding your customer is to listen. Just like any relationship, your relationship with your customers should involve two-way communication, honesty and trust, compassion, and, of course, fun. Use research to help keep relationships with your guests on track.

Paul Damico is president of Atlanta-based Moe’s Southwest Grill, a fast-casual restaurant franchise with more than 400 locations nationwide. He has been a leader in the food service industry for more than 20 years with companies such as SSP America, FoodBrand LLC and Host Marriott. He can be reached at pdamico@moes.com.

Published in Atlanta

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

Published in St. Louis

It’s not a secret that every company wants to grow. It’s the corporate trophy that says you’re winning and on the right track. So when Darrell O. Grimes started as president and COO at MAG Mutual Insurance Co. in 2008, he initiated a new, five-year strategic plan to improve and grow the company, and he is already seeing the fruits of his labor. In 2008, the company had $1.45 billion in total assets, and in 2009, that number moved up to $1.54 billion — not necessarily an easy task in the economy these past few years.

The plan he initially created focused on three main areas: make it easy for customers to do business with the company, diversify the company’s risks and take care of his employees.

Grimes knew that if his team focused on these areas, it would mean good things for the company, and just a few years later, those numbers proved he was correct in his thinking. As he moves forward with completing that five-year plan, he’s confident his team will continue to succeed.

“We have a focus, and we have a lot of people pulling in the right direction,” Grimes says of the $312 million company.

Here are the keys to how Grimes successfully led MAG Mutual’s growth.

Create a plan

Before Grimes could do anything to grow the company, he had to know what he was trying to accomplish, so he started with a strategic plan.

Grimes and his team created a five-year plan, and they started by taking the senior staff off-site for a three-day meeting to work on it. The team started with a blank slate.

“Believe it or not, you have to almost start with a white page, to a certain degree, because it’s a changing environment, and you have to be resilient,” he says. “We had to be flexible and resilient and respond.”

They talked about the issues they’re affected by — health care, interest rates, inflation, the economy, the environment, frequency of losses, state issues, torte reform and so on — to see how things were changing and how their new plan needed to look to stay with the times.

“Make sure you focus on things that you can control,” Grimes says. “In other words, you can’t control, and I can’t control, interest rates. You and I can’t control health care reform. You and I can’t control tsunamis and earthquakes that are actually affecting us today. Focus on those things that you can control, but remain flexible and keep your options open, but have a mission and reason for being.”

Following the off-site meeting, Grimes and his team took the planning back to the office and continued to work on the plan there. Then they had an all-day meeting with the board of directors off-site to go through it. After that, they went back and revised and modified it a bit more, and then they made a final, formal presentation to the board, where it was approved. The entire process took about 90 days.

“You just have to talk it through,” he says. “You just talk it through until you finally say, ‘Yes, that’s the best course of action,’ but you have to remain flexible because the future may surprise you.”

It’s also important to keep the future in mind. While some people create plans and proceed to ignore them, Grimes says you have to come back to your plan each year.

“Even though it’s a five-year plan, we meet every year, and we go through the five-year plan,” he says. “It can be tweaked and modified and get new goals and have goals eliminated, which is very typical, so it keeps getting refined — not substantially but modified.”

Focus on your customers

Without your customer, you’d be hard-pressed to do anything in business, so you have to focus on them, which is the second key to growth.

At MAG Mutual, when a customer calls in, the company’s customer relationship management system displays not just the phone number coming in but details about that particular customer, too, such as the products and services he or she has with the company.

“It’s important to have a CRM system that can give us the one-view of the customer, so that we know how many products they have with us, what products they don’t have with us and what we can cross-sell to provide more services to our policyholders,” Grimes says.

When the call is answered, the conversation starts with a simple question — why are you calling? From there, the caller’s needs are met, but after the problem is solved, the representative may ask him or her about what other products and services he or she may need.

“It’s all focused on the customer,” he says. “Solve their problem, and see if there’s any other products that they need that most of the time they may not even know that we provide, or they don’t know we have the product at all. That’s important.”

It’s a common problem. Because the company is seen predominantly as a professional liability company, many customers may not understand that they also sell automobile insurance, homeowner’s insurance, business officer insurance, workers’ compensation and other products. By educating customers, it opens the door to better serve their needs and helps MAG Mutual grow.

In addition to the service they provide when customers call in, Grimes and his team also get out to talk to customers to find out what’s going on in their medical community. He says there’s a lot of differences in the delivery of medicine based on where you are, so it’s critical that they understand the issues facing their different clients.

“We want to understand what’s going on where they are, and that helps us to understand the issues a little bit better,” Grimes says. … “If you don’t get out and talk to your customers, you won’t know what’s going on, and you may not hear it from your staff.”

Grimes says the key is to listen — plain and simple. He and his team do this through larger meetings with customers and also by taking them to dinner.

“That’s probably the only tip I’ve got, because I don’t think a lot of them really listen,” he says. “My insurance company doesn’t really listen to me. When was the last time your insurance company took you out to dinner? That’s what we do. We’re not the same. We go above and beyond.”

Focus on your employees

The third key to Grimes’ success has been to make sure he listens to and takes care of his employees.

“If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customer,” he says.

Grimes says his employees are a large part of MAG Mutual’s success, and to make sure that continues, he makes sure to communicate with them what his plan is and how they play a role in it. Sometimes it’s easy for employees to get lost in the overarching company strategy, but Grimes makes sure that’s not the case. He has shared-goal meetings where he and his team take a half a day and look at different goals and decide who will own that. From there, they look at who supports that goal.

“We always assign the goal to one individual so they are the primary individual responsible for the success of that goal, but they also know who’s in support of that goal, and then those are passed down to their support staff and their ultimate staff, as well,” he says.

This results in alignment to the corporate strategy. He wants employees to care about the strategy and its goals, so if the corporation hits its goal, then they get a bonus based upon how they met their individual goals.

And it’s not as if employees are blindly working and have no idea where they’re at. One of the big things Grimes communicates with them about is the company’s financial performance.

“It’s important that they understand that we’re all in the same boat and we’re all rowing in the same direction — that when times are good, they all get bonuses, and when times are not so good, we may get a smaller bonus or no bonus at all,” Grimes says. “If we don’t all pull together and understand what the financial results are, we will not do as well as a company, and we won’t service the clients the way we want to be serviced. It’s an open-book policy.”

In addition to talking about the numbers at monthly meetings with employees, he also makes sure to talk about the industry’s results and how MAG Mutual compares to it. He provides visual presentations and graphics to illustrate the numbers he talks about and aims to educate employees so they better understand how their contributions matter.

On top of these efforts, Grimes also encourages innovation throughout the organization and celebrates when employees suggest new ideas.

“I listen because no one person has all of the ideas,” he says. “It’s a collaborative environment.”

But his support for employees’ ideas goes beyond just listening. He also encourages them to try them out.

“We understand that most ideas may fail, but I’d rather have somebody that tries with an idea and have it fail then have somebody who doesn’t provide any ideas at all,” Grimes says.

If an idea doesn’t work, he doesn’t penalize that employee for it failing.

“You can provide all the ideas you want,” he says. “All you have to do is come up with one good one that we act on, and you will be recognized and you will be celebrated in front of your peers and appreciated, but you will not be penalized for something that doesn’t work.”

This attitude isn’t just a façade either. He says that in private conversations, the executives don’t gossip about or chastise employees for failed ideas — and that isn’t tolerated.

“Don’t cast down somebody who doesn’t have a good idea,” he says. “We’re happy that they provided an idea. … We don’t have politics.”

And employees know that. While many companies may reward employees who produce results, no matter how they got them, MAG Mutual doesn’t do that. They reward employees who focus on the customer and not on themselves.

“So many people are trying to move up in an organization and step over someone else to get up the corporate ladder,” Grimes says. “Just focus on the company and just focus on the customer, and you’ll find that all those other problems go away. … Forget trying to beat the guy down the hall. I think there’s too much of that. If people will do that, they’ll see how much easier it is to move up the corporate ladder without doing it. Just do the right thing.”

How to reach: MAG Mutual Insurance Co., (800) 282-4882 or www.magmutual.com.

Darrell O. Grimes

President and COO

MAG Mutual Insurance Co.

Born: Atlanta

Education: Georgia State University

What was your first job as a child?

Really my first job was just a paperboy — a 10-year-old kid delivering papers in the neighborhood, getting up at 4:30 in the morning, riding the little bicycle to Sandy Springs, Ga., and getting papers and riding them back in my neighborhood, throwing them out. That’s my first job. It was fun. There were three of us that did three neighborhoods together.

What’d you learn from that job that still applies?

Hard work pays off. That was hard work being a 10-year-old kid doing that. You ever seen the Sunday paper in Atlanta? Throw about 52 of those on my bicycle and try to ride uphill at 4:30 in the morning in the dark. It was harder work than you think. You worked hard, and by 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, you were done, and we were on the swim team and we went swimming in the morning. Same thing — you work hard, play hard.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I hate to sound like an oxymoron a little bit — I’m supporting physicians today — but in my family, I have four generations of doctors in my family. I’m the first one who’s not a doctor. So maybe that’s why I’m here today. That’s what I really thought about being. I was just really better with numbers, to be honest with you, and that’s why I followed through and got my CPA certificate. That’s what I was really better at.

Somehow I ended up in a professional liability company defending physicians. My grandfather was what we called them back then, a general practitioner. He used to do visits at home in a horse and buggy, and they would call him up, and he would come over in his horse and buggy and provide medical services, whatever you needed.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t worry about those things you can’t control. Just try to manage through them. I see a lot of people worrying about things, but it’s just more stress in your life. Manage what you can control. Prepare for the worst, accept the rest. Don’t worry too much about what you can’t control. I think that’s important advice.

Published in Atlanta

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 csthilaire@m4strategies.com.

Published in Los Angeles

As the founder, president and CEO of TradeFirst.com, Fred Detwiler maintains an organized bartering system among his client businesses. His clients offer their services to the TradeFirst.com community, and accumulate points that they can use to purchase services from other members.

But the system wouldn’t work without building and maintaining customer relationships, both between TradeFirst.com and its clients, and between the clients themselves.

Smart Business spoke with Detwiler about how he maintains relationships at his $40 million company, and how you can do the same.

How have you addressed building and maintaining client relationships?

As a bank, which is what we sort of are, working with our clients to help them is one of our biggest challenges. If you’re a bookseller or a printer and somebody doesn’t pay you, barter is never more than two to five percent of somebody’s business. It’s the gravy part of it, but they still need to make sure they have cash flow. We have been able to assist companies to stay in business, because a lot of the overhead expenses can be converted into trade. That saves cash in their checkbooks.

We started in 1978. So right after we started, we had hyperinflation and oil embargoes. We’ve been through a fair number of cycles, and what has been interesting is the nature of business, people dealing with each other through our system, they use our services and sell products on a daily, weekly, monthly basis — but in the latest economic downturn, there are companies going out of business.

Somebody starts up, they’re going, somebody doesn’t pay them and suddenly they go out of business. So we tend to lose accounts, but we’ve also been able to continually grow and expand, so that has more than made up for it.

What would you tell other business leaders about staying close to customers?

How can you stay close to your customers if you don’t stay close to your customers? You know what I mean? You need to have a dedicated staff to do it, you need to review it, you need to make sure you’re getting to all customers.

We try to use technology to assist customer service people, so that no one is being left behind.  What I tell my staff is if you’re a school teacher and have 40 people in your class, and you have your 10 people who are in the front and always raising their hands, it’s easy to focus on them and forget about everyone else. So you need to make sure you’re bringing out clients who may not have focused on what we’re doing. They may have joined because they thought it was a good idea, but they never put the understanding into how it works. They never educated their staff.

How do you educate your staff on customer service?

Our customer service brokers, the goal is to give those people the tools so they know that all clients are being serviced. We have members that start out with us, they get business, they spend it — life is good. Then we sort of have people who don’t get business and everyone forgets about them. They don’t get business because they may have given us the wrong information. They may be a print magazine but somehow put on their application that they’re an online publication. Because they didn’t fill out their application right, they weren’t marketed properly.

So how do you do it?  If you don’t create opportunities for face time, to get out and visit with your clients, you have problems. In this digital society, everyone wants to do everything electronically. But I do know that people still like to do business with people. If you are not personally involved, you’re leaving money on the table and your long term relationships aren’t formed.

How to reach: TradeFirst.com, www.tradefirst.com or (248) 544-1350

Published in Detroit

When Daniel Moore became president and CEO of Cyberonics Inc., a medical device company focused on epilepsy and other debilitating neurological disorders, in 2007, he faced a company that wasn’t growing and had several issues in need of fixing.

“The company had lost more than $50 million in each of the two prior years and owed $132.5 million dollars,” Moore says. “The first problem was a financial problem and the long-term viability of the business. The first job was to turn that around. Had we not done that, the company would have been out of business in 18 months.”

Cyberonics was forced to do layoffs to stay in business and dropped from nearly 600 employees to 430. Since then, Moore has emphasized a unified vision and a strong, open culture to get the now 530-employee company, which saw fiscal 2011 revenue of $190 million, back on track.

“You have to start with the vision,” Moore says. “What do you want this to become? Before I came into the company there were several members of the board who were new board members and we ensured that … we all shared the same vision.”

The company had been going in another direction which had led to some of the company’s challenges. It shifted gears and focused on epilepsy as a business. It was important for them to all be on the same page.

“The alignment has to be there at the top first,” he says. “I have been in situations where the board is not in alignment and if the board doesn’t have alignment, then the senior team is allowed to not have alignment and that trickles down throughout the organization. If you have the alignment and you share a common vision for what it is you’re going to do, that allows you to layout a plan in order to get to success.”

Communication during this process is crucial for alignment throughout the organization to occur.

“Once you have alignment on here’s what we’re going to do, the second part of that … is saying what you’re not going to do,” he says. “If you do those two things, say what it is you’re going to do and then what it is that you’re not going to do … I think you’re on your way.”

During turnarounds and periods of change there is often opposition to that change. It was vital to Cyberonics’ turnaround to allow for constructive debate and a culture that stressed that importance.

“You want to have a culture where people are free to express their thoughts,” Moore says. “You want to have a culture where that debate is encouraged.”

Constructive and spirited debates are often a good thing. You have to understand that your idea or direction isn’t always the best or right way to go.

“You have to ensure that you have an environment for which [constructive debate] can happen and opportunities for it to happen,” Moore says.

It is up to the CEO to make sure the culture of constructive debate reaches everyone in the company.

“Speak to the benefits with sincerity, letting them know you believe we will be best if we utilize the intellectual capacity of all of our team members and help each other grow and develop by learning through sharing ideas,” he says. “If you don’t believe that openness and constructive debate are good and you have all the answers, there is a bigger issue and you’re that issue.”

You have to demonstrate the culture you want to see within your company and ensure it’s happening.

“Don’t put people down in discussion,” Moore says. “Acknowledge their input and let them know when you agree and they’ve changed your position and let them know when they haven’t and why.”

Whenever possible, show your employees they can change your mind.

“When you can show real world examples people see that you are willing to not have the final say in every matter and that you, as CEO, are not always right. It gives them confidence for future interactions.”

HOW TO REACH: Cyberonics Inc., (800) 332-1375 or http://us.cyberonics.com/en 

Look out

To create a strong culture and one that directly affects the growth and performance of your company, you need strong employees.

“Get good people on the team and they will really make things good overall,” says Daniel Moore, CEO of Cyberonics. “It’s about that team coming together with their individual functions and putting it all together into the broader team.”

To get the most out of your employees, you need to make sure they are being challenged enough in their roles and have an opportunity to grow as the company does.

“To grow and develop people, you need to be honest with people as to where they are and you need to be honest with people as to where you see them being able to go,” he says. “We hold people largely accountable for taking control of their development plan. We create an environment where they can grow and develop, but they need to be the point person in their growth and development.”

Employees will only be able to grow if your company is behind them in that growth.  

“You want to ensure you have an environment where people can get a variety of challenges. You want to provide that environment that allows for growth and development and you want to make sure people understand that it’s their responsibility to be in charge of their development.”

Published in Houston

Chris Cicchinelli wishes he knew how to speak more languages or at least paid more attention in his Spanish classes, because his company has started to expand into international markets.

Pure Romance Inc., an in-home party company that sells a premier line of relationship enhancement products, expanded into Puerto Rico last year and now has 750 consultants selling products there.

“I wish I would have taken more Rosetta Stone or more Spanish when I was in school,” says Cicchinelli, president.

Now that the company has successfully started its quest to break into international markets, it’s looking to open locations in Johannesburg, South Africa, Sydney, Australia, and Manila, Philippines, within the next year.

2010 was the company’s biggest year yet, seeing 40 percent growth, which resulted in revenue in excess of $120 million and 50 new employees.

“We’re growing in all of our Midwest markets and all throughout the United States,” Cicchinelli says. “We were also very fortunate that we started doing some international growth last year. We are really beefing up our infrastructure to continue our growth trajectory for 2011 into 2012.”

While the organization has been able to grow domestically, Cicchinelli has found international growth offers a few challenges he hasn’t had to face until now.

Here’s how Cicchinelli keeps his company on a rising growth curve.

Consider each decision carefully

It’s no secret that every company wants to see growth. However, not every company is fully prepared to take on the challenges that growth brings with it.

“Making new decisions for the company and what the right decisions are for the company and the growth aren’t always easy,” Cicchinelli says. “You have to be upfront with everybody. You have to be as honest as you can. As long as you are upfront, honest and have an open dialogue it will get you far.”

If growth is something you’re looking to achieve, it is imperative that you are ready to take on the challenges.

“You have to look at everything [in the company],” he says. “You have to look at what’s right for the company from a perspective of new product development if you’re looking at it from a manufacturing route. You have to ask yourself questions. How’s it going to affect my end consumer? How’s it going to affect my sales rep out there selling? How does my company internally get behind what we are out there doing? All of those factors are important before you make a decision. You have to also sit down with key individuals in your office and talk it through. It’s not a dictatorship, it’s a democracy. You have to sit and talk about things and how that will affect all aspects of your business.”

Looking over all aspects of your business and making sure your plans will work or at least have a good shot at working is a big time commitment.

“Time is definitely a challenge,” Cicchinelli says. “You’re constantly working in the business from 9 to 5 and working on the business after that. I’m working on the day-to-day pieces, making sure that the core competencies of our business are done during those hours and from 5 o’clock until maybe midnight we are working on new development and making sure we have all those pieces covered.”

Because growth takes so much time and effort, it is important for not only yourself but for your employees to be able to celebrate the successes you see along the way.

“There were points and times where we would just go from one project to the next project to the next project,” he says. “It was like, alright, great job, let’s shelve it. No celebration, no congratulations, it was just move on to that next thing. We run so fast all the time that I want to make sure that the culture of my company is always positive and celebrating victories, even the little things. Personally, I’m trying to make sure that I’m celebrating those internally and I’m celebrating those with our staff. Those are things I had to overcome as a leader and making sure that we did celebrate that stuff.”

Celebrating success may seem obvious, but it is a big factor in your employee’s moods and demeanors. You can’t skip over any victory, large or small.

“Life is really short and the people that are around you are very important,” Cicchinelli says. “You spend more time with them then you do sometimes with your own family as leaders. You want to make sure that you congratulate them and you continue to boost them, because it is the right thing to do for your culture and your company. Celebrate the little successes that you’re going to have along the way because sometimes when you grow, you can grow so fast that you forget about everything that you’ve done and all the things you should be proud of. As a society, sometimes we forget about that and we just go through the motions and we forget about all the things we have to be thankful for in life.”

Expand to foreign markets

Before you can expand to any new market, foreign or domestic, you have to research where you want to expand. You have to take the time to get to know that market and have an understanding of whether your company can compete there.

“You have to do the research to make sure that there is not a lot of competition for the product that you’re selling,” he says. “If you’re selling printers or if you’re selling cars or whatever, you need to do the research either online, in business magazines, newspapers or even people on the ground in that market. You have to use anything you can to help you make the right decision.”

Finding a good reason to break into a market is step one. Once you understand the opportunity in a market, you have to gain an understanding of the culture there.

“Culture has been the most important thing anywhere that I’m traveling,” he says. “We spend a lot of time understanding culture. How do we interact with them? How will they take these products? How do we make sure we don’t offend anybody when we are talking about sexual health or sexual relationships? Culture has been our biggest thing for us to overcome.”

To understand how the culture of a new market works, you have to take time to visit and gain firsthand experience.

“You have to absorb as much as you possibly can,” Cicchinelli says. “Spend as much time as you possibly can in those markets. That’s one of the things that I’ve been able to do is I’ve been able to spend a lot of time and really get to know the people better. You have to take the time to build a relationship and better understand each other.”

Build relationships with people in your organization that want to help your company grow. Also, find people who live in those markets who can help you. That can make a huge difference in your company’s success.

“You have to find some people you trust,” Cicchinelli says. “Find some people in your organization that have got your back and don’t mind putting the extra hours in. You also have to make sure you find somebody that wants to grow up in the company.

“Find somebody that is either an expert in those locations or is someone on the ground in those locations. We have a person who’s on the ground in South Africa and I have a person who’s on the ground in Australia who is really helping guide us through.”

Don’t underestimate the importance of having someone with knowledge of the market and your industry.

“You’ve got to meet with the people that know your industry the best or know what type of industry you’re in to help make some of these decisions with you,” he says. “You have to make sure that you’ve got someone who has experience with whatever your product category or whatever your product line is to direct you where to open up and what the best way to communicate with the people of that country is. Once you have that then you’re putting your plan together and you’re implementing.”

Reaching the implementation stage is a big accomplishment and once you’re there, you have to keep pushing forward without hesitation.

“Once you make a decision, go fully committed,” he says. “You can’t go into these places, especially in the foreign markets, and be 99 percent in. You have to be 110 percent in.”

Fill your company with strong people

Pure Romance’s growth hasn’t just been about finding the right markets to break in to. The company has more than 100 very strong employees that understand the business and help keep it moving forward.

“As you continue to grow, make sure that you have the right team around you and the right people around you,” Cicchinelli says. “Make sure that you’re not just throwing people into position as life rafts so you can actually get your nose above water. You want to make sure that you’re interviewing your people and making sure that you know who you have in your organization.”

Finding the right people involves making sure they have the skills and the attitude to fit within your company.

“You need to think about using things like Myers-Briggs or some sort of analysis when it comes to not only looking at someone’s skills and talents but also whether they are going to fit into your culture,” he says. “If your culture is fast-paced and these people aren’t going to survive in a fast-paced market you have to know that before you hire them.”

Pure Romance is also a believer in promoting from within. The company gives employees every opportunity to learn different areas of the business so they can be better prepared to move up the corporate ladder.

“Most people that have been promoted from within have shown … understanding that their job is to help others and to lift not just themselves but to lift others up,” he says. “The ones that have moved up have worked in multiple positions within the company. So they not only know accounting but they know operations. Those are the ones that have been very successful in the company because they know all aspects. They don’t know just their job, they know what their job is and how their job can affect other departments.”

Allowing employees to gain knowledge of other areas of the company will help encourage company interest and make for stronger employees.

“You’ve got to first tell people that you’re promoting from within,” Cicchinelli says. “I think some companies sometimes don’t think that they have the talent inside and they try to hire out. I’m a firm believer that cultivating a strong culture means that you have to promote from within. You have to make sure people know that there are opportunities inside the organization for them to continue to grow. Sometimes it’s good that those things come from the CEO and not just the HR person.”

You have to present these opportunities for your employees and ask if they are interested in other areas of the company.

“I think it’s asking your employees and asking if they’d like to learn other areas,” he says. “The more jobs that they understand or know in your office the better off you will be in the long run. Empowering employees gives them the ability to have as much love for the company as you do. They will be able to cross-train the different people in the different departments, they’ll be able to have a better understanding of the flow of the business and at the end of the day they will be able to educate your consumers or your sales force so you can increase your revenues and be more efficient. And they may see things that you as the CEO or business owner may not see.”

HOW TO REACH: Pure Romance, (866) 766-2623 or www.pureromance.com

The Cicchinelli File

Chris Cicchinelli

President

Pure Romance

Born: Naperville, Ill.

Education: Attended Mount Union College

You played football in college. What position did you play and what did you take away from that experience?

I played defensive back and it taught me how to be a team player and how each person’s role is very important to the success of the whole team. We won two Division III national titles there — ’96 and ’97.

Who are some people you admire most in business?

My mother, Patty Brisben. She’s a true entrepreneur, and one of those people that started something most people saw as taboo, and she’s been very passionate and laser-focused on what she is going to do. Another person would be Steve Jobs. I like the way he approaches things. He is very innovative and has put some good people around him. A.G. Lafley would be another. He was a Cincinnati guy and what he did for Procter & Gamble was amazing. I would want to figure out how he did what he did.

If you could do something dangerous one time without consequence, what would you do?

I would travel to the moon. I would do it just to say I’ve done it, but the other reason is to see how pretty Earth is from up there.

Published in Cincinnati

Nancy Brown knows that to achieve an organization’s goal, you have to continuously improve and get all your employees working with you.

Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association Inc., wants to see the cardiovascular health of all Americans improve by 20 percent while also reducing deaths from heart disease and stroke by 25 percent by 2020.

“Having a bold goal, the entire organization rallies around is one way that we’ve been able to really propel the organization and grow our revenue as well as grow our mission impact because everyone is focused on the same end point and on the same strategy to achieve the end point,” Brown says.

But getting nearly 2,700 employees focused on improvement involves more than just setting a goal. She has to actively engage them in the business and challenge them to help her find better ways of doing business.

“The day you think you’re the best as you can be is a bad day for any organization because that’s the beginning of a downfall,” she says. “There’s always ways that things can be improved or reinvented, so setting that culturally as the expectation that we can always improve, we always want to do better, there’s always new and better and different ways to improve the work that we’re doing — that creates an environment where people are willing to be open about what works and what doesn’t work.”

Create a think-tank group

One of the most important things Brown did to engage employees on improvement was to create a CEO think-tank to help her find new ideas for the business. She pulled in many of the brightest people in her organization from the areas of science, marketing, communication and business.

“Think about who the best and brightest minds are who are willing to be open and that will have significant expertise to contribute to your business goals, and make it informal,” she says. “Don’t create another bureaucracy. Make it that they are truly a think-tank providing advice and guidance and thinking. Bring them together and pose some of your most important business questions, and listen to what these experts have to say.”

She says that before you start this process with those people, you have to communicate what your expectations are for the group.

“Level-set expectations at the beginning that this is an informal group of advisers versus this is a formal committee or group that will have decision-making authority,” Brown says.

When she has these meetings, they typically last about six hours for in-person meetings and about two hours for conference-call meetings. With long meetings, you’ll need to keep people focused during this time.

“Always have an agenda for the meeting for the things that are most important for the organization,” she says.

She provides a quick overview of each piece of the agenda or the background of the status of the item at the beginning of the meeting, and she always uses strategic discussion questions during the meetings.

“It can be deadly to have a random discussion that takes you nowhere, so by having strategic discussion questions framed in advance, the discussion is more focused, and the feedback is as valuable as possible,” she says.

Brown’s think-tank came up with more than 100 ideas to sift through. When you’re trying to narrow ideas down, it’s important everybody is on the same page.

“Upfront, before you start the selection, make sure that you have agreed upon the criteria that you will use to focus on ideas, because if not, people then will lobby for their favorite idea,” she says. “If you have objective criteria upfront — say, must reach the maximum number of people possible or must generate the maximum number of revenue possible or whatever the criteria area — and you work through a facilitated process to narrow down the list, the likelihood of success is better. People will not focus on their pet project but rather on the things that can truly make the biggest difference.”

And like most communication efforts in business, Brown says you have to continue to reinforce this while you go through the selection process.

“It’s all in how you set up the discussion,” she says. “Say that often — ‘We all come to the table with our passions and the things we think are so important, but we need to really be objective because we only have the capacity to do so many things at a time, so let’s figure out the things that could have the highest return and focus there.’ It’s all in setting the tone of the dialogue.”

With expectations clearly set, she then had to start knocking ideas off of the 100-item list. Start with the obvious.

“Some of them were outside the realm of the competencies of the organization, so they were easy to come off of the list,” Brown says. “We then looked at what might have the biggest impact toward our mission and biggest possibilities for revenue, and that’s how we prioritized our ideas.”

For a new initiative, it can be a challenge to place a number on what you think it can return, but you have to try. Brown looked at the market potential, the product they would be creating and what the possible maximum impact could be. Then she looked out over a five- or 10-year span of full implementation, and they discussed how they could ramp up that business line and what the growth and net revenue associated with it could be. She says that until the business plan is actually created, these are just rough numbers.

With that approach, Brown and her team narrowed the list down to 11 ideas. Some of those were quick wins and easy to implement, and others would take longer. She’s currently building business plans for five of those ideas that the organization will move forward with.

“Have a process where you’re constantly challenging yourself,” she says. “Is what we’re doing good enough today in light of the world we live in, and if not, what do we need to do to modify our approach, our products, our services to be as relevant as possible?”

Survey employees

In addition to the think-tank, another way Brown engages employees to improve the business is through an employee engagement survey.

The survey is conducted at the same time each year, and every employee has the opportunity to participate. It was created by the Gallup organization and has 12 questions, and if every employee answered 5 on every question, you would have a fully engaged work force.

The organization started doing this about seven years ago and has created benchmarks specific to the American Heart Association.

“We looked over a period of three to four years,” Brown says. “Where were we getting the highest level of engaged employees, and what were those pieces of our organization doing, and how could we share that information with others?

“Take the time to have someone in your organization analyze by department or function where you’re doing best and hold up those successes for others to learn from.”

After the surveys are administered, Brown says you have to communicate the results to your employees. Within the next quarter, employees learn what the surveys revealed. Doing it within a quarter gives you time to analyze the results, but at the same time, it’s still fresh in their heads.

“Make sure to share the results,” she says. “Employee engagement surveys shouldn’t be something that you do, and the CEO and the management looks at it and never tells the employees as a whole how did we do.”

It’s not a time to try to cover up anything they said either.

“Be very open about the results, open about the places employees feel really good about and open about the places that employees think that things can be improved,” Brown says. “That way people know that this is an open forum, that their feedback is valued and that some action is going to be taken based on the feedback that is provided.”

It’s important to also show a plan for how you’re going to work on the things they brought up. This isn’t always easy to create, but it’s the effort that speaks loudly to employees.

“Some things are easily fixable, and other things take culture change, so it’s hard to give an exact [timeline], but showing that there is a plan and how management takes the feedback seriously is the most important thing, and engaging and enrolling the employees to make the changes is important, too,” she says.

She emphasizes during these sessions is that engagement is a two-way street and the dynamics of the organization are not such that managers can fix everything.

“A lot of things in organizations have to do with how employees communicate to each other or having employees feel comfortable raising issues on a day-to-day basis with managers — not waiting for a once-a-year employee engagement survey for those things to be discussed,” she says. “It’s making sure that the environment is such that this is something we’re going to work on together — not, ‘This is management’s problem to fix.’”

When you get these results back, you need to decide what to act on and what to hold off on.

“Leaders who are engaged in what’s happening in their organization, it’s likely intuitive to them the things that really matter and the things that might be important,” Brown says.

But being in tune isn’t just your job — it’s also that of your leadership team. Each leader has to ask questions and listen to people he or she doesn’t normally talk to.

“It’s such an obvious way that all of us work in organization that we each have our leadership teams that we work closely with, and those are the people we hear from most and we ask questions of most,” she says. “But it’s being deliberate about moving outside of that — going to people who are directly implementing your work or mission every day on the front line and getting their feedback is really important. Make that investment of time because that’s some of the most important time that can be spent.”

When you’re in touch with your organization, you can better decide what initiatives to focus on. Regardless of what you choose, take the time to communicate not only what you implement but also why you can’t implement some suggestions. Doing so is important to employee buy-in for anything you’re trying to achieve as an organization.

“Having employees and volunteers fully engaged and fully enrolled in what’s going on in the organization is the most critical factor for success for my business day-in and day-out,” Brown says. “Even if I can’t or choose not to act on every single suggestion that’s received, making sure people know their feedback is valued and that we’ve heard them but we’re making a different decision for X, Y and Z reason, people get that. They understand that.”

By engaging employees this way, it not only has helped improve the organization, but Brown has also seen a direct impact on the $628 million organization.

“The results of the survey have helped because, first of all, our employees know we care about what they think every single day,” Brown says. “Secondly, because the survey gauges the level of engagement of the employees, we’ve been able to tie employee engagement to lower turnover and to higher productivity, and that’s helped the organization.”

How to reach: American Heart Association Inc., (800) 242-8721 or www.heart.org

The Brown FileBorn: Port Huron, Mich.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in marketing and communications, Central Michigan University

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it that still applies today?

Scooping ice cream at Stroh’s Ice Cream Parlor when I was 15 years old. [I learned] hard work and the importance of customer service — the customer is first.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. It was funny, when I went to school, I gained a huge interest in debate and communications, and then I realized that the opportunities for me would be broader if I focused on broad business and marketing.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave you that advice?

Listen with an open mind. [That’s from] an early mentor of mine in one of my first professional jobs.

What’s your favorite board game and why?

My favorite board game is Monopoly. And why is it Monopoly? It’s probably Monopoly because I love to focus on generating revenue and raising money.

If you weren’t doing your current job, what would you do?

I think I would love to some day teach at a university in a business school, because I love to interact with people who are eager about their future and interested in learning, and I would like to be a part of that.

Published in Dallas

“Life is in session.”

The Jennifer Aniston quote from “The Switch” resonated with Gail Warrior when she saw the movie last year.

“It’s such a simple quote, but when you break it down, life is in session 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Warrior says. “There are no timeouts or redos or breaks. You can’t say, ‘Give me a different life.’ The life that you’re given is the one that you have to live. It’s up to you how you’re going to live that life.”

In that same way, as president and CEO of Warrior Group Inc., a provider of premier construction services, she uses that quote to move her business and her employees forward, having grown the organization from $14.9 million in revenue in 2006 to $124 million in 2009.

Smart Business spoke with Warrior about how she pushes her employees to be better.

How do you help employees reach their full potential?

Be willing to first listen to what it is people want from their individual life and then find a way to gently push them or nudge them in the necessary or right direction. Oftentimes, there may be things that I may not want to do from a business perspective, but after listening to my executive team, they say, ‘We really need to go down this path.’ I say, ‘OK, you’re right.’

A lot of times we have our minds made up about how things should go in one direction. Sometimes it can take an act of Congress to convince somebody to make a different decision. In creating leaders in Warrior Group, it requires a lot of patience and a (willingness) to listen and being able to nudge people in a certain direction.

How do you nudge them in that direction without telling them?

Ask questions. ‘Do you feel like this is the direction you need to go in?’ and ‘Tell me why.’ Get their feedback. ‘Why did you make the decision you made? Is there another decision or avenue you could have done in this particular situation?’ and let them start thinking about that versus saying, ‘You know you should have done this — why did you do it like this?’

If you do it that way, then immediately the other person will go into defense mode. Then, at that point, they’re not interested and don’t want to hear anything you have to say because you just discounted them. But if you ask questions and get clarification and more information, then ask another question and say, ‘Is there another opportunity?’ and have a discussion about that, then that creates a learning situation.

How do you get people to want to reach their full potential?

One of the things we’re very good at is hiring 9s and 10s in the organization, and a lot of times, people are afraid of hiring 9s and 10s because they feel they may outshine them.

We always look for the cream of the crop and the top-notch people. When you see organizations where that doesn’t happen, you see organizations that people want to make excuses and processes are broken internally, and there’s just not a good flow of communication internally and sometimes externally. People that are 9s and 10s are people that come into work, and they are excited about what they do, they have a passion for what they do, and they have a passion for life and the impact they can make.

Let’s say, for example, you are a marketing director, and you’re looking for a marketing assistant and you find someone that has a skill set that’s a higher skill set than yours, and you’re the director. You feel like, ‘Well, if I hire this person, I don’t want them to show me up.’ The real mindset should be, ‘I need to hire this person because not only will they help the organization grow, but they have skills and tools that I can learn from individually and I can grow, as well.’

Sometimes people are afraid to do that. That just comes with knowing who you are individually and being comfortable with yourself and what your talents are and not being afraid to hire someone who has some stronger talent. If that was the case, I never would have ended up in construction.

How to reach: Warrior Group Inc., (866) 927-4787 or www.warrior-group.net

Published in Dallas