It’s hard to forget your first job out of college — learning office protocol, building a rapport with the team, impressing your boss and meeting the ever-intimidating CEO. You may have felt eager to be noticed or eager to just blend in — either way, there were likely moments of discomfort that you do not want to revisit anytime soon.
Similarly, you may recall the moment you first engaged with your mentor. The way that person took you under his or her wing, made you feel confident and inspired you to become the great leader you are today.
As leaders, we all want to be like our mentors but are cognizant of the intimidation factor that often comes with being a CEO.
It’s no secret that the best teams are made up of happy people who feel respected, appreciated and challenged in the workplace. In my experience, I have found that connecting with people makes them feel at ease in the workplace and more apt to thrive.
The best meetings are one on one
One way I connect with a team is by having one-on-one meetings with associates at all levels of the organization. As a rule, no one says no to a one-on-one. As the name implies, it is a face-to-face meeting with just me. It provides a dedicated time to discuss ideas, feedback, goals, personal development or anything the associate wishes to discuss.
When someone within the organization, whether it’s me, a member of the executive team or an associate, requests a one-on-one, all parties know that no one is ‘in trouble,’ as is often assumed when you’re called into the boss’s office.
Not only are these meetings helpful for the team but also for me to keep my finger on the pulse, offer recognition, provide coaching and/or hear great suggestions.
Live the open-door policy
On my office door I have a sign that reads ‘This wood panel may look closed, but it’s open — no, really, come in.’ I want to be sure everyone knows, quite literally, that I have an open-door policy. I want the team to feel free to pop their heads in and ask a question or pull me into an impromptu meeting at any time.
I have found that the team can run faster and leaner with this policy in place. We can make decisions and go through the proper approval channels in a speedy manner when we eliminate the need to have a meeting to discuss setting up a meeting for another meeting. We’ve all been there.
Another way I connect with my team members is by making the effort to get to know every one of them personally. I make it a goal to ask them about their personal lives, interests, families and goals. In fact, when we do our annual goal-planning sessions, we ask that associates include personal goals on their list. We find that if you’re fulfilled outside of work, you’ll be happier on the job. A happy associate is, more often than not, a more productive one.
Mi casa es su casa
I think one of the most effective ways to instantly break down the barriers between myself and the members of my team is to open up my home. When we have company parties, I like to host them at my house with my family. When possible, we have the team invite their spouses, and we keep the vibe very laid back.
One of the guiding values at Moe’s Southwest Grill is to be yourself. We go out of our way to ensure everyone feels comfortable to do just that.
Next time you see the newest member of your team quietly lingering outside your office door, tell them to come in, just like your mentor may have done to you many years ago, and get to know them. And if all else fails, you can always just hang a sign on the door.
Paul Damico is president of Atlanta-based Moe’s Southwest Grill, a fast-casual restaurant franchise with more than 400 locations nationwide. Damico has been a leader in the foodservice industry for more than 20 years with companies such as SSP America, FoodBrand LLC and Host Marriott. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s not everyday that the founders of a company go around and make employees ice cream sundaes. However, that’s exactly what Bob and Marcie Zlotnik did for their employees at StarTex Power, an energy reseller. The co-founders got an ice cream cart and bought supplies for sundaes and served employees decadent treats at their desks.
The Zlotnik’s strive for StarTex Power to be one of the best energy service providers in the industry and to do that, they focus on a corporate culture that fosters employees who enjoy what they do and provide great customer service.
“One of our philosophies is that in order to be a superior customer service company, you have to have superior employees,” says Marcie Zlotnik, chairman and co-founder. “In order to have superior employees, you really have to have an environment that fosters a great working culture.”
By focusing on a corporate culture that gives back to employees and promises to deliver energy service without surprises, the company saw annual revenue of $407 million in 2010.
“When we started, we were focused on customer service,” says Bob Zlotnik, president, CEO and co-founder. “In our industry, there is a lot of competition. We decided to sell by doing people right.”
That business model has helped the company achieve rapid growth since being founded in 2004.
Here’s how the Zlotnik’s use a strong corporate culture to grow StarTex Power.
Define your culture
Privy to the fact that numerous energy resellers don’t tell their customers everything they need to know or everything that they are being charged for, Bob and Marcie decided that they would deliver exactly what they promised.
“Energy is a very complex product and there’s a lot of different ways you can present it and a lot of different ways you can sell it,” Bob says. “We’ve always taken the view that we weren’t going to surprise our customers. So when they entered into an agreement with us, they got what they thought they got. With some of our competitors, they didn’t necessarily get what they thought they were going to get.”
That focus on service translated into creating a corporate culture that employees found helpful to their jobs.
“The key is corporate culture,” Marcie says. “I think that’s really where it starts. If you don’t have a place where people want to come to work, where they want to do their best, your end product will not be the best. Without the best product, in the end you won’t be successful.”
Part of offering the best product is being able to deliver things to a customer that the customer actually values and things they can’t get anywhere else.
“We’ve always compared ourselves to Southwest Airlines,” Bob says. “They take a lot of pride in their corporate culture and how they treat their customers and employees. They are running a lot of ads about bags fly free, no change fees, and we started thinking, ‘We need to do some of those same things.’”
Offering products or services that the competition isn’t is a good start, but you have to make sure that your employees enjoy the work you have for them. If employees don’t think they are contributing to something worthwhile, they won’t do their best and your company will suffer.
“You want to make sure you have employees that have passion,” Marcie says. “It’s not about paying people the most amount of money. Certainly as a start-up you can’t do that. It’s about really caring about people. The more you trust people, the more they want to do well for you.”
You have to set an example and show that you value your employees at all levels.
“You need to understand that it’s not about you,” she says. “It’s really about the people and your employees. As you build your employees and you show them what success is, they want to do that. They want to follow the lead. You’ve got to do whatever it takes.”
As you develop employees and hire new ones from varying backgrounds, you have to make sure each and every employee understands the culture within the organization.
“When we see those employees coming from other companies, they’re very much trained to not go outside their department, to not talk to people that are more senior and we are really insistent about breaking down those types of barriers,” she says. “That creates inefficiency. If you want to go talk to a senior manager with a good idea, go, don’t stop, do it.”
Defining your corporate culture is critical for success. You have to show employees that your company cares about them.
“People have to feel that their ideas are welcome, that they can have a long-term track to success and that they are truly part of the company,” Marcie says.
Creating a corporate culture that empowers employees and contributes positively to your company will only work if you put in the effort to make it work.
“It’s really the ideas and the time and effort that’s put in that people appreciate,” Bob says. “It’s really not the money. Marcie and her group in HR, a lot of what they do is the thought and effort that I think people appreciate.”
Thought and effort can go a long way toward building a strong team and developing the results you want to see in your company.
“To me it’s the little things that you do,” Marcie says. “It took a lot of hard work to not just develop a corporate culture, but to feed it and make sure it continues.”
Once you find a culture that works best for your company and your employees, you have to work continuously to keep it.
“The key is when you try to create that culture, you can’t back down from it,” Bob says. “For instance, there was some debate on whether to have a TV in the break room, but the promise was made, so we have a TV set being installed in the break room.”
Part of keeping a corporate culture alive is making sure that it stays consistent with everything your company does.
“You know when you walk in the office and the culture feels different,” Marcie says. “You can’t get away from it. It’s about being vigilant.”
Bob and Marcie give their employees much more than just a TV to watch. They implemented an employee stock-option program to give employees a bigger incentive to do well. They also make the work environment fun and rewarding by putting on different competitions, activities and programs.
“Most people say when they walk in the office that it looks so much fun and so lively,” Marcie says. “When we were smaller, we had a company scavenger hunt. When we hit a certain mark we put a $100 bill on everybody’s desk. Just outside of my office we have a wall and…when employees have been here for six months…I ask that they take a star and they decorate it to reflect their personality. It shows how we are all individuals that make up the company.”
From personalized decorations to scavenger hunts, ice cream parties, and various friendly competitions, the employees at StarTex Power work hard and play hard.
“You’ve got to be flexible,” Marcie says. “The way that Bob and I came out of work and the work environment that we were raised in is not going to work with today’s group. If you’re not flexible, you’re going to wake up one day and realize, ‘Why are we not communicating with our employees?’”
To keep in touch with their employees and to make sure that everyone in the company is staying happy, StarTex Power administers surveys and does research to gauge what employees are feeling.
“It turns out that the Gen Y group is a different group,” Marcie says. “I read any article I can find on Gen Y and from what I have researched, I found out Gen Y likes team competition and peer recognition. So what we have done is tailored our rewards. That’s how we determine the different things that we do by researching. You don’t know what you don’t know unless you seek guidance from those that do know.”
You have to make use of the resources available to you today. Read articles about other businesses and their practices and look online to see what experts are saying about corporate culture and today’s work environment.
“There was a recent Fortune magazine that talked about the best places to work,” she says. “I pulled that and read every one of them to see what new ideas there are. You have to read. Read about best-places-to-work companies and see what they are doing.
“If you don’t ask, you’re never going to find out. Don’t be afraid to ask, throw things out there. There is so much information and so many companies that are on the forefront of a strong corporate culture that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But it certainly is about reading and you’ve got to embrace it.”
That research and application of their findings has given StarTex Power recognition and won them awards for being one of the best places to work.
“When you do that, you start getting third-party validation,” she says. “In an industry with so many competitors, people are kind of looking for that. By being a Better Business Bureau Pinnacle award winner, by being a J.D. Power award winner, it really gives the customer the feeling that, ‘Hey, I may not of heard of this company’s name, but they have a great reputation and they do right by their customers and their employees.’”
Make employees comfortable
No matter how effective your corporate culture is at providing your employees with an enjoyable work environment, a CEO must make a commitment to get to know his or her employees and make sure they are getting what they need.
“You have to listen,” Marcie says. “You have to develop a relationship where people feel comfortable telling you the good and the bad, where there’s open communication and where you’re flexible.”
It’s easy to overlook the impact that a conversation with an employee can have. You have to connect with your employees.
“It’s being a person,” she says. “It’s being able to walk around the office and saying hello to people. Know as many people’s names as you can.”
You have to be visible and available to employees in order to create a relationship and make them feel comfortable coming to you.
“It’s going and pulling up a chair next to them and sitting down and talking with them,” she says. “I don’t think people see us coming down the hall and say, ‘Oh my God, the bosses are coming.’ If they have something to say they are comfortable talking.”
If you can open up to employees and speak with them on a personal level, it can make a huge difference in the work environment.
“You’re not any better than they are and you’re not any worse than they are, you’re just like they are,” Bob says. “Don’t expect things from them that you don’t expect from yourself. I show them that I’m a nice guy and I think that they believe that I have concern for them and if people view that you’re concerned about them, I think they feel open that you’ll try to help them.”
Getting to know your employees also means getting to know their jobs and what it is they do to help the business.
“The other thing is that we know their business, we know what they are doing,” Marcie says. “If you can go by somebody’s desk and see what they’re doing and be able to say, ‘Hey, have you tried this?’ You get a lot of respect out of that. Bob and I are here to make our employees look good. It’s not about me winning. I’d rather turn around and make it feel like they won. That’s how you develop a good corporate culture.”
HOW TO REACH: StarTex Power, 713-357-2800, or www.startexpower.com
The Zlotnik File
Co-founder, president and CEO
Co-founder and Chairman
Born: Marcie – Montreal, Quebec; Bob – El Campo, Texas
Education: Both attended the University of Texas at Austin. They both received BA’s in accounting and Bob has an MBA in finance.
What was your first job and what did it teach you?
Bob – My first job was working for my dad at a family business. I cleaned the bathrooms and mopped the floors. I learned that there was a lot of benefit to owning your own business but there is also a whole lot of hard work. And I knew that I didn’t want to spend my life cleaning the commode.
Marcie – My first job was as a day camp counselor. I took away from that that you can do an average job but you don’t get anything out of it. You don’t have to sign up to be the coordinator of the play or a swim counselor, but that’s how you get the passion is by doing those other things.
What is the best business advice you have ever received?
Marcie – You’ve got to know your business.
Bob – Even when things are going bad, you have to stick to your principles.
What is your favorite or most fun event that you have done for your employees?
Marcie – My favorite was the scavenger hunt. I didn’t tell people what we were doing. I told them to bring jackets, bathing suits and I even told them we were going to a concert one day so they wouldn’t catch on. We got limos to take them around the city to do a scavenger hunt. All the departments were mixed up and people had so much fun.
Bob – My favorite was serving the ice cream because I think it took the employees by surprise to see us making sundaes.
When Tom Keckeis took over as chairman, president and CEO of Messer Construction Co. last year, he took on a six-month initiative to visit with some of the construction company’s customers. With more than 30 years in the company, Keckeis knew the ins and outs of the business but wanted to gauge customer’s reactions to how Messer had been doing. So he went to Nashville, Knoxville and Indianapolis and met with CEOs and owners with whom Messer had worked.
“I looked at myself and said, ‘Where’s my biggest void?’” Keckeis says. “I grew up in the organization, I understand our culture, I understand our people, and I understand our building process. Where I haven’t been is been the face of Messer out in front and I haven’t been out talking to the customers, so I tried to lead with that.”
What he learned from those conversations was that customers were impressed with the company and, specifically, the culture of Messer. The culture and the quality of its more than 800 employees has been the driving force behind the $530 million company’s success.
Here’s how Keckeis continues to build Messer by listening to customers and focusing on culture.
Find your strengths
When Keckeis set out to meet with customers, he had one main thing in mind: Listen for what he didn’t know about the company and then get to work on understanding it.
“I spent a lot of time really focusing externally listening to our customers,” Keckeis says. “I thought it was a very good experience for me. What I heard was some of what I expected. I talked about our technology and all the technical tools that we use and they all said, ‘Yeah, that’s important.’ But they always came back to, ‘Your people are really what’s different.’ The culture of our company really is a little bit unique and it came out in those six months of listening to the customer.”
Because customers were impressed by the culture, Keckeis knew he had to continue to make that a prominent part of the company. When stepping into a CEO role, it is important to reach out to customers and understand what it is they like or don’t like about your business.
“You have to make sure you spend time talking to your customers and make sure you listen to them and make sure you deliver on that,” he says. “You gain a lot of knowledge by listening to the customer. You can’t just go in and say, ‘Tell me what you think.’ You have to tell them what you think is important and what you’re investing in and then let them react to it.”
Keckeis had the advantage of knowing the business well before he was put in charge as CEO and had an area he wanted to focus on. That’s not always the case if a CEO is new to the company. There are some similarities and many differences to how a CEO would look to drive his company based on where they are coming from.
“[Where to start] would vary based on where the person is coming from and what they are stepping into,” Keckeis says. “It would be a totally different concept if you were coming in from the outside. You would need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the company and the people inside the company as well as know the outside. You kind of have a double whammy there. I had the advantage of growing from the inside. I understand the strengths of the organization. The difficulty would be if I would be blinded by that, thinking that everything we’re doing is great. You’ve got to be careful with that.
“Each person would have to attack this differently,” he says. “You would say, ‘What do I know and what don’t I know?’ You need to understand your business development and how you’re selling the work and what’s valuable to your customers. You’ve got to understand that. Then you have to look at the way you’re delivering that value and whether you really are delivering it.”
Build a unique culture
Messer’s value is in the way it does business every day, and that’s a direct result of its culture and the employees that make it all possible. Messer is an employee-owned company and customers liked how the employees embrace that aspect.
“That ownership mentality came across when I talked to the customers,” Keckeis says. “They realized that our people are out there thinking about the long term — and they are — because their futures are tied to the long-term benefit of this company. Everybody has the ability to have the same ownership as myself or anybody else. If you stay here long enough in the company, you get so many shares of stock every year, and it builds up over time.”
Having an ESOP has turned Messer into what it is today, and there are numerous reasons a company would want to go down that path.
“If you’re a company that’s getting ready to go through a succession, you want to sell the company or move out, there are some real advantages,” Keckeis says. “It really is about succession planning. If you’ve got a strong leadership team that is carrying the day and they are interested in taking on that role and responsibility of owning a company, there are some real tax advantages for the person that wants to sell the company and there are tax advantages for the people that are buying the company.”
An ESOP, if it’s 100 percent owned by the employees through an S corporation structure, allows you to be tax exempt from federal tax. Taxes would be due when retirements are paid out. An ESOP can also be a big help to forming a stronger culture and can also help boost morale and job performance for the employees who have ownership. Customers liked that about Messer.
“To have an opportunity to own a piece of the pie and be able to set your own futures based on what you do every day is huge for morale because you can take the charge with it,” he says. “It leaves your company intact and leaves your employees intact to be able to carry on the day, and there’s a lot of pride there.”
An ESOP isn’t for everyone, but once employees understand it and realize the potential it has, it can be very beneficial.
“People that start with our company, we sell the ESOP and tell them what it means, but until they get in here, it usually takes about five or six years before they build up an account and realize that everything they do helps drive the bottom line and start to feel that,” Keckeis says. “I think people that would be buying the company would realize, ‘Wow, I’m going to own a certain percentage of this company and my future is tied to what I do every day.’ Not everybody would be into that, but the people that are leading the company surely would be.”
Messer’s employees are very in tune with the company and realize what their actions can make or break. Keckeis empowers his employees and makes sure what they do every day translates into the results that the customer wants.
“I think you’ve got to make sure that what [employees] do on a daily basis ties together with your metrics,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure that you measure the right things and publicly say what you’re measuring and how you’re doing on it. Make sure the things that you measure tie directly to what you want to be successful on. You have to allow employees to see those metrics on a regular basis.”
Allowing employees to see how their efforts play a direct result in driving what customers are looking for will help performance. It is crucial that you are making sure the right metrics are being measured.
“You have to ask yourself if you are measuring the right things that drive value for your customers and are they things that people can feel on a daily basis?” Keckeis says. “Finding a way to connect the things that you measure with what people pay attention to is very important and as a CEO you’ve got to pay attention to those things.”
Making sure you’re doing what customers have expressed interest in is critical, but you also want to make sure that what you’re doing is helpful to your culture and your employees.
“You also want it to be something that ties to what the employees do every day so they can see that what they are doing affects that metric,” he says. “You have to make sure what you’re measuring is going to drive performance.”
Empowering employees is a big part of increasing morale and making corporate culture stronger within your company. Keeping culture at the forefront of your business and making sure you have people who believe in the company is crucial.
“Your culture will beat everything else if you’ve got people that care and want the company to grow,” Keckeis says. “Empowerment and culture is critical if you want to be different in any industry. You have to focus a lot on your culture. You have to communicate with your people regularly about your bottom line, your finances, what you’re doing. You have to get them involved in all of that and get input back from them.”
You have to make sure that you pay attention to your employees in order to keep corporate culture strong.
“You have to listen to your employees first,” he says. “You need to focus on your people and you need to care about your people … that are doing the work on a day-to-day basis.”
Communicating with more than 800 employees can be a tough task, but it is vital to keeping the culture united. Messer has a group of 108 senior managers who act as a system of communication from the executives to the employees.
“We created a system of responsibility to make that communication,” Keckeis says. “I obviously cannot talk to 800 people. We created the senior management position that is the voice and the direction for the company directly. They share that and drive it out to the rest of the organization.
“You’ve got to have a leadership team that you trust and you’ve got to be able to communicate and then you’ve got to be able to have a way that the word gets out. If you’re a small enough company and you’re just in Cincinnati, you can pull everybody together and talk to them regularly. In our case, we can’t do that. You’ve got to create a way where the leaders of the company are identified and are helping drive that and listening to the employees.”
It can be very easy to get tied up with numerous daily tasks and other things on your agenda, but if customers find your culture helpful to how you do business, you have keep track of it and you have to care for your employees.
“Caring is a tough thing,” he says. “It isn’t looking down on them, it is actually feeling every day what they feel so that you can understand that. It’s easy for a CEO to step back and say, ‘Well, I’ve got different problems and I’ve got different issues that I’ve got to deal with. They’ve got to worry about their own problems.’ If you do that you’re going to be in trouble.
“You really do need to understand that what’s driving you isn’t you at the top, it’s the group of people that are there doing the work every day,” he says. “If you can figure out how to stay in tune with that and help nurture it and be attentive to it, I think you’ll be successful no matter what the business. You’ve got to know that they go home and they have kids and they have families and the way you’re treating them makes a big difference. You need to inform them, you need to communicate with them, and you need to make them feel like they are empowered. That’s what you have to create. We spend a lot to create the culture. It isn’t something you just go out and get.”
HOW TO REACH: Messer Construction Co., (513) 242-1541 or www.messer.com
The Keckeis File
Chairman, president and CEO
Messer Construction Co.
Education: Attended the University of Cincinnati, degree in civil engineering. He went to work at Messer straight out of school.
What was your first job, and what did you take away from it?
My very first job was working for a flooring contractor. I was 15 when I started. I was a laborer, cleaning up and helping scrap and lay floors. The one thing I got out of it was the person I worked for was a true craftsman. That instilled in me a lot of respect for what a craftsperson brings to the job.
What has been the hardest part about being a CEO?
Being disconnected at times, yet still wanting to drive the organization in a direction and how do you make that connection. I feel one step removed from where I was.
What has been the best part about being a CEO?
Seeing the growth of the people. The people who have stepped into my role and other roles and watching them grow has been fun and inspiring.
What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?
Treat others the way you want to be treated. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you ask people to do things you want to be able to make sure you would do them yourself.
If you could do something dangerous one time without consequences, what would you do and why?
I have always wanted to be a pilot and fly a plane or maybe skydive. I always wanted to be able to feel that freedom.
Mike O’Neill does not consider himself to be a micromanager. But when he sees people at Switch: Liberate Your Brand, who are, it doesn’t make him uncomfortable.
“Micromanagers are great if you can line that skill set up with a need that you have in your organization,” says O’Neill, partner and CEO at the 100-employee experiential marketing agency. “In our organization, the people who tend to be more micromanaging among us tend to end up in the execution side of our organization and at the project level, not at the management level. It doesn’t work.”
The lesson here is that you need to give people a chance to succeed and find their sweet spot in your organization. Sometimes the person you have at your disposal just needs to find the right place to apply their talents.
“There are people that are in this organization who are very good, but they are the kinds of people who just seem to be wired where they have to have their hands in everything,” O’Neill says.
“How we’ve handled that is that person manages the project managers because the project manager has to keep track of a tremendous amount of detail and be very organized and really does have to be involved in all aspects of a project. The trick is to line those folks up with a position in the company where that’s a plus and not a negative.”
Get more people involved in personnel decisions such as making hires and awarding promotions to help discover where a person’s talents can best be put to use.
“Anytime we’re hiring someone or considering a significant promotion where we are going to put them in a leadership position, we tend to have them talk to a lot of people,” O’Neill says. “We’re interviewing right now for someone in business development. I’ll guess and say that person has probably met with eight different people from Switch.”
Whether it’s you that is doing the hiring or promoting, or someone else in your company, that second or third opinion can be crucial to putting a person in the right spot.
“I’ve hired people that I was convinced when I hired them, ‘Oh my God, this guy or this girl is just going to be a rock star,’” O’Neill says. “And it turns out they weren’t. And then I’ve settled for people that turned out to be great. You have to recognize it’s sort of a ‘one plus one has to equal three’ situation. The one dynamic that you don’t know is what they are going to be like working here. They worked some place else, they did a great job and they have a great track record. But every organization is just a little bit different.”
If you bring someone in and it’s clear they aren’t working in their present position, and can’t really seem to find another position that fits them, you need to move them right back out.
“You demonstrate to people that you’re serious about it,” O’Neill says.
But before you take that drastic step, make sure you’ve given that person an honest chance to succeed. If your decision is based less on performance and more on a personality conflict between you and the individual, it could lead to problems down the road.
“You have to manage the personal chemistry part of it and the needs of the business and find the balance between the two,” O’Neill says. “If I’m here picking on someone I don’t like and making it personal and never taking them seriously because for some reason, I don’t like them, people are going to look at that and go, ‘Oh, well, that’s our culture here. You’re either in the in crowd or you’re not.’”
How to reach: Switch: Liberate Your Brand, (314) 206-7700 or www.liberateyourbrand.com
Think before you speak
Mike O’Neill likes to tell a story about Winston Churchill and a long speech the famous British politician once delivered.
“His handlers came up to him afterward and said, ‘Boy, that was a really long speech,’” says O’Neill, partner and CEO at Switch: Liberate Your Brand. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry I didn’t have enough time to prepare a short one.’ He meant it takes time to really focus things down and make those choices about what’s most important to talk about.”
When you’re looking to get your people engaged in some aspect of your business, you need to think before you speak.
“You have to be selective,” says the leader of the 100-employee experiential marketing agency. “You can’t have 10 priorities. If you have 10 priorities, you have no priorities. We try to really hone stuff down and say, ‘Here’s what we really want you to know and remember.’ We usually do that at the beginning of the year and then we get together at least once a quarter to update people on how the year is going.”
Pick things you want to focus on and then keep people informed about what’s happening in those areas.
“You’ve got to be really explicit about your objectives,” O’Neill says. “It’s getting everybody in the company feeling like they are working for the same company and going in the same direction.”
As we make our way out of the worst economic downturn in our professional lifetimes, we are challenged to engage our organizations in the effort to turn the corner and achieve growth. Leaders have historically relied upon innovation, discipline and consistency to do so. In battling through the recession, many companies were forced to cut jobs, reduce spending and make significant changes to their organizational structure.
Conscious decisions were made to focus more on internal matters and spend less to service markets and customers.
But word travels fast in the world of Twitter and customers have immediate access to information about products and companies. This enables both customers and prospects to make better choices, often without sacrificing quality or service. To keep pace, you must adapt accordingly.
Engage your people
Leadership is vital for positioning the company, developing strategies that create value and engaging people to execute those plans. You must make appropriate investments in capacity and capability, innovation and talent. Communicate your vision and goals and be certain you have alignment throughout the organization.
Many organizations are trying to reinvigorate their employees after downsizing and focus them on growth. Be certain you have the right people with the right experiences to not only perform these duties but to enable you to compete effectively. Provide an environment and resources to motivate people to manage the complexities while strengthening the business. Engage them in the process while maintaining an effective dialogue to bolster their confidence. Not only will they succeed at their jobs, but they will also creatively seek out solutions to issues and find new opportunities for the organization.
Achieving growth is highly dependent on how you lead and what you focus on. You must lead the growth initiative. Be visible, engaging and in touch but avoid becoming too hands-on.
Open your eyes
One key point that seems to have been forgotten recently is competitive intelligence. You should never lose sight of where the market and competitors are going. The competition will always seek out new opportunities and innovation, especially if you remain idle. Comparing your capabilities with your competitor’s is very worthwhile.
You also need to stay in touch with your customers and have a good knowledge of how they operate and what is important to them. Find ways to engage your customers. Listen to them and gain an understanding of their views, challenges and opportunities. This will enable you to be more effective as a leader and will show the organization what you value. Determine firsthand how your products, programs and service affect overall customer satisfaction. Confirm that you are producing and providing these at a level that meets or exceeds their expectations.
Track your efforts
Growth takes determination and foresight. Seek out growth and consider new opportunities where your company can deliver value not only in traditional markets but also in adjacent markets and new verticals.
When you know where your company can deliver value, push to drive innovation and collaboration. Effective new product development capabilities are necessary to ensure the continued success and growth of the company. Without new products, the company cannot have continued revenue growth or stay current with the technological advances of its competitors. Building effective collaborations can facilitate speed to market, investment and creative thinking. You also must know where and how to collaborate to bolster your innovation capabilities. Evaluate your overall supply chain and determine what aspects you must own and control as opposed to being able to influence these areas to achieve your goals. Flexibility could be key to allowing you to react quickly to changing markets and dynamics.
Just as leaders and management initiated the cost management actions to survive the recession, they too must monitor leading indicators and lead the organization on its growth mission. Knowing where and how to compete, selecting the best talent, and driving innovation will ensure sustainable growth. Success requires fresh thinking, creativity, collaboration and continuous innovation at all levels of the organization. Once you find the necessary tools, you’ll find it a lot easier to achieve your desired growth.
Tony Arnold is founder and principal of Upfront Management, a St. Louis-based management and executive consulting firm. Utilizing C-suite experience as a CEO and executive experience in early-stage startup and Fortune 100 companies, he brings unique skills, insights and perspective to enable clients to improve business performance. Tony can be reached at (314) 825-9525 or email@example.com.
From Brian L. Davidoff’s perspective, leaders lean toward two extremes — autocratic or democratic. Their organizations, then, are either flat or pyramidal.
He aims for the middle at Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff Inc.
“If it’s too flat, you can’t get decisions made and it takes too long,” says the law firm’s managing director. “If the pyramid is too steep, you aren’t hearing the feedback sufficiently of the other folks. Good managerial decisions are the culmination of input from the balance of the organization.”
The law firm started out purely democratic about 35 years ago. But as it grew and young lawyers brought new perspectives, Davidoff realized not everyone would reach consensus on every issue.
Here’s how he manages his firm by considering every voice.
Spread the responsibility
When we look at younger lawyers or lateral partners to bring in, we look at people who can develop a book of business. We’re really hoping that the person that we bring in, ultimately, will become our longtime partner. One of the key elements of that is either that person has, if they’re more senior, or if they’re a junior lawyer, that we think they have the capability to develop a book of business.
All of our partners generate business. Many law firms … are structured where you have two, three, maybe half a dozen people who are the apex of the pyramid, and all the work flows down through them — that is not our structure. That has given our firm a lot of stability, and that — particularly in these turbulent economic times — has been attractive to other lawyers when they see if just one person left, the firm’s not going to fail.
Manage for the future
Many smaller firms have failed because of a model where you have two or three senior folks who generate the business who have not done a good job of transitioning the operation of the business to a younger generation. A lot of my job is making sure that the younger folks get into managerial roles at the firm so that when my generation’s no longer around, there’s someone else there. What we do is manage for the future.
Part of it is bringing them into various organizational committees in the firm. For example, we have a firm retreat coming up and the default might have been (having) myself organize the whole thing or maybe one of my senior partners. But what we did was we brought in one of our younger partners. He’s not doing it blindly by himself —obviously, I’m actively involved in that — but he is the one who’s responsible for putting it all together with our input, and that’s given him insight into the firm about, ‘Oh, this is there, that’s there, these structures are in place.’
Give newcomers voices
When we bring new people in, I ask them after they’ve been here for three or four months for their best practices: What have they seen in other organizations that we could do better? You really have to be open to hearing the alternatives, not to have a paradigm that, ‘This is the way it was, so this is the way it has to be.’ If you’re open to those possibilities and alternatives, you’re going to have a more successful organization.
It doesn’t mean that you swerve one way or the other. You need to have a stable ship. But you need to chart a course that has the voices of everybody.
You need to have a decision-making process, but you need to hear what’s being said and that, to me, is the key element. Making the decision is actually not that difficult if you’re open to hearing what’s being said.
Having other people know that you have heard what they’ve said [matters]. You aren’t always going to agree with them, but if they’ve had an opportunity to state their piece, that goes a long way to building consensus even if you don’t agree with them because the next time you’ve got to reach an issue, the fact that they’ve been heard is key. The ultimate decision of management is really a conglomeration of what everyone’s voices are. You’re going to have a whole lot different input and ultimately management needs to chart a course, but it shouldn’t be a course that they’ve independently set.
How to reach: Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff Inc., (310) 286-1700 or www.rutterhobbs.com
Jean Birch finds it quite difficult to pick a favorite item on the menu at IHOP. Actually, that’s not really true. She just has a hard time staying loyal to one item as her favorite when there are so many tasty treats to choose from.
“It switches just about every week,” Birch says. “Last Saturday, I ordered the Cinn-A-Stacks pancake combo. It’s like the inside of the cinnamon roll rubbed all over your pancakes. I can’t get enough of those. Good stuff, man.”
Birch, the president of International House of Pancakes LLC, sees herself as the restaurant chain’s chief cheerleader. The company finished 2010 with 1,504 IHOP locations and expects to add as many as 65 new locations this year, with an additional 330 units planned over the next 19 years.
Birch loves to get out and visit as many restaurants as she can fit into her schedule, but she’s not just there for the pancakes. She wants employees to feel her energy and see her passion for the business. That often takes some effort as many employees find it hard to see past her title.
“People tend to drop more dishes when I’m around,” Birch says. “They’re on their best behavior and they want to make a good impression, but I don’t personally see myself as any different than when I was a bus girl in the restaurant or when I was a manager in the restaurant.”
IHOP is owned by DineEquity Inc., a 17,700-employee company which also owns Applebee’s Restaurants and took in $1.33 billion in 2010 revenue. Before she came to IHOP, Birch recalls those younger days and the visits she had from executives who weren’t there to enjoy a meal or exchange a few laughs with the hired help.
“They were looking for things to be wrong in the restaurant instead of trying to find things that were working well and that we were proud of,” Birch says. “I have plenty of people in my organization that can tell people how to improve their business and what they can do to be better.”
Birch says her job is to break down any barriers that exist between her and her people, establish a rapport with them and get them as excited as she is about being part of the IHOP brand.
Show you care
One of the challenges Birch faces in building passion and energy is that IHOP is a franchise operation. Franchises thrive on consistency, and with the wrong approach, that commitment to doing it a particular way can restrain passion and create robots.
It’s up to you take the right approach.
“In a franchise community, you don’t just make a decision and send the word out,” Birch says. “In a franchise community, you want to engage the franchisees and make sure you fully understand their perspective on a particular issue. Enroll them in wanting to solve the problem in a meaningful way. It’s a lot more about vision and understanding what the big brand is all about, collaborating on how to solve particular issues and fundamentally we get where we need to go.”
You need to make sure people understand your brand and the things that you stand for and the vision that guides your business. That is a key to having a successful franchise operation.
“Without strong vision and leadership at the top, franchisees will tend to move in different directions as they see the world from their perspective,” Birch says. “These little decisions, if not tied to a cohesive strategy can get your brand off track very quickly. It becomes a different IHOP in L.A. than you have in Nebraska than you have in Boston, which undermines the strength of the brand overall.”
But just because you have a brand, you don’t have to, nor should you dictate every step and every action that your people take. You need to provide outlets for their skill and creativity to be unleashed and put to use on the job.
“We want their creative energy, but we want it channeled into the areas that are going to do the most good for our business,” Birch says.
Birch takes it upon herself to get out of the office as much as she can to provide opportunities for employees to feel more connected to her and to the brand.
“You have to have a lot of self-awareness,” Birch says. “The biggest thing you can do is listen. Ask an open-ended question and then listen. Tell me about your restaurant. Tell me your story. How did you get started at IHOP? Clearly, those are questions they know the answer to. This isn’t a trick question like, ‘What was your labor percent last week? What market share do you have here?’ This isn’t trying to trick anyone. Just tell me your story about why you’re involved in this business. What’s on your mind? What are you most proud of in your restaurant? You get people talking about those kinds of things and pretty soon, you’re just two people having a conversation.”
Show people that you’re not just there to dig up dirt and find excuses to complain, but to get them even more engaged in what your company is doing. Take a supportive and encouraging tone and you’ll garner a lot more loyalty.
“It’s not as hard as you think,” Birch says. “These folks are relying on myself and the team to do a good job of leading this brand and creating opportunities for them today and tomorrow. I don’t take it lightly.”
Put the work in
When you communicate with your people, you need to be aware of how they process information and which modes of communicating work and which ones don’t work. That’s going to be key to establishing the healthy rapport you’re seeking.
“We all have our way that we hear things or like to communicate,” Birch says. “It’s probably far more important that we understand how those who work for us want to hear things and want to communicate. It’s not about my dominant style. It’s more about what that individual who works for me needs. So how do I explain it in a way that makes sense for them?”
It’s a valuable lesson to learn ? the idea that you can’t just think about yourself and your own personal needs when you’re pondering the next step for your business.
“It’s not about the leader’s needs,” Birch says. “It’s about the subordinate’s needs and how they are going to work through this problem.”
You’ve got to put in the work to come up with solution that you and your team can execute. It’s not a solution you’re likely to find sitting behind your desk.
“You go to the people who do the work, the people who are in it every day that get a multitude of perspectives,” Birch says.
“From the dish washer to the franchise owner to the franchise business consultant to the people at the support center. If you talk to the right people, the real issues come to the surface. And the solutions to those issues, although never easy, they’re not as hard as they sound when you’re trying to do everything locked in an office by yourself. The people have the solutions if you can just uncover them and bring them to the surface.”
And when you engage people and show them that you care about their opinions and demonstrate that you need them to succeed and grow your business, you’ll have taken another step toward earning their loyalty.
“As a mid-level leader, I was confident I had all the damn answers,” Birch says. “I was ready to go off and just go do it and make sure everybody followed in line and I was just brilliant. Follow me and off we go. The more I’ve grown as a leader and the higher up I’ve gone, the more I’ve realized you don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t start with all the answers.”
Stay in touch
If you find that you’re not getting a lot of ideas from your people, that’s not a good sign for you, for your business or for the two-way flow of communication in your business.
“If I stop getting a lot of good ideas from franchisees, I get a little worried that they are starting to withdraw and distance themselves from the brand overall,” Birch says.
Getting ideas requires more than just a drop-in by you at a distant location away from the corporate office. You need additional personnel who can fill in the gaps and provide a regular outlet for ideas on how to make your business even better.
“We have field-based franchise consultants that work day in, day out with our franchisees,” Birch says. “They are a collector of ideas for us. We have regular meetings with our franchisees, both formal and informal, which is consistently a two-way dialogue. Here’s what we’re doing and here’s where we’re going. This is what the consumer is involved in. These are the great things on the horizon for our brand that we’re getting ready to go. Then we open it up to, ‘What’s on your mind? What do you think we should be working on? What are some ideas we can save money on?’ We get a tremendous amount of really good input. When you start to do a number of those, you see patterns.”
One thing to keep in mind as you’re implementing methods to gather feedback is that in most companies, you’re not trying to solve matters of national security.
“It’s not like we have to go figure out a nuclear physics problem,” Birch says. “We’re in the restaurant business. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that it’s just that simple. Great food. Great service. Great place. Do that over and over and over again and you’re going to have a pretty good restaurant company.”
Birch says it takes special people to learn to manage their creativity and apply it to a business where they can’t do whatever they want to.
“The biggest challenge in leading IHOP would probably have to be this unique opportunity to be the leader of some really independent-minded entrepreneurs,” Birch says. “They are very involved, very active, very bright individuals that are running their businesses every day and have a very strong entrepreneurial spirit. But they have chosen to align their efforts with a proven brand and proven formula for success, which is what IHOP and franchising is all about.”
You just need to make sure you’re staying in touch, showing your passion and constantly engaging them in the effort to make your brand better. Don’t waste their talents. Find a way to harness them.
“As you look at this compared to other leadership situations, you really have to think through the fact that they are the leaders in their businesses and they are bringing so much value to the table day in and day out,” Birch says. “You can’t just command and control.”
How to reach: International House of Pancakes LLC, (818) 240-6055 or www.ihop.com
The Birch File
Jean Birch, President, International House of Pancakes LLC
Born: Boone, Iowa
Education: Bachelor’s degree, double major in economics and oriental studies, University of Arizona; MBA, Southern Methodist University
Who has had the biggest influence on you? I had a very strong mentor in one of my previous jobs. Aylwin Lewis. I worked for him at Pizza Hut and he was a tremendous mentor and role model. He told me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear. I worked for him for about two and a half years. He mentored me for about 10 years.
It was mid career when I was at Pizza Hut as a district manager. He told me how the organization saw me, how I could be more effective, what I did right, what I did wrong and more importantly, because of the roles he created around me, he stretched me far more and far faster than I ever would have gone on my own.
Birch on looking in the mirror: I think it’s from “Good to Great,” the concept of the mirror in the window. The idea is, when something goes wrong, a good leader should first look in the mirror. What did I do that caused this not to go right? Did I not communicate well? Did I not research the project well enough? Did I not communicate effectively? When things go well, you should look out the window to your team and congratulate them for the great work that they did. That piece of advice has done more for helping me frame the best ways to get the most out of folks than any other piece of advice that I’ve had.
If you asked to see Mariani Landscape’s projects, CEO Frank Mariani would showcase the best he has to offer.
One day, hopefully, he’ll offer more.
“When we have reached mecca will be when I can tell you, ‘Here’s my entire book of business. Open the pages and stick your finger on a name, and we’ll go see that job, because every job is perfect,’” Mariani says. “Some people might think that’s unrealistic; I’m driven by that.”
That drive has already helped Mariani expand in services and size. He took over the family namesake when father and founder Vito passed away in 1973, leaving nine employees. Today, the company has 420 employees.
Smart Business asked Mariani how to grow and improve your company.
How do you communicate as you grow?
We have town-hall meetings about every eight weeks where we encourage everybody to come have pizza and we give a state of the union. Especially right now, it’s important because people are afraid for their jobs.
It allows people to get inside our head and understand what we’re thinking about, and hopefully, we can get an idea what they’re thinking about. An easy (issue) to look at right now would be the state of the economy and what we need to do to stay focused so that we can keep our team intact.
We open it up for discussion. People can raise any issue. If no one is attacked for their ideas, it will encourage participation. It takes awhile to build that trust. By shaking hands and having a cup of coffee with them, people are going to open up. If you make yourself available, they’ll let you know what’s on their minds. If you hide in your office, you won’t know what’s happening in your company.
What role have employees played in Mariani’s growth?
As we’ve grown the company, we’ve been able to add more expertise and offer our clients a better product, so it really is a win-win. To grow only for our clients and (not) benefit our associates would be a mistake. To grow for the associates without benefiting the clients would be a mistake.
When somebody comes in and interviews for a position here, we tell them, ‘If you have great ideas, let us know.’ Therefore, our company — which originally was strictly a maintenance company — grew to be landscape design, landscape architecture, landscape construction, then we brought somebody in who had expertise in perennials (and) started growing. All these types of things offer opportunity, which, in turn, allows growth, which, in turn, allows financial stability and opportunity for associates.
How did you position what was a small family-owned business for the growth you’ve seen?
A lot of it has to do with ego. I’m not embarrassed to say I really don’t want to be second.
We have an open-door policy, not only amongst our associates but actually for our peers in the industry. We encourage other landscape companies, ‘Bring your staff in and see how we go about doing business.’ It makes us sharpen the way we go about doing business because they’re going to see the work we do in the field, they’re going to see what our offices are like, so you put a little bit more spit and shine and polish on everything.
I’ve attended tours of other landscape companies and you go in there and it looks like a movie set where you see the fronts of the buildings, but when you walk in the door, there’s nothing behind it. I used to say to myself, ‘This is insulting.’ I’m proud of what we have here.
If somebody becomes better because of what they saw here, that forces us to take it to the next level. The more we can take it to the next level, the next level, the next level, the entire green industry benefits — so does Mariani Landscape, as long as we’re up to meeting that challenge. There’s nothing to hide; there’s only things to celebrate.
How to reach: Mariani Landscape, (847) 234-2172 or www.marianilandscape.com
At a well-known Ivy League school, a prestigious new science center was to be built on the north end of campus. The price tag: $260 million. Three major construction companies were neck and neck to win the job. The primary decision-maker for the university, Alice Dvorak, communicated that the winner would be selected based on strength of team connection.
The first two presentations involved each contractor discussing its own “unique experience and approach to building.” Then, the general manager for the third contractor began his presentation.
“Dr. Dvorak, Dr. Avery, President Chambers, Vice President Allen and Madam Jameson, my name is Robert Allen, and on behalf of Elliott Construction Company, we are honored to be considered for the Leonard T. Abraham School of Sciences project.”
At that moment, the energy changed based purely on the warmth in Robert Allen’s approach. He smiled, he had a friendly, confident tone and he looked each committee member in the eyes. But Robert Allen did something that neither of his competitors considered. He addressed everyone, as well as the project itself, by name.
How are you at remembering people’s names? Fantastic? Not so hot? Embarrassingly bad?
If you are like most people, you’ve checked off either B or C. What typically comes next is a litany of excuses like, “I’m good at faces but not names,” or “I just have a block, and I’ll never be good.”
There are a plethora of reasons why we forget names, but truth is, none of them matter. To the people whose names you can’t recall, your connection with them is less effective than when you do. The following are five simple rules for names that require commitment and repetition. The results are well worth it.
Ask people their name
How many times have you been to the same church, bar or gym, see the same people and never bother to introduce yourself? Think of the personal connections and professional opportunities you could be passing up. Make asking names a priority.
Spell and pronounce names correctly
These go together because they require similar efforts in clarifying, not assuming, for accuracy. Taking time to assure the correct spelling and pronunciation is something to attend to in fine detail.
Ask again when you forget
This may be the most underused tool because most of us tend to forget names immediately. By asking a name again, you are simply informing people that you want to value and respect them.
To lock names into your mental hard drive, use all tools possible, which can include rhymes like “Dan the man,” or associations like, “Rhonda from Reno.” Write names down, repeat them out loud, repeat them to yourself. Work hard, and you will get in better name shape.
Use them or lose them
When your name is called as someone who contributed to the success of a great team effort, it feels great. When your daughter’s name is on the Dean’s list, it looks like a work of art. Knowing names increases your confidence, makes others feel valued and is a competitive advantage in business. In writing, on the phone and in person, use people’s names.
In the case of Robert Allen’s presentation to Ivy U, it is comical to think that knowing people’s names alone could win a $260 million project. Experience, knowledge and a cogent strategy must be intact. However, the execution of these components involves making a likeable, trusted connection with decision-makers. Make names your first connection.
Joe Takash is the president of Victory Consulting, a Chicago-based executive and organizational development firm. He advises clients on leadership strategies and has helped executives prepare for $3 billion worth of sales presentations. He is a keynote speaker for executive retreats, sales meetings and management conferences and has appeared in numerous media outlets. Learn more at www.victoryconsulting.com.
At Tony Conway’s special events business, A Legendary Event, when any employee answers the phone, he or she is automatically responsible for whatever is on the other end. There’s no passing it off to anyone else — the person has to take ownership of it. Taking this approach to customer service is just one way that the company successfully puts on more than 2,500 events each year, which have garnered the company $15 million in revenue and more than 300 awards.
Smart Business spoke with Conway, the company’s owner and president, about how to have strong customer service.
What’s the key to strong customer service?
For leaders, they first have to make sure they’re listening to their customers and that they’re listening to their team. That’s a real key. They have to hear what their team has to say about what they’re dealing with with the customers and what the customers are asking about.
I would say, as well, if you’re going to make the decision to be a leader in any business, make sure you understand every job that everyone in your company has — what they go through, how they do it — so you can have that dialogue with them. If you come in as a leader and you spend no time with your product or your business or with what your talent is providing, you as a leader aren’t going to be effective. You can’t talk about something being hot if you don’t know where the heat comes from. You can’t talk about things being beautiful or fresh if you don’t know how it gets there and how it’s ordered and what the cost is.
There are many leaders out there who say, ‘Well, that’s why I hire the people with the strengths.’ It’s still something that leaders have to be a part of. Someone with that strength will, somewhere along the line, need some help. They’ll need guidance. They’ll need direction. They’ll need an opinion, and if you don’t understand what it is they do, how can you give that opinion? If you’re at the forefront and have no idea what your team does on a daily basis to make that happen, you’re really an ineffective leader.
How do you learn all those facets of the job?
You have to schedule the time, and go and do the job that your team does. You can’t schedule it one time. You have to constantly schedule that. It has to be a part of your calendar.
So if I decide I want to go in and work with the chefs because I want to know a new recipe, I need to schedule that with them. Get in, talk about first where is it ordered, how much it costs, what’s it being sold for, how do we prep it, how do we hold it, will those temperatures hold in a setting where we are. Same with the floral division — going in and saying, ‘Let’s talk about where in Colombia are these flowers coming from? What is the process for getting them here? If we run into a problem, what is our backup in how we will take care of the opportunity?’ [It’s the] simplest things with our team — making them stop and think through the logistics of what we do.
How do you effectively listen?
It’s listening and then repeating that question and stating, ‘If I’m hearing you correctly, what you would like to do is this and this and this. Am I correct? If I understand you correctly, you would like this to be a bright orange instead of a light orange, and I’d like to show you a couple photographs, so we’re making sure we’re on the same level.’
It’s not just listening but following up with that listening and then coming back to that client or employee and saying, ‘In this, did I answer your question, and did we achieve what you were trying to accomplish?’ so you’re really taking it full circle. If they say, ‘No,’ we haven’t solved that, so we go back through that process of coming to an agreement. You have to make sure that you’ve heard them correctly, so ask the question, shut up and let them talk.
We do 2,500 events a year. I can’t remember everything that a customer tells me, so we keep an incredible database. We repeat what we talked about. We send a note and say, ‘It was great meeting with you today, and it was great we talked about this and this and this.’ We’re building this trust and building that understanding.
How to reach: A Legendary Event, (404) 869-8858 or www.legendaryevents.com