As he sat in a meeting to discuss the future of his organization, Vince McCorkle had another one of his aha moments. However, he soon realized the revelation was something his team had noticed for a while.
“I had been in one meeting — it was part of the strategic planning process — and said, ‘You know, we behave too silo-like within our health system,’ and I’ll never forget someone said, ‘That’s because we’re structured like silos.’ says McCorkle, CEO of Akron General Health System. “And that person was right.”
When McCorkle join AGHS in April 2010, the organization had recently completed a revitalization process following several tough years. While it had accomplished great strides since, as the dust settled, employees realized it was time to take another look at a developing a plan to move forward.
“The improvements they made were operational improvements, refining the systems, some of the basic blocking and tackling that needed to be done had happened, but everyone was really looking and saying, ‘We want to know where we are going,’” McCorkle says.
Though Akron General hadn’t had a strategic plan in years, the problem with getting anywhere wasn’t just with the lack of a strategic plan, it was the way the organizations itself was set up. McCorkle knew well that if your structure isn’t driving function, then culture can eat strategy. So AGHS was going to develop a new strategic plan, and it needed the combined, united support of his 5,700 employees and a participative culture that could enable one.
“So we’re saying, we want a common mission, common vision, common value systems,” he says. “Certain things are going to make sense to be done at the system level, but we have to respect the uniqueness and the different gifts we have in different parts of the system. It’s not centralization; it’s system thinking.
“If you say we want to behave like a system, then structure will drive function. We have to structure ourselves or restructure ourselves so we don’t behave like silos. For me the ‘aha’ was the structure was forcing us to behave like silos. It wasn’t the behavior. It was the structure.”
Before you can unite people in a vision, you have to first recognize what is keeping them fragmented in the first place. McCorkle knew he needed to understand why and how his employees operated within their own constraints and rules to see where there was opportunity to connect them.
“The great challenge was having the discipline not to just come in and intuitively start doing things but to really go through a defined process involving both internal and external stakeholders to really architect the future of the organization, reaffirm its mission and redefine its vision for the future,” he says.
If your organization is made up of silos, you can’t just write a new rulebook that applies to everyone. As a new leader, you won’t know about all the various cause-and-effect relationships that exist within your organization unless you dig a little, which is why McCorkle decided to spend his first months as CEO seeking input from people who knew the ropes at AGHS, including employees, patients, community members and the board of directors.
“My goal for my first three months was really to listen and learn, to speak with as many people as possible and get their insights,” McCorkle says. “I believe that everyone is 100 percent in their point of view, but that point of view was shaped by where they sit in the organization. So I felt like I had all of these mosaic pieces and I needed to really carefully assemble them together to get an accurate snapshot of current reality as well as the aspirations, these different individuals, clinical leaders, management, trustees had for the future not only of our organization but the greater Akron community.”
To find out what his people think, McCorkle’s strategy has been simple: Ask them and they’ll tell you. And as a new leader, he says if you see something you don’t understand, ask why. There’s probably a good reason why it is the way it is.
Also, in order to get accurate information at the management level, it’s important to eliminate any feeling of organizational or management hierarchy that could inhibit or isolate some people from offering their input or giving honest information.
“I think every one of us in the organization has an important job to do,” McCorkle says. “We are privileged to be able to care for people at some of the most vulnerable times in their lives. Because we have different titles or a nerve chart, it doesn’t mean what I do is any more important than what you do. We’re a community of inspired people wanting to make a difference, and so I don’t believe that we should use the hierarchy of titles.
“I was convinced that our plan would have much more applicability and sustainability if we had that genuine involvement versus someone like myself who comes to work in a business suit saying, ‘This is the direction I think we should go in.’”
It’s important to encourage your employees to share their opinion, but if you want your culture to enable strategy, you also have to make sure employees and stakeholders feel like that contribution makes a difference. This means showing them that their ideas for improving the organization aren’t just heard, but considered and appreciated.
“If you go through a process where individuals can have input and you honor that input — you are upfront and say, ‘We may not be able to do or we may not think what you are suggesting is one of the critical things we need to concentrate on this year or the next three years, but we want your input’— then people generally will feel that they have ownership in the direction of the organization and they can buy into it,” McCorkle says.
His goal at AGHS has been to help every person feel connected to the larger goal of helping patients. He often tells people the story of a group of people who were touring Cape Kennedy at an off time. When they noticed someone sweeping the floor, one visitor asked, ‘But what are you doing here?’ The man sweeping replied, ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon.’
“It’s that sense of greater purpose; you’re not being a bricklayer but building a cathedral, not being a technician but being a healer,” McCorkle says.
To show people they are part of the vision, you have to make that vision participative. Whether or not a team member’s idea seems actionable or actually pans out, it’s important to show that person that you aren’t just blowing it off. It’s better to tell someone, ‘This idea won’t work,’ then give no feedback at all or worse, say something negative. Just as respecting input is the key to promoting ideas, criticism is the quickest way to kill them.
One way McCorkle ensures he gets a reliable picture of where AGHS stands, positive and negative, is having guidelines for handling feedback. These guidelines ensure his people embrace even the most unpopular ideas with kindness and equitable consideration.
“I didn’t use this language, but essentially, here are the rules of engagement,” McCorkle says. “We want to assume that people always have good intentions, and even if they do something that you say, ‘Well, that was a wackadoodle move,’ you have to say, ‘I’m assuming they have good intentions.’ You do not attack or criticize the person, but you work to better understand their ideas or their behavior.
“I’ve asked many people I’ve met with, ‘If you see me doing something that makes you pause or I’m not doing something that you think I should be doing, would you please tell me, because that’s the only way that I can learn. I have had occasions where people have come in and said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to want to hear this or not,’ but then they tell me and I thank them. There’s amnesty in that, and that builds trust, I think, when I’m open to that feedback and they are mutually open to that feedback.”
Still, even though a participative management style can help you motivate and unite your team, at the end of the day, you have to remember a collaborative culture is not a democracy.
“I really like a lot of participation,” McCorkle says. “I think it’s healthy for people to be able to disagree, but you can never abdicate your role and responsibilities as CEO of the organization. So you listen. You try to incorporate the best thinking, but then as Howard Sherman said, ‘The buck stops here.’ You have to make that decision. Hopefully, it’s always a well-informed decision and I would say directionally correct. Generally there is more than one way to do something, and when you have the clarity in terms of values, purpose and goals, those decisions usually will be directionally correct.”
Share as you go
Despite working in health care, McCorkle doesn’t believe in the saying “no news is good news.” Rather than being confined to his office as a CEO, he knows it’s important that the engagement and participation of his people is matched by his own willingness to share what he knows.
“I’m convinced that people love to handle good news, they can handle bad news, but it’s really hard to handle no news,” he says. “So [it was] giving feedback on my learnings as I was going, or maybe even saying, ‘This is what I sense. Could you please help me understand it from your perspective?’ There were many ‘ahas’ in that process.
“You might go into one group and you have a position leader and you might have someone that’s a secretary in the same group pulling oars in the same direction. I also believe it’s important not to hunker down in the CEO’s office, but to get out in the organization — talk to people. I try to allow time in my schedule when I do that rounding that I can stop and engage in discussion, see how people are doing, because it’s those personal relationships that I know are critical to forming the culture of the organization.”
As the head of the organization, you have a bird’s eye view of how different areas and teams operate. So the more you learn about what makes each these areas unique, the more you can find ways to bring out their commonalties. Building a two-way dialogue between you and your team can help you identify commonalities and partnership opportunities together that you wouldn’t see just sitting behind a desk. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll be able to connect people in a plan that suits the organization’s best interests.
“I think every day you can look back and say, ‘What did I learn from that?’” McCorkle says. “And it brings fruit to bear. So if I’m working with a group of talented people I might say, ‘Let me share some scar tissue with you. This is something I’ve learned and you may want to consider it as you are forging and architecting this plan.’ That’s maybe something I can bring to the table given my tenure in health care. But there are many ways to accomplish the goal. It’s not Vince’s way that’s important.
“I believe that it is through relationships that we all reach our fullest potential. I am committed to lifelong learning. You can’t have an attitude that because you have a title and a role, you know everything. It’s really valuing people and walking the talk in terms of authentically letting them see you value them and value their insights. It tends to be very, very energizing for me and I think very energizing for the people serving in the organization.”
How to reach: Akron General Health System, (330) 344-6000 or www.akrongeneral.org
The McCorkle File
Akron General Health System
Born: Wilmington, Del.
Education: Bachelor of arts degree, St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia; MBA and master of health and medical service administration, Widener University in Chester, Pa.
McCorkle on making mistakes: If I make a mistake, I think it’s inherently important that I say, ‘I made that decision, and if I had to do it over again, I would make a different decision because X, Y or Z. They always say hindsight’s 20/20 and maybe my rationale for making that decision then was because of X, Y or Z, and either we couldn’t foresee this or I should have done more homework.’ People will respond to that … because we’re human, and we’re not perfect and we’re going to make mistakes. Try to minimize them and move forward. I had a meeting just yesterday with a major consulting firm, and they were coming in and they had made a mistake, and they were there to apologize and, quite frankly, hopefully not lose the account. I had to stop and say, ‘OK, thank you, but let’s not look backward. Time is too important. We’re going to concentrate on the future.’ And they said thank you, and they were immediately energized. I think rather than play defense, they are going to move rapidly forward and help us.
On setting goals: You have to set bodacious goals to say this is where we aspire to be. If we don’t set those bodacious goals, we have no chance of getting to them. If we make a step backward or we make a mistake, it’s not to finger point and assign blame, but to say, ‘What can we glean from this as learnings and how can we minimize the chance that this is going to happen again?’ It’s in that spirit, we’re all in this together. We’re a team and we’re looking to improve having personal mastery but also mastery in terms of the clinical and total system of care that we provide to patients and their families.
Fundamentals. Vision. Strategy.
Nancy Schlichting knows they’re all business buzzwords. You execute on fundamentals, you strive for your vision, and you focus on your strategy. You teach your team about it, you reinforce it to them all the time. After some time, just hearing those words is enough to make your eyes glaze over.
But before you dismiss them as a few others in a long list of business clichés, Schlichting thinks you should reconsider. Every business needs guidelines, beliefs and practices that provide a template for how management and employees should operate on a day-to-day basis.
Without some kind of outline, a business has no direction. Which is why Schlichting structured her strategy and vision around the fundamentals that she wants to promote at Henry Ford Health System, the $4 billion health care network where she serves as president and CEO.
“We always start with our fundamentals,” Schlichting says. “We have seven pillars of performance that are really constant for us. Every year, we have to focus on our people, patient safety, service, growth strategies, our academic mission with research and medical education, a strong focus on the community and a strong focus on continuing to be stable financially. Those pillars really form our base. If we don’t perform well on those, there isn’t going to be money to make new investments and new strategic changes for the better.”
To allow everyone at Henry Ford Health System to execute on those pillars, Schlichting needs to put them at the center of all of her strategic planning, her vision for the future, and make them evident throughout her day-to-day interactions with her executive staff, physicians, nurses and other staff members throughout the 23,000-employee system.
What follows are some of the ways in which Schlichting promotes the system’s vision and strategy through all the avenues available to her, and some of the lessons she has learned along the way.
Though she runs a medical system, the way Schlichting and her leadership team form a strategic plan isn’t much different than the way a retailer or manufacturer might. Schlichting’s team identifies areas of competitive advantage, and tries to leverage as many ways as possible to accentuate those areas.
“When we focus on those areas of excellence, we try to take advantage of what we think are our areas of competitive advantage,” she says. “Frankly, it’s what any organization does — create a competitive advantage by trying to design and execute on strategies that others can’t copy easily. Then we try to take advantage of that model continually, always trying to figure out new ways to meet consumer needs, employer needs and community needs. It really gives us a great platform on which to build.”
For Schlichting and her staff, the market differentiators include the system’s medical group and insurance structure. Schlichting says Henry Ford is unique among area health systems in that it employs a salaried group of physicians in addition to private practice physicians under the organizational umbrella. The system also owns a health insurance plan with about half a million members, which gives Schlichting’s team an avenue to get closer to customers, major employers and community entities on the plan.
All of the information that the leadership team receives from the front lines helps the entire health system continue to identify and pursue the differentiators that will continue to ensure Henry Ford’s place as a leader in the regional health care field.
It’s a universal lesson that any business leader needs to learn when it comes to strategic planning: Stay in tune with what the market wants, and figure out new ways to give the consumers of your products and services what they need. That is how you turn customers into repeat customers.
“It’s isn’t just looking at the environment, it’s really looking at what is needed in the industry, looking at quality issues, service issues and access to the product,” Schlichting says. “It’s trying to focus on being comprehensive in your approach to business. That allows you to hopefully be proactive, as opposed to reactive, to the environment around you.
“You have to ask yourself what is specifically unique about your business, what you can create with the assets you have, what you can really try to achieve that is right for your organization. You have to have a vision for what has to be accomplished. If you have that vision, you can start to get creative around the strategies you need to form in order to get there. From my perspective, that is what we do here. We try to take full advantage of our organizational assets.”
Create a vision
Before you can plan to get somewhere, you have to know where you want to go. In that sense, a well-defined vision is the single foundational key to executing on fundamental principles.
The vision needs to outline goals that are ambitious yet attainable, and needs to be something that can link back to each person in the organization, so that everyone under your umbrella can feel a connection to it, and feel like their job contributes to the overall goal of realizing the vision.
Schlichting says corporate visions also need to have staying power. You can’t scrap a long-term vision for your company and reinvent the wheel every few months. Major crises, like the recession of the past few years, might force you to alter your goals. But unless your hand is forced to an extreme degree, you should strive to keep your vision consistent.
“The vision is hopefully something you can stay with for a period of time,” Schlichting says. “That’s because it has to be both inspirational and aspirational. The vision is typically not something you’ve already achieved. It’s something you’re working toward.”
At Henry Ford, Schlichting makes her vision personal for each employee by doing something very basic in concept, yet large in scale: She relates the customer experience to each employee.
“We’ve had a vision here for 10 years, and that vision is to provide the same quality of care and comfort that we want for ourselves and our family members,” she says. “What that has allowed us to do over the past 10 years was to really have a personal connection to a vision of excellence for every single person in the health system. There is not one individual working here at Henry Ford who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a patient, or be a family member of a patient. It has allowed our housekeepers and dietary workers, our nurses and doctors, to all connect around that vision. It has been a highly motivating vision for us.”
As foundational as your long-term vision might be, there will be opportunities to take an alternate path and explore a new opportunity. You can’t get so locked in on your goals that you can’t see an opportunity. The key is to know when to make a detour and when to stay the course.
Schlichting says the opportunities you act upon should ultimately help you realize your goals, though maybe via a slightly different route.
“You have to have perseverance and commitment to what your strategy is, but you also have to have some agility,” she says. “There are things we’ve done over the past 10 years that have been strategic — what we wanted to do is what we did — and other things that were more opportunistic, such as the acquisitions of Henry Ford Macomb Hospital and Henry Ford Medical Center – Cottage. Those were things that emerged as opportunities, and based on us having our antenna up, and us being agile and flexible in terms of things we thought would help the organization.”
Your ability to remain opportunistic is largely reliant on having an open mind and, within reason, an open wallet. If you want to have the latitude to make an opportunistic move, you need to save enough in other areas to develop a financial reserve.
“You have to be open to those types of opportunities, and some leaders are often not as able to be open like that,” Schlichting says. “So you do need to have a financial position that gives you some latitude to be able to finance these opportunities as they come along. The financial structure and the leadership position both need to have strategic and opportunistic elements, and afford you the ability to react and move quickly as the opportunity arises. You need the frame of mind along with the financial resources that are available.”
Learn to say yes
It’s one thing to have fundamentals. It’s one thing to develop core values, a vision and a strategic plan. It’s one thing to say you’re going to execute on all of it. But it’s entirely another to get all of your employees to buy in and work alongside you.
“Engagement” is another business buzzword that you’ve likely heard countless times before, but no matter the terminology you want to use, the need to have employees on board and moving in the same direction with you is a universal need in business. If you don’t have your employees with you, you won’t be successful.
You get your employees on board by enabling them to have a hand in helping your organization to realize your vision. And there is a three-letter Swiss Army knife of a word that you can use to empower employees in a variety of situations.
“I always tell our leadership that the most important word in my vocabulary is ‘yes,’” Schlichting says. “You don’t want to create a culture that is supposed to embrace innovation, or a culture that allows you to take advantage of important opportunities, unless you have that kind of view of the world. Because people don’t come to you twice. If they come to you with their exciting new idea that they thought through and are committed to and you say no enough times, people aren’t going to come forward anymore. You’re also not going to have people in the outside community think that you’re an organization that is open to new ideas and opportunities. It’s those kinds of messages that are important.”
That doesn’t mean you let everyone run free with their ideas. You still need your people to innovate in the same general direction. “No” is still an option, but one you should use only when the idea or suggestion does not fit. And if you tell someone ‘no,’ show them why you can’t use the suggestion.
“At the same time, you need to have discipline around the operating metrics, around performance strategies. You still need to have that fundamental discipline, but it’s also helpful to have an attitude that says ‘yes’ more than ‘no,’” Schlichting says.
How to reach: Henry Ford Health System, (800) 436-7936 or www.henryford.com
The Schlichting file
Education: Bachelor’s degree in public policy studies, Duke University; MBA in hospital administration and accounting, Cornell University
Schlichting on having a positive attitude: We all wake up in the morning with either an attitude of optimism or pessimism. I think it has to come from within. As an individual, you really have to be a positive person. And there are days when I act a bit more, come in on stage and perhaps acting more than I believe it. But you have to do that some days. Not to be unbelievable, but to be encouraging to others. We all have those points when things don’t go well, and those are the true tests for leadership. Because how leaders handle those tough times frankly are your defining moments. People watch us.
Schlichting on building a leadership team: It is probably the most important job of a leader, making sure they have the right team around them. And with the right team, it can make your life a lot easier, it can make things go very well and smooth. But with a team that is not engaged in that way, it can be very challenging. I think it starts with the values of the individuals. When I interview people for my leadership team, one of the first questions I ask them is ‘What do you stand for as a leader?’ Sometimes they look at me like I’m a little nuts, like they’ve never thought of it that way, and that tells me something.
Schlichting on internal communication: The direct manager is the most important person from a communication standpoint. We create tool kits and cascading information in the organization, and we have a communications team that I meet with every month. So we strategize about the messaging, about how we’re helping managers, supporting them, doing often with videos and tools that help them communicate effectively.
While many businesses have used the economy as an excuse to pile work on employees the past few years, Fleet Response didn’t buy in to that thinking. Despite the tough economic times, the company, which provides fleet management services, takes time to make sure its people aren’t buried. As a result, Fleet Response grew during the downturn from $47.4 million in revenue in 2008 to $58.4 million last year and earned a spot on the Weatherhead 100 list of fastest-growing companies in Northeast Ohio this year while also celebrating its 25th anniversary.
“In our marketplace is the fact that we’re at the highest level of service, and if our employees are burnt out or experiencing too heavy a workload, that performance will show up in their ability to keep up in the quality in their work,” says Scott Mawaka, president and COO.
One of the biggest keys to growth has been making sure employees don’t get loaded down with too much work. It can be challenging to figure out work loads, but Fleet Response has built systems around performance metrics to gauge employee activity levels and determine what’s manageable and what’s not. Allison Lanzilotta is the vice president of business development, and one of the big tasks she does daily is analyzing the activity by looking at data to make sound decisions.
“There’s a lot of information you can get and a lot of different ways you can look at it,” she says. “Start somewhere. Look at it every week, every month, and chart things out, and you’ll see what makes sense and what the right numbers should be. … You can’t look at every single number at the beginning. You’ve got to focus in on a few key things and go from there, otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed with all the information.”
For example, on the call center side of the business, two numbers she gauges are how many calls each representative is taking and the length of hold times. In the claims department, she looks at the total number of claims employees have in their portfolios versus the optimum number they’ve determined for peak service.
Beyond just the numbers, Mawaka also gauges workloads by walking around to ask employees how they’re doing.
“Are they able to keep up with their work load?” Mawaka says. “Are they excited about a new client? If they’re terribly busy, you will get their opinions delivered to you, and it’s something where you can talk to the other people involved with them to understand if it’s just a point in time where work was above the norm or if it’s a routine that we need to address [with an] increase to employment.”
As volumes pick up, it’s important to communicate your intentions with employees and thank them for their extra efforts.
“You put a lot on your employees, and you want more and more, and, ‘Oh, here’s another client — and another.’” Lanzilotta says. “It’s great, but you want to appreciate all the work they’re doing and let everyone understand that we’re doing well, we’re growing, and we’re going to keep motivating people by letting them know we’re not going to bury them. We’re going to get the right staffing and reward them appropriately.”
Those rewards come in the form of midyear and year-end bonuses and sometimes additional time off, but beyond that it’s many little things throughout the year too, such as hosting lunches, company outings and parties.
“Your employees are the lifeblood of the organization from day to day and a reflection of how we’re doing,” Lanzilotta says. “It’s very important that we don’t just keep piling things on our employees but we stop and appreciate some of the successes as they come along.”
And if your employees can’t work effectively, your business won’t grow.
“It’s all about the people,” Mawaka says. “It’s what matters most in the world. Medicine, manufacturing or service — it’s all about two people working together to succeed.”
How to reach: Fleet Response, (216) 525-3870 or www.fleetresponse.com
Focusing on clients
Fleet Response's people focus the past few years hasn’t been limited to employees.
“Everything starts with people — that’s both internal and external,” says Scott Mawaka, president and COO.
To grow, the company has also made clients a major priority because they’re experiencing stress just as much as employees are.
“They’re wearing more and more hats,” says Allison Lanzilotta, vice president of business development. “The more that we’ve been able to provide them flexible service and accommodate administratively, [the more that] we’ve been able to bring on new clients.”
Providing flexible services starts with building stronger relationships. Initially, Mawaka approached its largest clients to offer discounts in exchange for extending contracts in order to ensure revenues for Fleet Response and familiarity and savings for clients.
Fleet Response people also went to clients’ offices and vice versa to ask what has challenged them and what they need help with.
“Often, they know right off hand some things that take a bunch of their time that they’d love to get off their plate,” Lanzilotta says. “It’s really keeping that communication line open, not just via e-mail but face to face and phone, if that’s the only option.”
As clients talk about problems they have, customize your services and offerings to help meet those needs.
Mawaka says, “That was probably one of the key facets of growth for us over the past few years was just exploring new angles with our clients and communicating with them about challenges they had internally.”
Adam Coffey is fond of comparing the company he took over more than seven years ago, WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems LLC, to a World War II battleship.
“It was a World War II battleship that went out to sea in 194,7 and it never came home,” Coffey says. “Over the 60 years it had been running, everything still worked. The teak decks were beautiful and the brass was as shiny as it was on day one.”
The problem Coffey saw was that under this shiny exterior, there was a company that was hopelessly behind the times.
“The infrastructure and technology, everything was outdated,” says Coffey, the 500-employee company’s president and CEO. “At that time, the company had around 60,000 locations that it conducted business in. They literally kept track of every one of those locations on 3-by-5 paper index cards.”
Coffey traced this lack of progress back to the laundry service company’s founding family. He praised them for building such a strong business based on core values and beliefs. But he looked at the family’s next generation of leadership and saw a lack of drive to bring the business into the 21st century.
And that was making it pretty tough for the company to grow its profits.
“Over the 10 years prior to my arrival, revenue had grown by about $75 million to $80 million over what it had been,” Coffey says. “So they added about $80 million of revenue, but they weren’t making one more dime in profit.”
Coffey wanted to change that. But he had been recruited to the company and so he didn’t want to come in and cast aside all the history and heritage that the business had been built upon over the past 60 years.
“We wanted to modernize it, drive change, but at the same time, embrace the best parts of our culture without destroying it,” Coffey says. “We wanted to keep the uniqueness of the firm that it had had in being a larger family-owned and operated business where everybody felt like they were the piece of some gigantic puzzle and were respected and listened to and cared for.”
Set the right tone
Coffey didn’t know a lot about WASH when he joined the company and that was a good thing.
“The best part of being an outsider for me was I was a blank canvas,” Coffey says. “I had no preconceived notions about what I was going to find at the company. I knew they provided coin- and card-operated laundry equipment to apartment communities with common-area laundry rooms. I knew they did a lot of service calls. I knew they collected a lot of quarters.”
He also learned pretty quickly that the company was a bit behind in its technology. Beyond that, he was a novice. And that was the way he liked it.
Because it was going to make his trip to the company’s 28 markets across the country a whole lot more interesting.
“I carried around a banner with me as I went from city to city,” Coffey says. “Every time I conducted a meeting, I had the employees sign my banner with a permanent marker.”
The banner idea was a hit with employees, but these meetings weren’t just for show. Coffey wanted to get to know the people in this company he was now leading and learn from them what it would take to get it moving forward again.
So before he headed out on his tour, he composed not an e-mail, but a letter that he wrote and mailed to each and every one of his employees. He introduced himself and explained that he was going to be visiting their location. He referenced the company’s history and explained that he wanted to help and not hinder their efforts. And he closed the letter by explaining how important their feedback was to him.
“What you have to say is going to be heard and it’s going to be listened to,” Coffey wrote in the letter. “It doesn’t mean that everything you say is going to be adopted. But I’m going to be a sponge and you’re going to teach me about this company.”
Coffey wanted employees to have complete assurance that it wasn’t going to be his way or the highway when it came to making changes in the business.
“I knew some of the executives I had exposure to early in my career didn’t listen,” Coffey says. “They didn’t know the real world. There was a disconnect and they were out of touch. So I tried to add the personal touch. I tried to let them know, ‘Hey, I’ve walked in your shoes. I’ve understood your challenges and you’re going to help me effect change in this organization.’”
As he arrived at each location, Coffey did indeed take the time to meet with employees at all levels on the organizational chart.
“I spent time in each of the major job classifications that existed in the company,” Coffey says. “So I was out riding with the service techs. I was out collecting from machines with collectors. I was working in the plant with the people who do the refurbish work. I was traveling with the sales team. I talked to the people about their jobs. I observed the processes that they followed and the things that they did. I asked them about their challenges. I talked about their desires and their future plans and what they thought about how they could improve and modernize their business.”
What he began to see was that the people out in the field had become severely disconnected from the corporate office.
“What I found was people in the trenches were thirsty for leadership,” Coffey says. “It’s far more important to be a better leader than it is to be a better manager. I can surround myself with people who are smart. I can hire people who know the latest methodologies for managing a piece of the process or a business. But I can’t necessarily get all my employees to follow me unless I get out there and inspire them.”
If you’re not inspiring your employees and you’re not being clear with them about what they should be doing, they are wasting their time and your time.
“If you’re not communicating with them, they are expending energy every day and they are expending it in different directions,” Coffey says. “They may be doing what they think is right. They may be doing what they’ve been told by local leadership or management. But they are all expending energy. The job of a leader is to harness all of that energy and get it to move in unison like a flock of birds or a school of fish.”
Build a solution
As Coffey met with his people and got to know them, he tried to isolate themes. He wanted to note the things he was hearing or seeing over and over again.
“When I watch someone do a job and they tell me and I only hear it once, I’ll tend to discount it,” Coffey says. “But when I hear it 10 times from 10 different people, I start to see a trend.”
The wooden boxes containing index cards in company trucks were definitely a trend.
“They pull the first card out,” Coffey says. “‘Oh, I have to go here.’ They go there and they write on the back of it, ‘Joe was here on this date.’ They stick it at the end of the card catalog and they pick out the next card. ‘Oh, here’s where I’m going next.’ When you look at that over time with 60,000 plus locations, you’re losing business during the year, you’re gaining new businesses. Where do you take out this card? Where do you put in that card? How do you do that when you’re a human?”
Coffey knew that technology was the answer. He knew that GPS and electronic routing systems would make the work of his employees infinitely easier. But he still refused to take the approach of mandating anything when it came to change.
“I could have walked in and said, ‘You know what, this is the product we’re using,’ Coffey says. “But going to an enterprisewide system is one hell of a huge task and undertaking for my company. So what I wanted was buy-in from key constituents. We brought in all the manufacturers. I let the team decide what the best product or solution was for our company.”
The result was employees picked the same solution that Coffey would have selected. But because they worked through the process and came to a conclusion on their own, it earned a whole lot more support than if it had been a mandate.
“Assemble a team,” Coffey says. “Get some key stakeholders and bring some people in and present the problem. Let them be part of the solution. Then instead of one person selling this solution, I wind up with a dozen people selling this solution. They are part of it, they own it and they go back and become my local champions of change.”
Don’t fear change
If you want change to be embraced in your business, you can’t fear it and you can’t let your people fear it.
“There’s one myth that I’ll bring up that I’d like to dispel,” Coffey says. “Ideal organizations are stable and orderly. That is so far from the truth, it’s not even funny. A progressive company that is managing change and constantly working to improve itself is hardly ever stable and orderly. There will be growing pains. You have to communicate what the expectations are.”
You have to explain to people why you’re pursuing change and how the changes are going to help your people do their jobs more effectively. And if you’re the one that fears change and is holding back your business, you need to get over it.
“Don’t be content,” Coffey says. “If it weren’t for seeking change and looking for other opportunities and pushing the envelope and taking a risk now and then, I’m not a successful CEO. Force yourself to get outside your own comfort level and work hard to push yourself to achieve even more.”
The big things you change garner a lot of attention. But you take the time to talk to people and get to know them so that you can address the small things too and build an organization that is truly effective from top to bottom.
“You get your ’57 Chevy, you don’t paint it before you do the body work,” Coffey says. “You don’t do the interior while the frame is still being grinded on. There has to be some type of methodical approach. You have to recognize the totality of the job and then break it down into pieces that are appropriate and then break it down into the order that is appropriate.”
It’s that approach that had Coffey feeling perfectly comfortable when he arrived on board at the company with very little knowledge of the business. He had no fear of the unknown and that put him in a great position to learn from his people.
“A lot of times, executives can become closed off from the people in the trenches,” Coffey says. “It’s unfortunate when that happens. But when it does, you lose touch with what is the reality? What is the customer’s reality? What is the employee’s reality? What’s going on day to day in all of these jobs that are being performed by people in the organization?
“When I saw a job classification, I saw people. I knew what those people did for a living. I understood what their challenges were. It gave me a bigger sense of reality very quickly to where I could assess what the challenges were that we faced.”
Coffey’s efforts and energy are paying off. After growing by only 1 percent in the three years before his arrival, the company has grown 32 percent in the past three years and earned a profit of 9 percent in 2010 alone with revenue of $231 million.
“Good ideas come from everywhere in the organization,” Coffey says. “You need to create a culture where that person at the bottom of the line can have an idea and it can be a good one and it doesn’t have to be owned by you.”
How to reach: WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems LLC, (800) 421-6897 or www.washlaundry.com
The Coffey File
Born: Chicago. I grew up in southeast Michigan.
Education: La Salle University, Philadelphia
Coffey’s path to success: I left home at 17 and went into the service. I cobbled together a business degree over time. I was in the U.S. Army for four years. I was a radar repairman and I worked in missile defense systems and radar stations.
At General Electric, I started off as an engineer and then crossed over to business after I finished a degree program through General Electric at the famous [John F. Welch Leadership Development Center] in Crotonville, N.Y., which was a great place to learn to run a business. I learned public speaking. It was Jack Welch and his speech writer who taught the class.
What one person in history would you like to meet and why?
The one person I’d want to sit down with is Jesus Christ. In the entire world, no matter what your religious beliefs are, no one disputes the man lived and no one disputes the man made an impact on mankind as a whole. I would like to learn from the man. Why am I here? What is my purpose?
If you want to talk business people, I have been fortunate to sit down with a lot of the country’s leading business people. What I tend to find is that CEOs and presidents are inside of everybody. There is no special boy’s club or girl’s club that you need to belong to to become president.
Some people get there through an Ivy League education and work their way up. Some people tend to work their way up from the bottom as I did. There’s no reason anybody out there can’t become a CEO or a successful person.
Julie Smolyansky was living a dream. She and her family had escaped the old Communist regime in the Soviet Union in 1976 and come to the United States. Twenty five years later, her father was leading a successful business in Chicago in Lifeway Foods Inc. while her mother had opened a popular delicatessen in the city. All seemed right with the world.
And then in a flash, it seemed as if her world was crumbling all around her.
“My dad died suddenly, unexpectedly, out of the blue,” Smolyansky says. “There was no road map for this. I had been with him for five years, and I was kind of his right-hand person, but I was 27 at the time. We’re not talking about a little mom-and-pop store.”
Far from it. Lifeway Foods had about 90 employees and $12 million in annual sales in 2002 selling kefir, a milk-based cultured drink that is healthier than yogurt and attractive to those seeking good nutrition.
But her father’s death had suddenly filled many in the company with doubt about the future.
“At my father’s funeral, I heard friends of my family and friends of my father say, ‘Well, this company is done,’” says Smolyansky, the company’s current president and CEO. “I had to live with that and wake up and try to steer the ship even though it was a personal tragedy for me as well as a business tragedy for the company.”
Smolyansky was filled with pain and anger. But she used work as a place to refocus her energy and at least temporarily, push the pain to the side. Her father had made a huge sacrifice by leaving his homeland and taking his family to Chicago and then worked hard to build a successful business. She was not about to let that effort be for naught.
“You have to roll with the punches and if you can’t, if you crumble, it might not be the place for you to be,” Smolyansky says. “If you can’t take the heat, get out.”
Smolyansky let people have their moment of doubt about the future. But she quickly followed that up by demonstrating her resolve to keep the business going.
“When you assemble the team, steer them,” Smolyansky says. “Lead them. That’s what we do. Hopefully a good leader has a sense of Zen or calmness even when it seems like chaos is happening. It’s really up to you to navigate through those moments and make it OK for everybody and begin to problem solve.”
Get into the steps that need to be taken to overcome the challenge and move on from it. Focus on the task at hand.
“Something has happened,” Smolyansky says. “Now what are the steps we need to take to resolve it? How do we get to those steps? Start to assign people to get to those steps. Maybe have a brainstorming session. I get away from the drama of what happened and straight into, ‘OK, what are we going to do to solve this?’”
You’re only human, of course. So what about those anxieties or doubts that you’re always trying to keep under wraps?
“I manage those personally on my own,” Smolyansky says. “Not always with my team. Or I might have a go-to handful of people I can bounce things off of.”
If you’re a true leader, you’ll find a way to deal with the doubts and continue pushing forward to conquer your challenge and lead your business through the storm.
“I completely just focused on my work and getting the company stable and the team stable and had complete pinpoint focus on what things we needed to get done to be where we are today,” Smolyansky says.
Where the company is today is 315 employees and $63.5 million in gross sales for 2010.
“I just kept repeating like a mantra, ‘Failure is not an option,’” Smolyansky says.
How to reach: Lifeway Foods Inc., (877) 281-3874 or www.lifeway.net
Don’t give up
If Julie Smolyansky feels “gung ho in a very crazy way” about a product, she gives that product an excellent chance to succeed.
“The leader has to get behind the product,” says Smolyansky, president and CEO at Lifeway Foods Inc. “You really have to have your heart in it to successfully launch something with great success. If you have any doubt in it, that’s probably when you don’t get to success.”
So why do some products have people clamoring to buy them while others just sit on the shelf and collect dust? Smolyansky has grown her dairy company to 315 employees and $63.5 million in 2010 gross sales, but that doesn’t mean she has any foolproof solutions. One thing she does believe in quite strongly is the positive power of passion and energy.
So if your product isn’t a hit right off the bat, try to figure out why it’s not working, apply what you’ve learned and take another shot at it.
“Even out of something that is failure, if you learned something that maybe gave you the tools for the next thing you’re doing, maybe that was a success then,” Smolyansky says. “It’s optimism and the ability to take punches. You can assemble a different team or position it in a different way. Go after a different market. You have to be intuitive and open your eyes and ears to other ideas. You really have to personally want it.”
Last Wednesday, I made a mistake. It was a simple error, but one that had pretty embarrassing consequences. The Jellyvision Lab is beefing up our financial controls, so I wanted to get my hands dirty in our online payroll system during our period of transition. The first week that I was responsible for payroll, I overlooked that submissions are due at 4 p.m., not the end of the day. For the first time in 14.5 years, Jellyvision had blown a payroll and people were going to be paid late (unacceptable) or be given a printed check they’d have to manually deposit (also unacceptable, to me). And it was squarely and solely my fault.
In a last ditch effort for clemency, I called the CEO of our payroll provider at 6:20 p.m. Seven minutes later, he called me back from his cell phone, because he was personally marching over to customer service to see that my case was handled promptly. Long story short: They saved the day — payroll went out on time and Jellyvision staff was none the wiser (until now).
But there’s more to the silver lining. My payroll gaffe got me thinking about business mistakes in general. We’re all working harder, faster, pushing the boundaries of technology and people to their limits and meanwhile giving ourselves increasingly compressed deadlines. Hanging on the wall at Facebook is the following quote: “Done is better than perfect.” Accordingly, mistakes are going to happen.
Perhaps we’re missing a huge opportunity if we don’t figure out how to treat mistakes as a matter of course and figure out how we respond to, manage and improve from them. With humility, I offer the following suggestions for turning business mistakes into ingredients for a stronger company:
Get over the fear. Everyone makes mistakes. We just aren’t robots (yet). We are going to make mistakes. Some of them are going to be embarrassing and we will want to hide under our desks and call our mothers. But if we get over the fear of imperfection, we’ll be able to recover more quickly.
Transparency prevents bigger problems. If you make a mistake, say you’re sorry and take full responsibility for it. I didn’t enjoy telling my finance director that I’d dropped the ball on payroll. But the fact is, a business mistake, like a business success, is about the business and not about ego. The goal was to fix the mistake. That’s easier to do when you’ve got smart people helping you, which they can’t do if you don’t come clean. Fess up, be a good role model in demonstrating accountability and handle your mess.
Treat each situation with empathy and appropriate urgency. One of the reasons I’m so smitten with the way our payroll provider handled the situation is that they seemed to feel my pain. The company moved aggressively, and everyone owned the problem even though it was my mistake not the payroll provider’s. Moreover, I still have seen countless examples of deft handling of a misstep leading to greater relationships and more trust than before.
Share your war stories so they don’t happen again. Jellyvision revamped its internal processes so that payroll is now due by end of day Tuesday instead of Wednesday. A small detail, but one that will fundamentally prevent this error in the future, which is my consolation prize.
Amanda Lannert is the president of The Jellyvision Lab, the interactive conversation company. Jellyvision creates virtual advisers who help clients attract customers, train employees and reduce the costs of customer service. Amanda has served on the board of the Chicago Improv Festival, mentors local start ups and often waves to people she doesn’t even know on the street just to be encouraging. She has climbed several mountains, including Kilimanjaro and Space Mountain, birthed a gaggle of daughters and is known to award limitless slabs of grilled meats to coworkers who grow ironic mustaches for her birthday. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 266-0606 x116.
Most businesses profess a desire to have empowered employees who are able to think for themselves, who can handle issues on the spot without recourse to a long management chain, who look at the business as their own and thus come up with creative solutions and put them into effect.
Balancing it, and usually countering it, is the fear that if left to their own devices, their employees will make idiotic decisions that will have financial and public relations consequences of far greater detriment than any possible benefit. The result is a mixed message — “We sort of want you to be innovative, but don’t do anything that carries any risk of a negative outcome because we’ll be checking up on you.”
Small wonder so many employees aren’t eager to use their initiative.
How gratifying it is when one finds an exception. Traveling for business, I rent from my local Enterprise Rent-A-Car office. I am constantly impressed by their enthusiasm and professionalism, and most of all for their ability to make decisions on the spot. Not monumental decisions — I don’t expect them to be able to sign me over the registration of their cars or redesign the corporate logo, but certainly the sort of day-to-day issues that so many other companies make a big deal over.
They are able to make decisions that do have an effect on the income of the business and they are confident about using their initiative to bend the rules when common sense dictates.
Anyone who has ever brought a rental car back an hour late and been charged for an entire extra day will appreciate this. I always leave Enterprise feeling that I have been dealing with people I like, who like me, and most importantly who are on my side. Not, as could so easily be the case, with a large nervous rental car organization, one of whose $25,000 assets they are about to hand over complete control of to me for $35 a day. Consequently they are one of the few companies that I feel a genuine loyalty towards without any of the gimmicks of points and loyalty programs.
How do they and others like them achieve it? Most important, they trust their employees and let their employees know it, but not blindly. The key is for line managers and employees to feel confident about the kinds of decisions they can make. In order to do this, they need to know their limits, which should be as wide as reasonably possible, and to know they will be supported by the management chain.
These parameters need to fit into the company’s vision, be clearly laid out and be an ongoing part of their training. Poor managers are scared of losing control, so they give their employees no leeway to think for themselves. Terrible managers deliberately avoid giving their employees firm guidelines so that they can claim credit in success and apportion blame in failure.
Encouraging innovation and creativity in employees needs to be just one part of fostering a positive corporate culture in a well-led organization. Assuming most employees are neither thieves nor charlatans, that they are able to eat breakfast without stabbing themselves in the eye with a fork, bring up children without misplacing them, and make it into work without falling in front of a subway train, then they can probably be trusted to make decisions, and to come up with creative ideas in the interests of the company.
Demonstrating this level of trust, within reasonable boundaries, goes a long way to making employees feel they are doing something that is important, and that they are personally valued. That’s leadership.
Julian K. Hutton is president of Merlin Hospitality Management, where he oversees the company’s hotel management and distressed asset management operations, drawing on 20 years’ experience in the worldwide travel and hospitality industry. Reach him at email@example.com.
If you follow baseball in the Los Angeles area, Dennis Kuhl, chairman of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, wants you to know one thing:
“The Dodgers are not my competition,” he says. “When I go out and speak, people ask me about the Dodgers being my competition. But my competition is Southern California sunshine. You have to talk a family of four into coming to the ballgame instead of going to the beach. So you’d better have some things going on that are exciting.”
Kuhl came on board with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim shortly after owner Arte Moreno purchased the club in 2003. The team’s 2002 World Series title predates Moreno’s ownership, but under the leadership of Moreno and Kuhl, the Angels have become a perennial playoff contender and one of the leading attendance draws in Major League Baseball.
Moreno has bankrolled the talent that has led to the team’s on-field success, but Kuhl says it has been a group effort to keep fans in the stands at Angels Stadium of Anaheim, from the front office all the way down to the janitors, ushers and parking attendants that interact with fans before, during and after games.
It’s really no different from any other business: a respected brand plus great customer service leads to repeat customers.
“Our brand itself is well-known, but we also wanted to demonstrate great customer service,” says Kuhl, who served as the team’s president until 2009. “But that is only part of it. You have to reach out to the community in which you live. We have to let our fans know they’re a big part of us being here in Orange County and Los Angeles. That means you still constantly have to promote your brand, even with a well-known image. I tell everyone in the organization that they’re a salesman. You’re representing the Angels and you’re selling Angels everywhere you go.”
Know your colors
Kuhl and the Angels leadership team picked three items to serve as the outward identity of the organization: the color red, the name “Angels” and the club’s capital “A” logo. The use and appearance of all three factors is carefully managed to promote brand association throughout the fan base.
“You’ll never see our ‘A’ in camouflage or a different color,” Kuhl says. “It’s always red. We specifically picked the color red, and in our merchandise store, everything is red. Everything we give away is red. And the third item is the name ‘Angels.’ We don’t put ‘Los Angeles Angels’ on our stuff. We put ‘Angels.’”
The goal was to create a distinctive brand image, one that employees want to support and promote, and one that fans want to embrace. The Angels nickname and the club’s capital ‘A’ logo have been around for decades, but the club’s transfer to a red-dominated color scheme in 2002 is something Angels management views as the final ingredient, what makes the whole branding recipe work.
“Too many organizations tinker with their logo, change it every year, and we have not. We have taken that brand into the market and kept it the same, kept our uniforms the same. People have responded, because when you come to a game, you see a sea of red. They’re getting it.”
Kuhl says it’s counterproductive for a business to focusing on being many different things to many different people. You have to zero in on what it is you are trying to be as an organization, and work hard to put those essential elements in front of your customers on a constant basis.
It might be exciting to revise your company’s image and try new looks on for size. But if you water down your image with too many differing messages, you’re going to confuse your customers as to what you really stand for as a business.
“You can’t focus on 20 different things,” Kuhl says. “You have to focus on a small number of things and work hard on branding that name. When we go to a dinner or to a Rotary Club meeting, we take a bunch of inexpensive hats with us, and every kid there gets a hat. A lot of people think if you give away hats, they won’t buy them in the store. We don’t care right now. We want to see every kid in Orange County, in the whole Los Angeles area, wearing an Angels hat. You start with the kids, and if you walk into a store around here now, you see more red than you ever have before. It’s because we’ve stuck with our image and focused on it.”
Kuhl says the Angels aren’t looking to other baseball teams for branding inspiration. They’re looking at companies like IBM.
“You have to focus and pick your brand, and develop your mission,” he says. “Like with us, our mission is youth. You have to, as an organization, pick what your goals and brand are, and tie it in with the surrounding community. And you have to develop the culture within the organization. We have to have people buying in to what we are doing, what Arte’s goals are. That has to come internally.
“I’ve seen other great organization do that. In college, I watched what IBM had done, how they built their brand, and their brand is as strong as it gets. Nike is the same way. They believe in their culture, and that’s what we want from our people.”
Project your culture
One of the oldest axioms in the business how-to book says your culture isn’t what you say it is — it’s what your people believe it is. It’s also what your people project to your customers.
Even though the Angels have carved out a large and loyal fan base throughout Orange County and the Los Angeles area, they can’t take that as an indicator that they’ll reap the benefits of bumper-crop ticket and merchandise sales. As with other businesses, it still takes diligent work to constantly improve customer service and enhance customer experience. A guy in Orange County might have an Angels pennant hanging in his house, but Kuhl still needs that guy to take the step of driving to the stadium, buying tickets and taking in a game with his family.
To make it happen, Angels games need to be a customer-focused experience from the parking lot to the stadium and back. Which means everyone who works at an Angels game is an ambassador for the team.
“The people in the office, like myself, we might touch the fans, but we don’t touch them like the ushers, like the parking lot attendants, janitorial people and concessionaires,” Kuhl says. “Those are the people who have direct contact. We need to educate them on the service we want to see from our employees. We want them to smile, say thank you and look customers in the eye. We want them to know if customers aren’t getting good service. That’s why I say we have team ambassadors.”
Turning employees into ambassadors for your organization takes training. But as part of the training, it takes a great deal of dialogue. Employees won’t feel empowered to represent the business if they don’t feel engaged in the process.
Kuhl wants his employees to know how to provide a good customer experience. But he also wants the people who work at the many customer interface points at an Angels game to tell the management team what needs to be done better, and where new ideas could potentially flourish.
“When we meet with game day employees, the first thing I do is go talk to them,” he says. “I thank them for the job they did the previous year, I ask them if they have any questions about the organization. It’s important that those questions come from the top. But then, we let them speak out, and we want to hear some of the problems that they’ve had and some of the areas where they think we could be doing a better job.
“When you let people speak out and give them the opportunity to tell you what is going on in the stadium, you can find out what is missing, what else we need to do. If someone in the stadium needs a wheelchair, we don’t want them to find you. You go get it, and you don’t have to ask. Just go do it. That gives them a sense of belonging. That gives them a sense that ‘I belong to this organization, I am a representative of this organization, and I’m going to do the best I can.’”
Feed yourself some feedback
Fans write letters to Kuhl all the time. He takes the time to read them all, but he’s particularly interested in letters that provide some sort of constructive criticism regarding how the Angels can make the game day experience better.
“Last year, one of our issues was that there were not enough healthy alternative foods at the games,” Kuhl says. “So we go together with our food service partners and put together a menu selection with some more gluten-free choices and other health-food alternatives. We developed it, we’ll promote it on the scoreboard and we’ll see how it goes over the course of the season. You have to take a look at what people are looking for.”
And if people aren’t finding what they’re looking for and they’re taking their dollars elsewhere, you need to find out why.
If a season ticket holder doesn’t renew for the following year, Kuhl and his staff want to know the reasons why. It might be related to the recession, or it might be something that the Angels could have done better.
“Our customer service representatives call every season ticket holder after the season, then again around Christmastime,” he says. “It’s amazing the feedback you get. But you have to make the effort to go out and reach out to these people. If somebody didn’t renew their season tickets, we want to know why. We want to know what we could have done better. If you’re not interested in season tickets, would you be interested in a mini plan? Things like that. But you have to go out to the market; the market is not going to come to you. You need to set up a customer service organization within the company, go out and seek them.”
In the end, Kuhl says, you’ll probably find that customers want a good product that doesn’t break their budget. If you have those two factors, you’re off to a good start.
“You sit down and say ‘OK, what do the fans want?’” he says. “In baseball, people want a winner, and Arte’s been working to put a good product on the field. Off the field, you want to get the people into the seats. And once they’re in the seats, maybe they buy a hot dog. And if you get them in here and they enjoy the experience, maybe they come back again. That’s why you concentrate on having that good fan experience, good customer experience. We have to focus on giving them value for their dollar. That’s the way I feel, and that’s how our plans are constructed.”
How to reach: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, (714) 940-2000 or losangeles.angels.mlb.com
The Kuhl file
Born: Boonton, N.J.
Education: Business administration degree, University of Arizona
First job: I was a caddy in a country club in Boonton when I was a kid. It was interesting being around a lot of successful people. They had money and belonged to a country club, and you kind of looked up to them. You respected them. And they always treated us very well. I was always impressed with the way most of them treated the caddies. And what I learned was that you always treat people with respect. That made an impression on me at age 12 or 13, and I’ve always carried that with me.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
One of the things I wished I was better at was being more of a visionary. I’ve been working a lot of years with Arte Moreno, and he’s a very visionary person. One of the lessons I’ve learned from him is to never make decisions looking at the past. Always make decisions for the future. Don’t look to the past; always move forward as you’re running a business.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
A real business leader has to see four or five years down the line, and then communicate a plan to the employees. You have to hire the right people and know who to put in charge. You need to really believe in your vision and communicate it to your team.
Kuhl on changing the club name to Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2005:
We believe our baseball team is in a big time market. We want to make sure we acted like a big market team, not small market. We wanted our advertisers to know we live in a very large metropolitan area. We felt this was one of our steps that we needed to take to let everyone know that we are a part of the Greater Los Angeles area, and it has helped us to be recognized as a big market team.
When Jon Ransom started Environmental Management Specialists out of his basement in 2000, he faced some challenges. He had just moved to Ohio from North Carolina, and he had a lack of customer relationships, minimal knowledge of the regional marketplace and had little credit with vendors and suppliers.
What he did have was a background in environmental services and an ability to meet a challenge head on with an intense focus on the solution and his pursuit of constant improvement. Slow but steady growth followed at the company founded as a waste brokerage that aids environmental consulting firms and contractors with the transportation and disposal of hazardous waste, and by 2008, Ransom had 12 employees and a positive reputation in the marketplace.
Following the economic downturn in 2008, EMS had a challenging first half of 2009, but by the second half of that year, the company had hit its stride. By 2010, EMS had 38 full-time employees and had expanded from being just a waste brokerage to offering full-service brownfield site remediation, tank removal and installation, emergency spill response, and waste management and industrial services for private and public sectors.
Ransom believes in leading by example and has worked side by side with associates in various capacities, gaining respect because they know he is willing to tackle any job they face. He also supports a culture marked by mutual respect, empowerment and integrity, and employees are regularly asked for ideas that might improve the company’s performance. The professionalism and combined expertise of the company has earned the esteem of regulatory agencies, customers and competitors and has paved the way to a growing awareness of its capabilities across Ohio and beyond.
How to reach: Environmental Management Specialists Inc., (440) 816-1107 or www.emsonsite.com
The unrelenting economic changes and cycles have forced companies to rethink everything. In increasing numbers, companies are now asking their executives to re-engineer themselves by taking on roles in which they have no prior experience. For instance, a company may ask its head of sales to manage IT or ask its CFO to run sales.
In a recent survey, conducted by Cohegic Corp., 75 percent of the respondents said their companies are indeed asking executives to take on roles in unfamiliar areas.
Two-thirds of the large company and half of the midsized company respondents indicated the primary driver for reassigning executives was to facilitate career growth. Smaller companies, on the other hand, specified downsizing and financial constraints as the primary driver. More than 60 percent of the small and midsize company respondents felt cross-assignments for executives is a trend here to stay.
Changing your perspectives
As an executive, you must be prepared and willing to reinvent yourself. In order to serve your company well, you must stop thinking of yourself only as a functional expert. At lower levels, functional expertise is a plus, but at upper-management levels, limited cross-functional exposure could be a liability for the company.
Managing areas of the organization in which you have no prior experience could be a potent way to change the “silo” mindset. Challenge your new team’s assumptions and standard procedures and challenge your own perspectives.
Steps to achieve success
Taking on an unfamiliar role is a daunting challenge and involves great risk. When assigned an unfamiliar role, you must consider several steps to achieve success.
Rediscover yourself: You must have a clear understanding of why the company specifically chose you for the opportunity. What does the company expect you to deliver? You must realize that your new responsibility is all about change management. The company expects you to introduce change — change in mindset, approach, culture, process, people, pace of progress, performance, etc.
Research: You must first listen. Do not be impulsive and impatiently thrust your knowledge on your team. Do not be superficial in your assessment. If you take the time to understand and diagnose the situation in detail, you will gain greater respect and cooperation from the team as you push for difficult changes. It will also give you an opportunity to build a relationship with key influencers within the team.
Relearning: Develop a new perspective. Learn how things work in this unfamiliar area of the business. Remove your previous filters, preconceived notions and biases. Do not be a know-it-all, because what got you here may not help you get there. Make it clear to the team that you have a lot to learn and remind the team they have a lot to learn from you. It is a partnership, their technical knowledge and your new approach will create the right recipe for success.
Reapply yourself: Bring to bear your management, leadership, analytical and problem-solving skills and your ability to work the organization and make things happen. Leverage your energy, enthusiasm, and confidence to help the team rise to the occasion. In order to produce change, you have to make the case for change and help your team appreciate the sense of urgency. Explain your vision and the steps to realize the vision. You will need to enlist key people from the team so you can build a coalition for success.
Results: Solve the problem, address the need and produce results. Resist the temptation to fixate on tactical issues. Do not forget why the company assigned you the role and what it expects you to deliver. Keep your focus on the big picture and never waver from the overarching goal.
Ravi Kathuria is president of Cohegic Corp., a management consulting and executive coaching firm, and he is president of the Houston Strategy Forum. Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, WorldNews and featured on CBS Radio and the BusinessMakers Show. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, The Coherent Company: The Struggle for the Next Level.