Leading change Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

When David Kirk took over RF Monolithics Inc. in 1999, he had to downsize his work force from 600 to 200 to make the company leaner and stronger.

And while he knew it would be hard, he also knew communication would help ease the pain. He held a meeting to tell employees about the cutbacks so that there would be no surprises later, but he also gave them reasons why the cutbacks were necessary if the company were to remain competitive.

During the next two years, Kirk — president and CEO of RF Monolithics — helped workers find jobs elsewhere. And many were able to find work on their own, because he gave them more than just two weeks’ notice.

Smart Business spoke with Kirk about how he makes tough decisions and leads change in his $54.2 million wireless solutions company.

Q: How do you make tough decisions?

Look at the total picture for the company. If you get too focused on the short-term, meaning a month or a particular quarter, you can get yourself in trouble.

Keep looking further down the road one, two, three years. Take into account a lot of different areas in the company as far as what’s going on with people, facilities, a variety of different things. Benchmark what’s happening in the competitive arena.

You have to make a lot of different decisions, and it’s a process that never ends. Even though we had some good growth — 17 percent last fiscal year — you can’t sit back. You’re continually having to look at what are the next hurdles ahead of us.

Q: How do you lead change?

It really is putting together a strong, strategic business plan and challenging yourself. We call it being brutally honest with yourselves when you form that plan. The question you really don’t want to ask, you’re kidding yourself. Ask that question and challenge yourself.

Separate it from a regular weekly meeting. Take the time to really think long-term.

Looking at the challenges facing the company, start to formulate the pictures of how it’s actually going to happen. Benchmark and understand how that’s going to happen. Go through an entire process and start to build consensus by doing an analysis understanding what’s going to happen out there.

As the ball begins to roll, people see you’re having success changing the company. It’s a long, steady process. It’s not something you can say, ‘We’re going to change,’ and in three months, you’ve done it. It’s a building process and will continue to be.

The other thing is to openly communicate that business plan to the company and use your employees.

Q: How do you effectively communicate changes and plans to employees?

It’s not, we put a plan together, put it in a binder and put it away on the shelf, and then when we get an internal audit or some regulatory thing say, ‘Well, here’s our strategic plan’ and pull it off the shelf. It is a living document that we’re continually benchmarking and studying.

We communicate that plan a minimum of twice a year to all management and support people in the company. We then create a document from that, called a dashboard, that is given out by functional area. It lets each functional area know how they’re participating and proceeding toward supporting the company’s plan.

The dashboard is updated monthly and posted in their particular department so they could see. Then we hold regular all-hands meetings to communicate what’s going [on], as many as four to five meetings.

We try to avoid giving quarterly meetings. We want to make sure that we don’t just focus quarter by quarter. We want to focus on the bigger picture. Don’t just hold a meeting when there’s a significant event — hold it on a more regular, even-keel basis.

Then it’s other things. Hold company picnics. Talk to people and have general conversations. Get to know them and understand them. A lot of good feedback can come from the people.

Q: How do you get feedback?

You build that over time. You can’t just walk out there and make one presentation and someone says, ‘Oh, I have to go talk to him.’ Build that in employee meetings. Go get yourself a cup of coffee. Walk around.

A key thing is to do what you say you’re going to do. We started to look for cost-saving ideas. We started a recognition program, and through that process, we received ideas for half-a-million in cost savings.

If you make suggestions, you get a $10 Blockbuster certificate. If your suggestion gets to the next level, where it’s getting considered and potentially implemented, it was a $50 American Express card.

Give a small reward for that idea generation. We had a committee that studied that suggestion, and following through with that showed them we were committed to trying to save costs. HOW TO

REACH: RF Monolithics Inc., (972) 233-2903 or www.rfm.com