Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:01

Breaking down silos at Verengo Solar Plus

It’s tough finding your footing in a new industry like solar installation. Randy Bishop constantly reorganizes Verengo Solar Plus to deliver value at a reasonable intersection of price and profit.

The president and CEO found the solution by breaking down silos to get sales support across the organization from 175 employees — 75 of whom joined the team since January 2010.

“It’s incredibly important to make sure that everyone is aligned and no one area is getting out of whack,” says Bishop, who achieved revenue of $15 million in 2009, then hit that mark again only halfway through 2010. “That’s how we’ve been able to grow.”

What’s the key to thriving in a recession?

Having the right business model helps an incredible amount when times are tough. The operational side of things becomes critical in a recession.

We’re very focused on … our sales engine. That is where the cost can get most out of whack most quickly. That’s not to say the back end isn’t as important. If the sales and marketing aren’t right, it’s impossible to make it up on the back end. So our entire organization has a very strong orientation to the sales and marketing function.

Execution is incredibly important in those areas. We’re not believers in spending for just branding or awareness purposes. All of our marketing spend is related to generating leads and quantifying that cost per lead and cost per sale. It requires a lot of collaboration between marketing and sales to make sure that what’s being (promised in marketing) is being delivered from the sales channel and that there’s consistency all along that process.

If there’s any disconnect, then the customers vote with their business and go somewhere else.

How do you get consistency across sales and marketing?

A huge part is making sure that incentives align the organization. Make sure that everyone is pulling for the common goals. It’s very easy to have those be out of whack, so we spend a lot of time making sure that everyone’s aligned in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish.

And then communication: Our head of sales and head of marketing sit next to each other, and they constantly speak to each other. We have very tight feedback loops between the two.

How do you align the rest of the organization to that?

No. 1, we have company values that ensure that that is front and center. We have all-hands meetings quarterly to make sure that we reinforce that message. And we ensure that we are recognizing and celebrating the right behavior and extinguishing or correcting the wrong behavior. We need people that think outside of silos, and when we see silo thinking, we make it very clear they need to find a different (job).

Part of it is hiring the right people [who] understand that if a sale doesn’t go through, then no one has a job.

How do you identify that collaborative spirit during interviews?

It’s just asking people how they’ve demonstrated behaviors in the past that align with what we’re looking for.

(Before we interview) a customer service manager, we’ll come up with a difficult customer service scenario where maybe a customer feels they were promised something by sales, we can’t deliver it … and it’s a time-sensitive issue. How would they proceed with it? You want insight into how they think.

A wrong answer would be to tell the customer that they’re wrong. A wrong answer would be to call up the salesperson and yell at them. A wrong answer might be to promise the customer we’ll do whatever it takes to get it right.

If you create silos and reward that type of thinking, then you poison the environment. You have to figure out: Do you have the right people in the right positions — and not just for their position, but are they working across the organization, as well?

How to reach: Verengo Solar Plus, (877) 403-3479 or www.verengosolar.com

Published in Orange County

As a pilot for 43 years and president of Voyager Jet Center, Rich Ryan knows what it takes to create excellent customer service.

Ryan leads by example and demonstrates the level of effort and commitment it takes to deliver the customer service that Voyager Jet Center, a private aircraft company, is known for.

“I think when the employees see the president pitching in, whether it’s picking up a piece of trash, flying an airplane or cleaning something, I think they know that I’m committed and therefore they should be committed,” Ryan says.

Attention to detail by all 60 of Voyager Jet’s employees allowed for $25 million in sales last year.

Smart Business spoke with Ryan about how he keeps customer service the focal point of his business.

How do you keep your employees motivated?

I’m a walkabout manager. I am in every department every day observing, showing my face and asking people how things are going. That’s a management style that’s worked well for me. Make yourself visible. Make yourself visible to the customer and to the employee. Don’t hunker down in your office, get out and about.

I also have an open-door policy. People aren’t hesitant to speak with me, because I see them every day. If you’ve ever been to a presentation by a senior executive to his staff, at the end invariably the lecturer will say, ‘Any questions?’ and people are reluctant to speak openly. So the follow up is, ‘If you have any questions that you don’t want to say now, I’ll be available in my office for the next half hour and you can talk about it.’ If I address the employees as a whole, I usually end up in that arena. Some people just don’t speak well in front of a group of people, yet they may be perfectly lucid in a one-on-one conversation.

How do you create and evaluate customer service?

Training is one way to keep the quality of service up. Voyager Jet Center spent roughly $650,000 on employee training last year. Most of that training was simulator training for the pilots, but we also train our dispatchers and our line service personnel. As a company, we sell several types of products, so our line service personnel need to be trained in safe and efficient service.

A lot of the customers are my friends or associates so I will call them and ask them or send them an e-mail and ask, ‘How was your trip last night?’ By constantly evaluating what our service is by getting feedback from our clients, we hope to improve our service.

We have evaluation forms … for the pilots to fill out who come in and buy fuel from us or use our facilities.

For employees, we have a standard evaluation process. I’m a big believer in the sandwich technique, the good the bad and the good. So I would say, ‘Mark you’re doing a great job; however, you’ve been tardy three times in the past two months, so once you correct that, overall, you’ve done a good job.’ Evaluating progress is critical. Otherwise the employee would be operating in a vacuum.

How do you improve customer service?

Listen to what the customer says and listen to what the employee says. The employee knows more about his job than you do, so listen to him and then react.

Make sure that you involve employees in the decision-making process. Push decision-making down and make sure that each employee has bought in to the goals of the company. Employees need to understand what the goal of the company is, and they need to buy in to it. By involving them in the decisions, it becomes their decision, not your decision.

How has customer service helped grow your business?

We sit in one airplane every week. We sit in it for several hours, and we open every drawer and open every table and look in every nook and cranny to make sure it’s clean and that some old magazines haven’t gotten in there. That’s very important to us.

People talk about what’s a good restaurant or what’s a good tailor and who’s a good jet provider. Who can you rely on, who’s safe? So if you have a cadre of happy customers, then they’ll tell their friends, and that’s an important manner in which to build the business.

HOW TO REACH: Voyager Jet Center, (412) 267-8000, or www.voyagerjet.com

Published in Pittsburgh
Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:06

Garry McGuire grows RMG Networks

Garry McGuire is entertaining you in those little moments of boredom throughout your day. Whether it be waiting in line at coffee shops, watching CNN while on the StairMaster or while on a flight, he and his team of about 70 people places television-quality media there for your entertainment pleasure as CEO of RMG Networks.

When he came on board two years ago, the company provided content to about 10,000 screens but now reaches 60 million viewers each day through more than 190,000 screens.

“As we are growing and expanding rapidly, we are trying to stay focused on what we do best, which is entertaining and informing people when they are on the go throughout the day,” McGuire says.

Smart Business spoke with McGuire about how he’s grown RMG.

What is the key to successfully growing a business?

The key to growing a business is singular focus on one, two or no more than three objectives — and being able to be flexible and change your plan as needed to stay focused on those same objectives.

How do you choose what to focus on?

The most important one is really focus on the customer and the problem you are trying to solve. A lot of companies try to focus on how great their product is without keeping in mind the problem you are trying to solve at the end of the day. A lot of technology companies in particular tend to do that. They invent a really cool technology that does a really cool thing, but it might not actually be solving a problem that people care about. Timing your product with a particular pain in the market place is probably the most important element.

Just stay focused on what you do best, what you do better than any other company in the marketplace. As you begin to grow your business, don’t lose focus on those core fundamentals that you’ve become successful at or that you’ve become known for in your quest for new business or adding new features to your business.

I worked for really small companies and really large companies. At one point in my career, I worked for Compaq when it was in massive acquisition mode, and it was sort of a race to become the biggest computer company in the world. It made all kinds of acquisitions — some of them were brilliant and some were disastrous mistakes. What I was able to ascertain from that was that in your quest for getting bigger, bigger is not always better. I’ve seen that in so many examples, large and small. Sometimes you get very wed to an opportunity, and it’s very emotional rather than rational. I’ve seen a lot of business leaders make mistakes based on that.

How can you stay rational when you are looking at those big growth opportunities?

I think just talking to as many advisers or people you respect who come from a pretty independent perspective is the most helpful way. I try to do that a lot with my board, with investors, with advisers — just to try to collect as many data points as possible. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Especially in a company as a president or CEO, you tend to be surrounded by people who agree with you. So as many people as possible who you can talk to outside of that circle, the better decisions you make.

How do you choose good advisers to speak to about these things?

Look for people who have worked in senior positions in your same industry, who are not currently working in the industry. They’ve maybe retired or they’ve changed or they’ve moved on to another profession. I have a couple of advisers who are in that role. I think it’s good to have an adviser completely outside of your industry, because they can look at it from a truly outsider's position. It’s also good to get advisers who don’t have the same background as you. My background is more sales and marketing and our business has a lot of technology and finance, so I tend to try to surround myself with advisers who have different skills than I do, just to try to complement my weaknesses.

How to reach: RMG Networks, (415) 490-4200 or www.rmgnetworks.com

Published in Northern California
Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:01

Allen Keith Construction Co. builds growth

Founded by Dan Hanlon in 1976 under the principles of hard work and dedication to doing a good job, Allen Keith Construction Co. has been continuing to expand and grow its business.

Lonnie Hanlon, Dan’s son, took over as CEO in early 2010, but he has worked at the restoration company since he was a little boy only 10 years old.

“I started out sweeping the floors of the warehouse,” Hanlon says.

He’s now putting all his experience, knowledge and the company’s good name into continuing to grow the 48-employee restoration company.

Smart Business spoke with Hanlon about how he looks to keep growing Allen Keith Construction Co.

What are the keys to being successful?

Basically, it’s just about working hard. If things aren’t going right and you want to be successful, you’ve got to get in here and you’ve got to put time in. It’s about getting out and seeing people and getting involved. You have to make sure you keep an eye on everything, whether it’s a specific construction project or the overall financials of the company. It’s going out and seeing our customers and talking to them and making sure we are doing a good job. You have to also know the trends of your industry. Knowing when your busy season is and being prepared for it is important.

How do you grow your company?

There’s so many different ways to grow. It’s helpful finding niche businesses that relate to ours. Finding a niche is important because it’s tough out there. It’s a tough economy. It’s hard to find places to grow. If you’re the only one that offers something, you can control the market for that and charge whatever you want. By getting into that same business it can cut down costs and turnaround time and allow you to provide better customer service.

We are expanding into southwest Florida. We saw a market in Florida where construction is completely different than construction up here. They move a lot slower, and things are not as professional as they should be. We thought if we could bring the professionalism of Allen Keith and the quality of work down to southwest Florida, then there would be a huge opportunity for our business to grow.

You’ve got to be resourceful in this kind of economic climate. I think 80 or 90 percent of why businesses fail off the bat or when they are trying to grow in new areas is because they have too much overhead. One of the most important things my dad has taught me was to keep your overhead low. We have a 36,000-square-foot facility [in Canton] and we didn’t go down [to Florida] and just go all in and build a huge place. We are starting small and are going to work our way up.

How do you know when and where to expand your business?

You have to take your time when making decisions about new markets. You have to research every aspect and get to know that market. You have to talk to a lot of people. Who are your customers? If you do decide to go to that market, take it slow. Keep your overhead low until there is a need for it. Obviously, once you are growing, you’ve got to add more people to get more production and get your sales up, but don’t go in guns blazing.

How important is it for a company to keep up with technology?

Technology is obviously a very important part of growth. If you don’t keep up with technology, you’ll die. You have to know your industry. You’ve got to have foresight and you’ve got to be able to see down the road — whether it’s doing research or just talking to people.

You have to also know your competition. Look at your competition and see what they do. Are they doing something that you should be doing? Are you losing business because they have a new technology that’s making everyone’s life easier and you’re not doing it?

What can prevent a company from growing?

You have to avoid being shortsighted and not being able to see what’s ahead of you. Whether you’re talking about your industry or you’re talking about your market or the economic climate, not having that vision can prevent growth. If you’re not able to see that someone is doing something that may revolutionize your industry and you’re not on it, the people that do that stuff first can take a lot of your business away from you.

HOW TO REACH: Allen Keith Construction Co., (330) 455-5451 or www.allenkeith.com

Published in Akron/Canton
Tuesday, 01 March 2011 12:37

Promote brainstorming and collaboration

One of the biggest challenges Ed Stevens faces is how to do more with less. As president of Stevens Strategic Communications Inc., a full-service integrated marketing, corporate and crisis communications firm, he falls back on a lot of his former military experience of collaboration and teamwork to do that with his 19 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Stevens about how to drive collaborative brainstorming.

How do you foster productive brainstorming?

We like to give an amount of background to all of our participants so they’re prepared before they come into the meeting. We have some sense of what they’ll be talking about. We share research, competitive information. We sometimes have some rough ideas that maybe the client shared with us so that people can think about where we are.

Sometimes what I like to do is start the meeting by coming out with an idea that gets their juices flowing — something that could be even very controversial so they could say, ‘No, that’s the absolute wrong thing to do, and you’re supposed to do it another way.’ If I can set a bar as to what would be pleasing to me or what I thought would be appropriate for a client or to solve a problem, my hope is to walk away from a brainstorming meeting with something far better, and if that happens, it’s been a successful session.

How do you get the creative juices flowing?

Show what the competition is doing or what the problem is. We do an amount of crisis communications here, too, but if you state the problem or say, ‘This is what we’re up against,’ it’s like a war room atmosphere, and you get right into it. See what other people are saying, and you begin to think things through in terms of the message and the graphics that have to be a part of what the solution is. … You can take off from there.

Knowledge is power. That really is true. From the knowledge, comes the good questions.

I was in the military. … When I think about it, a lot goes back to my days in the military where we thought in terms of economy of force and thought in terms of strategies and tactics and how we win the war, and that’s really what we like to do here.

What did you learn from your time in the military that applies to leading today?

The army especially, everything is tied together, it’s regimented, everybody has defined roles. That’s different from (what) we have today. We have a medium-size public relations and advertising firm — we have to wear more hats than a typical military job description because everybody has specialties that you have to deliver on, and here you have the flexibility of doing a number of things. We all have to be flexible. How many jobs do each of us have before we retire and how many things/experiences do we have? Certainly in the military, over time, you have a lot of different experiences, as well.

What kinds of tips can you give to people to be more flexible and wear multiple hats?

I think that sometimes we want to do what we like to do versus what has to be done. I think that we have to force ourselves to get out of our comfort zone in order to get things accomplished, whether it’s for ourselves, our clients or our families. For me, that’s where the focus needs to be. Everybody says, ‘Get out of the box.’ Well, it’s not necessarily that, but when things have to get done, you have to be flexible to go to where things need your attention the most, and it takes a leader who really looks at the capabilities of the team and fits themselves into the team to make for a stronger result at the end. We can be far more successful if we contribute our God-given talents as best as we can but know that we can’t do it all, but if it has to get done and you’re the leader, then it’s up to you to get it done. Get in there and hop in the foxhole.

How to reach: Stevens Strategic Communications Inc., (877) 900-3366 or www.stevensstrategic.com

Published in Cleveland
Tuesday, 01 March 2011 11:53

DAG Construction builds relationships

Dale White Sr. came to the United States in 1975 with nothing but a few dollars in his wallet and aspirations to become successful. After cutting his teeth at a construction company for 16 years, he founded D.A.G. Construction Co. Inc. in 1990.

Much the same way that White learned his trade before breaking out on his own, his company has grown through experience.

“Over the years, we partnered with larger construction companies to learn how they did their work,” says White, founder, president and CEO of D.A.G. “We mentored and grew, and now, we are trying to be a (mentor) for smaller companies to help them grow, too.”

Today, D.A.G. is one of the leading construction companies in the area and saw revenue of roughly $20 million in 2009.

Smart Business spoke to White about how honesty and communication grow a business.

What traits make a good leader?

Be honest with your clients, do a quality job and have open communication. When we start working with a client, we openly communicate with them. Sometimes we tell them the things they may not like to hear. We would rather be upfront and tell them, ‘This is what’s going to happen and this is how it happens,’ rather than them having surprises at a later date. Tell them the problems that exist right now — ‘Here’s a problem and here’s a solution.’ We give them the problem and the solution and being upfront with them shows them we have the characteristic of being honest and not trying to nickel and dime them.

How do you gain client trust?

If you want to build a clientele and you are a company that is growing, you want to show your clients that you care about them very much and that devotion may provide you recommendations to other companies. Personal touch goes a long way in promoting your business. It’s the cheapest way of advertisement for a company, word-of-mouth. Clients will say, ‘This guy came down here, and he’s the CEO. He came to the job site and met with me; he discussed the project with me and told me the problems and solutions and saved me so many dollars by doing this.’ This goes a long way in building that reputation.

How do you create working relationships?

Be open and communicative. Get them to tell you their problem — ‘Here’s my problem and here’s what I’m trying to do.’ How can you help them get through this? Unless I know you are having a problem, I can’t help you. That’s one way we try to get into their minds and try to give them advice. All we can tell them is how we solved that problem and then they build upon that.

How do you deal with tough competition?

The competition in the market has been extremely difficult. I look to grow my company by diversifying the business opportunities that I have. You have to get into other areas of your work and find a niche market and excel in that niche. You have to build a relationship with various clients. You have to be honest with your clients and tell them what it is that makes you different from your competition. You have to tell them why they should choose you and feel comfortable that they are not getting a raw deal. Give them that personal level of satisfaction that they are always trying to find. We try to be that extra arm for our clients and go beyond just being a contractor.

What is something that could prevent growth?

Not listening to your employees. Saying, ‘Let’s do this’ when you know you’re not capable of doing it. Growing too fast and not being structured. If you try to climb that ladder too quickly, you’ll come down real quick. You have to know the capacity of your company and what you can handle. Just because another company grew a certain way doesn’t mean you should.

How to reach: D.A.G. Construction Co. Inc., (513) 542-8597 or www.dag-cons.com

Published in Cincinnati
Tuesday, 01 March 2011 10:56

Employee focus at Express Oil Change

Since 2000, Adam Fuller has seen his business grow about 11 percent a year — in an industry that grows about 5 percent a year. Fuller, along with his partner, operates 26 Express Oil Change & Service Center locations with 235 employees. So with that kind of growth, he’s come to realize that people are his most important asset. As such, he used to spend about 60 percent of his time focused on the employee component, but now that’s at about 95 percent.

“Given the fact that we’re in the automotive services business, I still think we’re absolutely in the people business at the end of the day,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Fuller about how he manages his greatest asset — people.

How do you manage your employees?

We look at four areas in particular on our people — their mindset, discipline, teamwork and composure.

When I say mindset, what’s their critical-thinking like? What’s their effective judgment like, and are they willing to continuously improve, and are they pushing to be better tomorrow than they are today?

As for discipline, how customer-focused are they? Will they plan and execute to that plan? Will they hold their standards as high as they possibly can and try to bring everybody up to their standards?

On the teamwork side, how are we treating other team members? How are we communicating with each other? Are we coaching the individuals that work for us?

On the composure side, do our employees know what their strengths and weaknesses are? Are we delivering trust? Do we need to be acting more technically? Are we sharing information? Are we remaining calm in adverse situations? Where are we on conflict resolution? Are we fair-minded? Are we open-minded?

How did you decide on those four things specifically?

So much today, we operate in an environment of, ‘Where are we today; where are we this week?’ The hardest thing is trying to link those short-term actions to long-term strategy, so we try to look at all the issues that we have on a long-term basis and break it down into what should we be doing in the short term to hit what our long-term strategy is.

The biggest thing is, we’re trying to optimize, not maximize, our employees. In other words, what is the best niche for them or the best role in our company for them where they can reach their highest potential, not where we’re just trying to maximize their potential in a particular role. That’s different. Everyone looks at trying to just maximize the individual instead of optimizing the individual.

How can leaders figure out what to focus on with employees?

The biggest thing is determining what your critical success factors are, and then how you can determine what things to measure that will ensure that you hit those critical success factors. Understand that things change, you change and people change, and if we don’t embrace change, it’s very difficult to perform at the highest level year in and year out.

The big thing is to not have people getting stuck in ruts and being open and willing to change and to grow and develop. The day that stops, we’re in trouble. If we’re not changing and challenging and growing our people, it’s going to hurt our business.

With that, do our current people have the ability to take us to the next level? If not, then we need to change and find new roles for the existing people. We have found that people respond better to the challenges of growth and development if we’re open and clear in our communication.

So much of it depends on developing trust and being willing to share more than you typically would otherwise. If I’m continuing to do something that bothers you and you don’t tell me, then you’re not being fair to me. If we’re not treating our people with the absolute utmost respect, it’s not fair to them. If they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing, to be fair to them, we have to be open and honest with them. Those are very hard conversations, and sometimes they don’t go well but we have to at least try to every day.

How to reach: Express Oil Change & Service Center, (770) 752-0932 or www.expressoil.com

Published in Atlanta
Monday, 21 February 2011 11:09

USA Insulation grew through franchising

When Patrick J. Pitrone took over as president of USA Insulation Franchise Corp. seven years ago, he had to overcome the hurdle of being the founder’s son.

He made sure he did every aspect of the insulation business himself so that he never asked someone to do something that he didn’t know how to do or wasn’t willing to do himself. As a result, he earned the respect of the company’s 135 employees.

Four years ago, he started turning the organization toward growth by transforming it into a franchisor. There weren’t any insulation franchise businesses, so the field was wide open.

Smart Business spoke with Pitrone about how he led the business into this new endeavor.

How did you start franchising your business?

It did take some hard knocks and learning initially. We knew our business very well, but we didn’t know the franchise business — how to take our model and carbon copy it across the country. We learned a lot about ourselves, and we found out that we’ve learned a lot about our business, but we never took the time to put it all down and hand it over to somebody. We had to go back to the drawing board and bring some consultants on board to frame out a system to put in place and put everything out on the table and give them a launch process and how we can help them operate.

The key to that area was bringing people on board who knew the franchise business and could mold it with the existing insulation process and be able to craft a system that can make people successful in this business.

How did you select consultants to help you?

We had some referrals of people who had done this before. There’s nobody in the insulation franchising business, so that was out the window, so we had to look for people who had similar service businesses or folks we met at the International Franchise Association’s annual meeting. It was bringing people on board who knew franchise businesses and molding it with ours.

In choosing a consultant, we made a mistake. Initially, we hired someone who was a fair amount of money, and you don’t know what you don’t know starting out, and we thought we had the right company there.

What tips would you give for hiring a consultant?

Spend time with them to get a sense of the people they were. [Ask] questions to get to where you felt comfortable with them.

I wanted to find out initially how they took companies from ground zero up to 10,000 feet or so. I wanted to find out not only if they did but what they did to bring companies that have been doing one particular thing in one location for X amount of time, and how did they build that business? How did they take a company and build their manuals, build their jump systems for new locations, how did they build the marketing and legal pieces? … Initially we didn’t know what questions to ask, so we had to make a couple of mistakes in the beginning — they were costly mistakes, but they helped us choose that next consultant, the one that has really gotten us to where we are now. So knowing what questions to ask initially was a pretty big thing, and we had to learn the hard way of asking the wrong ones first and learning the second time the right ones to ask.

What are some good questions to ask?

One question that I have asked before is, ‘Give me a reason why I would hire you and a reason why I wouldn’t.’ They’re sort of behavioral-based questions. Give me examples of times and things you’ve done. The closed questions won’t get as many answers.

The best questions are to ask the folks they’ve worked with and the referrals. I’ve actually been a referral now for this consultant, and people talk to me for a half hour at a time. They wanted to do their due diligence. … Those questions can be — the expectations that were set, did they meet your expectations, was the price that you paid the right amount of money for the services you got, or what are the biggest weaknesses that they’ve had in the first six months of getting started? Presentations are presentations. You can have consultants come and go through the front door, but unless you talk to the folks they work with, it’s difficult to get a sense of what they’re all about.

What have you learned from this process?

It takes longer than you think, and it takes more work than you think and you don’t always see progress when you want to see it. But it’s funny, the longer you do it, the more people from the outside looking in give you some perspective on how far you’ve come. It’s been [more than] three years now and we have 17 locations and that’s more than I thought I’d have right now. It’s interesting to see the growth of our company. It’s fun.

How to reach: USA Insulation Franchise Corp., (866) 602-4107 or www.usainsulation.net

Published in Cleveland
Monday, 21 February 2011 14:27

People connection

When Alan P. Shor co-founded The Retail Connection LP in 2004 with Steve Lieberman, they had six employees and one too-large office. But within just a few years, the company has filled that space, growing to about 70 people and three offices today.

One of the keys to building a strong organization has been making sure he gets the right people into the real estate services and investment firm.

Smart Business spoke with Shor, who serves as co-chairman and president, about how to successfully grow an open organization by bringing in the right people.

What have been the keys to your success?

There are just a handful of basic keys to good, strong, successful leadership. One is building the right culture in your organization. Before you can do that, you have to be clear in your own mind of what you want to do and how you want to do it, and then you have to communicate that in a clear way. If you have a plan and a way to achieve that plan and you communicate it right, then you start building your team, and that’s where the cultural part comes in.

First and foremost, it’s hiring the right people. Once you get the right people in the door, then it’s making sure they understand what our goals and objectives are.

How do you hire the right people?

We try to combine experience with entry-level. We look for people who are smart and entrepreneurial and want to work hard and become students of the business. You can accomplish that by hiring experienced people based on what they’ve done, and you can accomplish that by hopefully putting people through a good interview process, particularly the entry-level program.

We have an analysts program where we hire kids out of school that want to have a career in what we do. Then we put them in a six- to eight-month program where we move them around the company to different parts and they see how we interact and work with different teams and see different aspects of the business. At the end of that time, we make an assessment of whether they’re ready to become a full-time employee. Our success rate has been really strong. We have a good feeling going into the hiring. Then we have a much better read coming out of the analyst program as to who can make it and who can’t.

What tips can you provide for making better hires?

Make sure you have a pretty good understanding of what you’re looking for, have a specific job description, and you want to make sure that you articulate the type of person you’re looking to hire and then be very diligent in the hiring process.

The people we bring in will see multiple people here — it could be upwards of six or eight people from different parts of the business — and then we talk about how that interview went. Then we give them an aptitude test. It’s a 20-minute test that really will give us some guidance. It’s not the barometer, but it’s one of the factors. We look at it as to how they’ll be in our business.

Be diligent about it. Call references. Make sure enough people spend time with that person, because you’re making a decision that not only impacts your company but, more importantly, is impacting the life of somebody.

How can you get beyond the interview front to know who people really are?

If they’re in Dallas, it’s easier because we try to get our people together as much as possible. One of the things we do a lot of is we get our guys together and have a basketball game. We invite our recruits to play, and when you get them in a setting like that, where it’s very much a social and competitive atmosphere, you can learn a lot that you can’t learn in an interview.

How to reach: The Retail Connection LP, (214) 572-0777 or www.theretailconnection.net

Published in Dallas
Friday, 18 February 2011 15:52

Ringing in the new

When Jeffrey M. Mintz stepped into the role of managing partner at Jackson Lewis LLP in 2006, he was starting a new chapter in the firm’s history by succeeding someone who had been in that role for 25 years.

“The immediate challenge was related to the transitional process itself,” says Mintz, who stepped back into the partner role late last year. “We had a 25-year status quo.”

He had to quickly develop confidence internally with about 50 employees and externally with clients that, while there was a new leader, everything was still going to be strong moving forward.

Smart Business spoke with Mintz about how to transition your organization into new leadership.

How do you develop confidence with people?

It’s very important to presume capability. Doing so creates new opportunities for the people who work for the firm, which results in experience, and experience breeds confidence, and that creates client appreciation. If you focus on the opposite — inability — it becomes self-fulfilling and provokes negativity and it erodes morale.

What I was able to explain to our staff was our record demonstrates that when we focus on what people can do, they do it. When the individuals do it, we succeed as a team. We were starting from an expectation that they were going to succeed. That drove people immediately in the right direction.

What was one of the most important things for you moving forward?

I knew you have to listen effectively. If we listen effectively and are aware of others and their perspective, then you’re much more effective at developing the road map to get you from point A to point B, C and D. I also recognized the importance of effective two-way communications and developing people and their personal stakes in the success of the business. I think responsiveness is very important and people tend to react and contribute more effectively when they’re viewed as a meaningful player and participant.

What’s the key to effective listening?

I look before I talk. When I walk into a client’s office, I’m very aware of the surroundings. You can learn a great deal of what a person feels is important. Ultimately, you’re going to pick up on what the individual may find powerful and persuasive by looking around to see what’s on the wall or the credenza or what’s not on the wall or credenza, how the desk is set up, and what the furniture looks like and the order of things — or the lack thereof.

That provides a great deal of context and information, and it’s very meaningful messaging without a word being spoken. If you can pick up and read those nonverbal signals, it will enable you to listen and see beyond the spoken word when the client is reacting, and then you can better tailor your tone and the substance of your remarks to try to accomplish the end objective. Effective communication involves effective observation and listening much more than effective articulation.

What advice would you give other leaders taking over in a new role?

It’s important to be realistic and to recognize that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach with respect to the individuals on the team. Don’t hesitate to make the tough decisions after listening to everybody. It’s more important to be confident and to be intelligently aggressive and take chances after doing your risk-reward analysis, but failure to take chances and use intelligent risk will preclude the organization from moving forward. Sometimes conflict is unavoidable. If you avoid conflict, you’re credibility will be undermined. People want responsiveness even more than they want the answer that they want to hear, and that’s very important from a good leader. A good leader has to be consistent and somewhat predictable in terms of the format and the approach you use as opposed to the message that you deliver.

How to reach: Jackson Lewis LLP, (404) 525-8200 or www.jacksonlewis.com

Published in Atlanta