Laura E. Ellsworth’s goal as a leader is to move beyond a certain movie moment.
“There’s this great scene in ‘Casablanca’ where Ilsa leans against Rick’s shoulder and she says, ‘I’m so tired. You’ll have to think for both of us now,’” says Ellsworth, the partner-in-charge of Jones Day’s Pittsburgh office.
Ellsworth could play Rick’s role and make decisions for her 115 employees, but her ultimate goal is to wean them off of her support by encouraging them to think independently.
Smart Business spoke with Ellsworth about inspiring your employees to take ownership of their ideas.
Q. How do you create an idea-welcoming environment?
Avoid falling into the trap that you know more than everybody around you. If you assume that you know less, you’ll learn more.
I always talk about obliterating the inner sanctum. When there is a view that there’s an in crowd or some inner sanctum, people don’t take it onto themselves to be part of the overall operation because they think somebody else is doing the planning and thinking for them. If it is clear that there is just a group enterprise and we are all in this together, you tend to get a lot more engagement from a lot more levels.
Some ways that you can do that can be very personal. Have people over to your house for dinner. Do things outside the office that aren’t necessarily related to office things. You are better off if you connect on many different levels.
Q. How do you encourage employees to step out of their comfort zone?
I’ll say, ‘I would love to see you do X,’ but I’m also very candid with people about what I see as the pros and cons of different things that they might undertake. And I hope that they are also reciprocally candid with me, so if they say, ‘That’s just not something that I want to invest my time in,’ they understand why I thought it would be a good idea, I understand why they don’t think it would be a good idea, and we both move on.
If they repeatedly refuse to engage, you become concerned that it’s the underlying investment of time or commitment to the enterprise. Then you have to deal with it differently.
Giving people an actual opportunity to assume the responsibility and make a project their own is critical. Rather than directing someone to go do a task, explain to them the outcome that you want at the far end and then let them sort out for themselves how best to get there.
Q. How do you respond to ideas?
You look at that person and you say, ‘That’s terrific. I never would have thought of that. I really admire you for thinking of that. What can I do to help you?’
If it’s a bad idea, I typically don’t say, ‘What a bad idea.’ I’ll use it as an indication of a direction that the person wants to go. The next question for me is: What don’t I like about what they’re suggesting? What alternatives can I suggest to them that would get them on a path that makes us both happy? Think about how to tweak the suggestion or how to amend the plan in a way that might be more productive.
If it’s something that I don’t think will work, I try to explain to them why I think it won’t work. I’ll focus on the parts of it that I think are good and positive. I’ll be very forthright about where I see problems with it. I will solicit their input as to how to solve problems that I have with it, so it’s very much a conversation.
A dictatorial yes or no is generally not all that helpful for anybody.
Q. How do you support employees’ ideas?
I make available my resources and the resources of the firm to support those activities. Somewhere in my network of connections, hopefully, there’s somebody or some organization that I can connect you to to help you carry out your idea in a way that you couldn’t have done yourself or I couldn’t have done myself.
I encourage other people to take credit for what they did; I give credit for what other people do. It’s important to do that, not because people need rewards for what they do, but because if they are acknowledged as being good at what they do, other people will want to do it with them.
Talk about their achieve-ments very openly whenever you get an opportunity, whether that’s within the organization or without the organization. Give them the leadership role and say, ‘That’s Mary’s project.’ I refer people to them wherever I can, rather than making a decision myself, if there’s something that’s in a shared zone of responsibility.
Simply thank them for what they did and the change that they brought. It’s funny, in this day and age, we’re all going at a million miles an hour and looking down at our small electronic devices [that] it’s so rare for somebody to just look up in somebody else’s eyes and say, ‘Thank you. I really admire what you did, and I’m grateful to you, and you did a really wonderful job.’
Some people have a management philosophy that praise is inappropriate — that we should all expect this of one another and praise is sort of like the new generation where everybody gets a trophy at the end of the game. I think that an honest acknowledgement of gratitude and admiration goes a long way.
How to reach: Jones Day, (412) 391-3939 or www.jonesday.com
Every moment he is on the job, Andrew Roth carries two of his best communication tools with him.
They’re called shoes.
Roth, the president of 180-employee Notre Dame College, says there is no substitute for getting out of your office and interacting with your employees as often as possible. In-person engagement of his employees is central to his communication strategy.
“You need to be accessible to the people you serve, however briefly,” Roth says. “You need to get back to them with an answer to their problems. You need to respond.”
Smart Business spoke with Roth about how you can use your feet to become a better communicator.
Q. What are some keys to effectively engaging employees?
There are two big ways of doing that. One is to stay on message, not having a flavor of the month. We’re constantly looking at our vision as building one of the finest comprehensive baccalaureate colleges in the Great Lakes region. A component of that is as a Catholic institution and as a residential college.
I said that in my inaugural speech six years ago. The focus changed and is now slightly different, but in every opportunity I get, every speech I give on campus, we come back to the vision. The message might be tweaked as times change, but the core message doesn’t change.
The second way I try to do it is every group I meet with, I try to talk to them about this in terms that would be of interest and appropriate to them. So when I’m talking to the faculty, we’re talking about education and classrooms. When I talk to the maintenance guys, I talk to them about how it’s important to maintain an institution that is worth what we charge for it, that our facilities are up to snuff. When I talk to our coaches, I talk about the need to recruit competent students, responsible campus citizens and athletes who can compete in that order.
So the answer is two parts: one, stay on mission, and two, when speaking to different constituents, articulate the mission and vision in terms that are appropriate and focused on their needs and interests.
When you know what you stand for, you don’t really have to give a lot of thought each time you’re called upon to talk. Make sure that you understand your organization’s mission and vision, so that you’ve internalized it and can articulate it. You want to internalize it to the point that you don’t really have to think about it. Then, take every opportunity, no matter where you are, to talk about the mission and vision. Every setting is a chance to reinforce the mission and vision.
Q. How can a leader take proactive steps to engage employees?
I’m a firm believer in getting out of the office and walking around among your people, because of all the clichés you hear. It is lonely at the top, and it is very easy to get caught up in your office. You can always find a ton of things to do as the organization blithely goes on around you. So you have to make it a point to get out and walk around. I walk to the coffee shop every morning and get my own coffee. I stop at different offices along the way and just kind of wander about.
There is nothing more valuable than walking around, seeing things with your own eyes and asking questions. When people give you ideas or suggestions as you walk around, give them feedback. Do whatever it is you said you would do, assuming the request is meaningful and appropriate.
That’s the great advantage of getting out of your office. It gives you a breath of reality and a realistic vision of what your people are accomplishing as well as what they’re struggling with. Sometimes, even when you’re in a position like mine, you lose perspective on how good of a job and how comprehensive of a job the people at your organization are doing. It is re-energizing for me, particularly during the school year, to walk around. It can be astonishing walking into a nursing lab to see what is going on there, going to a choir practice, the academic support center, the gym, the dining hall, and all of it gives you a tremendous sense of the breadth and scope of what you are doing. It also gives you the opportunity to have a real appreciation of some of the issues your people face. Their problems and challenges become real, not something abstract.
Q. If someone says he or she doesn’t have time to get out of the office, how would you respond?
If someone were to say to me, ‘I just don’t have the time to get out, know and understand my own organization,’ I’d ask them, ‘Are you managing your calendar or is your calendar managing you?’ Because what could be more important than knowing your own organization, what is going on and how it’s happening? I understand that there is a perspective that a leader has to have versus the perspective of someone down in the trenches, so I’m not saying that you should spend all day in the trenches. But you do have to spend some time down in the trenches so you get a sense of what those folks are up against.
You really need to take a look at your calendar, and take a good, honest look at whether every item on your calendar absolutely trumps getting to know what is going on in the organization. For most people, the answer should be self-evident.
How to reach: Notre Dame College, (216) 381-1680 or www.notredamecollege.edu
John W. Palazzo wants to make a buck as much as the next guy. He’s watched the cooking oil equipment business he started in 2000, Frontline International Inc., grow by an average of 20 percent each year. But Palazzo doesn’t put profit above everything, and he doesn’t want employees who do either.
“We have had a number of candidates that looked really good, but they were like, ‘I have to make this,’” says the president. “And in this economy, that does not settle well. But more importantly, those people may not be the ones who work out in the long term. You want someone with drive.”
Smart Business spoke with the leader of this 20-employee business about how to build a team that fits your vision.
Q. What is the biggest challenge to building a team?
It comes down to finding the right people and the right team to surround yourself with. That’s not only employees, which is a key part of it, but it is the team outside the company, which would be an accountant, an attorney and a banker. They all have to balance. It starts with good people internally, but as you grow, the external ones become ever so important, as well.
There’s a fair amount of due diligence that needs to be done as you interview or bring someone in for a trial or whatever it might be. It comes down to being able to explain the vision and objectives and goals of the organization and explain where the company is going.
You need to be able to explain the growth you’re anticipating and get them to buy in to the process. You’ve got to be a good communicator. If you’re communicating a vision of where the company is going, you need to be excited about it. It’s sincerity and attitude and energy level. Be passionate about what you do.
Q. How do you make sure your need is clear?
If we’re posting an ad or we’re working with an agency on getting a person, we’ll put a pretty good description out of what we’re looking for. I like to outline all the duties and responsibilities that then would be transferred right over to the job description.
It forces you as a business owner to truly sit down and think about what you want this person to do what is the day-to-day responsibility and expectation level that you have? You have to sit down and challenge yourself as the superior to make sure you know what you’re looking for.
Q. How do you actually find the right people to interview?
There’s a fair amount of due diligence that needs to be done as you interview or bring someone in for a trial or whatever it might be. The first impression, for me, is going to be their resume and starts before I even see the person in the flesh. Do they have the skill set on paper to meet the requirements?
It’s also format and grammar. Is it easy to read? Is it easy to follow? It’s my first impression before I even bring anybody in. I would never interview anybody without a resume, regardless of the position.
Once I get that piece of paper in front of me, I start assessing. That’s how I make the determination of who to bring in for an interview and who we don’t.
Q. What are some tips for effective interviews?
I ask the person to give me a ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of their experience. You can probably read most of that on the resume, but I find it very interesting to hear people verbalize what they do or what they have done. It forces them to talk about themselves and their positive abilities and skill sets.
You always want to try to think through, can this person do more than what they are being hired for? Can they grow within the organization? That’s also a selling point when you’re interviewing people. ‘Here’s where you’re starting, and if you have the right drive, ability and skill set, here’s the potential because we’re growing. And growing means opportunity.’
I’m not looking for someone who wants to climb the corporate ladder in a year. I need someone that has commitment and buy-in to what we’re trying to do. I’d rather start someone out at the lower end of the spectrum and then get them to move forward on a gradual basis based on performance.
If someone has high aspirations to move forward, they have to really show that they have the ability to take on responsibilities.
Q. How do you get a new employee off to a good start?
The biggest thing is being able to work directly with them and making sure there is a clear-cut job description of what they are supposed to do. It’s very important to identify duties and responsibilities so they know clearly what they have to do when they come in.
It’s really spending time, whether it’s with me directly or with other folks in the organization, to make sure they are oriented to how we do things. Make sure that, as a leader, you’re visible and that they know you’re dedicated to the cause.
I don’t line my pockets. What I’m doing right now is putting a substantial amount, if not all of the profits right back into the business. Employees see that. They know when they are operating a piece of equipment, if something should break down, we don’t waste any time or money getting it repaired.
How to reach: Frontline International Inc., (330) 861-1100 or www.frontlineii.com
If you ask Dan Rooney to tell you the last time he completely unplugged himself from his role as the leader of SCI Engineered Materials Inc., he’ll probably just start to laugh.
“I don’t think a CEO ever has a break,” says Rooney, who holds the title of chairman, president and CEO at SCI. “If you go away for a week or two weeks and shut off communication totally, there is such a pile of communications and e-mails waiting for you, you’ll just never get caught up.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that Rooney doesn’t trust his people at the manufacturing company, which has 25 employees and 2008 revenue of $9.6 million.
Smart Business spoke with Rooney about how to develop a sense of trust with your employees.
Q. What are some keys to reaching your people?
Have a fair amount of face contact with your direct management and management at least one level under you. I usually have a few prepared notes and some bullet points. I’m not a great person at speaking off a sheet of paper. That, for me, doesn’t work. For me, it’s bullet points and then talking to those bullet points.
When you talk to your people, take a fair number of questions. If I’m not getting any questions, my gut tells me I haven’t communicated very well. A lack of questions is more a lack of understanding than anything else. If you’re getting questions, you have people probing and looking for clarity of some of the things you brought up.
When I’m not getting questions, I’ll start to ask questions. I’ll ask questions starting with senior people, then moving possibly down a level to begin getting their input into things in some of the more difficult areas. Then that starts to generate more questions from the audience.
Q. How do you deal with difficult topics?
Communication is a key. When someone screws up, and we all have, we get it up on the table in a hurry, we deal with it, and we put corrective actions in place. Hopefully some of those things never happen again, and we move forward.
I’m not going to say we don’t hold people accountable, we certainly do. We do understand that there is some level of error made by everyone. We like to deal with it and not punish too severely. If you do that, any time there is a mistake, all that is done is people try to hide it, which is really detrimental.
The key is when you make a mistake, be the first to admit you made a mistake. That’s one of the things I do. Everything I do sends signals to other people in the company about what’s the appropriate behavior.
If you begin to identify that you have people who are trying to blame other people, you have a very serious conversation with them about why that’s not appropriate. Or you determine that they do not fit in with the group dynamic you’re trying to develop and you replace them.
Q. How do you keep everyone moving forward?
That’s one of the biggest problems in management is dwelling on what isn’t done right or what’s done really badly in the company. Not that you don’t have to focus time on that, but there’s usually key issues on those. So fixing those problems quickly is key so you can get back to what you do well.
It’s a case of identifying them early on and then making decisions. Revisiting the same HR problem 12 times in the course of a year because it comes up every single month is not a benefit to you.
That’s not moving you forward as a company. If you have a piece of equipment that has chronic downtime and you’ve brought in outside support and you’ve done your own maintenance and it doesn’t perform the way you want it to be performing, you have to make a decision what to do with that piece of equipment.
Every item has to be analyzed on how it contributes to the company and moves you forward or not.
If you have weak product lines or weak employees, you have to make decisions fairly early on whether you can bring those product lines up to speed or those employees. Make those decisions and then move on.
Q. How do you help your people to get better?
We reward our people appropriately and give them positive feedback, not just negative feedback but a fair amount of positive feedback. If all you’re doing is measuring them and beating them up to a set of numbers or using the numbers as a stick, that’s exactly what people will feel like they are.
Numbers are out there and they are a measurement tool, but they are not designed to be a baseball bat to beat you over the head and shoulders with.
Anybody who comes into an evaluation without a fairly good idea ahead of time of how they have performed or if they go away with a surprise from the meeting, the managers have not done a very good job of communicating to the employees how they were doing all through the year.
It’s more a matter of ongoing communication and dialogue. What are your expectations? How have they changed from quarter to quarter? What are folks doing well? What are they not doing well? It’s an ongoing effort in communications.
How to reach: SCI Engineered Materials Inc., (800) 346-6567 or www.sciengineeredmaterials.com
Michael J. Brunner knows his clients feel the pinch of the economy. And he wants to avoid their cutting-room floors.
So the CEO of Brunner, an advertising agency with 185 employees, needs to make sure he’s meeting clients’ needs. That comes from aligning his efforts with their expectations.
“Every client has different needs,” says Brunner, whose company saw $24 million in 2008 revenue. “So it’s incumbent on us to make sure that we are doing the best job we can to make sure we know exactly what those needs are.”
Smart Business spoke to Brunner about aligning yourself with your clients’ needs.
Q. How do you stay aware of clients’ needs?
It’s always a discussion. If we can’t get it to be crystal clear, we will keep asking questions. We will ask them, ‘What is it that you’re trying to accomplish? What do you want your marketing to do? Where do you feel that it has come up short?’ Those are all exploratory questions, which will ultimately lead us to what we are trying to do. The whole point of this discussion is to be connected to them at that point.
And, of course, everything’s annualized. So I’m not talking [about] the vision of the company, ‘Where do you want to be in three years?’ That’s helpful in a discussion, but what I’m focusing on is this year what is it that you need to do; what is it that you want to do?
Q. How do you align yourself with your clients’ needs?
It significantly improves the relationship if you both have the same objectives. So what we try to do is link part of our compensation to the company’s main objective or initiative. In doing so, you have perfect alignment and you’re not cross-purposed.
Part of that compensation is based exactly on how we have performed for you. It’s two-way; they rate us, and we rate them. A relationship is just that it’s more than one person. If the evaluation just goes in one direction, I don’t think it’s nearly as beneficial. That allows for constructive criticism from each side, and that’s a way of definitely improving how you work.
When we first start working with the client, we explain our approach. So it’s not as though we get into this and then it’s a curveball and they’re not familiar with it. You could define service a hundred different ways, so what if your definition and my definition are extremely far apart? It forces you to have that discussion upfront about what is it that we’re trying to accomplish. The more you can align your organization against that, the better chance you have for success.
We cannot go in with our [evaluation] tool, our information, our system and say, ‘Let’s work together.’ That doesn’t sound like an us that sounds like a me. But if I sit down with you and I say, ‘Let’s work together. Here’s a tool. Here’s a starting point. What do you think works; what do you think doesn’t?’ And then we come to an agreement about each of the areas; you’ve got a stake in the game.
Sometimes we would throw that out the window and we would start based on whatever’s important to the organization that we’re working with.
You have to agree on [the metrics]. There is really no chance for misalignment because before you can measure it, you have to develop what they are. We have to know what we’re trying to achieve.
Q. How does that evaluation work?
We break the service aspect down into a number of different attributes. Those attributes are rated and then there’s an opportunity for added comments. Then they’re tallied, they’re charted, and we sit down and we discuss it. We do the same thing going the other way.
It’s one thing writing it and sending it over in an e-mail. It’s a completely different thing when you have to say, ‘Can you share where we did not meet your standard based on this comment or these results?’ It’s as simple as, ‘Why did we get a 3 here?’ ‘Well, here’s why you got a 3.’ Without the tool: ‘How are we doing?’ ‘You’re doing fine.’ That’s usually not a good signal.
It’s not wrapped around a person it’s wrapped around that subject. You have a chance to talk about it: ‘Well, how can we improve this? How can we make this better?’
Q. How do you establish an open-evaluation environment?
The first thing you do is you lead the way, meaning [dishonesty and personal attacks] are out of bounds for you. We can’t do that if we don’t want you to do that.
The entire operating premise is building on a valuable long-term relationship. If the other side is not interested in that, then forget this. This won’t work. So I already have a long-term mindset. If you don’t, this won’t work. But I can get you to think that there’s value to this because people don’t want to be working with a different agency every other day.
This has to be a relationship built on trust; there has to be information supplied. I have to know that sales were down last month; we are not accomplishing what we need to accomplish. I’ll know that because I’ll be monitoring that at the same time you are, therefore I can do something about it.
But without the clearly mutually agreed and specific objectives upfront, those things cannot happen. It’s a whole lot better to sit down at the beginning of the year and lay out the specifics so they know and you know.
How to reach: Brunner, (412) 995-9500 or www.brunnerworks.com
James R. Klein is a firm believer that every CEO needs a “Radar O’Reilly,” just like the one Col. Potter had on the old TV series, “M*A*S*H.” Radar was always there to deflect some of the less important obligations to allow his boss to focus on what truly mattered at that moment, says the CEO of Finance Fund, a 24-employee nonprofit financial services firm.
“It’s somebody who manages your day-to-day schedule and becomes the triage that moves some of those pieces of minutiae somewhere else to a part of the system that wants to deal with it,” Klein says.
When you have that person in place, you can focus on the business and on keeping everyone in step with what it is you do best.
Smart Business spoke with Klein about how to keep your company aligned with its vision.
Q. What is the biggest hurdle to staying on track with your vision?
The main job of a leader is to be able to have a broader view of what is happening in your corporation. The complexity of this whole thing can be brought down to simple principles: Remember who you are. Know what you’re all about and what you’re trying to do and trying to accomplish. In organizational management, that’s called question zero. It’s the question you ask before you do anything else. You need to ask yourself that periodically, maybe like every morning.
Then you need to figure out what your role is. Have a good idea of who is working with you. Who is on your staff? What are their skills? What is their thought process like? You need to be able to have people you trust and give them specific tasks that you don’t have to micromanage.
What I mean by trust is, you need to be able to trust that what they are telling you is the truth. You don’t want people that are going to tell you what you want to hear. You want them to be able to tell you what the reality is whether you like it or not. You have to establish an environment that fosters that kind of reality.
If you don’t, you head off on a path that’s not real and you’ll find yourself in trouble.
Q. How do you engage these people in your vision?
Create an environment that entices employees to act on their own. If you’re a leader type that needs to be in on every decision, you create an environment that tests the edges of patience for everyone. The corporation becomes inflexible.
Have a number of different teams that have team leaders that have the job of directing thought and activity around certain parameters that you establish. Then you drive yourself to the next step.
Supervisors are encouraged to do things that attempt to maintain the entrepreneurial character of every position. We do that by just talking about it a lot and by looking for people who come with definite skill sets who are able to handle work tasking of particular positions.
But we also want people who have a broader view. They understand what the mission of the organization is or they are willing to listen and learn and get on board.
You can tell when an employee has a role that is changing from a job to a career. It seems as though their passion blooms. You can just begin to see how the passion for the mission begins to impact how they do their job.
Q. How do you ensure that your people really do hear you?
Those leaders that I have observed that are very good at it work hard at it. They establish relationships. They develop a reputation of knowing what they are talking about and being truthful and caring with their staff.
They are willing to concede that the staff is part of the whole mission you are presenting. They are not just an afterthought, but what they are is an essential piece of what you do. Leaders make them feel as though they do an important thing, whether they are putting labels on envelopes or they are saving lives, they all feel part of the whole.
What makes one leader go that way or one leader go a different direction? I think it’s a mix of personality and intelligence and really being able to be brutally honest with yourself.
I’ll tell you the honest truth. I’ve done some pretty stupid things in my time as a leader. There are some things I just wish I hadn’t done. You need to be brutally honest with yourself, admit those mistakes, learn from them and put your face to the wind again.
Q. What’s the secret to being a good communicator?
There is a distinct tendency to be insulated from what’s actually happening so the vision gets tied up in me and everybody else doesn’t get to hear about it.
I try to write every week into a blog that talks about where we are and what we are doing and how we’re thinking about things. That’s connected to everybody. It’s public, and we urge our staff to look at that. I also do writings that move to the staff about things that are coming up, ways we operate as a corporation, different strategies we would like to pursue.
I would like to have an environment that is free and open and trusting, but the environment becomes what it is. I have to put trust in certain leaders within my organization to move this message.
How to reach: Finance Fund, (614) 221-1114 or www.financefund.org
James R. Miller is trying to keep up with a rapidly growing family.
When he joined Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote PC in 1974, the law firm claimed about a dozen attorneys.
Now, as chairman, president and CEO, Miller presides over 378 employees and eight satellite offices.
“It was almost like a family,” he says. “I try to still make it feel like we are a close-knit group. I don’t think you can as much as you would like, but it may be a trickle-down effect.”
Smart Business spoke with Miller about how to keep a family environment as your company grows.
Q. How do you connect with employees?
I try to do it by letting them know that I’m just like them and I was a young associate at one time. I try to make them feel at ease and let them know that they shouldn’t view me as the senior shareholder or president of the law firm; I’m someone who has gone through what they’re going through and understands it. I try to put them at ease so we can communicate on a one-to-one level.
It’s maybe some initial talk about things other than the law or what areas you’re focusing in on, knowing their likes or dislikes and connecting on a more personal level. The other thing is having an outing for the employees and their families outside the work environment. For example, we have a Kennywood day [every] July. You get to know people outside the work environment, and you get to communicate and interact with their families.
Q. How do you communicate with employees?
One of the things that I’ve learned being the president and CEO is that even making the most basic decisions, there always seems to be some unexpected or unintended reaction or take on what you’ve done or suggested. What you need to do is be totally honest and communicate directly the rationale for the decision. Try to make sense to them about the decision, and try to erase any doubts or concerns that might crop up in their mind.
Every month, we have our shareholder meeting on one day and then we have our associates meeting the next evening and then a social hour after that. It’s something where you can communicate important decisions of the company or provide important or interesting information to them.
For example, we discuss our financial situation with them, we discuss important decisions. So it’s not just, ‘Come to this meeting,’ but it’s making them feel like they’re a part of the overall fabric of the firm. I give them meaningful information that allows them to understand what the company’s doing and what our vision is in the future.
There has to be a willingness to have a dialogue. It shouldn’t just be shareholders or owners or officers speaking to the younger employees, but there needs to be a willingness to have a give-and-take and respond to their questions and their concerns in an honest matter.
Q. What are the keys to getting messages through the whole company?
I’ve tried to be hands-on as much as I can be. I attend meetings of our various committees. But I also recognize that with some 378 people, that can’t always be done effectively. So I certainly rely on my other leaders in the firm ... to communicate directly with people that are on their committees.
The key is to be as direct and personal as possible, but recognize your limitations and then utilize the structure of the firm to take up where you can’t be.
I would directly meet with those leaders and express my thoughts and decisions so that they can know for sure what I’m thinking and how I’m approaching the situation. So I would have certainly directly communicated with them before they would meet with their committee members. I don’t expect them to take what I say word-by-word to their committee members, but what I want them to communicate is the general message. They would always have latitude to do it in the way in which they see fit.
Q. Who do you empower to carry on your messages?
People are either recognized as leaders by titles or by their work ethic and their abilities. So I certainly would not hesitate to go to somebody in the firm who might not be on the executive committee but whom I know has good communication skills and ask them, for example, to chair a meeting of associates to discuss various matters. It’s recognizing abilities and leadership qualities and not just titles.
Your perception that that person is recognized by co-workers as somebody who understands and excels in his position — that would be one way to identify such a person. But also if you could couple that with communication skills, that would be also a large part of the decision-making. Imparting decisions or thought processes about where the company’s going can be best suited to somebody who is good in communicating to others.
Language skills — how to present ideas and thoughts to a group of people — are very important. But also, I envision that there would be a back and forth, perhaps question and answer. So [look for] somebody who has not just the ability to give the initial message but somebody who understands the vision of the company and can respond to questions that are posed by other employees.
... Over time, you get a sense for people who have the abilities to communicate, understand concepts and then pass those concepts along to others.
How to reach: Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote PC, (800) 243-5412 or www.dmclaw.com
There is very little about the business world that is safe, especially these days, but that has not stopped Jim Wyland from trying to find safe harbor for his employees at WealthStone Inc.
From what is he trying to protect his people? Well, he is trying to make sure they have forums to raise concerns and initiate discussions about what they see happening at their company.
“The really bad thing in trying to have a round-table discussion is they put people on the spot, and they hate it,” says Wyland, founder and director of the 28-employee financial planning firm. “It is all about relationships and understanding each other and having a safe place to go when you have a great idea.”
Smart Business spoke with Wyland about the various tools he uses to put his employees in a good place to use their gifts.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in getting people engaged in your company?
Most effective leaders are focused on helping employees invest in their strengths and helping to get employees into the job that fits their natural gifts. Leaders understand what their followers’ needs are. The biggest challenge is finding people with common values who have a diversity of these strengths.
We really did not get the leverage model. The owners and the leaders of the company were starting early and leaving late and the team was starting late and leaving early. Relationship building is the key, and it is what brings teams together and it is what holds them together. We had areas that did not have empowered leaders. The areas that did have an empowered leader, they thrived. But the areas that did not have a clear leader, they just sort of floundered.
When people do not work in their strengths, the engagement is not there. You need empowered leaders to help employees find their strengths. I want to be a leader who gets to wake up every day and enjoy what he does. When the team can do that, the enjoyment factor is much higher.
Q. How does that help the business?
Once I know what my gifts are, let’s stop having me be as involved. For the people I delegated to, it was a joy. Now, I have this team that is having a lot more fun.
Now, there are going to be people in the room saying, ‘That’s for me; I want to do that. I want to take the role of leading that initiative to make it happen.’
When you get focused on your unique, natural abilities, you love doing it. When people are around you and see you when you are doing that, you feel like you are in your zone.
This translates to huge gains in the company’s bottom line because every employee’s factor is higher.
Q. How do you start getting other people that involved?
You need to take the time to do the one-on-one communication with your people. Take the time to sit down and talk with them. Just say, ‘I would like to spend more time with you. Let’s talk about some different ways we can do that.’
It kind of evolves from there. When you schedule it and do it, it does not take a lot of time to transform the depth of the relationship. We are so guilty of being so busy that we do not always put first things first. Relationships are really important. It shows the employee that you really do care and that you really do want to get to know your team.
I have one young MBA who played football for (The Ohio State University). We schedule a monthly lunch and it is an agenda that just builds on itself. I am his mentor, but it is really up to him to dictate the agenda. It is really fun.
Q. What are some keys to keeping people once you have them in the right spot?
There are reasons why people either stay or leave. The first one is that they like who they work with. There is a camaraderie that they feel. ‘I enjoy working with you guys.’ There is a caring and a friendship.
The second key is the ability to grow. It is the ability to increase skills and knowledge and the chance to grow in their career. They want to have the actual chance to make a difference and be given responsibility.
People need to feel like they are cared for and feel like people love them and care about them as a person. They need stability. They also need to have hope for the future, faith and guidance that this person is going to help them.
Q. What is the key to making this all work?
Make an effort to go find great leaders. Strong teams are magnets for talent. If you have not spent the time with your people to build trust and compassion and those relationship things, you need to do it.
You have to do the one-on-one relationships. If someone is really good in a particular area, say, ‘You are really good at strategic thinking, could you help me? Could you prepare something for the next meeting?’
Most effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and then maximize the skills of their team. The best leaders are not well-rounded; the best teams are. People stay because they have a chance to make a difference, be given responsibility and be rewarded for doing their job.
How to reach: WealthStone Inc., (614) 267-2600 or www.ppcco.com
No matter the industry you’re in, no matter your management style, advancing technology is one of the unavoidable truths of 21st century business.
It’s a fact that Lonnie Coleman has met directly. The president of mechanical contractor Coleman Spohn Corp. has recognized the need for an educated work force that is able to adapt to new technology and changing times.
“As a leader, it is up to me to make sure our membership stays abreast and educated on the new technology to make sure that their company stays viable,” says Coleman, also the owner and founder of Coleman Spohn, which generated $23 million in 2008 revenue.
Coleman has placed an emphasis on both recruiting skilled younger employees and retraining older employees, gaining a mix of technological savvy and veteran experience.
Smart Business spoke with Coleman about how you can position your company to adapt for the future.
Q. What advice would you give about building an adaptable company?
One of the things is you’re always going to have to look at your work force and your people. General Electric, every year, they’ll look at their work force and they’ll remove the lowest 10 percent from the organization, which keeps them stronger moving forward in future years. I can’t say that we have that luxury to do that, but we have to constantly look for new talent to come into the industry, because as things change, you have to change, as well, and you want to have the type of talent that is going to help in growing your business. You want to have the type of talent that will get you to that next level.
And the talent is there. A lot of times, those of us in leadership positions, we get comfortable with the people we have; we’ve been in business with them for 30 or 40 years, they’ve helped the organization grow. But, at the same time, if you don’t look at new people with new ideas, you can become stale, and that’s what you don’t want to have happen.
Once upon a time, 30 years ago, when I started in business, there were no fax machines, no cell phones, you didn’t have laptops or BlackBerrys, you didn’t have the virtual office. Today, you have that. At one time, you could get away by not having all of these things. Today, you need them all and you need more if you want to keep your company viable and sustainable.
Q. How can you find and attract people who have new perspectives to your company?
You can go through career fairs, but in the mechanical contracting industry, we have created student chapters across the United States. Right now, we have about 49 chapters in colleges and universities throughout the country. We look at our student chapters as our apprenticeship programs for management, just as pipefitters or other forces in the field have their apprenticeship programs. In our apprenticeship programs, you have project managers, construction managers, mechanical engineers, civil engineers, IT personnel that are going through these programs. That’s what we’re looking at. By creating these student chapters, we’re trying to train the work force in our industry for the future.
One of the other things we do in regard to education is we’ll reimburse students for their college classes that help them develop skills that will help grow and sustain our business. If there is a need for something, we’ll put it out there for our staff if someone is willing to go take the class and invest the time in the program; we’ll pay for it. We try to make education available.
Q. Why is education so critical to success in business?
If you’re not educating in the new ways of business, you and your business can become stale and stagnant, and then who is going to want to work with you? If you’re not abreast of the changes in the industry and you’re not willing to move the company to the next level, you are setting yourself up for trouble. For instance, once upon a time, we did estimating by hand, now it’s done electronically. If you’re still out there doing estimating by hand, how many projects are you going to be able to accomplish when competing against the guy who is doing everything electronically? You are going to fall so far behind, it would be ridiculous. That’s why keeping up with education is so important.
Q. Does a work force ultimately have to get younger to keep up with cutting-edge skills?
The work force doesn’t have to necessarily get younger. What happens with the younger work force is they’re bringing certain skill sets to the table that are going to help your company as you try to move forward and sustain yourself. But the older worker doesn’t get kicked to the curb in the process. You can offer the older worker opportunities to go and get trained in the new technologies, as well. And if they’re willing to embrace that change, there is a spot for them.
Another thing you can do is take the older worker and put them in a position where they mentor the younger worker. That is a mutually beneficial relationship, because the younger worker might have the technical expertise, but hands-on, he might be lacking. So you put the two people together, and by doing that, [you] create a powerful force within a company.
How to reach: Coleman Spohn Corp., (216) 431-8070 or www.colemanspohn.com
When it comes to building a culture of collaboration and teamwork, keeping things simple can sometimes become a complicated task.
As principal of architectural and interior design firm Vocon Inc., Debbie Donley has built trust and confidence in her employees by adhering to a few simple rules seek employee input, maintain a flat organizational structure and treat your employees like the adults they are.
Adhering to those principles has helped Donley minimize turnover and keep the company which generated $15 million in 2008 revenue both culturally and financially sound in a faltering economy.
Smart Business spoke with Donley about how you can build an employee-oriented culture at your business.
Q. How do you develop a culture of collaboration?
It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. Your actions have to give everybody permission to participate in that kind of culture. If you say you’re inclusive but then turn around and make decisions on your own, it’s not going to work. It has to be a grassroots kind of effort in order to have that leadership style.
Q. How do you develop an organization to remain flat?
One of the challenges of building an organization is keeping it flat while still having accountability matrices in place. It’s always an uncomfortable conversation when you’re saying to your management team in our case, studio directors that you want to be casual and inclusive and democratic but still telling them they’re accountable for the profitability of their groups. But you can balance it. It’s not a free for all otherwise we wouldn’t be financially stable like we are, even with a slowing economy.
Q. How do you build accountability into an organization?
It’s really just communicating what your expectations are. You have to make that clear, because when you don’t know what your expectations are, it confuses everyone around you. That’s why we’ve really worked as a management team to become better communicators, not just with our internal management group but with the entire firm.
Honesty and trust are the keys to good communication. Like a lot of companies, we have been forced to make some tough decisions in terms of layoffs the first time we’ve had to do that in 21 years of running the firm. We laid off a group of folks, and afterward, it was really tough to stand up in front of everyone and explain why, but you just have to be honest.
That is what we’ve tried to be along the way, because if you lose the trust in employee relationships, everything just kind of spirals backward and it becomes really difficult to correct. So it just comes back to being honest. We have good things that happen and we share those, and sometimes we have setbacks and we share those. It’s better than just letting everyone be surprised about what is around the corner. So try to be as transparent as you possibly can about your situation.
Q. How do you keep employees engaged in building the company going forward?
People get motivated when they’re a part of the solution. You have to try to build that kind of can-do atmosphere. There is no secret as to where the economy is going. Most major corporations are hurting right now, so if I stood up at our state of the firm speech and said, ‘Everything is great, guys,’ that would be silly. So our people know that every hour they can spend doing something productive with their time will help Vocon.
The key to that is spending the time and taking the time, not brushing someone off if they approach your desk when you’re in the middle of something. If it’s a silly question or a personal question, you just have to be in the moment.
There are days where it does get in the way to have that approach; I’m not going to lie. You have deadlines; you have things to do. But you just have to make it a priority. If you’re accountable to your business and an active part of the leadership team, you should be accountable for the communication part of things. At Vocon, you won’t survive here if you don’t. We have hardly any turnover, but those who have gone, in many cases, it came down to not fitting in with our culture.
Q. What are some other keys to building employee trust and confidence?
I go back to the line, ‘It’s not what you say; it’s what you do.’ It’s one thing to get up and preach about the economy or preach about efficiency, preach about hard work, it’s another to actually demonstrate it, to put your money where your mouth is.
For example, we have flextime here at Vocon, and one of the reasons is that being a mom is a huge priority to me, and that flexibility is important to a lot of parents here. That’s just the bottom line, and we don’t want to do it any other way. As a result, when people walk out of here at the end of the day, you’re not hearing whispers that they had to blow something off on their schedule or anything.
People are accountable for their own schedules. The bottom line isn’t if you put in your 40 hours, or however long, it’s did you get your job done. It comes back to the fact that your people are adults, so you should treat them like adults. You need to promote adult-to-adult relationships in an organization, not relationships that are more like adult-child. That’s something we’ve worked really hard at doing.
How to reach: Vocon Inc., (216) 588-0800 or www.vocon.com