Group discussion Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2010

The title of CEO didn’t have the right ring for Jerry Sheppard. Instead, his business card reads head visionary honcho for The Epitec Group, a technology services and work force management firm that he founded in 1978.

Likewise, his wife Josie isn’t just the president but the head coach. And that’s how they see themselves: as interactive coaches for their 380 employees, more so than executives locked in an ivory tower.

When it comes to Sheppard’s most important task as a leader — setting a vision, as his title implies — well, that’s a collaborative process, too. He encourages employees to contribute to the ongoing discussion of what could make Epitec stronger and keep growing it past 2009 revenue of about $31 million.

“We embrace entrepreneurs,” Sheppard says. “They take ownership in the process they’re responsible for. And I think that is what has propelled our growth.”

Smart Business spoke to Sheppard about making your vision a collaborative discussion with employees.

Develop a vision. I think the keys to being a good leader are being open, maintaining an entrepreneurial spirit, having a vision that’s clear and that people can follow, that people understand. [It’s] being able to set a vision that is of yourself, not a catchy phrase that’s the phrase of the day [or] that you might think clients want to hear but really what your business is all about.

I was told years ago that once you learn why you do what you do, you’ll be better at doing it. So being a good leader is being able to articulate that to the staff.

Once you understand why you do what you do, you’re better at doing it. We are customer-driven. The customer drives our business. Ask yourself the question, ‘Why am I in business?’ and for us, it’s to service the customer. Once we can find a need to build for our customer, you then want to be a valued resource to the customer.

‘What is our mission?’ You ask yourself that question. Our mission is to be a valued resource to our clients. What does that mean? I’ll take it a step further. I say that you have a choice of being a resource to your client or a vendor. Vendors are replaceable; resources are not. So our mission is to be a valued resource to our customer because our business is customer-driven to build a company that’s profitable and that’s committed to growth.

By accomplishing that mission, then your vision becomes clear. Our vision is to be a premier staffing organization that people want to work for and clients want to do business with.

Establishing that vision, it’s almost the second step of your mission. Now that you have a mission, what would you look like once you accomplish that mission? What does that company look like if they can accomplish all the things that they set out as a mission?

Build consensus. There is some degree of collaboration. It’s not a dictatorship. We talk about why we’re in business and with that, we come to a consensus.

The people that are attracted to our company have an entrepreneurial spirit, so it’s not hard to get buy-in when you’re talking to fellow entrepreneurs. We call it ‘intrepreneur.’ We give them an opportunity to practice their business philosophies, thoughts, experiences.

Buy-in is a difficult phrase when you’re trying to shove something down a person’s throat. It has come easy for us because I think we are all entrepreneurs and we talk in terms of entrepreneurship and we all understand the importance of servicing the customer. When everybody understands why we’re in business, it’s easy for buy-in. We don’t even use the phrase buy-in [at] our office because it comes naturally. We all agree that we’re here to service the customer, that the customer drives our business.

In going through that process, you’re eliminating ad hoc statements. You’re really boiling it down to, ‘All of the management team agrees we’re here to service the customer.’ So it’s not something I dreamed up one night. It’s something that we talked about over the years and have refined over the years. It has evolved into this process of constantly talking about: Are we accomplishing that? Are we really doing what we set out to do?

Keep discussing. [My] advice to others would be not having a hidden agenda. [My] advice to others [is to] put themselves on the other side of the table. What is it that they would want to know in joining an organization, and how would they really want that organization to be? And then practice that. It’s that old do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Solicit input. It’s kind of like brainstorming — no idea is a bad idea, so let’s just have an open forum. One of the reasons we do the one-on-one is to promote an open forum feeling that people can ask any type of question that they want at any time. It’s not something that we can read in a textbook, take a pill and now we can do it. It’s understanding what would drive oneself: What would I like in an environment to work for? And then create that environment.

Embrace a brainstorming process. We jot those [ideas] down, and we honestly take a look at them. Everyone is constantly looking at better ways to service the customer. We don’t have a suggestion box. We have people say, ‘Well, hey, let’s try this.’ Well, OK, let’s talk about it. Let’s see how that will better service the customer. And then we will decide.

It doesn’t take an act of congress to have a process change here. When someone’s making a suggestion, we see how beneficial that is for the masses.

How to reach: The Epitec Group, (248) 353-6800 or www.epitecgroup.com