In a previous business, one of Mark Symonds’ partners had an ego that needed constant stroking. But when Symonds took over Plexus Systems Inc., an on-demand information system for manufacturing companies, he saw there was another way.
At Plexus, the founder had no ego, laying the groundwork for a culture in which the credit is spread around.
“It has to start at the top, and then not tolerate behaviors that go counter to that starting at the top and just reinforcing it every day, calling out good behaviors and privately talking to people who aren’t on board with that,” says the president and CEO of Plexus, which posted 2006 revenue of more than $20 million.
Smart Business spoke with Symonds about how to put a positive spin on change.
Q: What are the keys to being a good leader?
Willingness to be hands-on to do what is needed. Not asking somebody to do something you wouldn’t do. I always found that to be important. The other things that go along with that are ... delegation and empowerment. Together, as a team, we agree on a strategy and a message, and I may influence that strategy and message, but I let the team execute, carry the message to their areas of the company and really deliver that, and it gives them credibility and strength with their group.
Q: How do you know when to be hands-on and when to back off?
When the job is getting done, I tend to delegate more. As people show they can take responsibility, I lay it on them and let them have more. If there is remedial effort to be done, that’s when I get more hands on and show by doing, lead by example. ‘This is what I’m thinking, what do you think about this approach?’ that kind of thing. I try to stay out of micromanagement.
Q: How do you communicate change and make sure employees are buying in to it?
That’s the biggest challenge, no question. I’ve grown companies, and it’s always the same. People lament that, ‘It used to be this way,’ or, ‘I used to have direct access to so and so, and now there is, God forbid, a layer between us, or now we put a process in place.’
I read something years ago that said, ‘Grab that, shine a light on it, and take notice of it.’ We actually call out the changes and mourn the past. We acknowledge that it used to be this way but look at all the great things that are coming from growth, higher bonuses, more fun work, company awards, those kinds of things.
At the same time, we mourn the way it used to be, but we celebrate the progress we are making. It’s going to be there in any organization. You’ve got to shine a light on it and acknowledge it, or it just festers.
As far as what form the change takes, I like that to come from individuals. At a previous company, we started it without any titles because we were good with that. But our folks said, ‘I really want signposts along the way of my career to see how I’m doing.’ So we said, ‘You find two other people who are interested, and put together recommended titles and review processes and so on,’ and it was theirs.
Q: What is a pitfall to avoid in business?
From past experiences, it’s been focus on today, don’t lose sight of the fundamentals. Back in 1990, my partners and I sold our first business to a large public company. In the run-up to that, we got so distracted thinking about that deal that the business suffered post acquisition because we took our eye off the ball.
The most important thing is, don’t lose track of the blocking and tackling. That’s got to happen every day. Too many people get distracted planning for the future, thinking out there, and they lose track of making sure you are executing for today.
Q: How do you know a potential employee is being honest in an interview?
We get a lot of candidates from referrals because we found that good people tend to know good people, and you trust their judgment. But, we do, do extensive reference checking. So, with our new EVP of sales, he was pretty well known in the industry, so we have our own people we could draw on. But he also gave us 13 references, people he worked for, people who worked for him, peers and that kind of thing.
I look for a follow-up. In management positions, I don’t ask for it, I expect it. With other positions, I’ll ask for a recap of our meeting. I want to make sure the interviewee heard the value proposition and values what we feel we have here versus totally misperceiving what kind of company this is.
HOW TO REACH: Plexus Systems Inc., (248) 391-8001 or www.plex.com