Ahead of the curve Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

John Hoffecker recalls the days when taking the pulse of the market was easy. You could simply listen to the word on the street or read the local newspaper.

Hoffecker says those days are long gone.

The managing director of AlixPartners LLC’s office in Southfield, Mich., the U.S. headquarters for the global restructuring, consulting and financial advisory firm, says there is only one constant in business: The bar for what is expected of your business keeps rising.

Every year, your business is expected to provide more solutions for a customer base that is likely expanding around the world, requiring you to expand the presence of your business further than you probably ever could have imagined even 10 or 20 years ago.

Hoffecker says it’s a trend that is only going to gain more steam in the near future.

“I’ve been in business for 30 years now, and the one thing that’s a constant is that the bar keeps rising,” he says. “What we did five years ago to help a company perform successfully, it’s gone beyond that. That means you always need to be looking at new things that are different than what you did two, three, five years ago. You need to be constantly in touch with what they’re doing in other industries that could be applied to your own industry.

“If you’re in aerospace, you have to see what automotive companies are doing in terms of production methods that could take your company up a bar. You have to know what some of the leading companies are doing out there that could be applied to a different situation. That takes staying close to your clients, understanding how their environment is changing and how their industry is globalizing.”

Keeping your company one step ahead of the needs of the markets you serve takes vigilant monitoring of trends and a large helping of outside-the-box thinking — not just from you but from everyone in your company.

This is how Hoffecker keeps his wing of AlixPartners — which had approximately $375 million in 2006 revenue — ready to meet change head-on.

Lead by example

Taking a leadership role in a company doesn’t just mean you dictate and delegate. Hoffecker says that while those are important aspects of leading, even more important is your ability to lead by example.

Hoffecker does not shy away from chances to get out in the field and engage AlixPartners’ clients. He wants to set the pace for his employees by driving home the message that everyone in the company should be completely focused on delivering top results to clients.

“I have more of an oversight role than anybody in the business unit, but I know I need to lead by example,” he says. “Everybody in the business needs to see that everything we do relates to being exceptional when you are out with a client. If you are, the rest of it will fall into place more easily. For me, that’s fun, that’s where I want to spend my time.”

Hoffecker says you need to teach first and foremost by doing, not saying, because that’s the most effective way to get employees on board with your plans and future vision for the company. Achieving buy-in from your work force is essential when it comes to positioning your company to adapt on the fly.

“The buy-in at the individual level is, to me, the most critical thing there is,” he says. “In many ways, everyone needs to be involved in creating the future vision for a company. With that in mind, we created our organizational model with the idea of everybody understanding where we are trying to go, then getting everyone to see where they could have an impact on where we’re trying to go. There is really no one in the business who is not tied to that.”

If you are willing to get out in the field and do some of the heavy lifting with clients and customers, you will create employees who want to do the same. If you sit back and order others around, you will create that mentality, as well.

“You don’t want people in an organization who simply manage and oversee things,” Hoffecker says. “If you’re like us, you want people who learn how to fundamentally create change. We want our people to learn how to create a major impact for the customers that we serve. They’re only going to do that if we’re out with our clients, out with our teams on a day-to-day basis.”

Develop your communication strategy

As important as you setting an example from the top, your employees need to set the example for each other. That is an increasingly difficult proposition as your company expands globally.

Hoffecker says open lines of communication are a key ingredient in forming a nimble, adaptable company. You can set up global networks for electronic communication, and e-mail and portable devices like the BlackBerry are good for quick exchanges of information. But you’re not going to create a community approach to building for the future without periodically getting your key innovators and decision-makers into the same room.

The periodic in-person meetings and more casual, day-to-day forms of communication have to work in tandem to keep people connected.

“It’s really a set you have to use in parallel,” he says. “We’ll get together as an organization multiple times throughout the year, all of Europe and the U.S., we’ll all get together, all of the leaders of the business units. In those meetings, it’s critical to make sure we are all together in person articulating and giving each other a chance to talk, discuss, challenge where we’re going as a business, what we’re doing and learn from each other.

“We also set it up so there are significant opportunities for people to interact on a day-to-day basis. That could be at a client site or in the evening when a team goes out for dinner. They’ll be talking about what they can be doing, what others can be doing, but they’ll be setting up those opportunities together.”

When managers can’t assemble in person at AlixPartners, Hoffecker keeps people connected on a more frequent basis through weekly conference calls.

“Every Friday, we have a call where all the business unit leaders talk for an hour about what is going on in each one of their businesses, how they can change,” he says. “Then I immediately have a meeting of all the leaders on my team to articulate what we’re seeing, then go down to the next level of detail with the group.”

Hoffecker says you need to have a detailed, inclusive communication strategy because every person in your organization is going to impact your ability to grow and serve your clients and customers, no matter how small his or her role may appear.

He says that, in the end, it’s always better to have an entire company of people who are enabled to communicate than to have a small brain trust leading the uninformed masses.

“We need everybody in our organization to have an impact on our growth,” he says. “We need to make sure that everybody in the organization is a part of that and they feel like they understand how they can have an impact. That means we need to be touching everybody in the organization both on the vision side and the execution side on a constant basis, so that they feel a part of it.”

Leverage your talent

When putting together a management team to steer a project, department or your entire company, Hoffecker has some words to live by: “One and one equals three.”

In other words, your team should be greater than the sum of its parts. A secret formula for building such a team and having it succeed doesn’t exist, but it starts with knowing where you want to go as a company, then finding people who mesh with your goals, both with regard to personality and skill sets.

“Business is very much about the ideas, thoughts and capabilities you can bring into a situation,” Hoffecker says. “We are teaming people together to work around the globe very seamlessly. When I go out to a client to perform a project, it’s not just me alone or me with a two-person team serving that client. Because we leverage each other so well, I can pull five other people onto a project. One might be in Asia, three might be in Europe, one is in South America, and they’re all adding significant content and intellectual capital to the team to serve a customer that might be in Detroit, Michigan.”

If you’ve set up an effective global communication strategy and infrastructure, distance should not be a barrier to assembling the right talent on your leadership teams. Leveraging the best talent from around the globe, regardless of where each person is based, will also help you cross-pollinate your company’s best practices instead of having each division or each shop in every country performing the same procedure in different ways.

“The whole idea of networking is beneficial to a business because clients get a better answer, they don’t get people reinventing the wheel,” Hoffecker says. “If someone has done a similar project in a different industry, and it’s relevant, we’re able to do projects much faster because we can quickly take what they have learned and apply it somewhere else. When that happens, you get higher results.”

He says that as the head of the company, your job is to leverage the talent and knowledge of your employees by taking their various backgrounds, talents and skill sets, and forming them to the same creative template, harnessing their abilities to find solutions for your customers.

You want to draw from many different intellectual sources when forming a team designed to help lead your company and serve your customers, but all that brain power has to work on the same wavelength, or you won’t be able to constructively use it.

Hoffecker says that’s where strong communication and refined people skills are a must for a leader.

“Point one is we have an overall view of what we want the firm to be,” he says. “There is a set of core values and beliefs that we believe are critical. The set of key priorities, key objectives, what we have overall as a firm, that’s what we start at.

“The reality in business is that, once you have the right people in the door, you secondly have to integrate them into the culture and the teaming. In our case, many of the organizations our team members have come from don’t have the same type of discipline around the business, in teaming across organizations and geographies. It’s in getting them to understand how that power can help you in serving clients that you’re able to continue to grow.”

HOW TO REACH: AlixPartners LLC, www.alixpartners.com