Together, yet separate. Unified, yet unique.
It’s the quandary of seemingly polar-opposite circumstances that David McKinnon — and any CEO in charge of a company that oversees multiple brands — faces each day.
The brands are what the customers see and trust, so they each have to maintain a strong presence on their own. But the brands can’t become more important than the company as a whole, so corporate management has to maintain a tight grip on the reins of the central entity.
McKinnon moved from Canada in the 1980s to co-found the company that would become Service Brands International LLC. As chairman and CEO, he has grown the company to $239 million in 2010 revenue across four household services brands — Molly Maid, Mr. Handyman, 1-800-DryClean and ProTect Painters. Each brand has its own president, its own revenue streams and its own customer base. But none of the four would exist, as least in its present form, without the contributions of the other three.
“When you have multiple branches, multiple divisions, it’s all about keeping the leaders focused on accomplishing the goals that they have to accomplish for their brand, but to do it while working with the other brands cooperatively,” McKinnon says. “For example, we have shared resources for IT, shared resources for marketing, shared resources for legal support. So it’s a give-and-take of understanding that, at a given time, some other brand’s priority must be ahead of yours, or vice versa. As the leader of all that, it’s often my biggest challenge to manage that process. It requires a high degree of communication, a high degree of letting people know why things are important at a given point in time, and trying to get understanding from everyone in all of that.”
In short, McKinnon needs to set the expectations of himself and his corporate leadership team, and manage the expectations on the brand leadership level. Ultimately, everyone in the company needs to promote the brands while respecting the role the brands play in the advancement of the whole company.
Earn your stripes
One of the most important hats McKinnon wears is more like a striped shirt — of the black-and-white zebra variety. McKinnon has to be the referee, officiating any disputes that might arise between brands over allocation of resources.
The relationship between the brands at SBI isn’t contentious, but it is competitive. That can be good to a point. McKinnon’s job as referee is to determine when the competitive atmosphere moves from constructive to detrimental, and prevent the leaders of the brands from crossing that line.
It comes down to a lot of talking and trying to appeal to the inner diplomat in each of the brand presidents.
“Let’s say there are two demands by two separate brands for a new IT project,” McKinnon says. “One is for one brand and one is for the other. We don’t have enough resources to get them both done at the same time, so I ultimately have to decide which one of the brands goes first and which goes second.”
McKinnon gathers the information for his decision by getting the presidents of the involved brands in a conference room along with any other involved parties, and facilitate a discussion.
“We try to figure out together which project is going to have more value or which project is going to provide more customer satisfaction, and try to make a decision based on as much data as I can gather,” he says. “When we decide which brand has to wait for their resources, I try to keep that brand’s leaders assured that their turn is coming next, then communicate that bluntly and openly with employees and franchise owners. It’s managing that process, which requires tons and tons of communication.”
Just because you appeal to your team’s sense of reason doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is going to be happy with the decision you make. Don’t expect total satisfaction, but do expect willingness to compromise. McKinnon doesn’t want everyone to leave the conference room happy, but he does want them to leave with a sense that the fair and proper course of action was taken.
“It is a difficult process at times,” he says. “But again, you make it easier through how you communicate with people. You share your decision and the process by which you went one way as opposed to another. You try to develop understanding around that, and also develop willingness on the part of everyone to live with the consequences. I take the hit when there is bad news to report and give the credit to everyone else when there is good news to report.”
Stick to your principles
A willingness to work for the good of the whole is fostered through developing a culture that values collaboration and teamwork as guiding principles. That type of culture has to be carefully cultivated, starting with the top levels of the company. You have to set the tone for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable; what cultural principles you want to see emphasized throughout the organization.
“Principles, I’ve found, are lived out,” McKinnon says. “We have a manual, but the principles of the culture are created and evolved by the leader. The leader sets the pace for how fast the altitude and the aptitude of the organization grows. When you have a culture of ‘Let’s get this done now,’ and a bias toward serving our franchise owners because that’s why we exist, we realize that our job is to serve them and make their businesses better. That is the bias by which we have to look at the business and judge the culture we have created.”
If the leader is doing a good job of demonstrating the cultural principles through communication and actions, a number of employees should soon begin to adopt the culture throughout the company. Those early adopters are critical to the success of the culture, because those are the employees who set the example on a peer level.
At SBI, McKinnon wants the culture to filter downward, from corporate leadership to the leadership of the individual brands, then down to the departments within the brands. If each level has adopted the culture, the level below — the direct subordinates — should adopt at a much faster and higher rate.
If the message is consistent and predictable, the process of adoption should go much smoother than if you bounce around with your messages and are inconsistent with your communication level.
“The brand presidents and department leaders are people I hold to a pretty high standard,” McKinnon says. “I hold integrity and predictability at the top of my list. I demand it of myself, and I ask it of everyone else in the company, as well. I don’t think there have been many times where people have heard me say something that they didn’t already expect. The best thing a leader can do for an organization, for it to maintain its health, is to make sure that it is stable, that it’s predictable, and there are not a lot of surprises.
“There are times when changes have to be made, but when changes are made, you want as many people as possible to have expected it because that’s how you always communicate. By making an environment that is predictable, by highly valuing integrity, each brand president knows that they have to be the coach on those matters, and keep everyone informed.”
A culture of collaboration starts at the top, but the task of finding the pieces that can fit the culture starts in human resources. At SBI, McKinnon’s team gives potential new hires an education in the company’s culture from the time they sit down for their first interview — and even beforehand.
“It is part of our recruiting process,” McKinnon says. “We try to demonstrate to all potential candidates that this isn’t the easiest environment. They’re going to have to work with multiple bosses on multiple given projects. It is driven by high performance, and you work with multiple bosses, but it is a lot of fun and a lot of teamwork that we believe outweighs the traditional structure of having just one boss.”
McKinnon believes that collaborative workers who are willing to work for the good of the whole can be molded to an extent, but it is largely a product of someone’s personality.
Working in a team is either a strength or a weakness, and it is up to McKinnon and his team to determine between the two.
“I want to see if a job candidate is able to thrive in an environment like this, so if I’m interviewing a person for an upper management role, I’m asking them to give me examples of ways they’ve been collaborative,” he says. “Maybe it isn’t even an example from a work environment. Maybe it’s raising children, or other things they’ve taken on in their lives. But we’re looking for the type of experience that demonstrates that they are team players.”
Being a team player means you understand your role in enough detail to grasp how it fits into the larger puzzle of the organization. So once a person has passed enough scrutiny to warrant a job offer at SBI, the test doesn’t end there. McKinnon and his team want to see the new hire’s collaboration abilities in action. One of the main ways McKinnon gets all employees involved in a collaborative effort is through the company’s strategic planning process. Each person in the company, from the franchise owners up to the top, is asked to define their roles, and how they believe their roles affect the organization as a whole.
“We start by collecting information as to what each person believes their role is, and we start laying out goals. We ask each person what they think their contribution will be. There are no numbers assigned at that point, there is no resource allocation yet. It is strictly the beginning of the process.”
The answers to those questions are fed upward to the brand president, then to McKinnon and his leadership team, and ultimately become a part of the large-scale strategic planning process for the whole company.
Ultimately, McKinnon says collaboration is rooted in engagement, which is why people are immersed in the culture from their first interview. You have to build those bridges early and keep them maintained on a constant basis.
“The future of your company should be more preferable than what you have today,” McKinnon says. “You should want to move from here to there. That is really what helps motivate people to do their jobs better. When they understand that the reward is better than what they have today, people will pull on the rope harder.
“That creates buy-in, and when you get buy-in from employees, you get commitment. The person feels personally obligated to contribute at a higher level because they were part of the process that came up with the initiative. The employee feels that their voice was heard and their input values. And if you have produced a predictable, safe environment, they feel more willing to risk bad ideas. The more willing people are to throw ideas out there, knowing they’re not going to get thrown under the bus for having an idea that gets rejected, the higher the level of engagement will be, and you’ll be able to better sustain a collaborative culture.”
How to reach: Service Brands International LLC, (888) 700-6177 or www.servicebrands.com
The McKinnon file
Education: Accounting and finance degree, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology, Toronto
History: I moved around a bit because my parents were missionaries. I was born in Fredericksburg, Va., and grew up on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. Eventually we moved to Canada, and I finished high school in Toronto.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
Everything is a risk, so as a leader, you have to be involved, you have to know who is important and you have to know who is going to be on your team during the tough times.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
You need integrity, vision, enthusiasm and credibility. And you have to stay in front, too. It’s kind of like being a good flight attendant. If you’re in an airplane, you hit a pocket of air and drop 30 feet, everyone is going to look at the flight attendants. If they panic, everyone panics. If the flight attendants are calm, everyone stays calm.
What is your definition of success?
To achieve the goals that were set. We thought them through. We know they are reasonable. We know the effort that will go into accomplishing them. But success isn’t an end point. What is successful today isn’t necessarily successful tomorrow. It keeps going.