Raising the roof Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007

Some CEOs think the phrase “open-door policy” is trite and tired. But while the phrase itself has been branded a business clich, Fred Olson says the concept is as relevant as ever.

The president and CEO of Rochester Hills-based Webasto Roof Systems Inc. says that if you want a motivated, productive work force, you need visible, accessible leadership that not only creates a vision for the company but acknowledges and rewards the employees who make that vision a reality.

Olson says it’s all about communication — communicating with employees is one of the most important day-to-day tasks a CEO must accomplish if he or she is to make a company a success. Communication fosters innovation, bridges gaps between departments and, perhaps most important, gives employees a sense that their work is integral to the overall well-being of the company.

“It happens every day,” Olson says. “Everybody’s not going around slapping everybody on the back, of course, but it’s all part of the culture thing. If you do good work, you know somebody is going to say, ‘Good job, good solution.’”

Webasto Roof Systems is a $500 million subsidiary of the German automotive component manufacturer Webasto, so Olson says he knows how important it is to receive encouragement from superiors. “At my level, when I’m talking to my boss and I provide a report or some input, or deliver results, and he says, ‘Great job, well done,’ I feel great,” he says. “I tell my wife about it when I go home. It’s just the feeling that I’m a valuable member of this team. I believe that happens at every level of this organization. That’s the way you want to feel.”

A two-way street
Olson says communication should be a way of life for every company. Employees should come to view candor from management as the norm, and it starts by simply listening to what others in the company have to say. “We live the model of an open-door policy,” he says. “Anybody can come to myself or our vice president of business development, our vice president of R&D, our COO, to anybody in the company. It’s not an unusual experience at Webasto because that’s just the way we live.”

But simply making yourself receptive to employee questions and suggestions is only part of the battle. Effective CEOs must frequently engage employees on their level to both inform them and let them know that management takes an interest in what they have to say.

At Webasto, employee engagement begins on the plant level, at the start of every work day. Floor managers bring all the employees in their charge together for a brief meeting on the tasks and events of the day. “We start our day with a team meeting for every line,” Olson says. “They talk about what’s important today, was there an issue in the field that we need to take special note of, are there any visitors coming to the plant. We try to let them know about it, and then they know they can depend on management for clear, open, honest communication.”

If you want communication to become a two-way street between employees and management, you must take the first step. There is a difference between passively leaving your door open and actively encouraging employees to enter.

Olson says a CEO must be active. There is no magic formula to it; it’s simply the nuts and bolts of interacting with people.

“It can be something as simple as open staff meetings at all levels of the organization,” he says. “We have to make sure we’re driving information through the organization on a rapid basis.”

Monthly, Olson provides organized forums where employees can talk back to management on any company issue that concerns them. He calls them his “president’s roundtable,” and he randomly invites 25 employees with birthdays that month to attend a meeting where no question concerning the company is off limits. “It’s absolutely an open forum,” he says. “We go around the table, and they can ask me anything they want about the business. They can ask me where we’re going with product development and with certain customers. They can ask me to clarify rumors. They can tell me things they don’t like about the business, and ask me what I’m doing about it.”

Olson and his senior managers take notes on what they hear, and if a question can’t be answered during the meeting, Olson promises a response within two days.

The meetings have become such a hit that employees now prepare lists of questions to take to the meeting.

“It’s a pretty intensive, eye-opening session,” Olson says. “You don’t know what they are going to ask you about, what they are going to put on the table as a problem to be solved. It’s a really good, wide open forum.”

Stopping the rumor mill
If you don’t communicate openly and frequently with employees, employees will fill in the blanks with their own stories.

Rumors and conjecture are a fact of life in any organization, but the rumor mill will start to take on a life of its own if management isn’t there to set the record straight. When rumors grow, fear and uncertainty start to grow as well, and it becomes very easy for your employees to develop an “every man for himself” mindset, taking the focus off the company goals and potentially undermining your ability to grow. “You have to drive out secrecy. Secrecy doesn’t get you anywhere,” Olson says. “Obviously, when you are developing something, there is a normal period (of secrecy), but when you are ready to communicate, you do that openly and clearly.”

Employees learn to trust you when you exhibit trustworthy behavior consistently by having your actions follow your words.

Olson has developed consistency in his message and actions by forming a communication model for the entire company. Whenever a new strategy or plan is posed to the company’s employees, leaders must be prepared to answer three basic questions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What does it mean to each person in the company?

Olson says that if Webasto’s leaders can clearly define and answer those three questions, it puts many employee concerns to rest and makes other questions much easier to answer.

“When you develop a communication you are going to distribute widely to the colleagues of the company, you want a model of clarity,” he says. “You don’t want them to leave the communications process with unanswered questions. We always allow ample time for a question-and-answer period when we do those things.”

You can also help reduce the spread of rumors by addressing the would-be threat of shop chatter directly.

“We even say to them, ‘You don’t have to worry about rumors at Webasto,’” Olson says. “In a company of 1,200 people, there are going to be rumors; you can’t block them out. But what you can say is that when you hear it from management, you’ve heard the truth, so don’t pay attention to rumors.”

If an employee has heard something bandied about on the plant floor and wants to know the real story, Olson says he encourages workers to start working their way up the organizational ladder. If the person’s direct supervisor doesn’t give a satisfactory answer, take the matter higher. “If you’re not getting the answer you want from your first level of supervision, that’s a problem in and of itself, but feel free to take the issue upward,” he says. “Take it to the point where you walk into my office and ask my assistant for a time to meet with me. It’s always set up that day if I’m available.”

Working with an employee to get the answer he or she is seeking will help build that person’s trust in management, and Olson says trust is the antidote for rumors. If you are consistent and forthright in communicating, people will believe you before they believe what’s coming from the mouth of a co-worker in the next cubicle. “In our annual employee survey, one of the questions we ask is, ‘Do you feel management communicates directly and effectively with you on key issues within the company?’” he says. “We always gauge what the responses are, and over time, the positive responses are growing to where they are in the 90 percent range. So people are developing that trust that, if they hear it from management, that’s what’s happening.”

Considering ideas
Communication doesn’t lose any importance once you have achieved buy-in with your employees. You also have to communicate that it’s important for people to believe in and work toward the company’s goals.

Compensation is critical. It can be a monetary gesture, a small gift, or verbal recognition. But when an employee has an idea, and has enough boldness to bring it to the table for potential criticism, the best reward you can give that person is to show that you are considering the idea.

Olson says not every idea can be implemented, but every idea is worthy of your time, simply because it shows your employees that you are interested in what they have to say. That in and of itself is a form of compensation. “It’s recognizing their value to the organization,” he says. “You recognize that by using their input and ideas. That peer reward system is there.”

Olson has started a program called “Recognizing Excellence and Actions in People.” Through REAP, employees are encouraged to submit ideas and suggestions, and management then evaluates those suggestions, building goals and objectives around a number of them. “We reward people for those ideas,” Olson says. “We even pay more if the idea is formed by a team and they come up with not just an idea but a solution. If it makes good sense and it’s implemented, they are financially rewarded.”

However, Olson believes in balancing between monetary and verbal rewards for high-achieving employees.

“I think both sides of the equation are equal,” he says. “It’s nice to have money, but it’s important to be recognized.

“You can’t just always roll out the money. People feel their importance within the organization. They feel when their input is recognized, whether it’s a solution to a problem or a suggestion for a product, people understand that they are a part of that and they feel good about it. We encourage that all the time.”

HOW TO REACH: Webasto Roof Systems Inc., www.webasto.us