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Designing culture Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007

To work for Mary Ann Lievois, you have to have a flare for sales, an eye for design and the ability to talk to customers. But if you don’t have all that right now, Lievois, CEO of iscg inc., is willing to teach, if you’re willing to try. By cross-training all of the workplace design and furnishing company’s employees, Lievois has turned everyone into a specialized commodity for the company.

Lievois doesn’t want people to look at cross-training as a hazard but instead as a boon to their skills.

“I don’t have a problem with change,” Lievois says. “I look at it as an opportunity and embrace it.”

By embracing change, Lievois has kept her staff together and pushed revenue to $20 million at a time when many of her competitors have faced layoffs.

Smart Business spoke with Lievois about cross-training and celebrating victories.

Q: How do you keep your employees motivated?

I focus constantly on how to refresh someone’s job, how to take the best skills of somebody and create something unique about that. I prioritize job enrichment by allowing employees to wear many hats. They want that ability and embrace it because it’s a job enrichment tool.

If you have a good attitude, that employee is inspired to grow and open up that opportunity to look for empowering positions, but it’s all about attitude.

There’s no place for somebody to have a very narrow job description. We haven’t laid anybody off, but our competitors have had to. A lot of that is about cross-training, and there’s not a niche position in this place. There’s no time for niche positions in this economy.

Q: What’s the key to hiring people when employees wear so many hats?

The first obvious issue is how aggressive they are and how creative they are in seeking us out. That says a lot right there.

But we don’t hire people without putting them within a peer group, and then with a group of one person from every department to talk to them about how they work together and ask questions about how they work with others and how they would see themselves in that position. Because we’re small, the training takes a long time. We don’t have a training department to send someone off to, to go learn.

For all the energy and time we invest in training and educating them, I can’t afford to have someone spend four months here and then decide they don’t like what they do.

We make sure they completely understand the job. We have a customer support person or designer talk to them about what they may have to do, and what their personality will have to be, and that they may have to step into another role where they deal with customers. If you’re an administrative person, for example, and you know that you’re an introvert, and you hear that, you will think twice. I want all that on the table early.

Q: How do you encourage people to make decisions?

When you’re empowering people, you need to take that fear away of making a bad decision. We’re very clear about telling people that no one gets fired for making a bad decision.

Making a bad decision or a mistake, it’s not some fireable action; it’s hiding those mistakes or not addressing them early enough. We work hard to let everyone know that so that everybody understands that if there’s a problem, let’s all jump on it and find the best solution.

Q: What do you consider your most important job?

Understanding who you work for. I say that I work for my 30 employees. I have to create efficiencies and remove roadblocks so that people work smarter, not harder. It’s our job to keep people focused by fashioning the way for whatever it might be we do next.

If there’s a problem, I want to know about it first thing, and we’re going to drop everything and take care of it. That becomes my priority for the day.

I have to ask myself questions every day about if I’m helping them. Did I really do everything I could to make the whole team more productive? Was I keeping everybody as efficient as possible? Was I making sure they were working together and stepping in to help with any conflicts?

Q: When things get tough, how do you keep up the energy?

We try to always focus on finding the celebration of the day. We have something on our wall called ‘Celebrate the yes.’ It was just questions about how the employee gets through their day, asking what they did to help iscg get through the day. There were questions about whether or not they helped with new business opportunities.

It’s just keeping the positive, celebrating the yes. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll leave or I’ll close my door. Sometimes I go out and try to find someone who I know did something positive that day and talk to them about that.

HOW TO REACH: iscg inc., (248) 399-1600 or www.iscginc.com