Laser focus Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

Günther Braun calls “vision” an artificial word.

The president and CEO of ROFIN-SINAR Technologies Inc. says companies often fall into the trap of creating long-range visions that state an overall objective but don’t give employees any idea of how they are going to get from here to there.

Braun says visions that state a grand five-year goal but are rooted in nothing more than ambition are visions that your work force will have a hard time latching onto. You might want to accomplish something major in the next five years, but he says the best picture to paint for your employees is one of manageable goals that can be accomplished in the short term.

Your job is to look at the big picture. But while you might want to give your employees a general idea of where you want to take the company, you have to give them the smaller picture first.

“The problem with a vision is that you have certain targets,” Braun says. “You can have it as a hard target or a soft target. A hard target can be financial, to go to the next step, to grow into a bigger company. The soft target can be creating a better reputation, serve the customer base in the right way, be more responsive. So I can’t really go out there and say what is the vision, and we have to be there in five years. I have learned that even if you do five-year plans, they do not always come true.”

ROFIN-SINAR is a $480 million laser systems manufacturer founded in Germany more than 30 years ago, but through acquisitions it has become a worldwide company based in Plymouth, Mich. With a wide base of employees in 30 business units throughout the world, Braun says he has learned that short-term planning and narrowly focused objectives are the best way to keep everyone on the same page and driving toward the company’s mission and goals. This is how he does it.

Build relationships

If you have operations in many countries around the world, you might dictate the policies by which each branch is governed, but you are going to have a hard time being the face of the company to every employee in every location.

That’s why Braun says you need to build strong relationships with the leaders in each of your markets, and those leaders need to have strong ties back to you and your management team.

“You have to have those relationships with your leaders in those countries,” he says. “You have to have a broad organization with the right people. On my side, I have an open-door and open-phone policy. I’m reachable whenever there are challenges, but we also talk with the communities in those countries. So it’s kind of a floating communication we have throughout the world.”

Having an open-door policy and keeping the lines of communication open with your leaders in the field is a good initial step, but passively awaiting communication from your managers is not enough. Braun expects his leaders to get their feet on the ground, in the offices and on the plant floor in every one of ROFIN-SINAR’s markets — a practice which he leads by example.

Braun travels approximately 200 times a year to meetings, exhibitions and presentations, attempting to foster a team approach to leadership wherever he goes.

“When you go out to your locations, people start to see that, ‘Our CEO, he wants to talk to me, he wants to see what is going on and address me on the special things we are doing,’” he says. “When you have a special topic you need to address, it’s good to take that as a chance to get out and talk to your people. When you get out, you get a flavor for what is going on in the working environment and so forth, what people are dealing with in various places.”

As you get out among your workers and begin to develop relationships with the people in each of your locations, Braun says you will begin to identify skill sets within your work force, and the people who possess leadership potential will begin to emerge.

With nearly 20 years of experience at ROFIN-SINAR, Braun has had an opportunity to get to know many of the company’s managers over time. He says there is no substitute for the experience you get from repeatedly interacting with your people over the span of years.

“People have grown with the company, so over the years, you get to know them,” Braun says. “Having a longstanding presence in your industry also helps you develop a reputation among the competition.

“When you are looking for new people, you tend to go looking into your industry, who is great, who is good, who could you look to when you have an open chair. You look through the network. In our case, on one hand, we have a good reputation within the industry, so people want to work for us. On the other side, there is a competition around the industry for the best people, so that’s how we try to find the right people. Sometimes you are successful, and sometimes you are not.”

Innovate with goals in mind

Along with “vision,” Braun is wary of another business buzzword: innovation. Braun says innovation is a word that is overused in many companies.

While Braun does say that innovation is an important part of his business, innovation means nothing if it doesn’t help the business in some definite way. That’s why when he encourages employees to develop new ideas, he also encourages that they do it in line with practical goals that can be accomplished in the foreseeable future.

“Innovation is important, but it’s also important that the innovations become new products,” he says. “It’s important that your innovations fall in line with what you can sell and what you can grow in your business. Just innovating does not help your performance. Sometimes, you need to develop a department that can truly think about just technology. We benefit a lot from our relationships with institutes and universities, where a lot of the groundwork for innovation is done.”

Braun tries to avoid ambiguity when defining innovation, a word that can mean many things to many people. Finding a sharp focus to define innovation can be a challenge.

“Innovation is a nice word, but it’s a stressed word,” he says. “Not everything is an innovation, but it can still be beneficial to the company. My thinking is, what is innovation? Is it when you change a little bit or when you develop a completely new technology?

“Innovation to me is when you create and develop something very new, something that was not done before, and it really opens up a new business opportunity.”

Braun says companies that innovate in a vacuum, apart from their customers’ wants and needs, are companies that will lose out to competitors who take their innovative abilities and apply them to serving customers.

“You can be innovative, but you can be a loser on one side because you cannot commercialize your innovations. The key is to have innovations, which you can translate into your normal business.”

Leverage talent

Whether your plans for your company are long term or short term, Braun says you won’t be able to realize those goals if the right people are not in the right positions.

If you value innovation as part of your company’s culture, he says you need to learn to identify innovative people, then put them in places where you can best leverage their creative abilities.

“You can see innovators with the people you have,” he says. “Of course, you can learn how to innovate a little bit, but there are always people who have new ideas — sometimes great, sometimes not great. It’s a type of human being you find, and I think experience teaches you that. You see how they react and behave, you might have people who are really sales-oriented or marketing guys always thinking of ways to change products or make it better. So you see them, then use those people in the right way.”

You need the involvement of your managers to put employees in the positions that will best help drive your company forward. At ROFIN-SINAR, Braun relies on his front-line managers to match talent to position.

“You have to talk to your managers and see if it might make sense to switch someone,” he says. “The worst thing is if you don’t address such questions, so the managers have to see the talents of the people and understand them, then come up with proposals to switch or whatever else could be done.

“You just have to see the potential in your people. You have to see where their passion is, what is driving them.”

Braun says what drives workers at ROFIN-SINAR is less about individual glory and more about making a mark in the laser solutions industry. While Braun says fair compensation and bonuses are important motivational tools, he doesn’t place a high emphasis on individual awards.

“We aren’t McDonald’s with an employee of the month award,” Braun says. “Our workers want a competitive base salary and the chance to earn additional money through successfully reaching targets, be they individual or for the company. If you give them an opportunity to share in operating profits or some kind of additional pay, then they are happy.

“I don’t believe in the employee of the month idea because how would you select such a person? What is the criteria? Because someone worked 20 hours more than another? Because they did better quality work? That’s the question. That’s why, at the end of the day, we are team players. We have individual incentives where if someone does something outstanding, maybe they get a one-time bonus, but we really emphasize the need to be part of the team before anything individual.”

HOW TO REACH: ROFIN-SINAR Technologies Inc., www.rofin.com