Brian Horn

Tuesday, 19 September 2006 20:00

Sid E. Taylor

 Sid E. Taylor realizes that, as a leader, people need to take you seriously. But he’s also found that it’s just as important that they know you’re being fair. The chairman, CEO and president of SET Enterprises Inc., a metal processing service, has found the balance between strict and sympathetic in his efforts to guide the company of about 300 employees to 2005 revenue of between $150 million and $200 million. Smart Business spoke with Taylor about the importance of community involvement, helping employees make the grade and leading by example.


Be part of the community.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Initially, find something you may have a passion for or another business colleague that is already involved in some community or charitable type of work.

You could piggyback off them initially until you feel confident that you’ve found your own niche. Then you can branch out. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taking the first step and finding somebody you know and trust and getting involved in something that they are already involved in.

If you’re going to be in business, you are a leader whether you want to be or not.
To be a leader, you need to be in touch with the community you send your employees back out to, to the extent that you understand their communities are going to shape who and what they are and what they bring to your company in terms of making you a better company.

All you are going to do is help ensure that you are getting employees that see you not just as a business leader but as a community leader who cares. If they see that you are a caring person, they will go to bat for you. They are a lot more apt to come in and be a good employee and see you in a good light.

You can’t just say, ‘I’m business leader’ and avoid the fact that, if you are a business leader, then you are also a community leader. I think they go hand in hand.


Don’t try to do it all yourself.
You have to have balance. You have to have people who believe in you and support you. You have to make sure you delegate responsibilities. With the community situation, you delegate some of that responsibility, as well.

Hopefully, you can get yourself set up where you have a board of directors. Then, you get other volunteers that, if you really believe in it and you do your job and go out and convince others you really believe it and have a passion for it — if they see the value, they will get behind you. And, by doing that, it energizes you and motivates you to continue what you are doing.

At the same time, you are making other people knowledgeable about how important it is for them to get involved and help, and they start feeling good about themselves, as well.


Find the right fit.
You want to match (employees) up with other motivated employees and try to put them into an area that I call best fit. You try to put them in a job where they are comfortable and motivated to perform.

That’s not always possible, but to the extent that you have the employee that’s really a keeper, then you want to work with that employee to try to find a way to find the best fit for that employee.

There are cases where an employee just won’t work. And you have to cut your losses. That’s the reality of business. If you’ve invested in an employee and the employee is just, for instance, not coming to work every day, being late, being insubordinate and those kinds of things, then there is a disciplinary process.

You give them a warning and you get their attention and balance the ship in a day or in two days.

Now, if an employee does something more severe, it could mean immediate termination. But the process is set up to give the employee (a grade), just like when you are in grade school or high school — you get graded. When you get a low grade, then that tells you that you need to do some work to get yourself up.


Take chances.
You have to take risks. There’s an old saying, ‘The greater the risk, the greater reward.’ With risks, that’s just what they are. They are risks, which means all things don’t work out.

By taking risks, there is a lot of benefit you can reap from it. That doesn’t mean you are always going to be successful. If you aren’t successful, from my own vantage point, I’m able to move on to the next step and realize that was just a temporary bump in the road and not let that impede me from going out and pursuing other things.


Lead by example.
After being a father and raising two sons, my whole life has been, ‘Walk like you talk’. It’s easy to say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ and you may say that, but, if you want the real respect and the following you need from anybody you are leading, then you want to be leading by example. You want to show that you are not asking them to do things you are not capable of doing or not willing to do yourself.

This is something you have to strive to do. Because of human nature, this is not something you can say, think and you can walk away from it. There are constant upgrades to that to show you are continuing to be vigilant to ensure that they know you are being vigilant and you aren’t going to back off your requirement.

You do that by showing your examples and the ways that you run the business, and you show that you care and are being attentive. Those things will be the back-up to get them to realize that you are serious about it and it’s a way of life


HOW TO REACH: SET Enterprises Inc., (586) 573-3600 or

Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Leading by example

When Bob Dean started Dean & Draper Insurance Agency LP some 30 years ago, he started from scratch. Those days are long done, and as the company has grown, he’s had the challenge of keeping the small business environment with the demands of a larger company.

“That’s been a very difficult task,” says the founder, president and CEO of the insurance agency, which posted about $13 million in 2008 revenue. “But you’ve got to continuously work at it to do it.”

Dean and his team established principles that the entire company will try to accomplish as a way of keeping everyone on the same page and avoid departments breaking into silos.

“If you isolate yourself into too many little silos of operation where no one is communicating with each other, then they all have separate goals and it just doesn’t work,” he says. “So we try to keep the communication flowing.”

Smart Business spoke with Dean about how to delegate and how to set goals.

Encourage delegation. I do it by empowering my managers and delegating to them, and in our management meetings, we have one every Wednesday, I’ve told them several times about delegation as far as getting the most out of your folks. I tell a story about when I was in high school. I was a high school quarterback and I said, ‘If I handed the ball to somebody on a play and I didn’t turn loose the ball and I had to tell them what to do, like turn here, turn there, run or whatever, then how are they ever going to be able to use their natural talent?’ You’ve got to turn loose the ball and let the people’s natural talent happen. So I try to encourage it through my managers and then hopefully that filters down to where the people … feel empowered to perform their job because they are all professionals.

Monitor what you delegate. It’s a judgment issue on the delegation issue as far as trying to evaluate what the skill set is of the person you are delegating to. While you delegate, you always follow up, too. I was a safety engineer for 10 years. One of the things that I did in establishing safety programs a lot was when I was talking to company owners, I would tell them, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’ So you need to be able to, when you delegate, No. 1, know if they have the ability or skill set to do it so you aren’t setting them up for failure. But then you have to be able to measure it so you can quantify it some way to find out if the job got done and what kind of quality or quantity, depending on what you are looking for.

What I usually do is I will give them a time frame. I don’t believe in micromanagement at all. I’m more of a macro type of manager, and I will give them the project and the task and then I will tell them when I expect it. We will negotiate a time. If they say I can’t do it, then we ask them why they can’t do it. If they feel like they can do it during that time, then we both have an understanding about the time frame in which we have to get it done. Of course, I may follow up somewhere along halfway through it and say, ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Well, we’re doing OK.’ And if they are comfortable with that, then I’ll usually let them run with it. If they have questions, they will come to me to ask me specifics about, ‘Is this what you really wanted?’ Delegation is to try to let them feel like they are having an effect and that they are feeling good about what they do, as well. There’s absolutely no way I can do it all.

Help employees. If we have issues, I will get involved in helping solve some of the details with the employees as well as handling the big decisions. You have to be involved. You cannot sit aloof in your position because they have to respect you. They have to have a respect for you and your skill set and that you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty, as some of them may refer to it — to get down and work with solving some of the issues. We try to have a mentor for the managers, as well, if we have a new one. We’ve got various leadership training courses that some of the companies offer ... and we’ve sent some folks to that at various times when it was appropriate to help get them on board for things they are going to face.

Set goals. I tell folks here that we first of all have to operate between the white lines. We have to establish systems and procedures so everyone knows what is expected. We also provide employee evaluations on a minimum of an annual basis and sometimes semiannual and we try to provide goals for them and establish career tracks to help them see what their future can be. Again, we’re kind of real big on training, and we negotiate with them the best we can to establish some kind of a time frame for them to establish their goals. I’ve always been real big on education and professional certifications, and I think the more that an employee learns and the more confident they become in what they are doing converts to self-esteem. To me, the self-esteem and how someone feels about themselves is directly beneficial not only to them but to the company.

How to reach: Dean & Draper Insurance Agency LP, (713) 527-0444 or

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Stephen D'Angelo energized dck worldwide

Stephen D’Angelo had seen a turnaround or two before joining Dick Corp. in February 2003. Before being brought in as the chief restructuring officer for the fledging construction company, he owned his own consulting company and estimates that he’s done seven full-fledged turnarounds.

So, it’s no surprise he was called upon to help the organization regroup.

The company grew rapidly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it hit a rough patch after getting caught in the downturn of the power market. The company had almost a billion dollars worth of power projects under construction, one of which was with Enron.

“The company was in a real dire situation from a liquidity standpoint,” D’Angelo says. “They had a tremendous amount of bonds outstanding. They had, obviously, contracts where construction needed to be finished, but the ability to collect the money on those projects was in doubt.”

D’Angelo saw potential at Dick Corp. and decided to restructure it as dck worldwide LLC.

“You need to get back to basics,” says D’Angelo, now chairman, president and CEO of the $650 million company. “A lot of turnarounds, it’s about getting back to basics. You need to be flexible. When you are in a turnaround, it’s really not about a long-term vision and a long-term plan. It’s really about some short-term goals and being creative and flexible to help achieve those goals.”

Plan around cash

D’Angelo says the first thing you do in any turnaround is assess the situation in general and get your arms around the issues.

“The actions that we take on day one are all around minimizing the outflow of cash and maximizing the inflow,” he says.

That means looking at places where the company is bleeding money.

“Every turnaround is really around cash, cash flow and how much liquidity you have and how long you can operate on that liquidity,” he says. “That takes some time and really getting your arms around that — trying to understand what you have as opposed to what management might think that they have. You find in a lot of these companies a lot of the tools and a lot of the focus in a turnaround is much different than when a company is operating over a long period of time like Dick Corp. had.

“A lot of the measures and the tools that are necessary to really manage in a turnaround are not available. So, really assessing the situation, determining viability, putting tools in places and structuring things in a way to try to stabilize operations and put things into, I wouldn’t say a normal operating mode, but into a mode where people can operate on a consistent basis.”

At Dick Corp., the company was very focused on P&L but not necessarily cash flow, so D’Angelo put collection processes in place and addressed accounts payable issues.

“In some cases, we termed out certain payables, we froze certain past due payables, and we kept current payables current,” he says.

“It was really coming up with an overall strategy to bring in as much cash as possible and then, at the same time, preserve as much of that cash as you could, while also operating the business.”

But, don’t be afraid to alter your basic strategy if you aren’t seeing the results you want.

“If you’re measuring the plan and you’re measuring success and that plan is starting to deliver success, then you need to keep improving that plan,” he says. “If that plan is not working and not generating the success you thought it would, then you would need to rethink the plan and adjust it.

“But you have to be careful in the early stages of a turnaround. You just have to stay very focused on what the plan is. Your window becomes two months. Your successes are measured on a weekly basis.”

While it’s helpful to be positive when devising a plan, that can hurt a leader when dealing with a turnaround.

“We tend to think that things will always get better,” he says. “In a turnaround, you really need to know what your downside is. You need to be reasonable about that. You don’t have to be ridiculous about it, but you need to be reasonable about it. You need to have some bookends. You need to have a plan to really deal with the situation in what you project as the worst case.

“Normally, what we would do is we would run a worst case, a best case and maybe a likely case. And we would try to manage our cash to the worst case and try to push the business to the best case.”

Identify talent

Taking part in a turnaround is not for the weak of heart. Because of the challenges you face, it’s also not something you want to do alone.

“You really need to be able to deal with a lot of adversity and not let that adversity deter the goals that you are trying to accomplish,” he says. “You can’t expect that when you walk into a turnaround situation — this company, for example, that had been around for 80 years — you can’t expect that everybody in that organization is just going to jump behind your vision and be part of your team.

“Because, you are bringing in a bunch of different concepts and ideas. They’re all nervous. They are worried about what is going to happen and they are worried about their jobs.”

That’s when you have to look for talent to help you deal with those obstacles that you will face.

“You need to put a strong team around you that shares your vision and understands a turnaround,” he says. “Those people don’t need to necessarily come from the outside. You may find them on the inside, but you need to have that small team that can stay focused and really just execute a plan and deal with that adversity and measure success in small increments.”

D’Angelo brought in some of his own people but also found Dick Corp. employees he could trust. He needed the strong performers who were doing good work to help stabilize the company and finish projects.

If a project manager and a superintendent were doing a good job on a project, he wanted to keep that team together and also provide them with that safety net so they could focus on the task at hand and not on whether they were going to have a job tomorrow.

“You need to take the key individuals that you need to finish projects and you need to run the business and you need to give them maybe a contract,” he says. “Give them some type of a retention bonus if they stay through the contract, and if it accomplishes A, B, C or D, you’ll earn a retention bonus,” he says. “Or if something happens, if the company is sold, you’ll be given this severance package.”

You also want to look for the employees who handle adversity well. If they are coming to you with a problem, you want them to stick around at the company rather than someone who recognizes a problem and says nothing about it.

“A lot of it depends on how those individuals react to the situation or how they react to bad news,” he says. “Do they turn around and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem here and we need to get together and fix it,’ or, ‘Do we ignore that problem until it’s too late to be resolved.’“

Finding out who can be trusted won’t happen right away, but you have to be patient and tap into those current employees for information.

“Turning the company around, you can’t do it without the people in the organization,” he says. “They understand

the organization better than anybody.”

Be direct

D’Angelo had to cut the company’s operations and revenue by approximately 35 percent. It’s not an easy task, but it has to be done.

“In most turnarounds, there is a downsizing that does take place,” he says. “But without understanding what that downsizing is, you really have to talk to [employees] and let them understand the process.

“We had meetings all over the country and brought everybody together and said, ‘Look, this is the situation, and this is how we are going to address it. This is what a turnaround looks like, and these are the steps that we are going to go through as a company, and this is how we need you to support it, and these are some of the things that we’re going to be asking you to do.’”

Being direct with everyone and communicating the plan is the best way to handle cutbacks.

“Say it the right way, but don’t sugarcoat it,” he says. “We have a tendency to make things sound better or we have a tendency to think that we have to flower it up a little bit. Have more faith in people because they just want to know what the truth is. For the most part, when people understand what the challenge is, they will stand up and help you.”

Within a month, D’Angelo and his team were traveling to different locations and updating employees on the company’s status. He would bring some people from within the company so there were some familiar faces, and he would meet with groups of 50 to 75 employees.

“The biggest flaw in a lot of companies that go through turnarounds in the early stages is that they don’t deal with that stuff head on,” he says. “They continue to think it will get better. They don’t give answers. They continue to push it off week by week by week.

“What happens is you lose a lot of credibility. These things are tough conversations. You have the tough conversations … and then you turn around and you do exactly what you said you were going to do. People may not like it, but at least you start to build credibility and you start to get some movement and you start to get an understanding that whether they like it or not, you’re going to do what you tell them you’re going to do.”

Just like with employees, D’Angelo had to be upfront with customers, vendors and suppliers when communicating the message.

“You get them to buy in, because if you really get down to it and work through it with them, then normally vendors and suppliers are normally much better off working with a company that’s going through a turnaround than allowing that company to fail,” he says.

“As long as you can structure a program where you recognize their risk and their exposure, then you talk to them about how you need their support. But at the same time, you’re going to help them manage their risk. In most cases, it doesn’t happen overnight, but in most cases, they’ll stand by you and support you.”

Support like that is setting dck up for a better future. In December, dck acquired the last of Dick Corp. assets, signaling an end to the restructuring.

“The company is stabilized,” he says. “The company has a nice solid balance sheet. It has a lot of cash on its balance sheet and it’s poised for growth and we are looking at the right opportunities.”

D’Angelo and his team thought about keeping the Dick Corp. name, but because the name was tarnished in the marketplace, they decided to change it and start fresh. They chose all small letters for the new company name as a way to show a humble new beginning.

“For the people in the organization, dck represents their future,” he says. “To make the acquisition of the Dick assets the way we did and to close that chapter in their lives, it gets rid of any little bit of uncertainty that might have been left in their minds. It gives them something they can put their arms around and feel like they were part of because they were. Everybody in this company was part of making this turnaround work and making dck work.”

How to reach: dck worldwide LLC, (412) 384-1000 or

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Ken DeFurio leads Butler Health System forward

Ken DeFurio has worked in many positions within Butler Health System, but just because he’s now president and CEO, doesn’t mean he has all of the answers for his 1,700 employees.

“That is a real trap you can fall into,” he says. “Things have changed.”

For instance, when DeFurio started in the organization, everything was done on paper. But now it’s all computerized, and he wouldn’t know where to begin to document patient care in the electronic world.

“My job isn’t necessarily to say, ‘Yeah, been there, done that.’ It’s to understand in changing the workflow that much, what additional burden or what obstacles have we created for the staff, whether it be doctors, nurses or anybody else,” he says.

It’s DeFurio’s job to keep an open mind and remember that just because something is done electronically doesn’t mean it’s better.

“If you slowed a nurse down or you’ve taken a nurse or a doctor away from the bedside because you are making them type into a computer now, you’ve got problems,” he says. “I hear that kind of feedback as you are going through those types of implementations and changes. My job is to make sure we are moving forward and not taking steps backward under the umbrella of progress, because it may not be progress.”

DeFurio needs to have an understanding of the issue and find people who can help.

“In this case, it might be one of the guys from the IT department who can write a program to streamline the documentation, as an example,” he says. “Then you get that resource applied. You work with the folks that were on the front lines and you improve the situation and make it better for them.”

Here are some of the other leadership lessons DeFurio has learned during his career.

Control relationships

DeFurio’s greatest learning moments have come from seeing things handled in very poor ways.

Such was the case with a former boss DeFurio had who would manipulate positions below her.

“Basically, she would align herself with buddies, with her personal friends, and push aside other folks who were in leadership positions who were actually very effective at their jobs and were doing all the right things for the organization,” he says. “They found themselves a victim of this personally driven circumstance.”

It didn’t work out for that boss, and it caused a lot of organizational and personal pain for the people involved.

“It definitely, with me, created a self-awareness of personal interests and how self-serving interests can be major obstacles to doing the right thing and doing what is right for the organization and, in our case, the community,” he says. “I’ve learned some lessons the hard way from working with those people that I will never forget.”

DeFurio had to be mindful of his relationship within the company when he became president and CEO. Having worked his way up through the organization, DeFurio had developed friendships with employees at lower levels, but he had to alter those relationships as he was promoted.

“The closer to the front lines you are, the more personal and friendship relationships you have, naturally,” he says. “You see these people a lot and do things outside of work.

“As I moved up through the ranks, I had to consciously step away from those friendships along the way. It’s not that they are no longer my friends; it’s just I don’t have the same personal relationship with them now that I used to.”

While you may be achieving your professional goals, you may also feel disappointed about having to change aspects or your personal life.

“When I was first going through it, it was a major bummer,” he says. “It’s a change in your life. It takes time to work through that because if you are a social person to begin with and those relationships really matter, it’s a real hard thing to move on and be willing to let some of those things go.

“Where I have seen people fail is where they don’t let that go, and now they have these friends at various levels and that just presents conflicts. Imagine being personal friends with somebody two or three levels down in the organization and the leadership structure in between. You’ve essentially set that leadership structure up for failure in that dynamic, and it’s just not fair to those folks.”

You have to realize that, while it’s hard for you, it can be just as difficult for your friends at the lower levels of the organization as they see you move up through the company. You have to be honest with them about why things have to change.

“If they are really your friends, they don’t hold it against you. They understand,” he says. “Your real friends are giving you pats on the back and saying, ‘Good job, man. Way to go. Good luck.’”

While you want to distance yourself from those relationships, you have to remain the same person. If you stay the same person they became friends with, you will be able to have professional relationships with them.

“Even if they are not understanding why what happened (did happen), if they still know that fundamentally you are the same person, you are still honest, you are still doing the right things for the right reason, you’re just doing it at a different level, they will respect that,” DeFurio says. “So, you can’t become somebody else. You can’t become the Grand Poobah because they know you’re not. It would be absolutely disingenuous, and at that point, it’s a charade. As long as they can see that you are still genuine, you’ll be OK.”

Keep it casual

One of the other leadership lessons DeFurio has learned is to keep things casual whenever possible.

For example, he wants what is best for the patients of Butler Health System. So, when employees make wrong decisions, but they made the decision with the patient’s best interest in mind, he’s OK with that. After all, DeFurio has walked in their shoes and while he doesn’t pretend to know their jobs, he remembers the pressure they are under.

“I’ve never forgotten these jobs are hard,” he says. “The folks we serve are very sick. You could work Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and forget that there are people working their hearts out at 3 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday night. Having been there and done that, I’ve never forgotten that you always need to stay close to that.”

If there is logic behind a mistake or a wrong decision, you want to handle it more informally. DeFurio or a manager would casually explain the situation to the person, rather than have him or her come to an office and feel like he or she is being disciplined by the principal.

“It’s much more informal,” he says. “I’d probably say it’s more of a hallway conversation kind of thing. Pull them aside, arm around the shoulder and say, ‘Look, you could have pitched that ball a little bit differently and let’s talk about that.’ Try to make it very nonthreatening because ... there is a perceived hierarchy and power structure that any CEO needs to be very conscious of. It takes work to remove some of those psychological barriers that I believe are more art

ificial than real.”

DeFurio especially sees younger executives come in with a hierarchical and bureaucratic approach to leading.

“(It’s) not because they are intending to do anything negative,” he says. “It’s natural. You think that’s how you achieve results through folks. What I always suggest to folks is to take a deep breath. Everybody has a brain in their head, regardless of what their title is. Try to let folks talk and understand what is going on. Don’t draw conclusions until you’ve done your job in gathering all the appropriate information from whatever stakeholder group it may be.”

If DeFurio sees a manager going down the wrong path or making mistakes, he won’t immediately jump in. You want to give him or her the time to work out situations on his or her own.

“You step in when you start to see the overall goals of the organization or maybe the goals of the department are at risk,” he says. “That’s when you step in. If things can be done better, but you are working toward the goal, then it’s little tweaks of advice.

“If there is something really going south and you are worried about the morale in the department or the goals are not going to be met, that kind of thing, then you step in a little bit more strongly and try to get that course corrected. Everybody deserves the opportunity to succeed regardless of the level in the organization.”

Even for a more serious mistake that costs the organization money, DeFurio takes a more informal approach.

“The game here is not to make money,” he says. “Yes, you have to have a bottom line to thrive and to succeed and grow and be there for the future. But, we’re here to serve patients and to provide care and as long as decisions were made in the best interest of the patient and of the patient’s family. Even if it was costly, that’s OK, because it was done with the patient in mind.”

While it’s possible to be too informal, DeFurio still prefers to lean that way as a leader, as opposed to being more formal when discussing a mistake.

“Somebody said to me one time that presidents of companies need to act presidential,” he says. “I think it was a different way of saying, ‘Be more formal than informal.’ I think for some folks that probably from personality- and style-wise works well for them. I do think you always need to be aware of that public presence and the fact that people are watching you.

“For me personally, I have found that the informal approach works better than the formal approach more often than not. That includes even with my board. We have formal board meetings with agendas and things you have to do, but I just try to talk to them in the boardroom as if I were talking to them sitting in my family room about a particular issue. It’s being honest and direct and answering any questions folks have.”

If you lead with a more formal style, it may put a stranglehold on your employees’ ability to think as individuals. You have to come in with an open mind when it comes to mistakes because it isn’t someone’s intention to do wrong.

“Not everything is going to be a success 100 percent of the time,” he says. “As long as you are open and honest and forthright about what went well and what didn’t go so well, you don’t punish people. I do have this fundamental belief that everybody does come to work wanting to do a good job and sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want to.”

How to reach: Butler Health System, (724) 283-6666 or

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 19:00

Shaping the culture

Bob Beauchamp wishes he could remember the names of each of his 5,800 employees at BMC Software Inc.

The chairman, president and CEO can do a reasonable job at retaining some of that information, but he knows some leaders who really excel at it.

“I think it’s a powerful skill that some CEOs have to be able to call people by their first name every time you see them,” he says. “But because I can’t do that, I may recall the conversation I had with them. But just let people know you care about them.”

That’s the main reason for Beauchamp’s envy of other CEOs who can recall names. He wants all of his employees to know he cares about them and wants his managers to approach leadership the same way.

Obviously, everyone has a rank in an organization, but that shouldn’t affect how much you show interest in an employee.

“If people are going to want to follow you and want to succeed for you, they have to respect you as a person first,” says Beauchamp, who has led BMC to $1.87 billion in revenue for fiscal 2009.

After all, the way you act is going to shape how everyone around you acts.

“As the leader, you are responsible to set the right culture of what is important and what will be tolerated and what won’t be tolerated and what’s expected of people that work there,” he says.

Lead by example

Creating a winning culture starts with you. Beauchamp wants to give people the respect that he would want them to give him. It’s a simple concept, but it takes a lot more work to actually exemplify it on a day-to-day basis.

“Implied in that is that you are honest and you are going to deal with them straight,” he says. “You’re going to make sure your own self-interests are not anywhere close to the top of the priority list on how decisions are made, that they see your priorities are the right priorities and you are making decisions in the right order.”

If you simply say that you want everyone to respect each other and care for each other, some might think it’s only lip service.

“I think it’s the way you behave every day,” he says. “As a leader in a company, people watch and report and record what you say and do to each other.”

For example, Beauchamp was invited to two days of meetings with midlevel managers. Since he was there to be a participant and not the boss, it would have been a major mistake on his part if he walked in and immediately tried to take charge. If you’re in this situation, remember you are a participant and not the leader, and listen to what is said. It will go a long way with those in the meeting who can see you are open to new ideas just like everyone else.

“It’s just how you interact with them, how you respect their decisions and how they see that sometimes when they say, ‘This is what I see,’ [that] they see you actually change your opinion based on what you heard from them, that you are actually respecting their opinion and that you are really there to learn and to serve them,” he says.

You can be proactive in leading by example by introducing yourself to people who are lower in the organization and who you may have not met before.

In addition, make it a point to show others in the organization that everyone’s opinion counts no matter where the person is on the organizational chart.

“For instance, if you are in a meeting and you have a whole set of people in the meeting from executives and midlevel management ... if there’s somebody I don’t know or somebody in that room that is furthest from the top of the ‘org’ chart, I try to make sure that person gets special attention,” he says. “I want everybody in the room to see that I am giving that person special attention.

“It will mean a lot to that person. It will mean a lot to their family. They’ll go back and talk about it or to their co-workers, and you let them know that ‘You matter.’”

You can drive your point home better if you ask for the opinion in front of other senior leaders.

“It’s important to let the organization know that every level of the organization matters and, in fact, the most personal respect is owed to those people closest to the customer,” he says. “The people that are not at the top of the org chart but the people that are at the widest part of the org chart.”

You can’t just do this once or twice and then everything will fall into place. It is going to take time before your message and examples sink in across the organization.

“You do that all day long, every day, over the course of years, and the organization develops an understanding of what matters to you,” he says. “Whatever matters to you as the boss, it’s amazing how often the organization begins to mimic those same characteristics. If they see me do it over and over again, and they know it’s what I like.”

You can also show employees they matter by responding to their requests in a timely matter. If you get an e-mail or a phone call from someone, do your best to get back to them as soon as you can.

“Particularly if it’s an employee I don’t personally know, who is remote from my day-to-day work, then I think it’s just incredibly important that I be respectful and responsive to those people quickly,” he says.

Hire the right people

When Beauchamp first became CEO almost nine years ago, he called two of the top CEOs in the technology field. He asked them for advice, and one told him, “By now, you know what you are good at,” Beauchamp recalls. “Do more of that. You know what you’re not good at. Go find somebody else who is really good at it and hire them.”

It’s pretty clear that hiring the right people is crucial to any organization’s culture-building process. But, the challenge in hiring is trying to be as close to perfect as you can be. The wrong hire is going to happen, but the more times you get it right, the easier your life will be.

“You can’t run a great organization without great people,” he says. “A hiring mistake is really expensive.”

To complicate things, most potential employees are going to be on their best behavior and ready to impress you at a moment’s notice. You have to get candidates to relax during interviews so you can see more of what they will be like on a day-to-day basis after they’ve been hired.

“You wear them out,” he says. “You spend a day. Nobody can stay that tight all day long. Give them an opportunity to work off their jitters in some of the lesser important interviews so, by that time, the day has moved forward. I also know that sometimes when people are interviewing with me, because of my job title, they may be nervous.”

That’s something you have to take into account. If your company has an interviewing model where lower-level managers or employees will meet with the CEO, they may be on edge a little.

“If it’s a first-line person or a second-line person or a manager, a young person particularly, then, of course, you give them the benefit of the doubt and recognize they’re going to be a little wound up,” he says.

Don’t start the interview by asking them something negative, like, “What are the three things yo

u think people don’t like about you?’

“(You) just kind of try to make them at ease,” he says. “I try to relax and get them to talk about their family and talk about their background.”

Give and welcome feedback

When it comes to building a winning culture, you have to keep the lines of communication open so you can get a better feel for what is working and what isn’t.

Beauchamp wants to hear feedback from all parts of the company, and that includes those who are closest to the customers. Employees have his phone number and his e-mail address so they can contact him.

But opening up those lines of communication can lead to you receiving calls and e-mails for problems that should be handled by someone else. It can also create an atmosphere where managers and directors feel uncomfortable if their direct reports aren’t respecting the chain of command.

You have to be clear about the guidelines for employees contacting you with ideas or information.

“What I look for is if an employee has any feedback they want to give me about direction of the company; things that they wish I would do as a CEO or maybe they can give me some input that would be helpful around what customers are saying and what employees are saying,” he says. “Just let them know there is a feedback loop directly to me that’s wide open all the time. You do have to use some caution when you explain that to not say, ‘I’m also the person if you don’t think your raise was big enough, to call me.’”

In addition, he doesn’t want to hear about insignificant information like the soap being low in one bathroom. However, if it’s low in all the bathrooms, then that is something he wants to know.

Opening up the feedback lines will make it easier for you to hear problems like this.

“If we were letting our campus run down and the soap was needed to be refilled in all the bathrooms, then, yes, someone ought to tell me,” he says.

“One of the things a CEO has to do is watch little things to make sure that the organization knows that there is a standard of quality and everyone is accountable to it. If I see something like a typo or a poorly worded sentence that goes out in the e-mail to a large number of employees, I will get involved in that.”

What seems like a small mistake to someone can get bigger and bigger if that person doesn’t receive feedback.

“The reason I do that is not so much that I think I’m going to write a better e-mail,” he says. “It’s just that I want the organization to know that you better be very professional and precise in how we communicate. Little mistakes to a lot of people can have a cultural impact on the organization.

“So, when a CEO particularly in a group setting, finds small errors and points them out in front of the group, it sends a message that we need to pay attention to detail. The organization needs to not get sloppy.”

Whether you are the CEO of a company or a young intern, you need feedback to know how you are performing at your job.

“It’s a frequent mistake, and it’s one that I know we’ve made before where someone is essentially told that you’re doing a good job and then all of a sudden, one day, you are doing a bad job,” he says. “People don’t like that. People want to know, ‘How am I doing?’”

However, if you are going to point out mistakes, you have to be ready to get that medicine yourself. Tell your direct reports that you want to hear from them if you are doing something incorrectly. When you hear your weaknesses, you can’t argue with them or get defensive if you are asking for that feedback.

“The hardest part of our job is the things you don’t know about yourself,” he says. “It’s not the things you know you need to get better at. It’s the things that you don’t even know you need to get better at. It’s the blind spots that are the real risk.”

How to reach: BMC Software Inc., (800) 841-2031 or

Saturday, 26 December 2009 19:00

Pointing the way

Kathleen Shanahan is pretty clear with her answer when she is asked what has been her greatest leadership challenge.

The chair of the board and CEO of WRScompass says being chief of staff to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush from 2001 to 2003 definitely fits the bill.

“It’s crisis management every day,” says Shanahan who now leads the environmental, geotechnical and civil construction company.

Yet, the hectic days and moments of trying to minimize disasters aren’t all that Shanahan recalls.

It was the leadership of Bush that actually attracted her to the position in the first place.

“He was the best at delegating as well as following up,” she says.

Bush was also very good at welcoming different opinions and listening to ideas around him to make the best decision or find the best solution for a problem.

“We had an environment where there were very healthy conversations about policy and why and what we were going to try to do,” she says.

Shanahan has taken those lessons and used them to help guide WRScompass from $65 million in revenue in 2005 to more than $180 million in 2008.

Here’s how Shanahan utilizes her management team, delegates and creates a vision to lead WRScompass in the right direction.

Utilize your management team

Selecting the right senior team members is the most important decision a leader makes. Shanahan surrounded herself with a senior team that has been in the industry 20 years, while she has only been in it four years. While she has experience around her, she also wants a team of people who respects each other, shows professionalism and has integrity, which means staff members who speak their minds and who also have the skills to do their jobs.

“A key part of the reason that we’ve worked together is that I really respect what they do, and they do it very well and they respect what I’ve done for the company,” she says.

Shanahan recommends the book “Team of Rivals,” about Lincoln’s Cabinet for some good advice to form a team, but she also has some of her own.

“You do not need yes-people,” she says. “It is valuable to have people around you who respectfully disagree with you and explain why. It is important for the leader to listen and learn.”

You have to create a feedback loop to hear the information and learn from it.

“A feedback loop is very important, because it can’t be just you with your ideas pontificating,” she says. “You’ve got to create a way that they feel that they can disagree or that there is a free exchange and that a group makes a decision, which is best for the company as you go forward.”

Feedback loops are created by getting back to people and closing the loop on all communications — e-mails, letters or offers to help.

“It’s important to listen and respond — follow up on tasks and getting back to people with feedback and direction,” she says. “People feel relevant when they are listened to.”

The more relevant your management team feels, the better the atmosphere will be around you and the team when you have discussions.

“A key part of leadership is making sure that environment is there and viable and that people feel free to express their true opinions, i.e., to disagree,” she says.

That open environment won’t develop under a leader who is constantly shooting ideas down or criticizing when a dissenting opinion is brought to the table.

“You can’t judge them when they disagree with you,” she says.

You need to be open to new ideas and let everyone on the senior team know you want to hear what is on their mind.

“Being open and transparent with the senior team helps ensure everyone is pursuing a consistent strategy,” she says. “Including everyone in the same communication loop is also a more efficient form of communication, as it drives a clear path for all members toward our goal.

“Communications efficiency also drives greater productivity, which positively impacts the bottom line.”


Not everyone who works in your company wants to punch a clock and go home. There are employees working around you who want to help your company and take on more responsibility.

If you aren’t challenging them by delegating responsibility and empowering them to make decisions, you run the risk of boring them and losing them to someone who will.

“You give them the opportunity to be responsible for what their job is in the company, and you give them the support that they know that they’re not in it by themselves,” she says.

You want to express to the people whom you are delegating to that you trust them, much like you would with your management team.

However, while employees want more responsibility, they don’t want to be thrown on an island with no tools or resources to get back to the mainland. You have to monitor what you’ve delegated and find out if they need a hand.

“It’s about asking them in a prodding way or reminding them in a prodding way that you are interested and you’re there to be helpful,” she says.

Shanahan isn’t looking for information merely to judge it. In fact, all she wants is for the person to keep her in the loop. When she asks about something, she keeps it in a file and every other Sunday goes through it. If something isn’t answered, she is reminded to check back in with the involved parties. If the employee isn’t coming to you with information, you have to seek that person out to close that file in your head.

“Until somebody comes back and says either A, B or C — ‘We’re pursuing, it’s on hold, or it’s just not for us’ — it stays open,” she says. “I’m always like, ‘Just close the box in my head. I don’t care. I’m not going to go back and second-guess whatever your decision is about whether it’s a potential client or the right process on a project site.’”

When following up, don’t assume that the person isn’t doing his or her job, and that’s why he or she hasn’t gotten back to you.

“I always approach it like, ‘I’m sure it’s resolved, and I’m sure you just need to tell me so I can close the file in my head,’” she says. “Nine times out of 10 it is — they’ve taken care of it, they sent whatever they needed to or they decided they’re not going to pursue the job. I don’t micromanage their final recommendation because they are the professionals. I just want to know that it was closed.”

Don’t feel like you are micromanaging employees by checking in every once in a while. As long as you aren’t on their backs every hour, employees will understand you need to stay informed.

“Micromanaging would be every day sending people, basically, tasks that they need to get done,” she says.

To avoid that, just follow up on conversations or team meetings once a month or every other week and ask about the status of the project so you can stay informed.

When you delegate something, you can’t be so closed-minded to think there is only one way to a solution. There are many different ways to solve a problem, even if you don’t agree with all of them.

“It’s not about how you get there,” she says. “They can tell me there can be 10 different paths to get to the solution or to get to their recommendatio n. You don’t have to micromanage their process, you just need to ask a question and then get a response.”

That simple process of delegating to employees, and then following up, will go a long way in empowering them.

“It allows the individual to be responsible and to be empowered, but they can only be empowered and responsible if they are held accountable,” she says. “So, it’s sort of like the yin and the yang. Some people rise to the occasion and some people need to be prodded.”

Rely on your vision

If you don’t have a vision, you are going to have a hard time being successful.

“I think it helps make it clear what the goals of the company are to the employees, to the customers, to our competitors, to anybody that’s on our team,” Shanahan says. “I think that all of that is important.”

While you may have all sorts of ideas about what you think your company’s vision should be, you can’t be the only one creating that message.

“You have to have involvement from the employees so they feel like they’ve participated,” she says. “It’s really goal establishment. Vision is ‘Where do we see ourselves in the next three years?’ We’ve done that now twice with WRScompass, and I think it really comes from the organization.

“Then you establish strategic initiatives and then you work on getting those done as well as doing your regular job.”

Shanahan found it effective to put employees in workgroups to get input.

Three quarters of employees in the company were involved in a strategic plan outline and discussion group. Their time was used to focus on a specific task or item, but their feedback, suggestions and results made an impact on the WRScompass strategic plan.

“When using a lot of employees, it’s important to manage their time and be very directional — especially if you are taking them off other projects that bring in revenue and margin directly,” she says.

While putting employees in workgroups will foster a lot of feedback, you also have to do your part in creating an environment where employees will feel comfortable giving their two cents.

“It’s always a challenge because they are going to respect the CEO or the senior team, but you’ve got to be real,” she says.

“You’ve got to establish platforms of interchange. Whether it’s e-mail or you go to project visits and you go talk to them and sit down and have lunch. You can’t sit in your office. You have to be out and about.”

If you have employees in different locations, you should try to visit with them regularly. Shanahan tries to visit three to five project sites a month.

When out there, you have to talk to them about what matters to them, such as their families, what they do in their free time and why they matter to the company.

“You show up and go walk around with the engineer or the project manager or the superintendent or the supervisor and ride around in their truck with your work boots on,” she says. “You’re going to hear a lot. You’ve got to be out there with your employees where they work.”

That will come back around when you need input for processes like creating a vision, especially when you have to share bad news.

“You’ve got to be authentic,” she says. “A message is a message. It’s not like you’re spinning a press person to try to get them to write a better story. Your employees are your allies. They are the people that get it done. They don’t need to be spun.”

How to reach: WRScompass, (813) 684-4400 or

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Frank Mikan looks long-term at HDH Group Inc

Things were just fine at The HDH Group Inc. in 2000.

“We were on a roll of 25 conservative years of growth, and certainly you couldn’t quarrel with our results,” says Frank G. Mikan, who became president of the company in the same year.

Yet, Mikan knew the insurance broker could be better, and he was going to find out how by doing a deep analysis of cost.

While looking at the number of prospective clients HDH pursued and the number of those that became actual clients, he noticed a gap at the company, which has approximately $300 million per year of premium volume for property casualty and benefits.

“To me, it indicated that we were looking at perspective clients but not to a level that was allowing us to succeed at a percentage that I would like,” he says. “So, we were looking at opportunities that weren’t really opportunities as much as they were just exchanges of information that led to nowhere. That becomes an expensive item.”

He realized that while there were some big scores, a lot of time and money was spent chasing clients who weren’t the best fit for the company

“You tend to think, ‘Hey, look at this. We wrote a $50,000 revenue account.’ But if you chased four others unsuccessfully and it ran you $35,000 in that unsuccessful chase, you really won $15,000, not $50,000,” he says.

“If you’re looking at a lot of clients for which there’s no mutual future for you and the client, why would you even start down that road? Why would you not try to identify better opportunities with better fits and have a much higher degree of success?”

Mikan realizes it is a crazy thought to turn down possible revenue from possible clients, especially if you want to grow. But, you have to remember that the more you pursue new clients, the less time you have to devote to your current clients.

“I think you have to be realistic in what you do and how you do it,” he says. “Not only from the standpoint of prospective clients but from the standpoint of our existing clients.

“If we are chasing down things we’ll never catch, that means that we are diverting attention to a prospective client that will go nowhere and maybe a client who we’ve had for a while is not reaching the person they need to reach here.”

You have to be honest with yourself and the client and evaluate if the client really needs your help. While on the surface the increase in revenue seems great, it comes with a stigma.

“There is merit to bringing in every revenue dollar you can because it just increases the numbers on your balance sheet,” he says. “That’s one way to look at it. But the truth of the matter is, if you aren’t doing anything impactful for that client, then you are, to a degree, commoditizing yourself. Commodities are very, very replaceable.”

If you aren’t delivering a service that a client values, the likelihood of you retaining that client for a long time is slim.

“Once you start out there writing every dollar you can for the sake of writing it, those dollars churn,” he says. “You don’t develop a relationship, you’re not really solving a problem, you do not have a long-term client base. You are going to force yourself every year into having to bring in mountains of new dollars to replace the clients who see you as a commodity and very replaceable.”

Mikan wanted to make a change and lead a company that is more focused on the client and only pursue possibilities that could result in mutual relationships. That meant listening to the clients and finding out how HDH could help them — or if HDH could help them at all.

“At the end of the day, what’s it about for the client? They need to live to fight another day, do it profitably, and we need to know how that happens for them,” he says. “Because, if it doesn’t happen, insurance discussions can become secondary very quickly. So, that was key in what we did and why we did it.”

State your case

After discovering the gap between clients chased and clients caught, Mikan was essentially telling his sales executives to limit the amount of opportunities they had to make money. Salespeople don’t want to hear that, so you better have a compelling argument or data to back why your idea is worth giving a try.

“Anything you do like this, you’re going to have to have a result,” he says.

You also have to present the change in an understanding manner. Mikan stressed that he knew the company was doing great, but he thought it could do better. He showed everyone the data he researched and asked, not told, employees to give his idea a chance. If his idea backfired, he wouldn’t hesitate in admitting he was wrong and switch back to the old method of doing business.

“It wasn’t the sort of thing, ‘Here it is, like it or lump it,’” he says.

You want to communicate you aren’t fixing something that already works; you are just trying to improve in areas you know can be better.

“But we’ve never really said to anybody, ‘If you do this, you will be an overwhelming success.’ That’s ridiculous,” he says.

“But we did say, ‘We think that your chances of success will increase if we do this.’”

Yet, no matter how you present the change, not everyone will be happy.

“It’s like anything you do, you always get people to buy in to that very quickly and some who are slow to come to the game.”

You have to take resistance by a case-by-case basis, and go from there.

“You have to take a look at who’s resisting it and what their current track record is,” he says. “If you’ve got someone who is resisting it who has been an average performer or below expectations ... you take a look and say, ‘Based on your track record, you want to continue what you’re doing? Let’s take a look at what you’re doing, and let’s be candid about that.’”

The conversation with that employee can be short if he or she continues to resist and does not improve performance.

“Because you really say, ‘Well, the truth of the matter is based on what you are doing; you are doing OK,’” he says. “‘But, we’re really not in business to do OK. We’re really in business to do an excellent job. Not even a good job, we want to do an excellent job. And doing what you’re doing pretty much guarantees that you are going to be OK.’”

As far as your best performers, you need to be a little more lenient with them.

“Now if they are doing really well and resisting this, you say, ‘OK, I get what you’re doing. I have no objection to you challenging these ideas, but I think I can make you a little more effective,’” he says. “’So, let’s try this on a couple of opportunities going forward. If I’m wrong, maybe you and I need to re-evaluate our approach.’”

Listen to the client

Whether it’s on a date, at a party or at a business meeting, no one likes a person who doesn’t shut up.

Mikan has been in the business for more than 30 years and he’s seen too many meetings where it is a one-sided sales pitch about what a company can do for the cli


“If you go to a doctor with a health problem, you don’t want to listen to the first 45 minutes of his history of how he became interested in medicine and where he’s gone in 30 years,” he says. “You really want some assistance with the problem.”

If you are doing all of the talking, there is no time to find out if there is a mutual future because you are the only one sharing information. You aren’t going to create a client-based company if only one side of the story is getting out there.

“To some degree, everybody gets involved in this — you spend a lot of time talking to clients and prospective clients about yourself,” he says. “Obviously, they’re going to want to know who you are and what you can do. But the truth of the matter is, the whole relationship is structured on what the client’s about.”

By letting the clients do most of the talking, you can hear what they need and know if it links to what you do well as a company.

If the sales executive identifies that HDH can help fill a client’s need, then a second meeting is set up and the meetings become more technical.

If the salesperson knows HDH wouldn’t be of any help to a client, then the pursuit is put on hold. However, the sales executive lets those clients know that if they have another need come up in the future, to let HDH know.

“The idea of just entering into a competition for the hope of winning is just a bad idea,” he says. “It’s a bad idea for the client … because you are going to introduce some mythical competition that is really unnecessary and doesn’t really help your balance sheet.”

In addition, don’t go into a meeting automatically assuming that you are going to work on the opportunity.

“Instinctively, if you are an effective sales executive or have some role in growing your company, you probably have some pretty solid instincts,” he says. “After awhile, instinctively, you kind of know what an opportunity is and is not. Circumstances can impact your instincts. So, if things are not going well for you and you run into an opportunity that you know instinctively is not necessarily good for the current time, you may talk yourself into thinking it is, just for the chance of maybe having a success.

By going in with your mind made up that you will take this opportunity, you feed into your own problem.

“Trust your instincts, be honest with yourself and be candid with a prospective client,” he says. “I think, at the end of the day, prospective clients appreciate that. Maybe not universally, I understand. But I think, at the end of the day, they look at the discussion and relationship you have.

“Even though it may not have been something that we pursued in 2009, if you stay in touch, somewhere out there, whether it’s in one year or four, that client will remember the way you worked, the way you approached him or her and you will have success.”

It took a year, but the numbers supported Mikan’s theory, and the new approach has improved the company’s success ratio by about 25 percent.

“It’s something that we really try to emphasize, especially the last seven, eight, nine years,” he says. I think in one measure or another, (we were) client-focused probably since the day we opened the door. But, we really formalized it much better, much clearer than we ever had before a few years back … and it’s worked really well for us.”

How to reach: The HDH Group Inc., (412) 391-7300

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Transparent touch

Michael Kaplan learned years ago that being transparent is the best way to lead. About 15 years ago, he was having trouble generating a return on a property. Instead of keeping the problem to himself, Kaplan, the founder and CEO of The M. Kaplan Cos. LLC, asked for some help.

“I just tried it because I was almost desperate because I had exhausted everything, and I just wasn’t getting where I needed to be,” says the leader of the property management firm, which posted about $25 million in 2008 revenue.

Instead of blaming it on marketing conditions, Kaplan simply admitted he was struggling and found an accepting bunch.

“It was so well received I just did it again and again and again,” he says. “Then, what I noticed is the more I’m open and tell my clients what I am doing and what my difficulties are, if I felt it was my screwup and said that, the better the relationships got.”

Smart Business spoke with Kaplan about how to lead with an open management style.

Build a team of honest employees. First off, the leader has got to have and has got to 100 percent subscribe to that same philosophy because a smart leader is going to hire people that will follow through in the same style and fashion that the leader is trying to lead the company with.

So, assuming that’s the leader’s position — when he interviews people, he is going to obviously check references and ask those types of questions in that interview and do more listening in the interview with strategic questions and listen to their answers.

He will start to get some insight if they have that in their gut, if that’s kind of their way, or are they just trying to be a corporate player and spin everything and pass the buck.

You need to be careful in the interview process. But even then, you can be really impressed in an interview and hire someone and think they are just great, and they don’t get it. When you notice it, you bring them in your office and that means a time commitment. You bring them in your office, and you sit them down and you discuss it openly. Not, ‘You’re screwing up.’ But, ‘Hey, tell me how you are thinking about this and can’t we do it this way?’ After a few of those meetings, they either get it, or if they don’t, the leader says, ‘This is the wrong guy to captain my boat or gal to captain my boat. I’ve got to find a different captain.’

Keep people involved. I have folks that work for me. I have a president of my management organization. He has regional vice president supervisors that supervise the properties, and they, in turn, have managers that run each location. … It does trickle down from the top. So, I don’t usurp their authority. I always work through them, and if I see that they aren’t making things happen, then I’ll let them go and find the right person. Sometimes you go through two or three people for a position until you find that person that fits the personality and the mindset of the company. Then, all of sudden, you start clicking. Now you’ve got all engines running and you’re cruising really well.

I was out in the field on one of my properties, and I saw three of four things and came up with a couple of marketing ideas. I said to my manager, ‘Would you do me a favor? Would you send an e-mail to Matt and Michelle — Matt is the president of the management company and Michelle is the RVP for that property — along with a copy to me saying, “Hey, Mike was out here, and he thought about these ideas and wants to discuss it with you and have you guys approve it before we do anything.”’

So, I can go in the field without micromanaging and come up with ideas and say, ‘I’ve got a president and I’ve got a RVP, and they’ve got to be on board and they’ve got to tell you to do it, but these are my thoughts. Would you help me send the e-mail out?’

What that does is it makes the manager committed that she’s part of that process because she is the one writing the e-mail to everybody, … and it makes everybody get together and everybody get around that idea.

The more open you are and the more you’re not afraid to show your vulnerability, … the more people like you and trust you, and your employees get motivated by it because it’s such a very safe but accountable kind of tone.

Get out of the office. I still go out in the field and say hello because it’s a huge morale booster that the owner of the company is concerned about the projects and the employees. You talk to them. But also, you lead in the corporate office with that leadership and you make sure that those people that are representing you in the corporate office lead the same way.

When they have meetings from time to time, you sit in on them and just watch them and see how they handle their employees that work for you. You make sure that standard is upheld, and then that translates into the field. That means you’re not just spending all the time on the phone or chasing new business. You’re also running your business and observing what your people are doing, and make sure that they are leading it the way that is consistent with the message of what your company is.

How to reach: The M. Kaplan Cos. LLC, (713) 977-5699 or

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Set your sights

Peter Simoncelli wants everyone to understand his vision. But the general manager of The Westin Chicago River North doesn’t expect that he can simply speak and everyone will listen. He wants a two-way street at the hotel, which posted $38 million in 2008 revenue.

“You give them the chance to listen to what you have to say, and then you have to give them the chance to communicate back to you,” he says. “They may just need the time to vent. It’s no different than when you listen to a customer.”

Smart Business spoke with Simoncelli how to use a vision effectively.

Q. How do you create a vision?

I think what I do is not rocket science. I really think that it’s management by walking about. Creating a vision, the biggest thing might be listening to your customer. Your customer really tells you how to run your business. It’s whether or not you opt to listen to them.

You have the resources out there that you have. I guess it would be the tool kit to go out there and solicit feedback, or the gift of feedback, from your customer, then they provide it to you. Positive or negative feedback is great. Positive, you can work on and say, ‘Jeez, that’s a great idea. Maybe we should expand on that.’ Or negative in the way of operational efficiencies, ‘Maybe we need to retool our organization to better fit the customer need.’

If you have your own vision, it might be as simple as there is a crack in the sidewalk. That crack in the sidewalk, if it is a crack in one spot, what about next year? Is it going to crack coming off a cold winter? Is it going to crack in four more areas in the same thing? You better have a vision of what is going to be thrown to you. [It’s] no different than what a baseball player does: ... ‘Before the ball is hit to me, I better have somewhat of a game plan. I better go into this and say the potential exposure is here.’ We can fix that crack, but three more are going to happen, so maybe we need to have a game plan going forward.

Q. How do you know what customer information is useful?

There’s going to be feedback, and there’s certain feedback that you do get that is going to be dealt with or not dealt with. If there is a certain charge, like parking prices need to be reduced, or, ‘Boy, I wish I could stay at your hotel for half price,’ or, ‘You shouldn’t charge for this service.’ Well, there is going to be a financial platform that that’s not that gift of feedback or that vision of reducing prices.

Now, if all of my customers tell me this and continue to do that, then we will evaluate it. But, for the most part, you have to quantify it as to say, ‘Is this an individual’s perspective, or is this the majority of your customer base that is giving you this feedback?’

If you create a vision and it only impacts less than 1 percent of your client base, it is probably not a vision you want to spend a lot of time on. So, you just have to quantify, what are the certain things. It’d be nice to be able to spend money to change the color on a sign. But, realistically, is that a priority, or is that going to be something that, if you ever would get to the point that you could change the color on a sign and you had the disposable income to do that, then that’s great? But, in the meantime, you are going to have to create a vision around that or something else.

Q. How could a leader communicate a vision effectively?

The biggest thing that I say is that, No. 1, when you present your vision, do you get the buy-in from the associates? You have to. Ultimately, if people do not buy in to the vision … they may do it, but the vision, it won’t be on solid foundation; it will be cracking. If the vision is there, they buy in to the vision, you may always be able to input the vision, but does it stick and how long will it stick?

I always say that whether the focus or vision is a simple task, if you don’t have buy-in, you’ll go back six to eights months later and that vision will not be there any longer and we’ll be jumping on to something else. So, get the buy-in, ask and listen to what the people do. They may have good reasons that your vision may not, and I’ve many a time said, ‘You know what, you’re right. Wrong timing that’s a vision for the future.’

How to reach: The Westin Chicago River North, (312) 744-1900 or

Monday, 26 October 2009 20:00

Strong bonds

Terrance N. Ivers likes a little variety with his breakfast. No, not in what he’s eating but with who joins him. Ivers has a “breakfast with the president” program at AMEC Paragon where he serves as president of the engineering and project management company. While the selection of those joining him is technically random, it’s really not. If he’s having breakfast with 12 people, he wants 12 different departments represented.

“I don’t have one group being overrepresented,” he says. “It gives me an opportunity also to make sure, as we go around the table, for people that day to get to know each other a little better, because in some cases, they may not have worked on the same project or they’re certainly not in the same department.”

Ivers also gets a deeper understanding of what employees did before they joined the company, which posted $158 million in 2008 revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Ivers about how to communicate with your employees.

Appreciate your employees. It is a hard business, and I think we demand a great deal of our employees not only in terms of tapping into their intelligence and delivering their ideas but the time it takes to do that generally can be a longer week and sometimes expectations of delivering on short notice are there. It’s historically been one that we count on our folks to be flexible in that regard — long hours, flexibility, willing to travel a bit.

If you ask employees to do that, certainly you need to be seen (doing) that, as well.

Leaders, certainly those who desire to be followed, need to be hardworking and set the example.

Also, we are a people business. Many times, if presented by individuals who aren’t genuine, being a people business can come across as a bit of a cliché and disingenuous. I’ve been fortunate in my career to work in an environment where the management of the organization reflected an empathy for employees and an understanding that we are all working in a challenging industry and we are managing our family lives at the same time and that balance.

So, I work hard, as well, and understanding our employees as best as I possibly can and being empathetic toward their needs and doing whatever I can to support them.

Keep employees in the loop. (We keep) the team, that’s our entire employee base, informed as to the status of current projects we have in-house. Many employees are already a part of an execution team that is delivering to a client. On those projects, there are team meetings and there are expectations of completion of deliverables by a certain schedule and, ultimately, the delivery of the entire project by a schedule.

So, many of our employees are sensitized to delivery dates all the while. I think we also do a really good job here of alerting employees to what’s coming and what are the special challenges of that particular assignment.

For example, we have a number of projects in Angola. These West African projects with delivery in Angola could require and will require some travel. We alert employees of the unique travel demands or the unique schedule demands or the unique client expectations as early as we possible can. I think that sensitizes the organization as to how things are changing in the business for us and what we need to do to adapt.

Communicate often. I’ve come into the organization … and there was a certain way of working at this company and an atmosphere that both of which were fantastic. But, of course, we are undergoing change in our organization — standardization of execution methods and the introduction of more procedures, re-establishing and clarifying roles and responsibilities for employees.

So, there are a number changes that are occurring and we use every opportunity through town halls, monthly meetings, new hire orientation, new hire lunches, breakfast meetings with the president that we have put in place.

There are many, many communication venues of which you can speak directly to employees and let them hear from you and ask you questions. Unprepared — just go ahead, speak from the heart and speak from what you know of the business. As often as you can, do that. Then you are, in fact, touching everyone.

The advice I’d give to (you) is speak to everyone in the organization. I know that’s difficult and speaking to every person in the organization, you’re going to end up with a bunch of questions that you don’t necessarily have an answer for. But, that’s OK, too. That’s causing you to reflect on how prepared you were for that conversation, and perhaps, it enables you to get a little bit closer to changes in the business.

Keep the door open. You may be stepping in as a new leader into an organization where open dialogue was not encouraged. Many times, it’s about patience. It’s about saying that you have an open communication, that you have an open-door policy and that you want to know from your employees what is on their mind.

Then it’s about doing that consistently and honoring the confidence that is shared with you — following up, doing what you say you’re supposed to do — just being patient with it. Because you can say things, but then you can either talk the talk or you can walk the talk. If you’re just consistent with your monthly messages or your participation and communication sessions with employees, your monthly breakfast, before you know it, you’ve accomplished 12 months. You can look back and say, ‘Well, this is what I said I was going to do, and this is what I’m doing.’ So, it’s patience and persistence.

How to reach: AMEC Paragon, (713) 570-1000 or