We’ve all had days where we would rather not open the newspaper, turn on the TV or pick up the phone for the fear of learning about more bad news.
Unfortunately, there have been a lot more of those days for all of us lately.
The stock market is going through extreme ups and downs, capital has dried up, and key customers are cutting back. You start to wonder where the sales are going to come from to enable you to make this quarter’s budget. If things don’t turn around soon, you’ll have to consider drastic cutbacks yourself.
In times like these, what’s a CEO to do? The answer: Get back to basics. Focus on the things you do best and do them as efficiently as you can. Use your strengths to exploit your competitors’ weaknesses and outhustle them.
It’s often the simple things that made you a success in the first place, and it will be the simple things that keep you afloat during the economic storm.
With that in mind, we’ve assembled the best pieces of advice garnered from Tampa Bay’s top leaders from throughout the year. We think you’ll find some great ideas to help you improve your business within these pages, and we encourage you to keep this issue as an ongoing reference to help you find your way through the trying times that lie ahead.
Make the cuts
Jeff W. Bak
president and CEO, HealthPlan Holdings Inc.
It’s not something most leaders want to deal with, but making cuts sometimes comes with the territory. April cover story subject Jeff W. Bak, president and CEO of HealthPlan Holdings Inc., had that unpleasant task when he formed his company from three underperforming companies in 2001.
Bak called the first year and a half of running HealthPlan Holdings miserable.
“We did a lot of cutting, and we shrunk the business down to a manageable level, knowing that we were going to have some further revenue decay and also knowing that we had to make money,” he says.
“It was probably the biggest challenge to have to get up every day and know you had to find different ways to save money and cut back on head counts. A lot of people who we liked and respected as individuals, we couldn’t afford to keep. You make those tough decisions.”
Bak says to get through those tough times, he tried to focus on the positives that would come out of the moves.
“I kind of turned it 180 and said, ‘I’m not really focused on the 200 jobs I’m cutting. What I’m focused on is the 350 jobs I’m keeping.’” Bak says. “I just had that mindset. That is what enabled me to get through it that first year and focus on the 350 that were going to be remaining and making sure that was going to work, or otherwise, it’d be 550 jobs that are lost.”
There was no easy way to make the cuts, so Bak made sure people knew where they stood as soon as possible.
“People generally want to know where they stand and what’s in it for them. You know the old radio station WIIFM — what’s in it for me? The sooner you can tell them where you are headed and why you are headed there, even if it’s bad news and even if it affects them, the better.”
Bak had to cut some A players because they didn’t have roles that fit in to the plan of keeping people who had customer-facing positions.
“You get back to basics, and you focus on executing, and you do more with less,” he says. “So, the things that fall off the table are anything that is not absolutely, positively needed.”
Gary L. Sasso
president and CEO, Carlton Fields P.A.
The August cover story featured Gary L. Sasso, president and CEO of Carlton Fields P.A. He says you have to roll with the changes in order to keep your company growing. That includes convincing your employees to buy in to any change you are trying to communicate.
“There is a temptation to do something a certain way because we’ve always done it that way,” he says. “And there is a natural reticence by people to make changes because people feel comfortable about what they’ve done before.”
Sasso and his team make a case for the change, which involves talking to people inside the firm who are involved in the specific change.
“It could be a problem, it could be a concern, it could be a perceived opportunity,” he says. “We may debate it and talk about different approaches or solutions, and then typically I will process all of that and come back to that group with either a summary of what we talked about or perhaps a conclusion of my own that comes out of that discussion.
“I’ve found when people understand all the facts, they generally will embrace the need for change and the strategy for change.”
If you don’t involve others in the change process, but instead make the decision all on your own, you might get resistance from your employees. “That can be very, very dangerous to make decisions that way because ultimately we really need the people in the firm to be behind what we decide or it’s not going to be reality,” he says. “Any organization depends on planning and execution. You can have great planning, but if you don’t have the execution, you are going to fall flat on our face. The people who execute are all the employees in the organization. If they don’t buy in with what you’re doing, it’s not going to happen.”
How to improve your corporate culture
Todd J. Kenner
former president and chief operating officer, PBS&J Corp.
A positive corporate culture is a key driver to any successful business.
Here is some advice from Todd J. Kenner, former president and chief operating officer of PBS&J Corp., on how to get the ball rolling on changing or improving your culture.
Kenner says that in the late ’90s the first conversations about culture at PBS&J were as much about faith as business.
“It took a leap of faith,” he says. “It’s difficult to draw some direct correlation between investing in people and bottom-line performance. You just have to believe that if you create an environment where people are inspired, and they feel recognized and like the company is investing in them to not only improve themselves but their work in the firm, that the end result will be the firm will do better. And for some of us, it’s not a major leap, but for others, it is.”
So in 1997, when PBS&J’s chairman decided to collapse the firm’s nine operating companies into one corporation, there was a focus on pushing a better culture for the first time. The firm was realizing more and more that there was a bigger fight for talent brewing — the number of science and engineering positions has risen at four times the national rate since 1980, according to the National Science Foundation — and they needed to make a push for retention in other areas beyond compensation. The main thing that helped leaders in the company make that leap of faith was to emphasize the forthcoming business imperative of the change.
“In our business, we’ve clearly recognized that people are our greatest asset,” Kenner says. “Our people provide our services and without them we have nothing to offer our clients.”
One of the strongest selling points in those top-end conversations about a people-focused culture is to talk about how building relationships with employees will help build bridges in the company that will send messages both ways.
“It’s continuity and sustainability,” Kenner says. “Whenever you can build long-lasting relationships, and that builds trust and confidence, obviously that leads to greater performance, and we have seen a dramatic decrease in our turnover throughout this period.”
PBS&J, which has had turnover numbers as high as 18 percent, has seen those figures drop to near 10 percent during its focus on culture.
Communicate the good and the bad
president, The A.D. Morgan Corp.
October Smart Leader Rebecca Smith always wanted to work in an environment where she knew where she stood. As founder and president of The A.D. Morgan Corp., a construction company, she creates that environment by communicating the good and bad news.
“Whether it’s your relationship, whether it’s your business relationship, whether it’s your relationship with outside business interface, it’s all good,” she says. “Nobody can ever do better if they don’t understand what they’ve done is either right or wrong, good or bad. ...
“How many of us in our lifetime said, ‘Well, they sure never tapped me on the back when I knocked one out of the ballpark. Boy, I sure don’t hear anything when I brought the job in early.’
“Well, that’s not so. We talk about errors, mistakes, oversights and ... I’ll say, ‘Let me just stop and say thank you because if you guys don’t know this, so-and-so just brought their job in. I will tell you, it is one for us to all sit up and be proud for.’
“...I’ve always thought that people will never work harder when you give them more money, but they’ll work really effectively and be committed to the mission if they get feedback that they are on the right track and doing well.”
Do the right thing
Sharon M. Daniels
president and CEO, AchieveGlobal Inc.
Sharon M. Daniels, president and CEO of AchieveGlobal Inc., understands employees may come into the workplace with a certain level of cynicism. That’s why she puts such an emphasis on leading with integrity at the company, an international provider of skills training and consulting services in customer service, sales performance and leadership. You have to be upfront and honest with people and also follow through on what you say you’re going to do.
That’s why integrity is at the top of Daniels’ list of characteristics a leader should possess. Not only do you need to possess it, but you also have to remember your integrity will be challenged. You may even question your own integrity at some points.
Daniels ran into a situation that made her evaluate her integrity when she first started managing the revenue side of a business as a general manager in 1996.
“We had a salesperson who was a tremendous producer — had done a very good job for the organization — but was the most abusive person to support staff in the organization,” she says.
When faced with a decision like this one, it’s important to look at the situation and pretend that revenue isn’t an issue, which Daniels did. However, she also factored revenue into the equation, writing out the pros and cons for each situation, and then reading them over and over again.
Finally, Daniels talked to people outside of the company whom she trusted.
“Ironically, and I had no way of knowing it at the time, it ended up being the best year we ever had, and we made it fine without her,” she says.
“... As a leader, you make decisions. By not making a decision, you are making a decision. If I had not made a decision, it was basically saying that if you are a top performer in the revenue side of our business, it’s OK to be abusive to other people in other parts of the organization. That can’t be the case.”