Keith Olsen Featured

8:00pm EDT September 27, 2007

When describing how he communicates his vision, Keith Olsen uses the metaphor of talk, walk and then talk again. Olsen, president and CEO of Switch & Data Facilities Co. Inc., says the constant communication of his vision leads employees to gain mindshare, which captures and incites passion in them. Olsen also gains mindshare through encouragement and recognition of employees, leading them to be part of the movie instead of just watching it, he says. There has to be a personal quotient, not just a corporate or business quotient, says Olsen, who led the company — which delivers Internet exchange, co-location and interconnection solutions for businesses — to more than $110 million in 2006 revenue. Smart Business spoke with Olsen about how to get through to employees, how to encourage them and why celebrating success is important.

Hire employees who ask questions. They are interviewing me as much as I am interviewing them. If I know they are interviewing me, then I know I have the right talent in front of me.

I meet someone and, if the chemistry is right and the fit is right, I schedule another appointment a couple of weeks out, but it has to get better. If it doesn’t get better, I stop the process. If it’s flat or even, then I have a third time.

I’m interested in the depth of the questions and the thought process around the questions.

Let’s role-play. I’m the CEO, and they are coming to me and asking me basic questions that are on our Web site or they should have picked up from someone else in the organization. I’d sit there and say, ‘Not the best use of either one of our time.’

If they are asking great questions that are penetrating and have great depth, then that tells me the thought process that is going on.

Celebrate success. If a customer writes myself or someone in the company an e-mail or letter about the wonderful service they received from an individual, not only do we review that at the town-hall meetings, but also they get a letter in the mail to their home. If they have a significant other, it is addressed to both of them, and we have a ‘Be my guest’ pass where they go out and enjoy whatever they want to with that American Express ‘Be my guest’ pass.

We have season tickets to a couple of different pro venues around here, and we reward people with those as well as gift certificates. If our results for a particular period are good, we say, ‘Next Tuesday, please don’t bring your lunch and, if you can, make plans to be here.’

It’s not only headquarters. We run 33 data centers around the U.S., and I organize where lunch is brought into all of those. Our salespeople go to the sites, as well. I also hire an ice cream vendor to come in where you make your own sundae with them. Everyone is making their own sundae and chatting.

The senior folks don’t get jazzed up about an ice cream cone, although once it’s occurring, they have a lot of fun with it. If I said, ‘Ernie, we are going to have ice cream next Tuesday,’ it’s, ‘Yeah, OK, Keith.’ Once Ernie is there dipping his cone and talking with two or three other people he doesn’t interface with all the time, it’s different, versus the people in my customer care department that are just off the phone and hanging out and saying, ‘Boy, this is a lot of fun, thanks.’ I just created a mindshare moment. The next time they pick up the phone, those endorphins are improved.

Be direct but not cruel. Being frank and deliberate doesn’t mean you have to deliver it with a ball-peen hammer. You can deliver it with velvet. That is what makes it palatable, which is all tied to mindshare.

The more intimate and connected you are with the people, the more you know which ones need to get it delivered which way. That’s why we use a multiplicity of mediums — CEO meetings, town halls, breakfasts, etc., or one-on-ones and walking around.

Meet with employees in small groups. I take five to six people once a month, multiple levels down, across multiple organizations, and we have a pretty intimate breakfast. The first one you hold in any organization, there is a lot of anxiety. Why am I here, what do they want to talk about, and what will I have to do?

We start talking about everything from where did they go to high school or college to some of their favorite pastimes.

All of a sudden, you have built some common ground and the comfort level gets there through what I would consider certainly not trivial, but certainly not just business connections. Then, the questions start, and they are excellent.

Encourage people to take chances. It’s OK if we trip, but if we trip on the same thing all the time, then there are some interventions that have to occur. It’s really about the incremental learning, when you are thinking about changing something significant in the business.

We aren’t going to get it right the first time. But, we are going to have a plan that allows us to collaborate.

If you raise the confidence and competence of your people, that creates velocity. When you create velocity, you are actually increasing mindshare, and this is how it feeds itself. You start with groups of ones and twos. I do a monthly letter, and I pick on a department about their contributions.

There are some people who will sit outside the fence and be a peanut gallery. My leadership team has to evaluate whether that is inhibiting the business or not. We try different tactics to get them in the game. We want everyone in the movie.

HOW TO REACH: Switch & Data Facilities Co. Inc., (813) 207-7700 or www.switchanddata.com