Straight talk Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

When Sharon M. Daniels first started as asenior executive, she thought that all of heremployees would just walk in her officeand tell her what was going on, just as theyhad before she became the leader.

However, that wasn’t the case.

So, when she became president and CEOat AchieveGlobal Inc. in 2004, she set out toshow everyone she had integrity, and sheused her communication skills to guide hermore than 1,000 employees.

Daniels spent a lot of time getting feedback from customers, suppliers andemployees about the state of the company,an international provider of skills trainingand consulting services in customer service, sales performance and leadership.

“I spent a good, solid month just doingnothing but listening to people and talkingabout how we were,” she says. “I think thatwas the springboard, if you will, for how Istarted being a leader here and getting really engaged with all the elements of it. Ithink that helped me from a credibilitystandpoint because then, when I startedcommunicating or sending bigger messages, it was clear. I didn’t say, ‘I talked to50 customers or whatever,’ but I could say,‘I’m learning from customers that thesethings are happening,’ or, ‘Here are somethings that are really important to ourorganization.’”

Those communication skills have servedDaniels well in establishing an environment where employees and managers canspeak freely with her about ideas. Throughher actions, revenue increased 13 percentsince she became president and CEO, andthe company posted approximately $150million in 2007 revenue.

Here’s how Daniels uses integrity andcommunication as her foundation of leadership to take AchieveGlobal to new heights.

Do the right thing

Because of scandals like Enron, whereleaders were making self-serving choices,Daniels understands employees may comeinto the workplace with a certain level ofcynicism. That’s why she puts such anemphasis on leading with integrity. Youhave to be upfront and honest with peopleand follow through on what you say you’regoing to do.

That’s why integrity is at the top ofDaniels’ list of characteristics a leadershould possess. Not only do you need topossess it, but you also have to remember your integrity will be challenged. Youmay even question your own integrity atsome point.

Daniels ran into that exact situation whenshe first started managing the revenue sideof a business as a general manager in 1996.

“We had a salesperson who was a tremendous producer — had done a very good jobfor the organization — but was the mostabusive person to support staff in theorganization,” she says. “And it was socounter to everything that our organizationbelieved in. I struggled with my own personal integrity about how to do thatbecause I knew that we ran the risk, if I lether go, that we wouldn’t make our numbers that year. If I kept her, I was sending avery strong message about what was reallyimportant in our organization. So, I didquestion my own integrity. For the firsttime, I realized that I needed to think aboutmaking the decision not just for the longhaul but the short haul in terms of revenueand everything else.”

Putting the bottom line aside, Danielsused the same thought process then thatshe uses now.

She made commitments to the owners ofthe company that she would help theorganization make a certain revenue number, and firing the problem employee mighthave a negative effect on the bottom line.On the flip side, she knew that letting theemployee go sooner rather than laterwould benefit the business in the long haulbecause of the positive cultural impact theaction would have.

When faced with a decision like this one,it’s important to look at the situation andpretend that revenue isn’t an issue, whichDaniels did. She also factored revenue intothe equation, writing out the pros and consfor each situation, and then read them overagain like you would a tough e-mail youhave to send.

Finally, Daniels talked to people outsidethe company whom she trusted.

She took about three months thinking itthrough and collecting information beforeshe decided to fire the employee.

“Ironically, and I had no way of knowing it at the time, it ended up being thebest year we ever had, and we made itfine without her,” she says. “But, I wouldhave never known that going into it. Itwas a nice reinforcement because I hadto make other choices like that that didn’t always pay off that quickly as that onedid.”

It also helped Daniels come to a realization about leadership.

“As a leader, you make decisions,” shesays. “By not making a decision, you aremaking a decision. If I had not made a decision, it was basically saying that if you area top performer in the revenue side of ourbusiness, it’s OK to be abusive to other people in other parts of the organization. Thatcan’t be the case.”

Communicate clearly

It doesn’t do an organization any good ifa leader has a bunch of great ideas, but heor she is terrible at communicating thosethoughts to employees. Daniels avoidsthat problem by making sure her messagemakes it to the employees in a precise andorganized form.

She starts by thinking about what hergoals are for the communication, towhom she is communicating and whatkind of response she would like to seefrom individuals.

“I think it is important to be veryorganized and to think about the wordsthat you choose and how you’re going toshare them with others,” she says.“Then, of course, there are the otherday-to-day communications and theopportunities that you have to reinforcewhat the company is working on —what’s important, recognizing people forperformance above and beyond. I thinkyou have to prepare yourself to do that.You have to think about the time that ittakes, and it has to be much morethoughtful the more levels of communication you have to have happen fromyour perspective.”

Each year, the company’s senior teamgoes on a retreat where they spend a lot

of time thinking about the strategicdirection of the company and lining upwhere they need to go.

“When we come back from that, there isa very large communication that I putout,” she says. “It’s almost always in writing, usually followed up by a shortervoice-mail message. I spend a lot of timethinking about what are the key pointsthat need to be made. Who’s going to listen to this? What will they know or notknow (and) trying to determine the levelthat I need to write it at.”

To make sure you get the point across,you have to make sure managers andemployees understand the message. Thatliterally means making sure employeesunderstand the words being used. InDaniels’ case, her company deals with alot of technological changes. Therefore, ifshe is communicating a message abouttechnology, she has to think about thepeople who may not be as technologicallyliterate as others.

“That might include putting a glossaryof terms so people can feel comfortablereading it or hearing me talk about it,”she says.

Daniels also sends out companywidecommunications after her monthly seniorteam meeting. Before sending it out companywide, she sends it to the managersbelow the senior level to get their feedbackon it. You have to get feedback from managers and make sure they understand themessage because those managers will getquestions from their subordinates andhave to be able to give an informed explanation.

“I think the leaders in your organizationare critical linchpins to helping communicate to the organization,” she says. “It’s on ething to get a message from me, but all thehundreds and thousands of employeesaround the world are not going to pick upthe phone and ask me.”

Daniels says some employees will contact her directly, but most go to their directmanagers for answers.

“So, if I have a whole bunch of managersthat don’t understand what the message is,it’s a problem,” she says.

She spends about 45 minutes constructing the message and sends it to the approximately 60 managers first, asking them tochallenge her on it. She wants to knowwhat doesn’t make sense to them or whatcould be left out. Daniels gives managersabut 36 hours to respond but will give themmore time for longer messages. Normally,she hears from about 10 managers byphone or e-mail giving her feedback, whichis correct about 90 percent of the time.

“They are usually chiming in on a partthat they know better than even I wouldabout what it is or the way that it might beperceived,” she says. “There are timeswhen I go back and say, ‘Did you knowthis?’ or, ‘Let me clarify why I said it thatway.’ Sometimes, I pick up the phone, andsometimes (because of) time differencesor whatever, I’ll just do it by e-mail, andthen we’ll communicate back and forththat way.”

Once the message is set with all the managers, Daniels waits for employees to givetheir feedback. Previously, Daniels wouldgive the message to only the managers andleave it to them to tell the employees, butthat wasn’t working out.

“I feel like coming from me, because of allthe changes we have going on, it’s one consistent message to the whole organization,”she says.

If she hears back from an employee, shewill always copy the manager of the personon the response.

“Most of the time, they’ll go to their managers and have the conversations,” shesays “The reason I know that is, [the manager] will write me back and ask some clarifying questions or let me know that soand-so received the message well or hasconcerns about some action we’re taking.”

While it’s important to focus on what youare saying, it’s just as important to showthat you are hearing the feedback.

“You have to be able to share a messageand speak,” she says. “But, equally important, if not more so, is that you have to beable to listen because, particularly in this dayand age, no one person can own all the organizational intelligence or all the things thatare happening in the marketplace. So, theability to really listen to others is important.”

Overall, communicating effectively andleading with integrity helped create a trustingenvironment with an engaged work force.

“We have a very engaged work force —people that are willing to work very hardbecause they feel like they are appreciated,(and) that they have a chance to developand make a difference in the organization,”she says. “In this day and age, I thinkemployee engagement is a very importantpart of success.”

HOW TO REACH: AchieveGlobal Inc., (800) 566-0630