Matt Smith doesn’t care if his employees hang out together after work or play golf with each other on the weekends. But the president and chief operating officer at Shoes For Crews LLC does strive for a certain level of teamwork and camaraderie among his people when they are together on the job.
“You can’t force your employees to love each other,” he says. “But as long as they can work together and get the job done, that’s what you’re looking for.”
So as the company hit $100 million in sales, Smith felt like he had an organization of talented employees who were good at what they did for the company, but he began to see some ominous signs of cracks in the teamwork mindset.
“We started off as an entrepreneurial company that my father founded in 1984,” Smith says of the company, which provides slip-resistant footwear. “As you start to grow, you definitely have growing pains as you move to the next level.”
Smith felt as though the various departments in the company were becoming more and more isolated from each other.
“It seemed like each of the departments was operating in somewhat of a vacuum,” Smith says. “We were still doing well, but it seemed like a lot of the department heads were not aware of what the others were doing.”
These types of issues can easily get glossed over by solid growth figures, which may overshadow potential weaknesses in your organization.
“When you’re scrambling to grow your business, you can cover up a lot of these issues,” Smith says.
Despite steady growth, Smith felt like Shoes For Crews was poised for even greater success that was being stunted by this lack of collaborative spirit.
“You can’t calculate the financial impact, but we would have been more successful if everybody was working together as a team,” Smith says.
So he set out to bridge the gaps and develop a culture in which each of the department leaders clearly understood their own roles as well as the roles of their peers. By giving everyone a better sense of how his or her piece fit into the puzzle, Smith felt the company would be able to provide even better service to its customers and grow sales at an even faster rate.
Here’s how he did it.Sell your plan
In the old days, Smith or his father would either run the department themselves or meet with the person who ran the department and communicate exactly what they wanted to see happen. But as the company outgrew that structure, there was very little communication between department leaders. Smith needed to empower his leaders to work together and deal with company issues collaboratively.
“Part of the growing pain in a business comes when you have to give up some level of control,” Smith says. “As you hire a good team, you have to give up some of your personal control and have faith that they will do it properly.”
In order for that to work, those department heads needed to talk to each other. If the marketing department was planning a product sale, the customer service department needed to know the details and be able to intelligently field questions from the customers.
Smith began sitting down with each of his department leaders on an individual basis to discuss instituting a monthly meeting of department heads.
The goal of the sessions was to put the plan on the table and get feedback from his leaders.
“I discussed the issues I saw and they talked about what they saw,” Smith says. “My approach has always been to not order people to do things. I have a discussion. I have a target to convince them that this is the right thing to do.”
Smith wanted his department leaders to work more closely together, and he knew that doing so would benefit the company. So he wasn’t taking a straw poll to determine whether this effort would go forward. It was going to happen.
But Smith also knew that if it was going to work, these leaders had to buy in to his idea and had to feel like the plan would enable them do their jobs better. He had to show them how the regular dialogue among the department heads would help the company in the long run.
“I want them to feel good about it, and I want them to see my point of view,” Smith says. “With each person, I took their point of view and showed them how they would benefit from this. I had a different conversation with everybody, but when you talk about teamwork and better communication, it’s very hard to argue against that.”
The individual meetings were fairly unstructured in that Smith did not draw up a chart and schedule each meeting in advance. He also did not tell the leaders he was meeting with about his conversations with their peers to ensure that each person he met with was coming into the meeting with the same knowledge and perspective.
“I’m big on the free flow of ideas,” Smith says.
Meetings might be held in the morning or they could be scheduled for later in the day. One might take place in his office, and another at the office of the particular leader he was speaking with.
“I like to show them how it’s going to help them broaden their programs or in some ways, lighten their load,” Smith says. “Everyone realizes, whether it’s sales or marketing, nothing can be successful on its own. Getting the buy-in from other departments clearly makes their jobs easier.”Give your team a chance
With the idea firmly planted in his employees’ heads, Smith needed to make the inaugural monthly department head meeting at Shoes For Crews count.
“The first meeting, I did a lot of the talking,” Smith says. “I just went over a lot about how this would help all the departments and that even though we have a great product, we did lack teamwork.”
Having sufficiently reinforced the reasons for holding the meetings, Smith set out to accomplish his goal of getting his leaders to talk to each other more and work together more collaboratively to keep the company moving forward.
His first action was to step back from the actual running of the meeting.
“You don’t want to micromanage,” Smith says. “You have to have faith that your people are going to arrive at the correct decisions. You can’t stand over their shoulder.”
Smith likened the development of the new department head leadership team to the way he pulled back from the company’s sales and marketing department in the company’s early years.
“I was solely responsible for sales and marketing for a long time,” Smith says. “You spend so much time working on those projects intimately; it’s hard when you suddenly have to give up the responsibility.”
But as time went on, Smith saw how the burden of carrying the whole department on his shoulders had become overwhelming.
“You get to the point where you can’t believe how you ever ran that department,” Smith says. “You realize you’re hurting the company by still maintaining the tight grip.”
Just as Smith needed to let go and allow his sales and marketing team to do its job, he also needed to step back in the department head meetings and let his leaders do what he wanted them to do: start talking to each other.
“We started off having each department mention what their responsibilities are in the company,” Smith says. “Not every department is as obvious. They would mention what initiative they are working on this month, and it sort of broadened out from there. Whatever the topic, we asked eac h department head to participate. We didn’t want these meetings to drag on forever, so when we could tell a certain manager wasn’t participating, we would say to the manager, ‘The meeting would be much more valuable if you would participate.’”
By continually tossing the ball back to your leaders and asking them to carry the meeting, you reinforce their value to the team and to the company. You also encourage dialogue that will build a sense of team among your leaders.
“It aligns everybody,” Smith says. “It says you have a company objective and nobody can be going off on their own. All departments are interrelated and nothing can be successful without everybody contributing.”
Don’t be afraid to be aggressive in encouraging your leaders to express their opinion and take a position on a key decision.
“It’s going to help them succeed,” Smith says. “If they don’t come up with initiatives, it’s a lot more difficult for them. It ends up being a whole lot more successful when it comes from them and it’s an idea that they thought of themselves.”Keep your distance
When leaders begin interacting on a regular basis, you need to be careful to maintain a healthy working relationship that does not become clouded by your personal relationship. You’re trying to build strong work bonds that will enable your company to grow, but you don’t want to become so close that your judgment becomes compromised due to personal agendas.
“You can’t become best buddies with department heads,” Smith says. “Familiarity breeds contempt. Even though we respect and love working with these people, you have to level the playing field so it’s fair. A lot of people don’t agree with that.”
Smith says it’s important to maintain a bit of distance between you and your direct reports or your employees, so that no one feels they are being slighted.
“When leaders are extremely friendly with top employees, people feel like they are on the outside,” Smith says. “Objectivity is totally shot, and you could find yourself in a position of having to let a manager go. I’m not saying you should be a tyrant and everyone shouldn’t be friendly, but at some point, you have to realize it’s a business and not a country club. It eliminates a lot of problems.”
How to reach: Shoes For Crews LLC, (800) 856-8702 or www.shoesforcrews.com