When Steven Santo started Avantair Inc. six years ago, he based the company’s culture on a foundation of employee empowerment.
The company, which was positioned to bridge the gap between flying privately and flying commercially, started off slow. But thanks to an economy that sent private fliers searching for better value, Avantair has taken off.
“Whenever there is a tough economic environment, the value players are always the ones that do well,” says Santo, founder, president and CEO of the company. “We are the value player in our market segment. Despite the fact that we have a high-end product, the people who fly privately are forced to look for value, which they didn’t really have to look for awhile ago.”
The company is booming right now with total revenue of $136.8 million for fiscal 2009 an increase from $115.6 million for fiscal 2008.
While the company is growing, Santo doesn’t want to get away from what put the organization in the position to succeed maintaining an open and fun environment where employees are involved and motivated.
“I have employees tell me all the time that the best thing about this company is that we stuck with what we believed in,” he says.
Here’s how Santo developed and maintained the culture that led to his success.Make it fun
Santo is very clear that he wants employees to come forward with ideas. He wants their input and wants them to feel like a part of the organization beyond just their daily tasks.
But not everyone is going to take the boss at his or her word and start shooting e-mails and making phone calls about ways to improve the company.
You need to create a loose atmosphere where employees will want to come up with ways to help the company.
“You have to make it fun,” he says. “The work environment has to be fun. You never can take yourself too seriously. Then, you encourage people to do that. You can’t start saying, ‘That’s a really dumb idea. That’s not going to work because I am really smart and you’re not.’”
Sure, the company has the typical barbecues and gatherings, but Santo takes it a step further.
The company has competitions for people to create the most creative slogans for the company. Employees are also asked to create the company’s Christmas card as well as the company brochure.
They aren’t asked because Santo wants to save money or wants to give employees more work. By involving them in lighter and more fun and creative projects, employees will be more willing to come forward with ideas to help the day-to-day operations of the company.
“All of those things, they promote the fun side,” he says.
For example, the employees created the most recent company brochure. The company had about 50 creative ideas that were all good.
Santo got together everyone who contributed an idea, whether by phone or in person, and let all of them know that their ideas were terrific but the company couldn’t use them all. About 30 ideas ended up being used for the brochure, which gave those employees a direct and positive link to a companywide project.
“What’s neat about that, I think, anyway, is that person will look at the brochure over and over again and say, ‘That was my idea,’” he says. “But, you still want the product to be really good. You don’t just want to use any idea. It has to be a good idea.”Keep it open
Though making tasks fun will help employees feel more at ease to come forward with ideas, you need to be available to actually hear those ideas.
Santo doesn’t allow closed doors at Avantair unless there is a good reason, like discussing nonpublic information with auditors.
“Closed doors promote a very poor atmosphere, because people think you are talking about bad things,” he says.
However, with that door open, you can be faced with a flood of requests, questions and complaints.
Santo says he does have employees come to him with trivial stuff, but that’s something he is willing to deal with because of the environment he wants.
“You have to just deal with it,” he says. “If you want to have the environment, a free and open environment that really promotes the type of growth that we’ve seen, you’re going to have to deal with some trivial stuff.”
However, you have to make sure other managers have their doors open because that will reduce the number of trivial matters you encounter.
“You really need good people around you to help you weed through that,” he says.
“I’m not talking about an extra layer, but you need everybody kind of doing the same thing in terms of the open-door policy.”
Of course, you have other duties aside from what employees bring to you.
That’s why employees at Avantair have to ask, “Do you have a minute?” before discussing their matter.
If the manager doesn’t have a minute, he or she has to let the employee know when he or she will be free.
“So, everybody understands it’s not insulting if I say, ‘I can’t do it right now, but hey, here’s a time when I can.’ As long as you give them a time when you can, then it’s OK,” he says.
You also want to be careful not to make it a common practice for employees to jump the ranks and come right to the top with an issue.
“You don’t want the manager to hold it against the employee that they came to you over their head,” he says. “You really have to use kid gloves with the manager. You have to just go to the manager and say, ‘Hey, my understanding is that you are aware of this idea. I didn’t hear about it. It was brought to me.’ In those situations, I kind of like to say, ‘This sounds like a pretty good idea that we should look into.’”
Before you come down hard on the manager for not relaying the idea, find out why he or she didn’t say anything to you. Sometimes, Santo finds the manager didn’t want to bother him with the issue or idea, yet something is actually being done about it.
Use those instances as teaching moments, and acknowledge that managers are spreading the open-door policy to their direct reports.
“I use it more as a tool to say, ‘Hey, you are doing a great job in your department; XZY came to me with an idea. So, clearly you are giving the company message to your department,’” Santo says.
“They will usually volunteer, ‘Well, they came to me with it, too. I’m upset that they came to you.’ I said, ‘Well, did you ever get back to them? No. Well, that’s why they came to me.’”
You may also run into employees who go to the manager, get an explanation of why an idea will not be used, and they still come to you.
You have to deal directly with the employee in that case and explain to him or her why the idea is not being used.
“In that case, you really have to go to the employee and not the department head, and just re-explain to the employee why,” he says.
Once you’ve established the open-door policy, you have to give your undivided attention when someone is in your office. Santo used to struggle with not listening when someone was in his office, which would dilute his open-door policy.
“You can get very full of yourself as a CEO, even of a small company like this,” he says. “And it’s not listening. People would come into my office all the time and I would be doing something else. I wouldn’t be giving them my full attention and they knew it. So, I would be picking up the phone or checking e-mail while they were talking to me instead of devoting my two or three minutes to them. I started to get the feeling that people were seeing that.”
Now, if someone is speaking with Santo, he turns off his computer monitor, holds his calls and takes notes, which his assistant scans into his laptop. He also communicates to the employee that it may take a week to get back to him or her because he is busy, but he will get back to him or her.
“I tell them, ‘Look, straight up. This is something that’s not going to happen tomorrow, but I guarantee you it will get consideration,’” he says.Welcome them in
While involving employees in some of the lighter projects will keep them thinking of good ideas, you need to be available to hear those ideas, and you also want the employees to know their ideas are being heard and are appreciated.
As ideas filter up, Santo and four direct reports pick two or three ideas they like and ask the creators of those ideas to make a presentation at the end of management meetings.
In front of the 23-member management team, a front-line employee could be asked to present his or her idea.
That can be nerve-wracking for a higher-ranking official, so imagine the guts it takes for a front-line employee to do it.
Santo tries to create a more relaxed meeting atmosphere by inviting the presenters up for the lunch part of the meeting.
“What we do is we have them come up and they eat with everybody,” he says. “It’s very low key. It’s almost always pizza.
“Then, right after that, there’s a lot of joking around during lunch and they feel very comfortable.”
Santo, or whoever thought the idea was worth presenting, will introduce the speaker and explain why the idea is a good one before letting the employee begin.
“Rather than me say it like it’s coming from me when it didn’t, it’s, ‘I wanted her to come up here and take credit for what is really a good idea,’” he says.
The meetings are normally done on Fridays, which is a casual dress day at Avantair. You want to take every opportunity to make the employee feel comfortable making the presentation. Having him or her dress up and present to a bunch of well-dressed executives is only going to make the employee sweat even more.
In fact, Santo used to enforce a dress code, but he found that it wasn’t helping the business.
“I came from a background in law, where I wore a suit every day,” he says. “I thought that you had to have that to show a level of professionalism in the company. I learned that is really a big mistake.
“No. 1, not everybody can afford the Armani suits. So, you as the CEO coming (to work) in your $1,000 suit and then forcing other people to go out and buy suits, which are not cheap, it sends the wrong message. Then two, it creates a very (stuffy) environment. It gets rid of that whole kind of fun, go-with-the-flow environment.”
Keeping that fun, active work environment up is going to be a challenge for Santo as the company continues to grow. As he looks at the more successful, relaxed companies like Google and Apple, he’s noticing one common theme between them.
“I’m finding that it has a lot to do with communication communicating with all those employees and keeping that level of fun and that level of input the way it was before without getting bogged down,” he says.
Using that type of communication to create an environment where employees buy in to your message and the culture will help your company take flight to its apex.
“The company is doing really well now, but it doesn’t happen without everybody being behind the story,” he says. “It just doesn’t happen.”
How to reach: Avantair Inc., (727) 539-0071 or www.avantair.com