Bobby Harris urges employees to break through the cubicles and swap offices with execs to build better understandings — and profits Featured

11:07pm EDT May 31, 2013
Bobby Harris, founder and CEO, BlueGrace Logistics Bobby Harris, founder and CEO, BlueGrace Logistics

When Bobby Harris launched an effort to bring management closer to the employees at his company BlueGrace Logistics LLC, he really wanted it to be effective. He felt the executives were getting a bit out of touch with the rank and file. So he started a “cubicle swap.” For a couple of weeks, executives moved their offices to cubicles and the dispossessed workers took over the executives’ offices. 

It worked like a charm. It provided the executive team and employees to learn about each other on a personal level, what they liked and didn’t like, and how efficiently the operations were running.

And in at least in the case of one high-profile executive (Harris) case, it got to be humorous.

“I had the IT maintenance guy take my office,” Harris says. “He loved it! It's kind of funny because he started playing the role, and he started wearing a shirt that said, ‘I am the CEO. Shut up!’ He got into character.”

While there were some funny moments, Harris was serious about the lesson he wanted to teach.

“I had been in a meeting, and I was listening to a lot of our executives talk about the things going on below them. I just thought it was interesting — the executives really didn’t know what was going on below their level. We were making policy about people who are the life of our company. We needed to make sure that someone, like their direct supervisor, knows what they were doing.”

As the cubicle swap was underway, the employees got to interact more with the executives and hear what was going on. Another thing that occurred was that the productivity level went up.

“It's kind of like if you've ever heard of the Hawthorne Effect: the more visible management is, the better the production from employees,” Harris says. “So that was a real positive. There was a lot of serendipity to whole project, and that is why we continue to do it.”

But most of all, it demonstrates how Harris is a big believer in his employees. Here’s how that concern constantly brings dividends to the $100+ million freight and logistics company with 135 employees. BlueGrace has grown by 7,378 percent in revenue from 2009-2011. And to top it off, it’s recognized as the 20th fastest growing company in the United States by Inc. magazine.

Invest at every level of employees

If you want to bat a thousand in terms of hiring and grooming the best talent, invest in your people at every level, Harris says. And there is no better time to start than at the beginning.

“When we hire people, one of the qualities we look for is if they are very sensitive and empathetic because our motto is we don't care how much you know until we know how much you care,” Harris says. “If you take care of your people, they will take care of your customers and they will also take care of people in general.”

To help support those ends, Harris and his team has set up a mentoring program for employees during their first six months with the company.

“It's for every employee, and we believe that if you are going to flatter us enough to choose your career to be here, we are going to invest in you,” he says.

The mentors are hand-picked by Harris and are people who he knows are very social, who understand the policies, are very professional, and are influential people in the company who will act as their proponent.

“It does two things,” he says. “There is serendipity to it for the people coming in. But where I've seen a lot of value is with the mentors. They love it; people like helping people. They are very flattered, they take you very seriously.

“Now I have a lot of people signing up saying, ‘Hey, I want to be a mentor.’”

While the role does not include a bonus, there is a benefit for the mentor.

“The mentors are people who want upward mobility so they see this as a way to the next level,” Harris says. “And their aspirations are well taken care of.”

Social media use reaps rewards

The more you can get inside an employee’s head, the more you can understand what motivates them. While Harris’ cubicle swap may have been a little more beneficial for executives than employees, he also uses another method that benefits both, but in a different vein, and it’s a big tool as a foundation for collaboration.

“The single best thing for us has been social media, specifically Twitter,” he says. “We have an open social media policy. For me, it is really important because again, I keep going back to making sure I offer the most for employees. It's very hard to get a job here. You have to take a lot of tests, you have to be the cream of the crop, but when you get here, I don't ever want to lose you.”

Harris feels that to keep workers motivated — and give that discretionary effort — social media such as Twitter brings big dividends.

“Once you get past 20 employees, you have the ability to know a little bit about your people in a real quick space of time,” he says. “So I can just open my phone, and in three minutes I can find out that Mary's son hit a home run last night in baseball.

“And conversely, they can see me: ‘Old Bob is not in; he's in Chicago.’ I can tell them about that restaurant I went to.”

With the knowledge about some aspects of a fellow worker’s personal life, it builds bridges on likes and dislikes, and improves the playing field for collaboration on business projects. But nevertheless, some people may think that it's unproductive.

“I would challenge them tooth and nail that the culture that we breathe makes us extremely hard-working,” Harris says. “The employees love the freedom aspect of the autonomy and the trust, and further, as far as a recruiting tool for people who have degrees or real good pedigrees, this is what they want. They love that kind of ability to do that. It has created a lot of bonds here.”

Problems with the use of social media can be avoided to a large extent if you first explain to employees how you hope they use it, Harris says.

“What I can do is let them know that we see what you are doing, and I think that for that reason alone, it really mitigates that kind of exposure to begin with. There's just so much positive going on and a lot of times, it has nothing to do with business.

“We don't dictate what they are supposed to tweet, but we do train them; we tell them how it works and how to be effective. Then we endorse and support it.”

Till the fertile ground

Once you support collaboration through a process such as social media, it behooves you to keep the ball rolling — a spinoff could grow in the fertile ground.

That’s what happened at BlueGrace. Its support of social media for employees led to an executive forum, in which employees meet with executives to have an old-fashioned “bull session.” Groups of four employees who have at least six-months’ service meet with executives once a week or every two weeks for 30-45 minutes.

“I have a group of my own and it’s composed of randomly picked employees,” Harris says. “We try to get people who aren't directly involved with the same department so it’s a mix.

“We just talk about anything,” Harris says. “It could be something really important that's going on in their life; it could be something like they had a great idea in the business place, it could be positive or negative, anything they want to talk about.

“They connect because it comes across like a little family. They feel very connected in the place. They also get a voice then. That helps us to get a lot of the best ideas that they have.”

It is a time commitment, however, but not one that can’t be worked into your schedule, Harris says.

“It is one thing for people to say it, yeah, you've got to listen to the employees, but everybody is busy,” he says. “Everybody is so busy; it is not just in my industry. You have to find an effective process and grind it out, find a way to make sure that you are touching those people.

“No matter how fast they're going, no matter how fast people are coming on, there are several ways of doing it. Those practices we found very effective, and it makes for a lot of happy people.”

How to reach: BlueGrace Logistics, (800) 697-4477 or www.bluegracelogistics.com

Takeaways

Invest in employees at every level.

Social media utilization reaps rewards.

Till the fertile ground.

The Harris File

Bobby Harris

Founder and CEO

BlueGrace Logistics

Born: I came to Florida in 1982 when I was eight years old, so I am more of a native of Florida. I was a military brat. I was born in England at a military base northwest of London. My father was in the Air Force.

Education: I have a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Florida, which I just got two years ago. I went back to school. It was a lot of fun. Industrial psychology was one of those things that kind of intrigued me enough.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

My first real job was at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Oh yes. I did various things. I worked the cookline I was like a little waiter, I would do maintenance, whatever they needed me to do. If I learned anything, I guess at any level, professionalism reigns supreme. I don't care if you're an attorney, and I guess it's a little bit of my father raising me, I always made sure that my uniform looked a little bit nicer than everybody's else's, and I think that is one of the reasons why I was able to ... It was Chuck E. Cheese’s, and I was treated well and got more hours than others. That still holds true today, and it just amazes me what a professional image does. And the other thing I would say was I learned to trust people. I've always said that from beginning the quicker you trust people, the easier your job will be and the quicker you will excel at it.

Who do you admire in business?

I admire Richard Branson. His genuineness shows through. His philanthropy matches. I think he's done everything. He has been extremely successful and innovative. He has given back so much and yet he's had so much fun doing it. This guy has a ball. He's very easy to gravitate to.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

My mentor was Keith Huggins. He told me a little knowledge is dangerous. As a CEO, you're not going to understand everything that people do — to make assumptions off a little bit of knowledge is a very, very dangerous thing. If I understand something from soup to nuts and it's like in my expertise, I will have high level of conviction. But knowing something a little bit is far worse than not knowing it at all sometimes. You have to be really careful if you know little bit. I must use that quote every three days. For myself, my personal life, you never have the whole story if you don’t understand it from inside and out.

What is your definition of business success?

My definition would be wanting to come from work every day in a bad way while making sure that all your success is shared with your team, your vendors and your customers. My biggest thing is I don't want to be this really successful person alone on top of a mountain. As I get more successful, the people with me should get more successful too. We have such strong friendships. Those are the people who will go to war with you. I've never lost anybody in my leadership team, and it's a pretty big leadership team, 14 or 15 people, so it's like the Rolling Stones — we never want to break up. We always want to have this crew because it's effective. And it's a heck of a lot of fun. Business success starts with happiness. It really does.