Michael Perlman sees a lot of similarities between being a football coach and a CEO.
“I’ve always assumed a head football coach would probably make a great CEO because you have to get everybody fighting together toward the same common goal,” says Perlman, president and CEO at BrandsMart USA, a $1 billion electronics retailer with 2,500 employees. “If they are fighting each other, you have a problem.”
In football, it’s common for a strong offensive team to blame a porous defense for not holding a lead or for a stellar defense to get frustrated with a futile offense that can’t score any points. In the business world, the ideas of teamwork and camaraderie are just as essential to success.
Your job is to remind everyone that it takes all their contributions to make the company succeed and then prove it to them. The challenge is in establishing that proof and selling them on their value to the company.
Perlman looks to his leaders to convey the knowledge he has provided them to their direct reports. The process then continues on down the line until everyone has received it.
“If you do that, you wind up with an organization where everybody thinks alike,” Perlman says. “An organization of like-minded people will always win.”
It’s similar to the way that a veteran player on a football team will take a young rookie under his wing and show him the ropes.
It’s not that you’re looking to create a group of clones that are similar to you in every way. The intent is to encourage ingenuity while moving forward together toward a common goal.
“Like-minded people believe in the same goals, but aren’t necessarily structured by the same methods of getting there,” Perlman says.
Here’s how Perlman has developed a group of employees that can put their own unique skills to use toward the common goal of helping BrandsMart USA serve its customers.
Provide learning opportunities
The effort to teach employees has to start at the top. You need to take an active role in giving people chances to learn and coaching them to become more productive workers.
Perlman has found success by engaging employees in troubleshooting missions. He’ll assign a similar task to two or three individuals at different levels in the company and see how they handle it.
“I can tell an operations person and a store sales executive both to go out and build a table shopping the competition on what they are doing for delivery charges,” Perlman says.
“You get these different protocols back and then you figure out what’s the real right way of doing things. The key is you have to challenge people now and then and allow them to come back to you to ask questions when necessary.”
The idea is to get employees to open their minds about a specific issue and put their own skills and talents to use to find a solution rather than passively relying on your direction.
“If you take a 25-year-old and say, ‘Here’s your job and here’s how you do it,’ he gets bored,” Perlman says. “You take a 25-year-old guy and say, ‘Here’s your job and this is how we want the end result to look like. Why don’t you do it how you want to do it and then we’ll discuss if your way is better or worse than the normal way.’ If you challenge people, you can really drive creativity.”
Perlman says your ability to read people will help you be better able to tap into that creativity.
“If I come out with a new concept, I’ll say, ‘Does anybody have an opinion, good, bad or indifferent?’” Perlman says. “‘Does everybody agree with this? If you don’t agree, tell us what your issues are.’ If everybody is sitting there, giving you that blank stare, that’s not good. If they are sitting up in their seat and looking up at you, that’s a good thing. Reading people is very important and if you’re not good at it, start playing poker. Even if you lose a little money, you’ll make out in the long run.”
It’s through this constant communication that you will develop a fluid list of ideas to toss out to your people for consideration.
“They’ll tell you where the problems are and what the customers are saying,” Perlman says. “It can sometimes involve just asking people, ‘This is how we do this, this is how we’ve been doing it, what would you do differently?’”
When you get an answer that seems to make sense, listen to it.
“Most people tend to not listen to the people who they have assigned various tasks,” Perlman says. “The larger you get, the more you have to delegate. In turn, you then have to really listen to what your people tell you.”
Make employees feel valued
You hire employees to do a job and fill a role in making your organization work. In order for them to buy in to your leadership and give their all toward their work, you need to show them that you value their efforts through positive reinforcement.
“My experience is that 75 percent of all people need positive reinforcement every 90 days,” Perlman says. “Without that, their world crumbles.”
He likens it to being a parent who is trying to encourage a child.
“If you tell them to do their homework in September and you don’t come back again until November or December, you think they did their homework all the way through?” Perlman says. “Probably not.”
The lesson is that you need to constantly provide this reinforcement, whether it’s an e-mail, a pat on the back or a commendation at a company meeting. One of the best times to do it can be when business is a little slower.
“When business is very fast, you don’t have the time to work on those things,” Perlman says. “We’re doing something called the ‘wow factor’ now, which is where we want the store upper management to do something that is above and beyond for the customer every day. It could be anything. From the head store manager carrying a package out to a customer’s car in the rain to almost anything. We use e-mail and send them around talking about these wow factors. Then they compete with who has the best wow factor this week. When the store manager does it, the guy underneath him does it and that’s how that works.”
But showing value is more than just saying, “Good job.” It’s following through on commitments that they agreed to follow when you hired them.
Perlman recalled a young employee who had worked hard to earn a promotion and done everything he had to do to make it happen. The only thing left was Perlman’s authorization to make it official.
“He already had all the documentation on file,” Perlman says. “I was unable to do it the first day it came in. I went to do it the next day. He called me the next morning and said, ‘Why haven’t I been approved yet?’”
Perlman promptly took care of the authorization and the promotion went through. The lesson learned was just as he might need to give a little boost to employees to get things done, sometimes he needed a boost, too.
It’s the idea that everybody operates under the same set of rules that provides a level of comfort for employees to know what to expect.
“If you have a name-tag rule that everybody has to wear a name tag, certainly the top executive better be wearing a name tag,” Perlman says. “It can be simple things like where employees can park. We have a health care plan and the same plan for an hourly warehouse guy is the sam e plan that I’m on. There’s no unfair deals. I may get paid more than that person, but I don’t have a different 401(k) plan. I don’t have a different medical plan. If it’s good enough for you, it should be good enough for your people.”
Reinforce the fact that while some employees may work in different departments, you do all work for the same company. Getting to know their names is a good place to start.
“There was a time when I knew everybody in the company,” Perlman says. “I haven’t been there in years. But there’s a familiarity that you can develop with your people that’s important. Know as many people by first name as you can.”
Everybody would like to work at a company where nothing bad ever happens. Unfortunately, that’s just not realistic. Bad things do happen every day and problems arise and people have disagreements about how to deal with them.
As you work to bring everyone on track with your goals for the organization, you need to be sure you are creating an environment where employees can raise concerns and questions without fear of punishment.
“Let’s say I walk up to a guy in the warehouse and say, ‘How is this going,’” Perlman says. “‘Are we having any problems with a particular brand of big screens?’ He may look immediately toward his boss who is the warehouse supervisor, who may look to the guy who runs the warehouse who may look over to the store manager to see if he is getting anybody in trouble. But you still want that guy’s response.
“He’s scared of saying something that could get somebody else in trouble and, in turn, get himself in trouble. The reality is, you’re looking to put somebody at ease.”
The key is to not penalize people for raising concerns.
“The famous comment on that is the old production line that allowed anybody to stop it if they saw a problem,” Perlman says. “But if the guy did stop it, he got in trouble because it slowed down production. Here they go and they develop this great system that any one person can stop a line if there is a problem. On the other hand, the guy has to be absolutely positive he is right. Otherwise it could really affect the company’s productivity.”
You have to make it clear that someone who is raising a concern is not a bad guy and should not be viewed that way.
“Whenever I speak to people as a group, one of the things I’ll always say is, ‘Within the company, we may disagree with one another every once in awhile, but there are no bad guys in the company. The only bad guys I know are the competitors,’” Perlman says. “ Get everybody focused on the bad guys, which are the competitors. If you can get everybody thinking that we’re the good guys and they are the bad guys, that goes a long way toward getting that concept across.”