Group effort Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

At times, Mark Lettelleir and his employees at Modern Business Associates have experienced a huge influx of clients and many last-minute tasks had to be completed, resulting in all-nighters for the employees at the human resources company. But Lettelleir isn’t wishing them luck as he’s walking out the door. Instead, he’s getting his hands dirty with the rest of the team.

“Being a leader is also being somebody who is willing to dig in, and those people respect you and they know you’ve walked a mile in their shoes already,” says Lettelleir, founder and CEO of the company, which posted approximately $450 million in 2008 revenue.

Lettelleir isn’t helping out because he doesn’t trust his people. He’s not doing it because his people aren’t capable of completing the task. And he’s not doing it because he doesn’t have anything better to do.

He’s doing it because he is part of the team, and if that’s what it takes to help make the company successful, then so be it.

“I was here all night with them helping move data over here and rolling up my sleeves and doing whatever needed to be done,” he says. “Did I have great people here to do it? Yes. Could I have gone home and gone to sleep? Yeah. But I don’t think that sends the right message to your people.”

Instead, employees get the message that he is ready to tackle any challenge, which rubs off on them.

“They were willing to go the extra mile, because they knew that I was willing to do the same thing and that we were going to do it together as a team,” he says. “I just think it sends a message that we are all on the same team and we are all willing to pitch in and help wherever we need to.”

Pitching in is just one way to help create a team environment. If you reach out to every level of the company, you’ll find good ideas that can help your company grow.

Communicate with all levels

There was a great idea floating around the offices of MBA, but no one was doing anything about it. The company talked about digitizing everything it was doing, but the company thought it would be too expensive, and the idea was tabled.

However, during an employee group lunch with Lettelleir, someone brought the idea up again. This time, someone in the IT department knew of a way to make the idea a reality.

“What’s nice is our clients can now go onto the Web and they can actually pull up the documentation that they faxed or e-mailed over to us,” he says.

The idea helped sell some clients shortly thereafter because they were attracted to the electronic process.

No one planned the lunch to discuss the idea and there may not have even been a plan to bring up the idea, but because Lettelleir created the opportunity to interact with employees and for employees to interact with each other, there was initiative to push the idea forward.

“It starts a conversation that never would have took place, because they would have thought it was a dumb idea or, ‘I think it’s a good idea, but I’m not going to put my neck out there,’” he says.

Creating opportunities for you to get to know employees and employees to get to know each other is a major driver of developing a team environment.

Not only can great ideas come out of it, but it also gets people talking, which is sometimes hard when people are in silos working on daily tasks.

Of course, as you grow, that becomes more difficult as you spend more time on big-picture strategies and you add more employees.

Lettelleir ran into that problem as MBA grew from 20 employees to 100, but he didn’t completely stop trying. When the company was smaller, Lettelleir would take a new employee out to lunch to welcome him or her to the company and to get to know that person. But that has became harder as more employees joined, so he started the “12 at 12” program.

“I get 12 people from all different departments and have lunch in the conference room and just kind of go around and find out where everybody is from and if they have family and what their interests are,” he says. “I just kind of get a little flare for what they do and then give them an open forum to ask questions.”

Lettelleir likes to do the lunch every month, but sometimes because of his schedule, he can only do it every other month. Employees are randomly selected from different departments, but he tries to invite newer employees who haven’t participated before. You want to keep the number of people participating at one time small, because the bigger the group, the less people will want to talk.

“We have a monthly team meeting where everybody is there, but when you’ve got 100 people, it’s less likely somebody has a question or anything else that they are going to raise their hand in the middle of a big group,” he says. “This gives them a little bit of a forum to ask questions and offer ideas and advice.”

You will get some great ideas in forums like this, but you will also get a number of suggestions that don’t work. In that case, you have to explain to the person who came up with the idea why you can’t use it.

“I definitely think it is important to explain that and certainly get their buy-in, because you don’t want them walking away with the answer of, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’” he says. “Because then it squashes their reason for even wanting to talk out loud and express their ideas and come to the table with something new.”

It also helps to be honest and admit that you know not everyone is going to see your side of things.

“One of the things that I preach from our end is, ‘You’re not going to always agree with my decision, but I hope you will at least understand my reasons for making that decision,’” he says.

“I try to get everybody’s feedback, and I encourage our department heads and managers to do the same. Get everybody’s feedback. Get the information because there may be something you are missing or don’t know about. Get it all and then make the decision and if somebody doesn’t agree with the decision, at least explain why you are making that decision.”

Keep the door open

While driving around one day, an employee at MBA noticed three new restaurants were opening in the area. Instead of making a note of three new places she could dine at in the future, she brought the names, addresses and phone numbers of the potential clients to Lettelleir.

He expressed his appreciation for the information and told the employee he would let her know how it turns out. It may turn into nothing, but the fact that the employee brought the potential clients to the boss speaks volumes. Lettelleir is constantly preaching an open-door policy for himself and all managers.

“If they see that they have success, and what I mean by success is that they get in, talk to me, and that I’m really listening and taking their ideas into account, I think that message is going to come back and filter down,” he says. “At least I hope so, and I think it has for the most part.”

In a perfect world, you’d talk about an open-door policy and situations like the above would happen all the time. You’d get information that you can use, and employees would take all of their other issues to the individuals who should be dealing with them.

However, if you drive an effective open-door policy, you may hear things that are someone else’s responsibility.

“It’s important to express the message down to your people,” he says. “Not only your management team but even … to your line-level workers that, ‘We have a lot of stuff to do and everything is important, but let’s make sure we prioritize what we need to bring to the forefront. If there are small issues, if it’s facility-driven or anything else, talk to so-and-so.’”

You also have to be careful not to get caught up in employees jockeying for a better position in the company

“When you have an organization that is large, there is going to be office politics,” he says. “Even each department has their groups. I don’t think you can avoid that aspect. But I think the key is, in this case, I listen to it and I listen to the situation, but I also say, ‘Have you talked with your department head about this and what was their take on it?’”

If people feel they can come directly to you, they may get in that habit and start viewing you as someone they report to directly.

“The one thing you don’t want is you don’t want to have somebody who’s playing office politics and trying to go around managers,” he says. “That’s why I said, I may listen to people, but the first thing I will say is, ‘Have you brought this up to your supervisor or your department head?’

“Because, I don’t want to see people going ... behind people’s backs because that does cause problems and it does create issues.”

Some managers will feel uneasy because an employee may jump ranks and go directly to someone above his or her manager with information or an issue.

“Unfortunately, some managers, they get paranoid, if you will, about their people and what goes on in between them and who they are talking to,” he says. “I think sometimes that part of the problem is not necessarily the line worker but more the manager and their insecurity with handling situations.”

To deal with that insecurity, you have to handle it promptly and directly.

“The best thing to do is meet it head-on and talk to them … and reassure them that you have their back and that you are on board with them,” he says. “But also encourage them to develop their people. There’s no bigger compliment then having one of your people that used to work for you move up into a management-type position or continue to grow because that means that you did a great job in developing them through the ranks and as a leader.

“What I think people do sometimes is they try to keep people at bay because they get concerned that they are going to try to take over their job.

“But they should be developing their people and getting them to grow and get better. That’s the way we are going to grow as an organization is with a stronger team.”

Having a cohesive work environment will help build that stronger team to get the job done.

“That open door and making sure that people understand and know that they are part of the team, I think they are willing to do anything,” he says. “They are willing to push it to do whatever needs to be done to get the job done.”

How to reach: Modern Business Associates, (888) 622-6460 or www.mbapeo.com