Laying a foundation Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2009

Employees have literally laughed in Frank Fiume’s face when he’s admitted mistakes to them.

“They don’t expect it,” he says. “But you become a real person, and they respect you so much more.”

To lay the foundation of your company’s culture, you have to create a connection with employees, and one way to do that is to confess your blunders, says Fiume, founder and CEO of i9 Sports Corp., an amateur sports league franchise. He partially attributes the growth of his company — to $14 million in revenue and 109 franchises in 2008 — to its fanatical culture.

When establishing your culture, communicating with employees obviously is essential, Fiume says. But the process also includes understanding your staff and company, and to do that, you sometimes have to show your staff that you’re part of the team. Other times, you have to be honest with your employees — and yourself — about the decisions you’ve made.

Smart Business spoke with Fiume about how to establish a culture by being honest with your employees and going into the trenches with them.

Roll up your sleeves. To create a fanatical culture — (this goes) back to the CEO — he or she has to roll up their sleeves and be willing to do the same that he would expect from his staff.

When your staff sees that you’re willing to go into the trenches and help them, they feel a closer connection to you. When you have a group of people doing this, the cool part is you’re raising the expectations and the standards so that the person that is maybe the slacker or the person that is not really getting the job done, it becomes abundantly obvious that person is not fitting into the culture, and they’ll self-eliminate themselves out of the company.

You know the old saying that, as a CEO, we need to work on the business, not in the business. I completely agree with that; however, there is a ‘however’ that I think is missed. If the CEO doesn’t understand what ‘in the business’ means, then they’re missing something.

For example, we’re rolling out a national call center for all of our franchises. I had an opportunity while I was developing this strategy for this call center to explore and see exactly what my franchisees go through when those phone calls come in from the parents.

Because I was literally in the process and really in the business seeing it, I had a greater appreciation and understanding for the challenges they face.

When a CEO rolls up his sleeves and is willing to do whatever it takes, you gain the respect from your employees and you get to have your finger closer to the pulse of what ultimately needs changed. The role of a leader is to influence change, and the only way I can influence change is if I know what needs to be changed, which means, from time to time, you need to work in the business.

Be honest with yourself and your employees. When you make a mistake, be very, very transparent and say, ‘Hey, I screwed up.’ Explain what you did.

When people see you have integrity and you’re honest, they see the human side of it, and people are willing to forgive when you make a mistake.

One of the challenges I found in talking to other CEOs is that they are not honest with themselves — I mean truly honest.

Most CEOs just can’t get out of their own way. They think about the business being their business, and [they need to be] honest with themselves that the company is greater than them — you are only as good as the team around you. And when you make a mistake — whether it’s a direction, whether it’s a project — go to that person who may be affected by it. What I’ve found is, when you’re honest about a mistake, people will forgive that.

And when something good happens, they’re even more excited about you because they know you care.

People always question whether the CEO, ‘Does he really care about me, does he really care about the company, or is he looking out for himself?’ As soon as people know that you care, you can feel comfortable in your own skin as a CEO.

Get out of your own way. The first thing about getting out of your own way as a CEO is when you realize that, ‘Hey, this company is far greater than me.’ You stop trying to control everything. A big issue that we have as CEOs is we think that, without us on a daily basis, that the company is not going to be able to live.

I had the pleasure of meeting another CEO, a franchise executive. This man is author of a franchise book and somebody who I dearly respect in franchising. He has this same problem. He barks orders to his staff. He’s successful, yet he feels like he’s caged.

I said to him, ‘Here’s my recommendation. … No longer think of this, your business, as you have to control everything. Think of yourself as a founding father of your company because what that does is you get out of your own way of the business and you start looking at the company long term.’

Some CEOs think this company is about me. ‘I need to make it work. I need to call all the shots.’ Really, in essence, they don’t.

How to reach: i9 Sports Corp., (800) 975-2937 or