Staying focused Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

John Sheptor had only been president and CEO of Imperial Sugar Co. for about a week when on Feb. 7, 2008, an explosion at the company’s plant in Port Wentworth, Ga., killed 14 people, injured 40 and shut down 60 percent of the company’s production capacity.

He had been brought in a year prior as chief operating officer to be groomed for the top spot as the company built itself back up after emerging from bankruptcy in 2000, but nothing could prepare him for the crisis he now faced.

“When I started, I was given the responsibility from the beginning to prepare a vision for the next phase of the life of this company around building operational capacity, giving this company new tools and capacities for its next steps into the future,” he says.

Sheptor was in the process of taking that next step when the explosion occurred. He had planned to spend his first two weeks having town-hall meetings to talk with as many employees as possible and share his vision with them. Instead, he had to deal with tragedy.

“Then this all happened and a few other priorities jumped their way onto my plate,” he says.

By trusting his team with responsibilities earlier than he would have liked to, the company worked through the disaster.

“I had to delegate and release critical success areas for this company to others and believe that the limited amount of time that I could give to them would be adequate to coach them to be successful,” he says.

As a result, the company is well on its way to finishing the more than $200 million reconstruction of the plant by the end of the year, which is an important first step to ultimately returning the company to profitability.

Crisis or no crisis, you can’t let go of your vision or strategy regardless of short-term demands and you can’t try to do everything yourself.

Sheptor trusted in his team to help move the $592 million company forward when times were tough.

“Because, at the end of the day, we do it as a team,” he says. “Somebody leads, somebody does the visioning, but we all collectively have to do it together or you can’t be successful.”

Here’s how Sheptor built a foundation that helps Imperial Sugar work toward a better future — no matter what the situation.

Assess your team

If the company had been content with keeping its current vision, Sheptor wouldn’t have needed to evaluate the people around him as much as he did because the status quo would have sufficed.

But, that wasn’t the case.

Sheptor needed a team that was open to change, so he had to take an assessment of who was capable of thinking in new ways.

“We needed to change because the industry was going through radical change,” he says. “Individuals in the executive and middle-management team that weren’t prepared to give up their attachment to the status quo for the opportunity for some different way of working together were an impediment and obstacle,” he says. “They needed to make a personal decision about whether they were going to be happy in this new organization.”

Since Sheptor had been COO for 11 months prior to becoming president and CEO, he was already shaping the vision and thinking about an executive team that could help him drive change.

“I had some level of assessment made about all of the team members because, as the chief operating officer, not every executive of the company reported to me, but I had some opinions already from my interactions with the entire executive team,” he says. “In that first three months after becoming CEO, I was able to see how the executives were responding to my leadership, my vision for the company and our collective plan for how that vision should be executed. It wasn’t really a three-month assessment exercise; it was truly a 14-month (exercise).”

One of the initiatives that Sheptor put into place after becoming CEO was a social event with his executive team. Since they all have busy agendas, once a month they would go to dinner, happy hour or a sporting event as a way of spending time together.

“People feel very safe in their areas of expertise,” he says. “When you are not in your comfort zone, you really demonstrate your individual confidence. You demonstrate your willingness to try new things, and you show how well you interact with others when you are experiencing a new event. Those are all critical observations when you are talking about changes for the future.”

Don’t let your personal drive to create a vision get in the way of spending quality time with people that are going to make the organization successful by executing that vision.

“Every new job has more demands on your time to do things than you have available,” he says. “What can easily be squeezed out of your schedule is quality time with individuals, both your team as a group as well as with them one on one.”

Aside from spending time with people outside of work, you should also look at employees’ past annual reviews.

“You can take a look at the last couple of annual reviews and see what they have been rewarded for doing and what they have not done well,” he says. “So, you’re in that sense looking through the eyes of others. Perhaps it is at a different time in the organization in terms of what was being rewarded, but at least you can get a sense for what activities these individuals were very good at and what they weren’t good at.”

Sheptor also gives his executive team members assignments for tasks they have never done before to see how they perform. He wants to see how well they deal with change and how creative they are in generating solutions on areas where they’ve not worked before.

For example, Sheptor could give his chief financial officer the responsibility of doing an accident investigation in one of the refineries to see how they perform as a leader outside of their area of expertise.

Sheptor also declared early on in his tenure as CEO that all officers would make four customer visits a year because one of the key strategic platforms for the company is to be a customer-centric organization.

“You can’t be customer-centric if your officers are not in front of customers,” he says.

“I’ve been watching who are the early adopters to that request, and who are cautious participants and who are resisters. That will weigh into my second regeneration of the leadership team.”

Much like you have to make changes initially because of resistance to the new vision, you may need to renew the team as you move forward with the vision.

“At the end of the day, when you arrive at your finish line, whatever that vision is or that strategic plan is, you’re likely going to arrive there with a very different team than you started with,” he says.

Don’t ignore resisters

When Sheptor was still COO and developing a vision, he recalled the reaction people had to President John F. Kennedy’s announcement that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The scientific community divided itself into early adopters, resisters and a bunch of people in the middle who were hopeful.

Kennedy took advice with regard to the early adopters and established a place for them to work collaboratively, and he took the resisters and gave them a place to work together to define all of the reasons why it wouldn’t be possible. Learning what those obstacles would be, that information was fed to the early adopters to develop solutions for those obstacles before t

hey even materialized.

Sheptor followed the same strategy. Instead of marking resisters early on and simply categorizing them as useless naysayers, he listened to their feedback and used it to better the vision.

“Listening to the resisters — those that were more committed to the status quo than to consider the possibility of change was useful to hear all the reasons it couldn’t change,” he says. “But the quality time was spent more with those who were early adopters and those that clearly wanted to be part of something new.”

If there are resisters on your executive team who are productive workers but not rolling with the changes, you should try to find another role for them in the organization.

Sheptor had a vice president who oversaw a large part of the organization but now reports directly to Sheptor. That person has a very strategic assignment but no longer supervises people anymore.

Start with candor if you want to move someone to another role within the organization.

“You can’t try to be deceptive in any kind of move of that nature,” he says. “After making my observations and doing some coaching and doing some feedback, it became clear the individual was not going to change fast enough or radically enough to be successful in their role in the new organization.”

After explaining where you think the person will fit and why he or she will fit there, you could have a handshake agreement where you will have to help that person be successful in his or her new job or that individual could leave the organization.

Sheptor did have to let executive team members go, but he says it is never easy to do so.

“There is a cost to every organization for every individual that leaves,” he says. “You have to make a decision that (the) cost is outweighed by the gain of having a different individual.

“There is a risk associated with making that decision that the person you hire may not do the job any better than the person that you let go. So, there is a risk and there is a potential gain. There is a loss of all the training, the relationships that individual has and the contributions that they are currently making. You lose all that when they leave. So it’s not something you take (lightly).”

Sheptor says you should know within three to six months whether someone is going to change.

“As an organization is moving through change, individuals that embrace the status quo over or above the opportunity of a new status quo, are an obstacle and an impediment to achieving your vision,” he says.

If you are certain an executive team member is not going to change, make the moves sooner rather than later.

“In the initiation of the visioning — the transition of the company from one state to another, if it’s clear to you in that three-month horizon that there are individuals that are in the executive group that are not part of the team, you have to deal with that quickly,” he says. “Because that one person influences potentially 50, 100, 200 others.”

Once you assemble a team around you that buys in to your changes, you will be able to delegate and move the company forward.

Sheptor and his team are doing that every day but are also not forgetting what happened in the past.

“I can tell you this has been the most challenging year of my life, both as a leader and as an individual and human being,” he says. “There have been tremendous challenges to keep the company stable and continue to prepare it for moving forward and, at the same time, being ethical and humane with regard to how we work with the families that have been so tragically impacted by this event. I would be understating to say that there has been more to do than hours to do it.”

How to reach: Imperial Sugar Co., (281) 491-9181 or