30 best management ideas Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2008

We’ve all had days where we would rather not open the newspaper, turn on the TV or pick up the phone for the fear of learning about more bad news.

Unfortunately, there have been a lot more of those days for all of us lately.

The stock market is going through extreme ups and downs, capital has dried up, and key customers are cutting back. You start to wonder where the sales are going to come from to enable you to make this quarter’s budget. If things don’t turn around soon, you’ll have to consider drastic cutbacks yourself.

In times like these, what’s a CEO to do? The answer: Get back to basics. Focus on the things you do best and do them as efficiently as you can. Use your strengths to exploit your competitors’ weaknesses and outhustle them.

It’s often the simple things that made you a success in the first place, and it will be the simple things that keep you afloat during the economic storm.

With that in mind, we’ve assembled the best pieces of advice garnered from some of Houston’s top leaders from throughout the year. We think you’ll find some great ideas to help you improve your business within these pages, and we encourage you to keep this issue as an ongoing reference to help you find your way through the trying times that lie ahead.

Shape the future

Drayton McLane
CEO, Houston Astros

Leaders are teachers. Without an ability to teach, Houston Astros Chairman and CEO Drayton McLane Jr. says you will never get your people to see eye to eye with you, understand your vision for the company and feel the passion you feel for the business.

For McLane, teaching starts with getting his employees involved in shaping the company’s future by posing problems and letting them come up with their own solutions.

“You have to give them free rein,” he says. “This is what enterprise and entrepreneurship is all about — people with new, fresh ideas. Let them feel a part of that, but also let them feel a pride in not just creating it but achieving it.”

But McLane says involvement in shaping the company’s future should also come with a sense of responsibility and accountability. Growth on a personal and companywide level doesn’t generally occur when you arbitrarily throw stuff against a wall to see what sticks, so employees given the opportunity to create must be given parameters and then held accountable for staying within those parameters.

The parameters should fall in line with what you want to accomplish as a business.

“In a large business where you have a number of people working for you, you have to identify what your objective is and what you want to accomplish,” he says. “Is it products; is it services? You have to identify the objective, what it is you want to do and what it is you want to produce. Then you have to sell people on the goal, what it is you want to achieve. Then the last part is the toughest word in the English language, and that’s ‘accountability.’”

Grow the right way

Dave Warren
CEO, Energy Alloys LLC

You never want to put your business in a position where it can’t deliver on the promises you make. Dave Warren says that is the essential reason why the people within a business need to know the company’s capabilities and how management wants them to employ those capabilities to serve customers.

At Energy Alloys LLC, Warren, president and CEO, uses the interaction his employees have with customers to paint a picture of how the market is changing. Warren takes note of the services his customers want from their customers and develops a strategy based on that chain of demand.

“Our service company customers are under more and more pressure from their customers to deliver enhanced technology or service capabilities,” he says. “So we want to continue to develop and grow the business, and the only way to do that is to listen to our customers and react and respond to the things we hear from them that fit our core competencies or skill sets.”

For instance, Warren says that as his customers have grown internationally, they have needed faster supply service for materials and more responsive service. Based on what his eyes and ears in the field were telling him, he decided to take what Energy Alloys was already providing and build on it.

“Especially internationally, we developed additional internal competencies that let us be more responsive, let us control capacities service to the customer and meet his needs with faster turnaround times, faster delivery,” he says. “So we took something we were already doing and kind of built on that experience.”

Coach your company

Ron Whitley
president, Ranger Steel Services LP

To Ron Whitley, president of Ranger Steel Services LP, a company is kind of like a football team. During the season, the captains of the offense and defense might not go to the movies or to restaurants together, but when the time comes to strap on their helmets and play, they all have to realize they’re part of a team. Each has a job to do if the team is to find the win column.

Though your office might seem light years away from the gridiron, Whitley says the basic principles of teamwork and communication remain the same — and that includes you in the role of head coach.

Whitley says a good coach doesn’t just bark orders. He enables his team to learn by figuring things out for themselves. You need to be able to communicate, and perhaps the most important part of communicating is listening before you speak.

“Sometimes, I don’t have all the answers,” he says. “I don’t pretend to be the brightest leader here, but I think I do quite a respectable job of it. If I don’t know about something, I ask people what they think we should do and listen to what they have to say.

“Listening is a very important part of being a leader. You have to lead by example, and if you say you’re going to do something, again, you’d better follow through and do it.”

A coach has to keep dozens of players and assistant coaches on the same page, in much the same way you have to keep employees in different departments and locations focused on the company’s overarching goals. That means your communication must be frequent and consistent.

“Any information that needs to go lower down than management, such as market information, customer information or anything that would affect sales is immediately passed down through the company, whether it be in formal meetings or e-mails,” Whitley says. “Everybody here is well informed, because the days of telling people things on a need-to-know basis are long gone.”

Keeping employees who might not regularly interact with each other focused on common goals is one of your biggest challenges as a leader. But it can also be one of your greatest accomplishments when you see your people achieve their goals.

“[The people at a company] have to work together and jell together,” he says. “They might not all go out to dinner or lunch with each other, but at work, they need to develop into a true team.”

Value communication

Theodore Carpenter Jr.
CEO, SelectCare of Texas LLC

When it comes to communication, you are only going to get out of your employees what you give them. If you want to build a culture that empowers employees to communicate with you, the first thing you must give them is a good example.

Theodore Carpenter Jr., president and CEO of SelectCare of Texas LLC, says it takes a willingness to look at yourself as a communicator, your own strengths and weaknesses, and ways you can improve.

“It starts at the top,” he says. “It starts with how I act with my management team and how I embrace both good news and bad news. My focus is on improvement, and then that sets the standard, and that’s replicated throughout the organization.”

From your office, communication will generally cascade downward, meaning your senior managers’ ability to fine-tune their communication skills is every bit as important as your ability to fine-tune yours.

Much can get lost in translation if you and your managers aren’t communicating the same things, so Carpenter says it’s important to stay in frequent contact with the people who head your departments — not just on the business matters of the day but on how those matters are being relayed to those lower in the organization.