Erik Cassano

Gordon Krater didn’t know where the bottom was. So he started focusing on the top.

Like just about every business leader, Krater had never seen anything like the recession that started in late 2008. The stock market started free-falling, the housing market crashed and two of the Big Three American automakers went to Washington looking for bailout money.

Not even the most educated and experienced of economic analysts knew where the slide would stop — or when. As the managing partner of financial and business advisory services firm Plante Moran PLLC, Krater faced a choice: Either brace for the eventual rock-bottom impact or focus his 1,700 associates on discovering present and future areas of opportunity despite the depths of the economic crisis.

“The most important thing was to not listen to all the noise,” Krater says. “Every day it seemed like there was bad news, but we couldn’t focus on just that. We needed to figure out what we thought was really going on. We needed to assess where we were and try to set a positive tone for the organization.”

Krater was elected managing partner in October 2008, on the front edge of the recession, and took over in July 2009, right in the middle of the economic free fall.

Thrust directly into the storm, he had to quickly figure out where Plante Moran could still generate positive momentum and rally his workforce around those areas — and he had to do it while his entire workforce was immersed in an environment riddled with stories of layoffs, foreclosures and bankruptcies.

“In the absence of communication, people assume the worst,” Krater says. “So one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that people really need to hear what is going on, and they need to hear that you are still confident in the company’s future. People won’t follow pessimists. They’ll follow optimists who are also realists.”

Get the real story

During the recession, employees at companies around the country consumed daily media reports about the deepening crisis. By the time team members arrived at the office for work each morning, they had already scanned a newspaper, watched TV during breakfast or listened to the car radio on the ride to work. Krater was already facing an uphill battle against negativity before he stepped into his office each day.

Krater couldn’t stop the bad news, and he couldn’t stop his staff from consuming bad news. But he could show everyone at Plante Moran that there was another side to the story.

Yes, the economy was in dire straits, and yes, it was putting a strain on just about every business. However, that was the surface-level story. If Krater dug a little deeper and asked a few more questions, he believed he could find the toehold that would help give his people a more positive outlook on the future.

To get the answers to his questions, Krater utilized Plante Moran’s vast and powerful client base.

“We have a really solid base, so we are a great place to take the pulse of the economy,” Krater says. “We have thousands of clients that include influential companies and leaders in our region. So I went out and talked to them. I tried to get what was fact versus what was conjecture, the real reactions to the issues at hand versus the reactions to a state of paranoia.

“I wanted to get a real sense for where our clients thought things were going, and where things were headed in reality. I didn’t want to just read a bunch of things in the media and allow us to be influenced by that. We needed to talk to our clients to get a real sense of where things stood.”

Krater was able to take what he learned from the firm’s clients and use it to keep his staff more thoroughly informed. If Krater foresaw a drop in business related to a particular account, he shared as much as he could regarding the reasons behind the drop in business and the potential severity of the drop.

“Rather than simply saying, ‘Business is down,’ we tried to answer how far down,” he says. “There is a big difference between business being 40 percent down and 5 percent down. If we had someone worried about whether a contract would be renewed, like a major auto supplier, versus having a contract canceled outright, there is big difference between those two. A big part of what we had to do was differentiate what was really happening versus the fear of what might happen.”

Krater wanted to focus his people on the day-to-day work of running the firm, not the horror stories coming from the nation’s financial centers. The staff at Plante Moran couldn’t help what was happening in Washington and on Wall Street, but they could do something about positioning the firm to weather the storm by strengthening its client relationships.

“People were concerned about the possible collapse of the financial system,” he says. “It was this growing idea that business as usual was over, and there was a new normal, which was a difficult concept for a lot of people to accept, both here and elsewhere.

“Here in Detroit, we had a front-row seat to watch GM and Chrysler go into bankruptcy, and nobody knew if they were going to come out. So all of that was swirling around, and we couldn’t do much about a lot of it. So what we needed to do was focus on our clients. We needed to do what we could, which was to serve our clients in the best way possible to help them through those tough times.”

Seize control

Taking control of a crisis means to take control of communication. Your people need to hear the truth about your company’s situation directly from you, which means you need to stay well informed, so that you can better share information with your people.

During the depths of the recession, Krater wanted to give his associates at Plante Moran a realistic view of the situation that the firm was facing. Often, people associate realism with pessimism. Nobody has ever associated a reality check with something positive. But Krater believes pessimism can run as rampant as optimism, if left unchecked.

“That’s why you can’t panic,” he says. “That is why you try to get to reality, to what is real versus what is being thrown around out there. You try to find your own answers as to what is going on out there with the economy, as opposed to taking what you read at face value. Of course, I read everything I could get my hands on about what was happening out there, but you verify what you read.

“You can be truthful and realistic and optimistic at the same time. I wanted our people to know that despite what was happening, we are still going to be here, we are going to emerge stronger than ever, and most importantly, here is how we’re going to do it. You need substance to your message.”

By taking control of communication, you are really taking control of your culture. When tales of woe are assaulting your people from all sides, morale starts to erode; the collective confidence of your people starts to wane, replaced by anxiety and paranoia, which produce a counterproductive work environment.

With frequent and comprehensive communication, you can combat the negative inertia of a crisis by reminding your people why your company can still be successful and by focusing everyone on those items. That approach reminds your people that they’re not helpless, they’re still capable of controlling the company’s destiny, and they have a means of pulling the company out of the crisis.

In short, you want to promote a message of empowerment.

“We tell a lot of stories around our firm, and we’ll talk about clients and their experiences with us,” Krater says. “Frank Moran was our founder, and his undergraduate college degree was in philosophy. One of the things he’d talk about was the idea that we were a people firm disguised as an accounting firm.

“So we have been focused on our culture, ideals and principles since the beginning. We’ll relay stories to each other about a staff member who helped a client, how it happened and so forth — not unlike how I hear Quicken Loans does it.

“If you ask a person who has been there for two years or more, they’ll be able to give you a number of examples of how to deal with a given situation, based on a story they heard from somebody.”

Properly managing communication, and by extension your culture, is a critical component of crisis management. If you let your culture wither in a time of crisis, you’ll find it is a long road back when you set about rebuilding it.

“Every company has a culture,” Krater says. “The question is, is it good or bad? If you let your culture go bad, one of the toughest things to do is rebuild it. It takes so much energy and time, and it’s just a very difficult task. It takes energy away from serving those who you have to serve outside the company in order to make your living. We have a great culture here, and one of the things we do is fiercely protect it. You can’t let anything get in the way of that.”

Invest in what you can

During a recession, or any time of crisis, you need to spend money.

It seems counterintuitive when business is down and revenue is drying up, but when you face choppy financial waters, your company needs you to invest in resources and talent more than ever.

At Plante Moran, Krater and his leadership team made a commitment to hiring new talent during the recession. With added talent, Plante Moran was able to explore new business avenues and set itself up for a period of growth as the recession has loosened its grip over the past two years.

Plante Moran frequently hires college graduates straight from campus, but during the recession, Krater and his team took a bit of a different approach.

“Other companies had to cut some really good people loose, and because of our strong culture and reputation, we were able to attract some really good people who had been cut from other companies,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest advantages of making your culture a priority. You can provide opportunities for people, and they know you are a great place to work.”

If your people know they can impact the future in a positive way, they’ll want to work for your company, regardless of the economic landscape. If they know their work will be appreciated by management, and make a difference in the long run, it will be much easier for your people to tune out the negativity around them and develop a goal-focused mindset on improving your company’s outlook.

“People want to feel like they’re in the know, and they want to feel like they are making a difference,” Krater says. “One of the problems you can run into as an organization gets larger is this attitude of, ‘If I don’t do this one little thing, it won’t matter.’ It can become harder to connect them to the impact they can have.

“Any business, any profession is a game of inches. The little things make the difference between real success and not doing as well. It’s having people who are empowered and believe in their ability to make an impact that makes the difference. That is where you find the real gold.” <<

How to reach: Plante Moran PLLC, (248) 352-2500 or

www.plantemoran.com

 

The Krater file

Born: Detroit

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of Michigan

First job: It seems like I always worked growing up. I was always cutting grass or babysitting. The first time I got a W-2, however, I was a lifeguard at a municipal pool when I was 16.

Krater on making an impression on Michigan State University men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo: We have an annual firm conference where we close the firm down for a day, right around the end of our fiscal year on June 30. Every single person is invited, no matter what their role is. It’s a day when we talk about the firm, what we’ve done, what our goals are going forward, and we celebrate. We celebrate not only the successes of the firm, but of the individuals in the firm.

Oftentimes, we have a guest speaker, and one time we had Tom Izzo come in and speak to us. I was talking to him before the meeting, he had his notes on what he’s going to say, and he asked me ‘So, who is here today?’

I told him everybody in the firm is here. He says, ‘You closed the whole place down? Every single person is here? Not many people walk their talk like you guys do.’

On the spot, he changed what he was going to talk about. He talked about (his 2000 national championship team) that had a rough start to the year. And he actually called in the maintenance man, his administrative assistant and a lot of other people besides just the players. He told everyone, ‘You know what? We’re not doing a very good job. Everybody has to do better, because everybody contributes to the success of this organization.’

He talked about how when they won the national championship, and they got the championship rings that everybody covets so much, the first ring went to the janitor, because he is the guy who opened the gym so the players can practice.

That sends the message that everybody’s contribution is important. That is how we feel, and needless to say, he was a big hit speaking to 1,700 people about something that we really try to practice.

Richard Reif is well-versed on the subject of health care reform — and he should be. He had a 13-year head start on the government.

In 1997, more than a decade before President Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law, Reif worked with the leadership team at Doylestown Hospital to build a strategic plan around a series of building blocks designed to promote many of the same areas of emphasis now outlined in the federal act.

Reif, the hospital’s longtime president and CEO who will retire in December, wanted to build an organization in which health care providers believe they have a duty to preserve health as much as they have an obligation to cure illness.

He wanted an organization that fostered alignment among all staff members who came in contact with a given patient — doctors, nurses and support staff all united with a common goal of providing a high-quality and seamless patient experience.

“We had a series of building blocks that I believed would be paramount to our long-term success,” Reif says. “I testified before Congress that year on the issue of how we needed to transform health care. It was the origin of a lot of things that were proposed in the (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act). We have used those fundamental building blocks to help drive who we are, always coming back to what benefits the patient and the patient’s family.”

But building that kind of organization wasn’t as simple as posting a mission statement over the entrance door. It required Reif and his team to define what Doylestown Hospital stood for as both a business and a health care entity and what it meant to work for the hospital. He then had to focus 2,000 associates and 900 volunteers on those core beliefs, keeping the message in front of existing staff and introducing the message to new staff.

In short, it took consistent and tireless communication.

Know who you are

Every business has an identity. Defining that identity, however, can be a difficult and ongoing process. Organizations, like the people who comprise them, don’t easily fit into prefabricated molds.

But defining what you are as an organization is essential to developing your mission and core values.

At Doylestown Hospital, Reif draws heavily on the organization’s history to chart a course for the future. The Village Improvement Association, a local women’s group that still owns the hospital, founded the hospital in 1923. The hospital was founded as a product of one of the association’s missions — to promote health and wellness in the Doylestown community.

With that as a guiding beacon, Reif put his effort into preserving and improving the hospital as a resource for health and wellness in the immediate area, closely embracing that identity.

“We don’t do a lot of teaching and we don’t do a lot of research,” Reif says. “We do a bit of both, but that isn’t our primary emphasis. We want to stay focused on our patients and serving them to the best of our ability.”

Often, companies and organizations try to define themselves by the business they conduct instead of the people they serve. Your list of clients might be impressive, your product might be cutting-edge and your services might have helped you carve out a lucrative niche.

But if you can’t identify the positive impact your company makes on the people you ultimately serve, you’re not doing a good job of identifying your company’s reason for being, which in turn, could have a damaging effect on your ability to promote your culture and motivate your employees to do their best work.

“Whether I’m relating the concept to people in this area or outside this area, you tend to find a universal problem in that people can have a tendency to lose where their focus is meant to be,” Reif says.

“Sometimes, you worry more about the business scale of what you’re doing as opposed to what and who you are ultimately impacting. That’s especially important in our field due to the nature of our work. Hospitals and schools are two great examples of organizations in which you should know what you should be doing.”

Reif learned the value of developing and maintaining an organizational identity early in his career, when he worked at a pair of Quaker hospitals.

“I came to learn a lot about myself as well, as well as what you need to do to emphasize the importance and value of the people you serve,” he says. “I believe my job is to create an environment where those people can achieve their sense of inspiration.”

To build an organizational identity around developing relationships and serving your customers, you need to give your employees — especially the employees who directly face your customers — the tools and resources necessary to foster those relationships and maintain them over the long haul.

“One of the things we do and communicate is the whole issue of our values and our responsiveness and giving the people the tools they need to be successful,” Reif says. “It can be continuing education, it can be the right equipment, it can be the right work environment. It can be that you try to cultivate a sense of respect between departments or a sense of functional respect between doctors and associates. But you’re ultimately trying to focus on a series of things that are all related back to the mission and the core values.”

Live the culture

Reif couldn’t build an organization that promotes alignment and accountability without a strong culture to serve as its backbone. Building and maintaining the culture was an essential first step.

A company’s culture lives and breathes through the actions of its employees. But you don’t get the desired actions without employees who have a firm belief in the mission and values of the organization. It needs to start with the hiring process, when you identify the job candidates who you think have the personality and individual values needed to mesh with your organizational values.

But if you don’t seed and cultivate your culture within those people, all you’ll ever have is raw materials and a workforce full of unrealized potential.

That’s why Reif gets involved in the training of new Doylestown Hospital employees from their first week on the job.

“I am in my 24th year now in this position, and I do virtually every new associate orientation,” Reif says. “We start with the premise that we are all aimed in the same direction, and I emphasize our sense of responsibility to our mission and our values. We reinforce that in any way we possibly can, no matter what topic. Where we are, how people are evaluated, how we make decisions — it always comes back to the mission.”

Once new employees are up to speed with how health care and business are conducted at the hospital, Reif further reinforces the culture through the stories of patients — the consumers of the hospital’s end products and services. By putting a human face on the ultimate product of the work each employee does, you demonstrate the ultimate benefit that the work of each person has to the end consumer.

“We have a major fundraiser every spring, and this year, we had 80 to 100 women involved,” Reif says. “As I was thanking them for their involvement in the effort, I reminded them why we were raising the money. This year, it happened to be that they’re raising money for a maternity unit, so in my presentation, I put pictures of four newborn babies on the screen.

“Another time, at the end of our budget approval for the following fiscal year, we had a board meeting. I showed our board 10 pictures of patients living with cancer. They’re people who we are treating, who agreed to be photographed for this presentation. I put their pictures in front of everyone and told their story. In both cases, showing the babies we delivered and the cancer patients we’re treating, it reminds us why we’re here as an organization.

“We share stories of patient successes, and even the times when we fail a patient. We need to learn from those stories as well. It always comes back to who we are serving.”

Reif says the real-life examples serve as a means of showing empathy. Effective leaders need to foster a sense of empathy within their organizations. That includes empathy between employees and management and empathy between those inside and outside the company.

If management does a good job of instilling a sense of empathy within the culture, that feeling will trickle down to the relationship your employees have with the people you serve — be they customers, clients or, in the case of Doylestown Hospital, patients.

“You have to be empathetic to your people,” Reif says. “You have to listen. If I’m showing empathy to the people who work here, the associates and why we value that, they are going to be more empathetic with regard to their relationship with the patients.

“If I remember who is providing the patient care and I treat them with respect, they’re going to continue that relationship with the people they come into contact with, which includes the patients and their families. Again, it’s always coming back to who you serve and what you are as an organization.” <<

How to reach: Doylestown Hospital, (215) 345-2200

or www.dh.org

Richard Reif, president and CEO, Doylestown Hospital

The Reif file

Born: I was born in Baltimore. I actually went on to become the CEO of the hospital I was born in, Union Memorial Hospital.

Education: Zoology degree from the University of Maryland; Hospital administration degree from the Medical College of Virginia (now VCU Medical Center).

First job: My first real job was as a Good Humor truck driver when I was 18. The following year I started working in hospitals.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

I learned to be genuine and be yourself, and find an organization that values you. Those are the two most important things: be sincere and fit the organization.

What traits or skills are essential for a leader?

Empathy, listening and consensus-building. Those are three things that Quakers do very well. In my time at Quaker hospitals, I learned to conceptualize, think long-term and be a steward to the community.

What is your definition of success?

It is a statement more than a set of criteria, and I can quote it from you. My wife and I both live by it: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” (Attributed to William Penn.)

A little over a year ago, Randy Highland came back home.

He had been away from the California division of McCarthy Building Cos. Inc. for nearly eight years, heading the company’s Nevada/Utah division in Las Vegas. In 2011, he accepted an offer to return to the company’s Newport Beach office as the president of the California region. It’s a place where he had served the construction contractor in a variety of roles for 16 years before leaving for Las Vegas in 2004.

But when you leave as a subordinate and return as the man in charge, the perspective changes.

“There is obviously a big challenge getting yourself familiarized with all our people here,” Highland says. “There are a lot of new folks here who weren’t here seven and eight years ago. So, initially, I was taking a lot of time to get acquainted with them, understanding everybody’s strengths and making sure all of the new folks who didn’t know me from my first stint here got an opportunity to meet me and ask whatever questions they might have.”

But it wasn’t as simple as handshakes and introductions. As the regional president, Highland needed to form a vision for the future of McCarthy in California, help form a plan for executing the vision, create buy-in on the plan and see it all through to completion.

“When you step into a role like this, you need a plan, and then the biggest challenge is making sure you are adequately communicating the vision,” Highland says. “I needed to make sure it was communicated accurately and frequently, and that I was getting multiple touches with all of our folks in all the areas where we operate.

“They say you can never overcommunicate, and I think it’s true. You need to take the opportunity to communicate that vision and your strategic direction for the company at all times.”

Form the vision

As the president of a division within a larger organization, Highland is in the position of ensuring that the goals of his region fall in line with the goals of the company at large.

When he took over as the president of McCarthy’s California operations — which generated $950 million in revenue last year — Highland began a period of internal assessment. He wanted to know where the region stood, so he could form the best possible plan for where it needed to go.

“There is obviously a direction for the division and goals and objectives for the division that already exist,” he says. “And there is a strategic vision for the division. So you come in, you assess where everything stands, and you form an adequate time frame for the transition to the new leadership. That is one thing I think we did extremely well.”

Instead of an abrupt switch — picking a day and switching the nameplate on the president’s office door — Highland worked with retiring regional president Carter Chappell over eight months to help smooth the transition process. Highland officially assumed total capacity of the president’s role this past February.

“The last thing you want in a transition like this is for it to have a negative impact on the division’s goals and financial results for the year,” Highland says. “So you want to make sure you don’t take a step backward because you’re spending all your time on the transition while failing to keep your eye on the ball.”

During the first half of the transition, Highland served as something of an apprentice to Chappell, shadowing the outgoing president to begin meeting employees and learning the processes that are employed throughout the region.

Over time, Highland took increasing control of responsibilities and decision-making. During the second half of the transition, Highland effectively served as the president, with Chappell as his adviser.

As Highland assumed more control, he began to fashion a new direction for the region. His vision didn’t differ from Chappell’s vision on a fundamental level, but there were some new areas Highland wanted to explore.

“Certainly, my predecessor had a vision, and for the most part, there is agreement in the overall vision,” he says. “But there are going to be some tweaks on what I see as our vision and where I want us to head as an organization.”

Specifically, Highland wanted to focus his efforts on driving McCarthy’s California region to $1 billion in annual revenue. He also wanted to commit resources to the company’s San Diego-area operations with the goal of becoming the top commercial construction contractor in San Diego.

“It’s a vision that has both short-term and long-term aspects,” he says. “It is important to set the stage of where you see the organization in five years and beyond. You definitely want to spend time thinking about the big-picture objectives surrounding the long-term vision.

“Then, you spend time formulating the short-term strategies that will help you ultimately achieve those longer-term goals. That stuff is a little more tactical, as opposed to strategic.”

Once you have formed a detailed vision for where you want to take your company, the next crucial step is to get everyone in the organization on board with it. You do that through a multifaceted communication strategy that encourages dialogue and feedback.

Create buy-in

Throughout his first year as regional president, Highland has repeatedly stressed the importance of utilizing a communication strategy that offers multiple interaction points between him and his management team and the hundreds of employees who work both at the regional home office and at job sites throughout the state.

The interface opportunities come in a variety of methods and settings, including formal seminars, informal social functions, person-to-person meetings and electronic avenues.

“As far as the big-picture opportunities go, we perform a divisional seminar twice a year,” Highland says. “It’s an update on both the division and the entire company. The seminars are a mechanism for me to set the vision for where we are headed and do so in front of everyone in the region.

“Last October, when I was still in my transitional period, we had one of those seminars, and that is one of the first places where I laid down my vision for the region and set up the goals and objectives for the whole group.

“However, you still need multiple touches, because you can’t expect all of this to happen in one get-together. You need numerous opportunities throughout the year.

“Another thing we’ll do is have quarterly updates within the division. Those are different from the twice-yearly seminars in that they’re constructed as informal social hours. We try to have a little fun with those. It’s kind of like a happy hour where I’ll get everyone in the office here and bring them together, and we’ll just talk about the current division highlights, then take any questions that the group may have.

“Those gatherings are smaller than the seminars, where we can have 400 to 500 people. The smaller groups offer more of an opportunity to take questions and give updates.”

The formal, twice-yearly gatherings allow Highland and his leadership team a chance to roll out large-scale presentations. The smaller, informal gatherings are a chance to inform the staff of smaller-scale tweaks and alterations to the plan, along with any other changes that have come up in the interim. It allows the leadership to drill down on areas that might need a more detailed explanation.

It’s those areas of detail that allow for dialogue between management and employees, which is a critical aspect to his communication strategy because McCarthy is constructed as an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, — a company structure that allows employees to have an ownership interest.

With an ESOP structure, employee input becomes necessary regarding the company’s future, since employees are stakeholders.

“There were a couple of questions at the first meeting about what work, exactly, we are going to do within our commercial business unit,” Highland says. “We talked a bit about one market that we are definitely going to chase in that unit, which is the wastewater market. We talked about a few other areas in those markets, including detention and correctional facilities, hospitality and entertainment, and airport work.

“So creating those opportunities for dialoguing is just another way to connect the dots throughout the whole organization, getting everybody to understand what the tactical approaches are going to be for executing on the strategic vision — meaning, what markets we are going to attack.”

In addition to his own personal contact with employees, Highland utilizes communication avenues that don’t require him to be in the room. It’s an important aspect of communication for any CEO or president, particularly if your company covers a large geography. You can’t be everywhere at once, but your message still needs to resonate with all employees at all locations.

Highland uses email blasts to inform the staff of events, new hires and promotions, and various other accomplishments within the division.

But Highland believes a computer screen can’t be the only other face of the company besides his, so he relies heavily on his management team to keep the messages clear and the dialogue moving. He enables his management team and middle managers to communicate the vision, but he also wants feedback to ensure that the message is reaching everyone’s eyes and ears in the form he intended.

That’s why he checks in regularly with many of his managers, asking them what feedback they’re getting from their teams.

“It is important that you take the time to have touches with those people, so that you’re getting a sense at all levels of the company about what the pulse is out there, how people are responding to the direction you are headed, and it gives you another opportunity to see if the communication is getting through.

“You kind of do an ‘end-around.’ You might think you’re communicating well, but it’s always good to go back and see if the message really resonates, if people understand it. Are your midmanagers communicating the message effectively to all members of the organization? It’s kind of a trust-but-verify approach.”

Highland will often ask his managers what types of questions they’re receiving from their teams. It’s often a good barometer for determining whether the message is getting through clearly as it passes through the various levels of the company.

“Just by the questions that folks have, you can get a read on whether the message was communicated accurately,” he says. “You can find out if some folks legitimately have a point or an issue with what we’re doing, if it’s something we need to address.

“My direct reports and the layer under them understand that part of their job is to make sure they take the time and make the effort to take the pulse of the company, find out what folks are saying about the information they’re hearing. That is a key part of communication and making sure everyone is on board with your vision.” <<

How to reach: McCarthy Building Cos. Inc., (949) 851-8383 or www.mccarthy.com

The Highland file

Randy Highland

President, California region

McCarthy Building Cos. Inc.

Born: Lansing, Ill.

Education: Civil engineering degree from Bradley University, Peoria, Ill.

First job: I was a paperboy for a paper called the Village Press. I’ll never forget it, because it wasn’t a subscription paper — it went to everybody. So I had to deliver like 600 papers twice a week on my bike. Obviously, that teaches you that hard work pays off.

It also demonstrates something that I try to teach our younger people: Try to ace everything. Sometimes you’ll be asked to do things you don’t want to do, but even if you’re not passionate about it, it’s a short-term thing, and what is important is that you ace it. If you do that, you’ll be recognized earlier in your career as someone who has the ability to do a lot of different things successfully.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

I have two. One is the importance of communicating the strategic vision to your folks, getting the right people on the bus, give them the support to be successful and then stay out of their way. Another is to take a genuine interest in the development of your people. You are only as good as the folks around you.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

If you don’t have honesty and integrity, people are going to see right through you. You also have to be a good communicator, a solid evaluator of talent and you need to be willing to put the interests of other ahead of your own.

What is your definition of success?

Achieving the goals that you set is my most basic definition of success. But it’s also watching your people grow and develop, and becoming successful themselves – and having a little bit of fun while you’re at it.

The topic of succession planning had been on the table for quite some time for Andy Morrison and his fellow co-founders at Market Strategies International. But it wasn’t until 2006 that the clock really started ticking.

“We started to understand, really around 2000, that as we matured in the business, it was time for us to start thinking about who would be our successors, really under the condition that we wanted the firm to remain independent,” Morrison says. “That is when we started to think about a succession plan and a succession strategy for our positions.

“But in 2006, we acquired a private equity partner, Veronis Suhler Stevenson, and that was really the second stage of succession planning because now we had an outside partner and a board of directors.”

As a component of the partnership, Veronis Suhler Stevenson mandated that Market Strategies look for add-on acquisitions, particularly companies that had younger leadership.

“That was a main part of the criteria for any acquisition, that we find young-but-seasoned management who would be in the business for a considerable period of time and could potentially become companywide leaders once they joined our organization,” Morrison says.

In 2007, Market Strategies acquired Doxus, a marketing and product strategy consulting firm, bringing Rob Stone into the fold. Morrison and the leadership team quickly identified Stone as someone with high growth potential in a leadership role and began grooming him in an executive vice president’s role.

In February, Morrison — the company’s CEO since 1994 — decided to step down, effective March 31, transitioning into the chairman’s role. Satisfied with Stone’s development, the leadership team offered Stone the CEO’s position, which he readily accepted.

That’s the short version. In reality, it wasn’t as simple as Morrison stepping down and Stone stepping up. Over the course of many months, Morrison and Stone worked together, along with the rest of Market Strategies’ executive team, to develop and execute a detailed succession plan that fell in line with the overall goals of the market research and consulting firm and to communicate it to everyone in the company.

Lay the groundwork

A good succession plan is a road map. It shows you where you need to go and what possible routes you can take to get there, so that you and your team can plan the safest and most prudent route for your business.

The preparedness of the leadership team is something that made an immediate impression on Stone when he joined Market Strategies in 2007.

“That is one of the factors that worked well in our favor,” Stone says. “Andy and the entire cohort of founding managers have always been very transparent in the company regarding what their plans are, what the timelines are — because it is critical for people to understand what the road map looks like so that these sorts of changes don’t come as a surprise.”

The transparency is the result of an ongoing dialogue among the top managers in the company. The communication among the members of the management team gave Stone and George Wilkerson — who was named president at the same time Stone was named CEO — an opportunity to have a voice in the decision-making process as the future of the company took shape.

“There is a level of unnecessary surprise that can mar succession planning,” Stone says. “The communication process, which allowed myself and George to be completely invested and present in the key strategic decisions that the company has been making, helped remove that. It also has helped us to be more available and present to the staff at large.

“It has always been clear to our people as to who has an ongoing voice in the management of the company, who were the people on the executive committee and who were the people authoring the strategic three-year plans.”

Even though Stone and Wilkerson were involved as members of the leadership team, their consideration for the top spots in the organization wasn’t automatic. Market Strategies conducted a lengthy search that narrowed the field down, first to an internally focused search, and then specifically to Stone and Wilkerson.

Morrison and his team initially looked at candidates both inside and outside the organization. They wanted their ideal candidates to possess a number of qualities, including areas of expertise that Morrison’s team didn’t possess, such as experience with international markets.

Developing a list of essential qualities that every leadership candidate must have is a critical component to the hiring process. Along with international experience, Morrison and his team constructed a list of other qualities needed to successfully lead Market Strategies, which generated $75 million in revenue during 2011, Morrison’s final full year as CEO.

“On the established leadership team, we knew we had to think about who the replacements might be, and that was very much spurred by the integration process,” Morrison says. “We knew we wanted to add younger businesspeople who had played a big part in running their own companies. They knew how to meet a payroll, they knew what it takes to manage a business.”

However, along with the valuable experience and skills comes baggage. Incoming leaders learn how to manage according to the rules of their previous company, and assimilating them can take a certain amount of deprogramming and reprogramming.

“The baggage manifests itself in a number of different ways,” Morrison says. “Their own track record can work against us. They might have had to sign significant noncompete agreements that create major barriers to them holding a management role at another firm.

“Age was another factor. Some other people we talked to had a similar age to myself and those of us who were already leading the firm, which meant there was no real advantage in terms of bringing them aboard in a successor capacity, since they were probably looking at retirement as well.”

Morrison never hired a third-party search firm, but he and his team did work with a consultant on an informal basis. The consultant helped Morrison refine the criteria for evaluating a leadership candidate, which ultimately led to a focus on internal candidates.

“He is a trusted industry adviser and ran one of the largest firms in the industry at one point,” Morrison says. “He helped give us the final insight regarding what he saw as the advantages and disadvantages of internal succession planning candidates versus external.

“When you add all of that up, it really did lead to the fact that we did have candidates internally who were going to be as well-qualified and well-positioned as we could have hoped for. That is what convinced me that we would be fine selecting from the people who were already managers in the organization, as opposed to people who were on the outside.”

Step into the role

The transition occurred at the end of March, but soon after Morrison and his team zeroed in on Stone as their CEO candidate of choice, they began to train him for his role. One of the chief responsibilities Stone needed to master is that of communication.

It’s perhaps the biggest difference between a leader and an assistant. The leader needs to oversee the entire organization, not just a piece of the pie. An assistant coach in football or basketball might only take charge of the offense or defense. He might manage a section of the playbook. But the head coach has to bring every player on the roster together and unite all of the players around a common set of goals.

That means the head coach, much like a CEO, has to know how to communicate effectively to a large audience.

In the six months prior to their formal appointments, Stone and Wilkerson ramped up their interaction with the entire Market Strategies workforce. It was a job with an added degree of difficulty due to the acquisitions the company had made in recent years, which meant a portion of the company’s employees weren’t originally members of the legacy company — including Stone and Wilkerson.

“That was one of the concerns for the people here who had been a part of the legacy Market Strategies for quite a while,” Stone says. “They wanted to know what this means, if anything, for our culture because the people now leading the company at an executive level are not the people who founded it and led it for the first couple decades of its existence.”

Stone’s primary location was another area of concern for employees. Stone is based in the Atlanta area and decided at the outset of the transition that he had no desire to relocate to the Detroit area. He would, instead, visit the company’s Livonia headquarters on a regular basis while primarily operating out of Atlanta.

“We had to ask ourselves if that really matters anymore,” Morrison says. “Does it really matter if all the C-level officers live in one place? We’re a smaller firm, but I had to ask myself how a Ford Motor Co. operates when their leadership is literally worldwide, with senior officers on every continent. In this day and age, if you haven’t learned to communicate worldwide, you’re in trouble from the get-go. You need to be able to effectively communicate worldwide.”

With modern communication technology, you can effectively run a business with executives, managers and employees in different locations. But it also creates an added set of challenges for someone in Stone’s position.

Most critically, if you aren’t there in person each day to promote the vision and strategy of the organization, someone else needs to be communicating in your place. Otherwise, you run the risk of complacency setting in.

It’s something that Stone has worked at tirelessly in the months since he’s taken over the CEO’s role and something that he’ll continue to work at as he fine-tunes his approach.

“That’s the danger in an internal transition, particularly if you’re running an organization with several lines of business,” Stone says. “To answer that, George and I are continually ramping up our communication, particularly to the next group of leadership candidates that we hire. We want to impart the best practices that we would hope leadership candidates would abide by. Their first priority upon accepting their new role is to get out there, talk to people, be present and available.

“It’s easy to get complacent. If you’re transitioning into a new role from another place within the organization, you can kind of become complacent yourself. You can take it for granted that people throughout the company know you, that the people on your team know you.

“That’s why, when you are assuming a new role like this, you need to put as much attention and care as is possible into reaching out to your people, getting your message into all of your various offices and locations.” <<

How to reach: Market Strategies International,

(734) 542-7600 or www.marketstrategies.com

The file

Andy Morrison, chairman, Market Strategies International

Rob Stone, CEO, Market Strategies International

Education

Morrison: Doctorate in mass communications research and bachelor's degree in English and journalism with a teaching certificate, University of Michigan.

Stone: Doctorate in cultural studies, Columbia University.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Morrison: Constant communication, which includes both talking and listening. Everybody emphasizes listening nowadays, but you also have to be an effective talker.

Stone: You have to be absolutely dedicated to the success of your clients and colleagues. It seems like one of the simplest lessons to learn, but it is one that is seldom learned.

What traits or skills are essential for a leader?

Morrison: You need integrity in every sense of the word. You need to be open and transparent in your communication, and deliver on the promises that you make to clients and employees. I also admire decisiveness. Make a decision and set in motion the steps you need to get to the result you want. That is something that is critical to me.

Stone: I would add that you need to convey passion for what you do. That is a big part of our job as leaders, to constantly convey the passion and excitement we feel to all of our teams.

Friday, 26 October 2012 11:54

The topic of succession planning had been on the table for quite some time for Andy Morrison and his fellow co-founders at Market Strategies International. But it wasn’t until 2006 that the clock really started ticking.

“We started to understand, really around 2000, that as we matured in the business, it was time for us to start thinking about who would be our successors, really under the condition that we wanted the firm to remain independent,” Morrison says. “That is when we started to think about a succession plan and a succession strategy for our positions.

“But in 2006, we acquired a private equity partner, Veronis Suhler Stevenson, and that was really the second stage of succession planning because now we had an outside partner and a board of directors.”

As a component of the partnership, Veronis Suhler Stevenson mandated that Market Strategies look for add-on acquisitions, particularly companies that had younger leadership.

“That was a main part of the criteria for any acquisition, that we find young-but-seasoned management who would be in the business for a considerable period of time and could potentially become companywide leaders once they joined our organization,” Morrison says.

In 2007, Market Strategies acquired Doxus, a marketing and product strategy consulting firm, bringing Rob Stone into the fold. Morrison and the leadership team quickly identified Stone as someone with high growth potential in a leadership role and began grooming him in an executive vice president’s role.

In February, Morrison — the company’s CEO since 1994 — decided to step down, effective March 31, transitioning into the chairman’s role. Satisfied with Stone’s development, the leadership team offered Stone the CEO’s position, which he readily accepted.

That’s the short version. In reality, it wasn’t as simple as Morrison stepping down and Stone stepping up. Over the course of many months, Morrison and Stone worked together, along with the rest of Market Strategies’ executive team, to develop and execute a detailed succession plan that fell in line with the overall goals of the market research and consulting firm and to communicate it to everyone in the company.

Lay the groundwork

A good succession plan is a road map. It shows you where you need to go and what possible routes you can take to get there, so that you and your team can plan the safest and most prudent route for your business.

The preparedness of the leadership team is something that made an immediate impression on Stone when he joined Market Strategies in 2007.

“That is one of the factors that worked well in our favor,” Stone says. “Andy and the entire cohort of founding managers have always been very transparent in the company regarding what their plans are, what the timelines are — because it is critical for people to understand what the road map looks like so that these sorts of changes don’t come as a surprise.”

The transparency is the result of an ongoing dialogue among the top managers in the company. The communication among the members of the management team gave Stone and George Wilkerson — who was named president at the same time Stone was named CEO — an opportunity to have a voice in the decision-making process as the future of the company took shape.

“There is a level of unnecessary surprise that can mar succession planning,” Stone says. “The communication process, which allowed myself and George to be completely invested and present in the key strategic decisions that the company has been making, helped remove that. It also has helped us to be more available and present to the staff at large.

“It has always been clear to our people as to who has an ongoing voice in the management of the company, who were the people on the executive committee and who were the people authoring the strategic three-year plans.”

Even though Stone and Wilkerson were involved as members of the leadership team, their consideration for the top spots in the organization wasn’t automatic. Market Strategies conducted a lengthy search that narrowed the field down, first to an internally focused search, and then specifically to Stone and Wilkerson.

Morrison and his team initially looked at candidates both inside and outside the organization. They wanted their ideal candidates to possess a number of qualities, including areas of expertise that Morrison’s team didn’t possess, such as experience with international markets.

Developing a list of essential qualities that every leadership candidate must have is a critical component to the hiring process. Along with international experience, Morrison and his team constructed a list of other qualities needed to successfully lead Market Strategies, which generated $75 million in revenue during 2011, Morrison’s final full year as CEO.

“On the established leadership team, we knew we had to think about who the replacements might be, and that was very much spurred by the integration process,” Morrison says. “We knew we wanted to add younger businesspeople who had played a big part in running their own companies. They knew how to meet a payroll, they knew what it takes to manage a business.”

However, along with the valuable experience and skills comes baggage. Incoming leaders learn how to manage according to the rules of their previous company, and assimilating them can take a certain amount of deprogramming and reprogramming.

“The baggage manifests itself in a number of different ways,” Morrison says. “Their own track record can work against us. They might have had to sign significant noncompete agreements that create major barriers to them holding a management role at another firm.

“Age was another factor. Some other people we talked to had a similar age to myself and those of us who were already leading the firm, which meant there was no real advantage in terms of bringing them aboard in a successor capacity, since they were probably looking at retirement as well.”

Morrison never hired a third-party search firm, but he and his team did work with a consultant on an informal basis. The consultant helped Morrison refine the criteria for evaluating a leadership candidate, which ultimately led to a focus on internal candidates.

“He is a trusted industry adviser and ran one of the largest firms in the industry at one point,” Morrison says. “He helped give us the final insight regarding what he saw as the advantages and disadvantages of internal succession planning candidates versus external.

“When you add all of that up, it really did lead to the fact that we did have candidates internally who were going to be as well-qualified and well-positioned as we could have hoped for. That is what convinced me that we would be fine selecting from the people who were already managers in the organization, as opposed to people who were on the outside.”

Step into the role

The transition occurred at the end of March, but soon after Morrison and his team zeroed in on Stone as their CEO candidate of choice, they began to train him for his role. One of the chief responsibilities Stone needed to master is that of communication.

It’s perhaps the biggest difference between a leader and an assistant. The leader needs to oversee the entire organization, not just a piece of the pie. An assistant coach in football or basketball might only take charge of the offense or defense. He might manage a section of the playbook. But the head coach has to bring every player on the roster together and unite all of the players around a common set of goals.

That means the head coach, much like a CEO, has to know how to communicate effectively to a large audience.

In the six months prior to their formal appointments, Stone and Wilkerson ramped up their interaction with the entire Market Strategies workforce. It was a job with an added degree of difficulty due to the acquisitions the company had made in recent years, which meant a portion of the company’s employees weren’t originally members of the legacy company — including Stone and Wilkerson.

“That was one of the concerns for the people here who had been a part of the legacy Market Strategies for quite a while,” Stone says. “They wanted to know what this means, if anything, for our culture because the people now leading the company at an executive level are not the people who founded it and led it for the first couple decades of its existence.”

Stone’s primary location was another area of concern for employees. Stone is based in the Atlanta area and decided at the outset of the transition that he had no desire to relocate to the Detroit area. He would, instead, visit the company’s Livonia headquarters on a regular basis while primarily operating out of Atlanta.

“We had to ask ourselves if that really matters anymore,” Morrison says. “Does it really matter if all the C-level officers live in one place? We’re a smaller firm, but I had to ask myself how a Ford Motor Co. operates when their leadership is literally worldwide, with senior officers on every continent. In this day and age, if you haven’t learned to communicate worldwide, you’re in trouble from the get-go. You need to be able to effectively communicate worldwide.”

With modern communication technology, you can effectively run a business with executives, managers and employees in different locations. But it also creates an added set of challenges for someone in Stone’s position.

Most critically, if you aren’t there in person each day to promote the vision and strategy of the organization, someone else needs to be communicating in your place. Otherwise, you run the risk of complacency setting in.

It’s something that Stone has worked at tirelessly in the months since he’s taken over the CEO’s role and something that he’ll continue to work at as he fine-tunes his approach.

“That’s the danger in an internal transition, particularly if you’re running an organization with several lines of business,” Stone says. “To answer that, George and I are continually ramping up our communication, particularly to the next group of leadership candidates that we hire. We want to impart the best practices that we would hope leadership candidates would abide by. Their first priority upon accepting their new role is to get out there, talk to people, be present and available.

“It’s easy to get complacent. If you’re transitioning into a new role from another place within the organization, you can kind of become complacent yourself. You can take it for granted that people throughout the company know you, that the people on your team know you.

“That’s why, when you are assuming a new role like this, you need to put as much attention and care as is possible into reaching out to your people, getting your message into all of your various offices and locations.” <<

How to reach: Market Strategies International,

(734) 542-7600 or www.marketstrategies.com

The Morrison/Stone file

Andy Morrison, chairman, Market Strategies International

Rob Stone, CEO, Market Strategies International

Education

Morrison: Doctorate in mass communications research and bachelor's degree in English and journalism with a teaching certificate, University of Michigan.

Stone: Doctorate in cultural studies, Columbia University.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Morrison: Constant communication, which includes both talking and listening. Everybody emphasizes listening nowadays, but you also have to be an effective talker.

Stone: You have to be absolutely dedicated to the success of your clients and colleagues. It seems like one of the simplest lessons to learn, but it is one that is seldom learned.

What traits or skills are essential for a leader?

Morrison: You need integrity in every sense of the word. You need to be open and transparent in your communication, and deliver on the promises that you make to clients and employees. I also admire decisiveness. Make a decision and set in motion the steps you need to get to the result you want. That is something that is critical to me.

Stone: I would add that you need to convey passion for what you do. That is a big part of our job as leaders, to constantly convey the passion and excitement we feel to all of our teams.

Sue Schick is well-versed in the art of the uphill battle.

Two years ago, she was named CEO of the commercial business line in UnitedHealthcare’s Pennsylvania and Delaware region. It was a unique assignment. UnitedHealthcare is one of the pillars of the health insurance industry, with a strong presence and widespread brand recognition in numerous markets around the county.

But in Schick’s 1,044-employee unit, the company was a relative newcomer, broaching the Pennsylvania/Delaware region less than a decade prior.

“We have only been here seven or eight years, so we don’t have the widespread brand recognition yet,” Schick says. “One of the big things we have done in my time here, particularly last year, was to focus on building our brand and increasing the level of brand recognition.”

And it’s not just about TV commercials, billboards or sponsorship deals. For Schick, increasing the profile of the UnitedHealthcare brand in her region means connecting with the community and teaching current and potential customers what the company’s brand stands for.

“Some leaders think they have to build their brand, so they just go about putting their company’s name on a bunch of billboards and the sides of buses,” she says. “But we wanted to take a really comprehensive approach that included setting ourselves apart as thought leaders. For us, it becomes not just a matter of advertising. It’s a question of how do you become a part of the business community. How do you really put down roots in the community and find ways to contribute to it?”

To develop the connection between UnitedHealthcare and the communities in her region, Schick needed to develop a better connection between several thousand employees and the goals, vision and mission of the company. In short, she needed to reinforce corporate culture, creating a work environment in which employees would be empowered and impassioned to realize the goals and mission.

Paint a picture

The first step in motivating employees is to give them aggressive goals built around a compelling vision for where you want to take the company, then set the example from the top of how you want your people to accomplish the goals and realize the vision.

Schick started by reaching out to community organizations, placing an emphasis on community involvement and philanthropy that she expected her executive team to demonstrate as well, pushing the message to their teams and throughout the unit.

“We had several of our national executives in town meeting with the local chamber of commerce and meeting with an executive women’s forum,” Schick says. “We became very involved with philanthropy and corporate nonprofits.

“In fact, I think just about every member of my executive team sits on the board of a nonprofit now. I’m personally involved with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Pennsylvania chapter of the March of Dimes. It takes an organized effort to get to the point where you are not just advertising, but you are a part of the business community.”

However, you have to create a bigger message around your community endeavors. While community volunteer work and service on nonprofit boards is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself, if you want to integrate it into the overall culture and mindset of your business, you need to reinforce the altruism with internal communication.

Anytime Schick is in front of her people, whether in large audiences or small groups, she uses the opportunity to get her people thinking about their purpose and the potential of UnitedHealthcare in the Pennsylvania and Delaware marketplace.

“For a leader, one of the most important things you can do is paint a picture of the future,” Schick says. “Showing everyone what success is going to look like — what is the vision and what is the company’s full potential in the marketplace. It is a matter of inspiring those leaders to fall in behind that vision, and it all starts with communication.

“When you don’t have a team behind you, when you have failures in teamwork, many times the root cause of that is a lack of communication. Every opportunity I have to communicate with the entire team, I am talking about the vision, focusing them on our purpose and what we are trying to get done for our customers and members in Pennsylvania.

“Whether I am meeting with them one-on-one or in large groups or sending out a written communication or a video communication, it’s always a focus on reinforcing the vision of the future.”

With UnitedHealthcare, a relatively speaking new kid on the block, part of that vision involves embracing competition. Schick knows UnitedHealthcare faces stiff competition from health insurance providers that were established in the region long beforehand.

In connecting with the community and promoting the organizational goal of spreading the brand, Schick wants her team to embrace the challenge provided by competition, and realize that competition can benefit everyone in the end.

“If our ultimate goal is to help people live healthier lives, we have to look at the opportunities to make that mission real in this region,” Schick says. “The opportunity to really breathe life into that is to create a situation where employers and businesses have a choice, where they have true competition in health benefits so they can make the best choice for their employees.

“We see that wherever there is competition, that is going to lead to better and more innovative products, higher service levels and, over time, it is going to lead to more affordable costs.

“So when my team members get up in the morning, I want them to really think about what we can do to serve the business leaders in Pennsylvania and Delaware, what can we do to serve the consumers in the region, so that we are really helping to bring choice, which is a key component in bringing this vision of health and wellness to life.”

Live the culture

Schick thinks a lot of CEOs look at culture as a touchy-feely thing — an aspect of business leadership that has its place, but covers the rather squishy, formless subjects of motivation, purpose, morale and assorted other topics that might be more suited for discussion on a therapist’s couch.

In other words, culture is soft. It doesn’t impact the bottom line like hard data and numbers.

Schick sees it differently.

“When you have a positive, supportive culture, you can drive better results,” she says. “You can improve team satisfaction and engagement, you can improve customer service. If you’re focused on people and building relationships, if you’re focused on innovation, high integrity and developing people who approach their work with a compassionate spirit, you have a positive culture.

“Some people might say that’s soft. I say it’s not. A culture like that drives hard results.”

The CEO’s role is to set the values that comprise the foundation of the culture and ensure the company’s goals and vision are attained by methods that are in line with the cultural principles.

Schick began taking steps to strengthen the culture in her unit from her first day on the job and hasn’t stopped performing daily maintenance. She realized early that UnitedHealthcare’s success in branding and connecting with the communities of Pennsylvania and Delaware would heavily depend on how her employee perceived the company’s culture.

Before you can go out and build your brand to prominence, you need to know who you are as a company.

Schick focused on developing a mentality that embraced ambitious goals, learning from failures and creating the resourcefulness necessary to take advantage of market opportunities. She wanted a company in which focus on the cultural principles was a priority, not an afterthought.

“We talk about culture all the time,” she says. “The key to success in creating a really positive culture is that you talk about the culture first. You don’t have a business activity and then talk about the culture at the end. Culture is not like a side of fries. It’s not something that is optional. Culture should be embedded in everything you do.”

A positive culture is rooted in engagement, particularly when it comes to employee ideas and innovations. Employees have to feel like they’re a part of what is going on at the company. To that end, Schick and her leadership team carefully monitor the process by which employees are encouraged to bring new ideas to the table for consideration.

No company can use every single idea that employees bring forward, but how you accept or reject an idea can go a long way toward determining whether that employee accepts or rejects the culture of the company.

“It started small, with people bringing very small suggestions to life, and then we acted on them,” Schick says. “We publicized it and recognized people for bringing their ideas forward.

“The result has been that we have created a culture where people see innovation as their job. We set the pace, and now everybody wants to wake up in the morning and say, ‘How can we operate even more efficiently? How can we bring innovative products and solutions to market?’ It is a positive cycle of encouraging people, acting on their ideas and recognizing people when their ideas are successful.”

If an idea can’t be used, or isn’t ultimately successful, the creator of the idea receives recognition for speaking up in the first place.

“We celebrate failure, too,” Schick says. “The worst thing you can do is not speak up if you have an idea about how we can do a better job of serving our consumers out in the marketplace. Not every idea can work, so what can we do when it doesn’t work? We can recognize that person for having the guts to suggest the idea.”

It comes back to Schick’s philosophy on goal setting: If you really believe in something, aim for it. Don’t be afraid of overambitious goals.

“I’d rather aim for the stars and celebrate if you can get close,” she says. “I would rather not aim low or set low standards on goals. Sometimes if you take that approach, it requires a little bit more flexibility from a leadership standpoint, but it has worked pretty well for me in my career.”

If you want your employees to believe in your culture, your role as the leader is to avoid saying “no” unless the situation absolutely calls for it. That can be a judgment call, and it can be difficult to make at times, but if you have an employee who truly believes in an idea and truly believes it will be good for the business, work with them to modify the goal.

Schick believes goals can be both ambitions and sensible. When you can attain both, you’ve hit the sweet spot.

“If you’re setting a goal for an idea or project and people don’t see any way to reach it, you’ve just demoralized and disengaged your entire team,” she says. “The challenge for leaders is to figure out how to find that sweet spot. That gets back to the vision, the ability to see the future and paint a picture of what’s possible.

“If you can paint that picture, and you have a team that is engaged in the mission and values of the organization, they might see that this goal really is attainable.

“If you can work together to create the plan, and find a way for everyone involved to really contribute to that plan, I think that is when you are in the best situation.”

How to reach: UnitedHealthcare, (914) 467-2039 or www.uhc.com

The Schick file

Born: Long Branch, N.J.; Grew up in Fredericksburg, Va.

Education: Economics and business degree from Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, Va.

What was your first job?

I was a dishwasher at a steakhouse in Virginia. You learn a lot about hard work doing a job like that. I was 15 at the time.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the importance of taking care of your team members. That means investing in them, making sure we’re meeting their career goals and needs, and making sure we’re letting them bring ideas to the table.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

My answer is probably a little different from what it would have been a few years ago. Now, I’d probably say resilience and flexibility. The world is always changing, and what has worked in the past might not work in the future. So you need to have an attitude where you embrace innovation.

What is your definition of success?

I don’t look at my own success. I look at the success of my team and the satisfaction of my customers as my yardstick. If my employees are meeting their career goals, I am successful if I have helped them do that.

At some point in the past few years, it hit Rick Dawson: He had hundreds of experts working in his business, but no one was really working on the business.

The president and CEO of Bal Seal Engineering Inc. had 450 employees around the world. Just about all of them were performing at a high level, helping to vault the industrial solutions company into an era of growth, while most businesses were dealing with the effects of the recession.

“That has been the good news for us,” Dawson says. “A lot of businesses have been struggling, but we have been growing at a rate of just over 15 percent per year.”

Last year, the company generated $75 million in revenue, up from $64 million in 2010. The sailing was smooth, there were no alarm bells ringing at the company’s headquarters. Bal Seal was in a rare place of peace amid tumultuous economic circumstance.

Yet, Dawson sensed trouble forthcoming if he let the company continue to ride on its own momentum. Specifically, he saw a company that could strain itself by growing too fast, and growing without a well-defined strategic plan.

“We have been expanding into new markets and new regions,” Dawson says. “That definitely puts a strain on your capacity and resources. So, working with our leadership team, it has been important to establish clear goals and objectives of what our on-time delivery expectations are, what our product development requirements are, what our sales goals are. Then, make sure everybody clearly understands the direction and measures those results.”

Dawson has worked with the leadership team at Bal Seal to formulate a strategic plan that could help the company better manage growth, but that is only part of the equation. He and his team have also needed to work tirelessly to create alignment on plan throughout the company’s associates, spread among offices in Colorado, The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong and Japan, in addition to the company headquarters in Foothill Ranch.

Start at the top

Like many businesses, Bal Seal organizes yearly strategic planning meetings. In those meetings, Dawson and his management team plot out the umbrella goals and objectives for the coming year. The companywide goals are then used to formulate goals for each division and team within the organization.

“We develop functional goals and objectives for our operations team, sales team, health and safety team, and so forth,” Dawson says. “Those are then put into even more specific goals and objectives.”

The goals and objectives are what Dawson terms “smart goals” — specific, measurable, achievable and realistic. Dawson wants his employees to stretch beyond their comfort zone at times, but not so far that they’re reaching beyond the realistic capabilities of themselves or the company at that point in time. Goals need to be ambitious, but still realistically achievable.

Dawson and his team monitor the progress of the departments in implementing the cascaded goals through a series of stoplight meetings, which got their name from the three-color system assigned to the progress level of each objective.

“It’s a two to 2½ hour meeting each month, and each department manager is responsible for reporting the progress on their goals,” Dawson says. “Green means there are no problems and there is nothing to really talk about. Yellow means you have a problem, but you have worked within your own departmental team to come up with a solution. Red means you have a problem and haven’t been able to come up with a solution. If you have an objective that you have classified as “red,” we can then schedule a separate meeting to assist in dealing with that problem.”

Though Dawson likes to limit the number of meetings throughout the company, he has found value in the monthly stoplight meetings, which have helped to identify and address problems before they become major issues that compromise the pursuit of a department’s goals.

“The operations team was working on an on-time delivery objective, and what they found was that they were struggling to get a specific order out on time,” Dawson says. “It was an aerospace customer, and we had lead time issues with getting materials in on time. Then on top of that, we were having capacity issues.

“But by communicating with the sales team, those of us on the management team were able to identify exactly what they were struggling with, and the history of the customer that were impacted.

“Once we did that, the sales team was able to step in and get some relief from the customer. We were able to explain the delay, which was resulting from raw materials that were delayed offshore. Once the customer understood, it provided relief to the operations team, which helped us get the orders ready on time.

“Because we were able to get together and talk about it, we were able to identify the customer and the problem, and the problem was resolved before the product was late to the customer.”

Create alignment

As the layers and locations within your company increase, creating and maintaining alignment on organizational objectives becomes a more difficult and more involved task to accomplish. With 450 employees, Bal Seal doesn’t face the communication challenges of companies that employ many thousands. But with locations around the world, the management team still had its work cut out.

To help strengthen alignment, Dawson does what a lot of CEOs do: he logs air miles, visiting each of Bal Seal’s facilities twice a year, and having in-depth meetings with the facility directors at each stop.

“It’s important that you’re promoting the message to everyone, from the machinists to the managers,” Dawson says. “I also want to reinforce the messages laid out in our plan at the start of the year. We know at the beginning of the year what the schedule is for Europe, for Asia, but it is a constant challenge to make sure the staff remains aware of it, and is kept up to date on what is going on.”

There is a limit to how far down in an organization a CEO can, and should, reach. If the company is large enough, your place is not managing the factory floor. But you still have to construct a system that allows you to connect with everyone in the organization, from the top to the bottom.

If you can keep your finger on the pulse of the mood and attitude of your lowest-rung employees, you are in a much better position to determine whether your messages are permeating every layer of the company. You are also in a much better position to cut off the rumor mill, should issues arise.

“For example, we’re currently building a second facility in Colorado Springs,” Dawson says. “When I said we were building a new facility there, what everyone in the company heard was,‘We’re moving the company to Colorado Springs.’ That wasn’t the case. We’re expanding there. That’s where having a means of staying connected to everyone in the organization is so important. I had to reaffirm that we’re continuing our growth and expansion, not relocating.”

Dawson didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time he presented the message to a new audience, but he did have to tweak it in a manner that addressed the questions and concerns of whichever group within Bal Seal was receiving the message.

“It’s important that you’re promoting the message to everyone, from the machinists to the managers,” Dawson says. “To the machinists, you’re promoting the idea that the expansion allows for more job security. You’re soliciting input from the managers, and on the executive level you’re promoting the vision for the overall corporate goals, and the deliverables in order to achieve those goals.

“The communication and interaction is something constant, something that you can’t push into the background.”

Another aspect of alignment centers on the widely-held business truism, “What gets measured, gets managed.” If you want to create alignment around organizational goals, you need to create universally-understood methods of measuring them. Usually, that means measuring the statistical categories most important to the success of your business.

“I measure cash, I measure sales, I measure on-time delivery, and I measure safety, which is my number one category,” Dawson says. “So you’re monitoring those on a regular basis, and talking with your managers about it.

“You are going to view your management team as something of a mouthpiece, since you can’t be everywhere at once. So you have to help them stay aligned on the plan, and monitor what they’re saying to their teams. You just continue to provide guidance.

“If you manage the relationships with your managers, you can better manage the flow of communication throughout the company. You oversee those relationships with your managers by ensuring that you are comfortable, and they are comfortable with the vision and direction, and thoroughly understand it.”

Build your team

Consistency is one of the biggest keys to maintaining a message for a large audiences over an extended period of time. That means consistency in how you communicate, when and where you communicate, but it also means maintaining consistency in the structure of your management team.

Turnover will occur. If a member of your team is talented and driven enough, and has reached a ceiling in your organization, that person will likely leave when a better opportunity comes along. So it’s prudent to develop new leaders from within.

When the time comes to fill a space on his management team, Dawson prefers to promote internally, looking outside the organization only when he believes there is a need. Internal candidates have proven that they can help promote and execute the strategic plan. But even when promoting from within, it’s not an exact science when looking for those who have the right competencies and right attitude.

“You break your people into quadrants,” Dawson says. “There is willing and able, willing and unable, unwilling and able, and unwilling and unable. Obviously, you’re looking for willing and able. If you have someone who is willing and unable, you have a performance issue. If you have someone who is unwilling and able, you have to see if you can educate them in the process. If you have unwilling and unable, you’re probably not keeping them.”

To hit for the highest possible willing-and-able average, Dawson wants to see prior evidence of accomplishment, creativity and integrity in the work experience of job candidates.

“A lot of people will come into an interview and say ‘I’ve been the manager of sales,’ but when you ask them how they ran their sales organization, when you ask them about their vision and direction, they can’t get down to specifics. If that’s the case, they’re probably not the right fit for the organization.

“After you hire someone, you’re continuing to assess them. You’re working with the person to set goals and objectives, and if they’re complying and conforming, you’re doing great.

“If you are seeing a continuous pattern of not meeting goals and objectives, then you have to be willing to be very honest and candid with the person, explain to them what the issues are, and from there, you can assess the next level of whether they’ll be a fit for your organization moving forward.

“But it is important to continue to work with the person to help them succeed. Building a team is a continuous process of communication and direction.”

How to reach: Bal Seal Engineering Inc., (949) 460-2100 or www.balseal.com

The Dawson file

Rick Dawson

President and CEO

Bal Seal Engineering Inc.

Education: Mechanical engineering degree, California State University, Long Beach; MBA, Pepperdine University

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

The No. 1 rule I’ve learned is that you can never run out of cash. You need to have liquidity in the business. You also need to have an ability to make strategic and tactical changes. If you have a strategic plan, implement it and then measure it.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

I think the No. 1 thing is communication. On top of that, you need perseverance, because things don’t always work out the first time. It is also important that as a leader you are willing to take the time to understand your people and communicate with them.

What is your definition of success?

To meet the plan you set out to accomplish. If you want to grow the business at a certain percentage, success is meeting that number.

Frank Venegas Jr.’s company, The Ideal Group Inc., was facing what you would call, well, not an ideal situation.

The year was 2008. Even if your company didn’t file for bankruptcy or face an existential threat, you probably had a bottoming-out point about that time or thereafter. At some point, your company probably reached a nadir, and you knew the only place to go was up.

The Ideal Group’s low point came when the company had to slash nearly 14 percent of its workforce. For founder, chairman and CEO Venegas, the staff reduction was a fork in the road. He could have chipped away at his staff little by little, reducing the short-term trauma level, but potentially forcing his company to go through multiple rounds of demoralizing cuts.

Or he could take the lump-sum approach, get it all the cuts over with at once, causing more short-term trauma, but beginning the healing process sooner.

Venegas chose the latter approach.

“At that point, we were probably operating the company at 30 percent larger than what it needed to be,” Venegas says. “What we told everyone was ‘Here is where we are at, we are going to cut it really hard and heavy, and we are going to do it one time, instead of doing it every month.’ And we were fortunate because we were able to hold true to that. We did it once, and we held on.”

As the saying goes, laws are like sausages; you really don’t want to know how they are made — you really don’t want to know how staff cuts are made. It’s a stomach-turning process for just about every business leader to decide why one group should remain employed and other group members should lose their jobs.

But in uncertain times, information is your company’s lifeblood. Venegas quickly realized that if his industrial manufacturing, distribution and solutions company was to recover and emerge stronger, he’d have to lead the way.

That meant keeping his remaining employees in the loop regarding the company’s status, why the cuts were happening and, perhaps most importantly, the reasons to get excited about the future.

“You can’t do much about the short-term morale of the remaining people,” Venegas says. “The only thing you can do is keep them up on what you’re doing as a company, and be honest and forthright. You try to give them new opportunities whenever possible, and really establish an entrepreneurial culture where people have the ability to try new things and make some mistakes along the way.”

Create a culture

Employees do come to work for a paycheck. They rely on your company for the money that provides food, shelter and other basic life necessities. So to say money has nothing to do with fulfillment of employees is flat-out wrong. Money is a factor.

However, it’s a basic factor. If you can’t provide competitive wages, the discussion regarding talent retention ends there. But if you can satisfy an employee’s financial requirements, employment does become about something else.

In short, once the money matter is settled, fulfillment is a matter of engagement. Employees want opportunities to think, create and innovate. They want a leadership group that is responsive to their input.

Employee engagement is increasingly critical when a company has to do more with less.

Ideal’s staff cuts were the product of a customer base that was about 70 percent automotive. When the U.S. auto industry took a historic nosedive during the depths of the recession, the ripple effect hit Ideal. While the company was able to endure the shock better than some of its competitors, sales slipped to under $100 million in 2009, making cuts necessary.

While those left behind had to deal with the collective morale damage and other fallout, Venegas saw an opportunity. Ideal had to do more with less, but the opportunity was there for his remaining staff to flex its entrepreneurial muscles and demonstrate their versatility.

Entrepreneurship is something that has always been a part of Ideal’s culture, but Venegas realized the time was right to embrace the concept anew.

“When you walk in here, and see the way the company looks, the way we run the company, it doesn’t take you a long time to realize that we are a highly entrepreneurial and change-oriented company,” Venegas says. “We’re like a Silicon Valley company in that we do things far differently than anybody else.”

The key to developing and maintaining a focus on innovation within a company is to educate employees, which is as simple — and as complicated — as communicating with them. You have to reveal your vision, your strategy, your methods and, when possible, your financial numbers, to your people.

If you can paint a detailed picture regarding where the company stands, and where each person fits into the larger picture, you stand a much better chance of motivating employees and keeping the idea stream flowing.

Venegas likes to keep his employees apprised of where the company stands financially, whether the numbers show a profit or a loss. Though some leaders might look at a financial loss and see something that would damage employee motivation, Venegas believes the act of informing employees is a motivator in and of itself.

“You get people to buy into an entrepreneurial culture by making money,” he says. “So for our purposes, we want our people to know whether we are making money or not. We run a monthly financial statement for each of the six companies that we have, and those are reviewed not only by senior management but also by the people who lead those companies — which we call BUMs, or business unit managers. They are in charge of their balance sheet, P&L and the whole deal.

“You just make it really clear for everyone to see whether you are doing well or not so well. Everybody should be able to hold their eyes open and take a look.”

Informed employees have a better idea of how to formulate new ideas that walk in step with what the company needs. They feel more empowered to take calculated risks, live with the consequences, and if the plan fails, to turn it into a learning experience for next time.

“We don’t box many people into any particular role,” Venegas says. “My brother and I own the company, and I guess we were taught how to take things apart and put them back together. A lot of times, if we didn’t need this part or that part for a given project, we didn’t get it.

“So we were always looking at how we could build things faster, less expensive and more reliable. That is a concept we’re always trying to pass on to our people here.”

Feed their careers

Venegas believes employees want four things out of an employer, apart from financial compensation: consistency, opportunities to express their ideas, opportunities for promotion and the chance for longevity.

“My CFO just celebrated her 15th anniversary here,” Venegas says. “When she initially came to work for me, she was a graduate intern from the University of Michigan. Obviously, she wasn’t the CFO when she first started, but she grew into that position, she demonstrated great learning habits, and it has been a real blessing to have her here.”

To Venegas, the long tenure of his CFO reinforces the importance of career development as an employee motivator. In particular, Venegas values hands-on employee development that coaches his team to think, create and innovate in a real-world setting, formulating ideas that will be relevant to the company moving forward.

“Our career development operates every single day,” he says. “We are a very well-managed company. The key, I believe, is to set your missions in a very clear way, establish performance metrics and go through them frequently. We go through them not only on a monthly basis, but on a weekly basis.”

Venegas also has his team conduct frequent meetings. Though many business heads view meetings as one of the biggest time-wasters on the company schedule, Venegas still sees value in getting a group of people together in a room to exchange ideas, and share what is working and not working in the company’s operations.

“People say meetings are a waste of time, and that is their opinion,” he says. “But here, it really gives us time to open up and talk. Here, our meetings are pretty open, and you can say what you want. When someone proposes an idea for a new project, we start out with a white board, and begin listing the pros and cons. There is no particular recipe regarding the how and why of the projects we pick, the things we are going to go after.

“But I do find that it is pretty apparent over the course of the meeting whether it makes sense or not. We can generally see whether we’re filling the white board with reasons why we should do something, or reasons why we shouldn’t do it.”

As long as the conversation remains respectful and all viewpoints are considered, Venegas says his team will come to a consensus on how to proceed. If there are any disagreements or conflicts, those have to be addressed in order to get everyone back on the same page.

Motivating employees means respecting them — their work, their opinions, their careers, their ideas. Venegas has promoted that viewpoint at Ideal, and it has helped lead the company out of the recession to $201 million in revenue last year.

“We look at our company values during our meetings, and our mission statement, and from there it’s really not that hard to put together what we have to do in order to be a success. I remind our people — and sometimes, I have to remind myself — that we went through this whole recession, and we’re still here. We remain strong, and we didn’t have the problems of some of our competitors and other companies.”

How to reach: The Ideal Group Inc., (313) 849-0000 or www.weareideal.com

The Venegas file

Frank Venegas Jr.

Founder, chairman and CEO

The Ideal Group Inc.

History: I started the business 33 years ago because I won a Cadillac in a card draw. I sold it a few days later, took the money, put it in my banking account and started Ideal.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

My grandfather always told me that if you do what the boss doesn’t want to do, you’ll have a job every time. Also, you need to create a reason why you’re in business. Do what someone else in the market isn’t doing. You could be in the window-washing business, but it might be how you present yourself. Maybe it’s how you let customers inspect the final product. But you do something a little different, and that draws the customers back to you.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

Have integrity and don’t lie. I’d say that’s the most important thing by far. Once you’re not honest, no one wants to work for you.

What is your definition of success?

Being happy in anything and everything you do and seeing everybody around me fulfilled. I lost $18 million on a business deal in 1998. I did something that I should have thought harder about. The company made it back, not because I was a great leader, but because of the people who work for me. It takes a whole bunch of effort from a whole lot of people to keep a company happy.

K’NEX Brands LP has been taking a bigger and bigger bite out of its market ever since Michael Araten took over as president and CEO in 2006. In the past six years, the manufacturer of building toys has formed partnerships linking the K’NEX brand with brands such as Nintendo, Sesame Street and NASCAR.

This year, the company will introduce a line of toys licensed by Rovio Entertainment, makers of the “Angry Birds” video game franchise.

The tie-ins that Araten and his leadership team have orchestrated are having a major impact on the company’s bottom line. In 2008, K’NEX produced about $100 million in North American sales. In 2011, the company’s North American sales had jumped to $150 million.

Given all the success that K’NEX has had, what is Araten’s first tip on managing growth?

“I would tell other leaders to be lazy,” he says.

No, Araten hasn’t discovered the secret to building a highly successful enterprise from your living room couch. But he has developed a good grasp of what a CEO should and shouldn’t be doing when piloting a company through a growth phase.

“What I mean is, the first question when I’m looking at a task is, ‘Who needs to be doing this, and is there a way I can put this in someone else’s hands?’” he says. “The key for the CEO suite is to recognize who has what talents, and make sure they do what they are great at. If you don’t have the ability to do something yourself, what you want is someone on your team who can help you accomplish the key things you need to do, so that you can execute your growth strategy.”

Araten has been able to successfully manage the growth of K’NEX through strategic planning and effective delegation — knowing where he wants his company to go, and who can take it there.

To Araten, the plan is the known quantity, and the people are the variables. The success of K’NEX — or any company — is dependent on how well the team executes the strategy.

“If you have the right people executing on the plan, it will go really, really well,” he says. “If you don’t, it doesn’t matter how good the plan is, it just won’t happen. That’s why the linchpin in all of this is assessing the talent of your people and making sure they’re doing what they are really good at.”

Draw a map

 

The first step in any journey with a destination is to plan a route. When plotting a journey for your company, your route is outlined in your strategic plan.

Araten gathers all his top thinkers together for periodic strategy sessions, during which the team assesses growth opportunities that have either been presented to K’NEX or that the company is considering pursuing. The strategy team members weigh avenues for growth against a number of internal and external factors.

“It’s a risk-reward calculation, really,” Araten says. “How much reward do we think we can get for a given opportunity, and how much risk is related to that reward? We look at how much risk we want to take, how much inventory we want to build, what does our distribution channel look like, and build a plan around that. Once we agree on how much upside there is related to how much downside, we go and execute on that plan.”

To develop an accurate strategic plan, you have to know what market factors stand the biggest possible chance of affecting your business. K’NEX exists in a market that is seasonal in nature, and produces a product with a very specific appeal to consumers. With that in mind, he set boundary lines for what his team could consider regarding growth opportunities.

“We’re a seasonal business, so there is a little extra risk involved with that,” Araten says. “With every opportunity that comes along, we also have to ask ourselves if it makes sense as a building toy. Not to single out ‘American Idol,’ but even though the show is very popular, it probably wouldn’t make sense as a building toy.”

When Araten and his team did research prior to signing a licensing agreement with Nintendo last year, they started by figuring out the type of reach Nintendo had with its brand and video game characters, and by extension, the type of reach K’NEX could expect with cross-branded building toy products.

“We started by asking how many users of Nintendo products there are in the U.S. and around the world,” Araten says. “For example, we know that 40 million Wii units have been sold and another 70 million Nintendo DS units. We looked at Q Scores of various characters, and those scores have always been in the top five over the past decade.

“We also did a survey of our key customers, so we knew that retailers were open to carrying a new product. So we took all of that information, looked at our budgets in several categories, where we’d find placement in North America, Europe, Australia and other places, and decided that we were comfortable making, let’s say, a $10 million investment in inventory.”

Good growth opportunities in the manufacturing sector usually center on two areas: new customers and new products. You either increase what you offer to customers, or you increase the pool of customers to which you offer your existing products. In most cases, your growth will result from a mixture of the two, and you need to account for that in any strategic growth plan.

In the toy industry, executives such as Araten are fighting a constant battle to stay current. Kids quickly grow bored of their current toys and parents are always on the hunt for the next smash-hit birthday or holiday gift, so the leaders at K’NEX have to harness their creative and collaborative power to stay a step ahead of demand.

In that battle, the wins you already achieved can act as a critical springboard for future wins.

“When you look at our history, our first big licensing deal was with ‘Sesame Street’ back in 2007 or ’08,” Araten says. “Once we had ‘Sesame Street,’ and people saw how good we were performing and how well we could capitalize on the opportunity, licensors started coming to us with ideas.

“We were the ones who approached Nintendo for that deal, but we’ve had a lot of other brands come to us. That is where you want to build a checklist into any strategic plan that it makes sense for you. That you can reach consumers with marketing and distribution, and that the idea is a good match for your company. As I said, we want to make sure it’s an idea that makes sense as a building toy.

“We’re also starting to leverage technology so that we can ship directly to consumers in pretty much every country on earth. We want to be able to ship to anywhere from our warehouses in the U.S., so we are modifying our websites to be able to launch in a variety of countries that make sense. We’re working on both of those, and that is why we’re so interested in product relationships with global appeal.”

Invest in human capital

A strong culture that embraces solid core values is a central component of any high-growth organization. But to have that type of culture, you need to first build a team that can embody and promote your values.

Many leaders reference the principle of getting employees in the right seats on the bus, as popularized in Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great.” No matter what metaphor you use to illustrate it, the concept is true: In order to have a strong culture that can enable growth, you need the best possible people positioned throughout your organization in a way that allows them to grow as employees, and allows you to leverage their talents and skills for the best possible effect.

Araten says much of what he has learned about people stems from years of experience, which has helped him develop a reliable gut instinct regarding whether a prospective employee fits in the company, or whether a given team member fits in a specific role. But that isn’t enough. You also need to be able to ask the right questions.

“Some of what I do I’ll refer to as a ‘friendly deposition,’” Araten says. “You ask people a lot of questions about why they are doing what they’re doing, you apply common sense to what the answers are, and you see if they’ve thought about all the potential angles to a given problem or scenario.

“If they have experience dealing with that scenario in the past, that is something to consider as well, Araten says. “In some cases, you’re going to have some new employees with limited experience, so some of what you are able to do is going to depend on where you are in your life cycle as an organization.”

In assessing a person for a job, promotion or assignment, you need to get to the core of their thought process. If you can peel back the onion layers on how they process information and solve problems, you’ll get a much clearer view regarding how they might fit your team.

“You have to look at the thought process of how they came to their decisions,” Araten says. “If it makes sense, it looks like the probabilities are in your favor, and you can move forward.

“There is never a scenario where you have perfect information or a guarantee of success, so you just try to get as close as you can, make the move with the information that you have at the time, and the results are the results. More often than not, when we take that approach, things seem to pan out in our favor.”

If you hire or promote an employee into a new position, and the person falters out of the gate, making decisions that don’t bear fruit, you need to get to the heart of what is going wrong. It might be the person, or it might be the process. In either case, you need to get your hands on as much information as possible so that you can address the issue.

When K’NEX launched its line of Nintendo products, the team overseeing the launch made a miscalculation in the budget. Admittedly, Araten was not happy, but he didn’t go on the warpath, point fingers of blame at everyone involved. Instead, he used it as a learning opportunity.

“On a couple of the items, we underestimated somewhere on the order of $100,000,” he says. “We thought it was going to cost $100,000, but it ended up costing $200,000. As part of our review on all the product lines, this comes up, and you could tell the person who was telling this to me was a little nervous. But we went through why it happened, whether we missed anything, and found that our logic was sound.

‘In the end, we learned some things about what we could have done differently. We ended up improving some of our internal mechanisms.”

If you encounter a similar situation, Araten says you should do three things.

“One, figure out if the person in charge asked the right questions, and if the questions were based in logic,” he says. “Second, if you would have done anything differently, what is it and did the person you put in charge know it – or should they have known it? Three, teach them how to ask better questions. Oftentimes, as the CEO, you will have a much broader view of the organization, and will think to ask questions that the team or department leader didn’t. That’s part of the learning process. If everybody knew all the questions to ask, we’d have hundreds of CEOs in the organization.

“If you value teaching in your organization, teach people what questions to ask so they improved their logic. Then, the next time a situation arises, it goes smoother and reaches an even better outcome.”

How to reach: K’NEX Brands LP, (215) 997-7722 or www.knex.com

The Araten file

Born: Montreal

Education: Political science degree from Stanford University; juris doctor from the University of Pennsylvania Law School

First job: I worked as a part-time sales guy at a leather and fur store in suburban Philadelphia.

Araten on building a high-growth organization:

I think you have to develop a culture, along with some mechanical things. You need to be able and willing to reinvest in the mechanical infrastructure, but to me the more important thing is that you need to create a culture where it is OK to take a chance going fast, where you forgive people their mistakes as long as their logic is good. So I think it is setting that tone from the top and letting your leadership team say it to the rest of the crew.

We are going to go a hundred miles an hour to try and take advantage of these opportunities, and we are going to miss some stuff. But as long as the logic is sound, what we miss shouldn't be critical. Whatever mistakes we make, we will learn from and move on. It is easy to say, but the more critical part is the first couple of times you make those mistakes and learn from them and move on. That is what people really remember.

Araten on reinforcing a culture through communication:

I have one-to-one meetings with my leadership team every week. We are sitting together for at least an hour each week making sure that we understand what the priorities are and the logic behind the major decisions that we are making. When things go awry, it starts with me asking how we are going to learn from it so that it doesn't happen again, and then moving on. Then, encouraging them to do the same thing with their teams.

On the flip side, you want to make sure that you are giving positive feedback whenever possible, whenever they are doing things that you really like. We have a few mechanisms in place for that, such as awards that any employee can give to any other employee when someone goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Yogurtland has been a frozen dairy-powered rocket for Phillip Chang. The president and CEO of Yogurtland Franchising Inc. founded the chain of self-serve frozen yogurt bars in 2006, and in the six years since, has grown the company to more than 170 locations, owned by more than 100 franchisees and employing more than 2,100.

But when on a stratospheric trajectory sometimes things don't always go according to the script.

Which is why, several years ago, Chang threw out the script and began concentrating on the actors in his company.

"Before then, even though our stores performed pretty well, some people's behavior didn’t reflect the culture we wanted to have," Chang says. "We didn't see enough of the honesty side, the respect for each other, the desire to help each other."

Chang quickly realized that if he were going to build a stable culture that embodied high ethical and moral standards, he needed to find the people first. So he started to shift how he and his leadership team recruited, what they valued in prospective employees and franchisees, and what constituted a great hire.

In short, Chang began focusing on candidates' hearts first and their heads second.

"When the company started, I had hired too fast, and because of that, some people had a lot of experience as far as the technical side of things, but they didn't have high moral standards," he says. "So I started looking at this in terms of two areas. One was the culture, in terms of the level of ethics and honesty, and the other side was their technical experience.

"I looked at how each candidate performed in both areas, but I set my bar very high on the ethical side and was more generous on the technical side. You can teach technical skills, but you can't really teach ethics and morals."

Since refashioning the company's recruiting and hiring practices, Chang says it has had a profound impact on the culture of the company.

"It has been big for us," he says. "We now look at our company more as a family."

Ask the right questions

If establishing your ideal culture starts with hiring the best people, then hiring the best people starts with asking the best possible questions during the interview process.

Chang wanted to develop and nurture a culture that embraces high ethical and moral standards, but also promoted the idea that Yogurtland behaves something like a large extended family.

Though many company heads talk about the family atmosphere that exists in their companies, making the leap from professional colleague to something more familiar is difficult, and one that can't happen without close involvement from upper management.

Chang wanted a constructive bond to develop among the people in Yogurtland's Anaheim corporate office, so he started by developing bonds between himself and his team members. He developed relationships with his people in which he got to know the significant things happening in their personal lives.

If there was a way Chang could leverage Yogurtland's resources to help an employee realize a significant life goal, he wanted to help.

"In our situation, I think it’s important to look at a company as family members," Chang says. "When you have a parent, sister, brother, and you're working together, you're thinking about the ways you can help them and make their life better. You're asking 'How can I teach them to fish?' That's why, maybe you don't want to just hand them a prize, but you want to figure out a way that you can help them realize the dreams they have for their own lives."

One of the first questions Chang asks a job candidate has nothing to do with the lines on their resume. It has everything to do with trying to learn what really makes the candidate get out of bed each morning.

"For every single person I interview, I ask them what is their ultimate goal in life," he says. "That gets them to think deeply and reveal some truths about who they really are. Their goal can be relevant or irrelevant to our company, but I want to know what their goal is. If we hire them, I want to customize a path for their dreams.

"Maybe someone wants to buy a house for their mom. It really has nothing to do with us, but we look at the numbers, we put together our collective wisdom and try to see a way this person can achieve their goal. If that person can finally buy a house for their mom after so many years, that is very motivating for them.

"We see it as something we're not obligated to help with, but if you truly view your people as family members, as a brother or sister, that is my role. If they see me and those of us in the company going above and beyond to help them, they start to see and believe that we act as a family."

Finding those life catalysts is a critical component of motivating employees at their jobs. Employees do come to work each day for a paycheck. Without income, they don't pay their mortgages or utilities, don't make car payments and don't buy groceries. But the sum total of what constitutes gainful employment doesn’t begin and end solely with what ends up in each employee's bank account every two weeks.

People want to work at an organization where they can make a lasting difference. What defines "lasting difference" changes from person to person, but the greater need is always there. As the leader, it's up to you to ask the questions, both of your current and prospective future employees, and find out what truly motivates them.

"In a lot of cases, I don't think financial compensation is the real motivation for people," Chang says. "When they hear the company is trying to achieve something beyond just the numbers and financials, when they see that we come together as a company, we reach out and help each other achieve our goals so that we can achieve our overall company goals, that is a common motivation where people see we're not just out to make a profit. We don't come to the office each day just to make money. It's more than that."

Perform daily maintenance

It's easy to project enthusiasm about a new strategy or a culture shift at the outset, when everything is new and exciting. But how about a month after, or six months after, or a year after?

At some point, you will leave behind the rush of blazing new trails and exploring new frontiers, and sustaining what you worked so hard to develop and roll out will be a matter of daily maintenance.

At Yogurtland, Chang considers his company’s cultural conversion a success. The atmosphere around the company's corporate offices — and by extension, at franchise locations — is based on Chang’s vision of a company that behaves as an extended family. It is a commonplace occurrence for Yogurtland associates to build and sustain meaningful and fruitful interpersonal relationships.

But if Chang were to rest on his laurels and consider the mission accomplished, he would run the risk of allowing his culture to backslide into the bad habits he spent several years eradicating. That's why he makes sure to create regular interaction points between him and his team, so that he can continue to reinforce the principles he introduced at the outset of the company's culture shift.

The company's rapid growth adds an extra layer of complexity to the equation.

"Right now, we have a corporate office of 40 and it is already difficult to reach to all levels," Chang says. "The only way is to remain vigilant about communication. In our regularly scheduled meetings, what we're discussing isn't just about simply store operations or the numbers we are trying to achieve. We discuss more than that."

Chang tries to address technical issues quickly so that he can spend more time reinforcing the culture. Whenever possible, he wants common-sense, uncomplicated solutions to issues involving the company's infrastructure. Since maintaining a great culture is hard work, he wants the nuts and bolts of running his company to be as simple as possible.

"When we need to visit the technical side of things, we can be pretty quick in figuring out what the best solution could be, and then put that in a memo to whoever it concerns," Chang says. "That way, it's in an e-mail, everybody reads the e-mail, and if the subject needs to be addressed in one of our meetings, we are all prepared beforehand. That hopefully leaves us more time to address our culture and how we are putting ideas together for the future. The meetings are where we really dissect what is going to help the company’s future. So we want to spend a lot of time on those big-picture, conceptual ideas."

Don't compromise

Chang says the new culture at Yogurtland has affected the way he runs the business on a fundamental level. Like most CEOs, Chang used to focus on strategic planning before anything else. Everything — from hiring to culture to job descriptions — stemmed from the strategic plan laid down by management.

But as Chang advanced deeper into his new philosophy of focusing on people first, he discovered talent was his most important asset, and motivating that talent was his most critical task. Now, he values talented people who embrace the culture far more than he values strict adherence to any organizational strategy.

Yogurtland still has an overall direction and goals, but the method by which those goals are achieved is now largely up to input from his team.

It is something that requires a level of adaptability that might extend beyond the comfort level of some business heads. But Chang views it as an essential part of his leadership philosophy. He'll compromise on how something gets done, but he won't compromise on who does it.

"Typical company leaders, they will do strategic planning and everything related to that first, and then try to fill out the team by putting people in the right positions," Chang says. "We do it the other way around. As I've said, I find the right people first. That takes a level of risk, because sometimes you find a really great person and you know right away where they're going to fit in the organization.

"That's where it gets kind of strange, because what I've learned is that if I find the right person who fits the culture, someone who is honest, humble, receptive, confident and wise, that is where you really can't compromise. You can be pretty generous regarding how you hire for technical skills. If you've hired someone who is smart and receptive, they can catch up their skills fairly quickly. That is why you find the person first, then do the planning.

"If I were starting a company from scratch again, I now know that is how I would do it."

How to reach: Yogurtland Franchising Inc., (714) 939-7737 or www.yogurt-land.com

The Chang file

Born: Seoul, South Korea

Education: B.S. in mathematics, Sogang University

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

One thing that has impacted me throughout my career, and what I keep emphasizing to my people, is that you need to surround yourself with the right people. You need the right employees, the right partners and the right people around you in everything you do.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

The ability to build a great team. You need to have the ability along the technical lines of what it takes to run a business, but you can’t go anywhere without a great team. And that comes back to how you communicate with people and share your goals.

Chang on the CEO’s role in sustaining the culture: As the company has grown, I’ve tried to set myself as more of a cultural leader, rather than an operations leader. I try to focus more on the bigger goals and being a good role model, demonstrating our cultural principles by example — honesty, high morals and so forth. As the leader, you are constantly watched by everyone, and they have to see me embody those core values at every turn, because they are going to follow my example.