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Strong bonds Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

It’s not that Mark Elwood wants to go back to the old days when Elwood Staffing had one office in Columbus, Ind., and a handful of employees. But it sure makes it easier to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on with your business when things are small.

“We’ve grown and we’ve spread out, and now, we have a corporate office in Indiana, and we have all these other offices in all these cities and states,” says Elwood, the company’s CEO. “People come to work every day and they may not see one of the owners or executives that day or that week.”

So why does that matter? Elwood says the trust that develops in close quarters helps to earn buy-in on company decisions and builds trust — or at least knowledge — of what’s happening with the business.

When you’re out of touch and your only tie to the home office is by electronic means, it’s not as easy to stay tuned in.

“People don’t always just necessarily give the benefit of the doubt,” Elwood says. “They don’t walk into every situation and say, ‘I completely trust you until I’m proven wrong.’ Sometimes, they come in a little more cautiously and perhaps they say, ‘I’ll trust more thoroughly once I have some evidence that I feel like I should.’”

Trust is one of those things that you either have or you don’t. It’s not really something you can shoot for as you would with a sales goal or some other benchmark.

“I’m not waking up every day and saying, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve got to get people to trust me,’” Elwood says. “Or, ‘What can I do to make them trust me?’ I’m not coming to work that way. Some people probably do that and they probably are trying to compensate or overcome some things they do or maybe have done in the past that compromised people’s trust.

“It’s the result of a whole bunch of smaller actions, decisions, communications, responses, initiatives and so forth that are taking place. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, I have an organization and I want there to be trust.’ You have to act and behave and respond in ways that, over time, begin to build trust.”

This approach has helped Elwood maintain its strong culture as it has grown from $52.5 million in 2005 revenue to $140.4 million in 2008. The culture is always top of mind when new people are brought into the mix and when decisions are made that affect the company as a whole.

Here are some of the things Elwood does to ensure the company’s 170 employees have trust and confidence in leadership to help the company keep growing.

Set the foundation

Whether you realize it or not, you’re pretty much being watched and analyzed with every word you speak and every action you take.

“Those things have implications and ramifications throughout an organization,” Elwood says. “The higher you get in an organization, the more people are listening and the more impactful your actions and words can be. I do think you have to be thoughtful. I wouldn’t describe it as going out of your way, but you want to be deliberate.”

So if you have a major plan or a big change to announce, be sure you have responses in mind to the questions that might come up or data to back up your decision.

“You have to explain to people where you’re going in order for them to jump on and buy in and act with that same enthusiasm and what not,” Elwood says. “But there has to be some regular care and feeding that goes along with it. When a leader sets a vision or direction or even goals and objectives, they must be understandable and they have to be believable.”

So share the financial numbers that support your decision to cut employees or to make some new hires.

“If I called my employees together today and I said, ‘We’re really struggling as a company,’ and I hadn’t shared any sales or profit information with them and then I’m driving a brand-new nice car to work, that may not be very believable,” Elwood says. “But if every week or month, I’m sharing financial information and providing the supporting documentation, then when I say we need to cut back, it’s not a surprise. It’s very believable.

“Employees need to see leaders as being understanding and being in touch with issues at the ground level. The leader has to be visible and perceived as really knowing what’s going on at all levels of the organization.”

When you meet with your employees to talk, make sure you approach the conversation with an air of friendliness.

“If I ask a question and somebody doesn’t know the answer, my first thought is, ‘How can we help them get the answer?’” Elwood says. “And if they ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, I’m not afraid to say, ‘Hey, I’m really not sure of the answer to that question. Maybe we can try to find out.’”

Before you go out to meet with people, don’t overlook the value of giving them a preview of what you’d like to talk about.

“If I’m going to see an office, I let them know in advance — here’s when I’m coming, why I’m coming and what I hope to accomplish,” Elwood says. “If you go in and your mission or your intention is to scare or intimidate, you can do that. But why would you ever intend to do that to your own people that you want feeling good and working hard for you?”

When you make a conscious effort to be welcoming, you’ll find that employees will be a lot more willing to step up and help you.

“If I have a reputation for being approachable and accessible and willing to hear the truth, when I go for those visits, people aren’t afraid,” Elwood says. “They aren’t thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s going to do the white glove test and someone is going to get fired.’ They’re thinking, ‘He’s coming in and he’s going to be honest with us about the state of the company and how we’re doing and what he sees. But he also expects us to be exactly the same with him.’”

Help your rookies

One of the biggest challenges for a high-growth company is inserting new employees into the mix in a way in which they can get up to speed with everyone else as quickly as possible. You’re starting with a clean slate, but that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll fall right into place with your culture.

“Sometimes we want to give people information, but maybe we don’t do a very good job of explaining why that information is either important to them or is important to the company,” Elwood says. “I could tell you, ‘Hey, Mark, when you come here to work, you have to do this and this and this.’ You may have no idea in the world how you do that.

“And you may therefore not think you want to do it or you may not think it’s a good idea. But if we told you, ‘Here are two or three reasons why we do that, because it helps us do this better,’ it may make total sense to you. We don’t always help people understand why what they’re learning is important and how it benefits them and the company.”

Elwood has tried to in

crease the understanding of its employees by allowing them to work for a month before bringing them to the corporate office for a weeklong welcome and training session.

“In past years, we started them in new-hire training on their first day,” Elwood says. “So they spent their first full week on the job here at our corporate office. Over time, we heard people say, ‘Boy, that was a lot of information. That was overwhelming. It was like drinking water from a fire hose.’”

The change gives new employees a chance to learn a little bit about the company first and then get the hard-core training session to learn all of the details.

“We want to let them to have a full month or a little bit more to be in the environment and kind of start to learn about the policies and procedures,” Elwood says. “Then when they come to corporate orientation and we say, ‘OK, now we want to talk about this,’ then they can say, ‘OK, I’ve heard about that; I know a little bit about that.’ Then we can tie it all together.”

The company also uses a variety of people, each an expert in his or her given department, as trainers to teach new employees.

“If we just had one person that tried to cover all these topics, over the period of a year or two, their information could get a little stale,” Elwood says. “When the HR director does the benefits or when the safety director does some of the safety training, by having the in-house experts do the training as opposed to just one training person, you’re increasing your chances that you’re always up to date with the latest and greatest training.”

The way you treat your new employees can go a long way toward building the trust you have with your more experienced people.

“It sends a real strong message that they are important enough that we bought them an airline ticket and a hotel room and we paid for them to be here in the corporate office for one full week,” Elwood says.

Take responsibility

It’s a phrase that’s almost universally uttered in the locker room of the losing team: “We win as a team and we lose as a team.”

The smart leader doesn’t accept responsibility for the wins and doesn’t share it for the losses.

“When there are victories and there is praise to go around, then a CEO’s job is to praise freely and to recognize all the people,” Elwood says. “Victories don’t happen as a result of a single person — they happen as a result of a lot of people. When there are defeats, I accept the blame selfishly. It’s the CEO’s fault. It’s not other people’s fault.

“If I go in and say, ‘This is your fault,’ that’s devastating to people. That destroys their confidence, their belief, their enthusiasm and their morale. That can have a devastating impact. When I go in and say, ‘I accept blame for this. This is my fault,’ that galvanizes their confidence and determination.”

Elwood says he could very easily take a different approach and blame others for whatever problems exist.

“I can go in and I can terminate people,” Elwood says. “I can rattle their cages and I can blame my staff. But I think I’ve been much better served saying, ‘Hey folks, we win as a team. When we got this business, it was a team effort. If we’re going to lose that business, we’re going to lose as a team. I’m not going to blame you or you or you because we all had something to do with it.’”

It’s that attitude that will earn you a lot of loyalty with your people.

“It’s saying, ‘Hey, I believe in you,’” Elwood says. “‘We’re still a team, we’re still going to be successful. Let’s get back to work.’”

How to reach: Elwood Staffing, (812) 372-6200 or www.elwoodstaffing.com