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Formula for success Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2006

Every business leader must figure out how to infuse energy into his or her employees, and Cathy Langham has discovered an equation for keeping them motivated: Start with the right employees, keep them involved in decision-making and make sure that inspiration and motivation start at the top.

This formula has brought success to Langham, president and CEO of Langham, a full-service transportation, warehousing, fulfillment and freight-management solution provider With 81 employees, the company generates $20 million in annual revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Langham about the challenges of hiring, motivating and leading her work force.

What is the biggest leadership lesson you’ve learned?
It’s OK to fire a customer. Like most businesses, we have had experiences with clients looking for A+ service at a D- price.

Their pattern is to bid everything and focus on lowest price instead of quality. This is a waste of our time, disruptive to our operation and demoralizing to staff. There have been times when I explain to the customer that we are not a good fit. Leaders need to do this in order to protect their company and the esteem of their staff.

The other lesson I have learned is to choose attitude over expertise when hiring. Employees with a great attitude will learn the business. Those with negative attitudes are like a cancer to the organization. It does not matter what technical skills they bring to the table — this does not outweigh the damage they can do.

How do you find the right employees?
It starts with open and frank discussions. I tell potential employees the good, the bad and the ugly about the business. The last thing I want is for someone to join Langham and feel it is not what they signed up for. That is an expensive lesson for both parties.

Our process includes three steps, which go from a macro to micro level: an introduction to the company — our history, mission and goals; information about how they fit into the operation; and specific details about their job.

We assign mentors to our office staff to make sure they have the attention and information they need during those crucial first few weeks.

How do you keep employees involved and motivated?
(Collaboration) is the first thing that comes to mind. As a leader, you must make the final decision; however, listening to staff is imperative. We put a lot of energy into creating a safe-to-say environment where people can speak candidly without fear of saying the wrong thing.

We have staff meetings every Monday morning with 20 to 30 members of our team, in addition to quarterly town-hall company meetings. I want my employees to think like CEOs. They need to give input freely without concern about titles. We want to avoid groupthink.

We also conduct employee opinion surveys every year. The first year, we used an outside firm. Now, our human resource manager handles the surveys. We’ve found these to be extremely valuable sources of feedback.

How do you maintain your personal motivation and balance?
The motivation part is easy. I love what I do and see unlimited potential for this business. More and more companies are examining outsourcing solutions, so I feel the success we have experienced thus far is just the tip of the iceberg.

The other thought that keeps me motivated is knowing I have 81 families to feed. That might sound dramatic, but it sums up the personal responsibility I feel to my employees.

As for balance, I have a 6-year-old son and a husband who help me with that. They are my No. 1 priority. Before having children, it was no problem to work until 8 or 9 p.m. at night. But now I must balance my time and energies responsibly.

HOW TO REACH: Langham, (800) 727-3962, www.elangham.com (800) 727-3962