When Robert Claxton saw higher energy costs creating a renewed interest in energy conservation, he knew it was a major opportunity for his company.
Claxton, president of North American operations for Knauf Insulation, a manufacturer of fiberglass insulation, also knew that it was going to require getting everyone to understand what individual role he or she would play in the company’s overall plan.
“If our employees don’t understand and I’m not just talking about employees at the top, I’m talking about every employee if we don’t communicate what that proposition is and how they fit in to that, it just doesn’t work,” he says.
Claxton knew his company needed to do a better job of developing its employees and helping them grow in the company in order to meet the new challenges this growth was likely to bring.
Roles needed to be more clearly defined and employees needed a means of being told what they were doing right and what they still needed to work on.
“It’s really just a matter of taking advantage of the human instinct for people to want feedback,” Claxton says. “If you take advantage of that human instinct and give people a fighting chance to understand the role that they play and the success that they take part in, it’s pretty simple at that point.
“The worst thing that can happen in any company is for an employee not to have been properly told in a given time frame how well they are doing. That’s a real shame when that doesn’t take place.”
Here’s how Claxton positioned Knauf for new growth by giving employees a clearly defined role in the company.
Talk to your people
As a company grows, it becomes exponentially more difficult to ensure that each and every employee is getting the same message from you. Distant locations limit the number of times you can have face-to-face interaction with employees who do not work at the home office.
Claxton attempts to solve this problem by distributing taped copies of his remarks to each and every employee at Knauf Insulation, which is part of the Knauf Group, a $1.5 billion global organization.
“Even if it’s a tape we send to the plants to play in the break room,” Claxton says. “We go to the trouble to send those so they have heard the exact same message that I said to the group that was there at the time.”
By communicating to each employee in your own words, you lessen the chance of the message getting lost in translation.
“I have a senior staff that reports to me, and we obviously communicate daily,” Claxton says. “If you follow that same pattern all the way down to the guy working on the floor, then you have a very strong chance of being successful. If you have a break of that communication from my mouth to supervisors and subordinates, your chances of success are clearly diminished.
“That’s why it’s important for some, times on a periodic basis for them to hear it directly from my mouth. You pass one sentence around a room of 20 people and by the 18th person, the message is completely different than when it started. Sometimes, everybody has got to hear the exact same message.”
Claxton says you must also encourage your employees to talk with each other, specifically colleagues who work in a different area of the company.
“We tell our people to get out of their office, get away from their normal job and go out and investigate and/or tour the plants,” Claxton says. “Go with one of our salespeople on a sales call. Sit down with somebody who is taking orders every day and understand how they are dealing with their job. We leave a certain amount of flexibility in a person’s job in order to be able to do that.”
Those employees who don’t take advantage of these opportunities lose a potential chance to understand how the things someone else does affect the way they do their own job.
“They don’t have the appreciation for what other people do,” Claxton says. “They don’t understand the role that their job plays in other people accomplishing what they need to do.”
Claxton knew that getting his employees talking with each other would put the organization in a better position to be ready for the new opportunities at hand.
And with the company continuing to widen its reach, including a $200 million expansion in Shelbyville, Ind., communication between employees is even more critical to its success.
Set informed goals
If a company really wants to grow, it can’t just put a number out there and say, “This is how much we want to grow.”
“To simply say, ‘I’m going to grow 10 percent a year,’ a lot of companies do that and say that without first putting a plan in place that gives you the ability to properly do that,” Claxton says.
When productive goal setting is broken down to its simplest level, it appears as one goal for one employee. When done across the board with every employee, the results are much more impressive.
“Say we had 1,000 employees,” Claxton says. “Each year in their development program, they have two or three specific issues that they are going to work on to improve a process within the company. That’s 3,000 initiatives that take place in a given year. That is pretty powerful. As those initiatives at each employee’s level start oozing through the process to our customers, we end up seeing the results of that through the customer feedback.”
In order for the goals to benefit the company, you have to make sure that they are aligned with your customer’s needs.
“You have to, above all, understand what are those valuable things to your customers,” Claxton says. “You have to rank those. You’ve got to measure yourself against those. You’ve got to measure yourself not only against your current customers, but you also have to well understand the results or the benchmarks that you have with your competitors, as well.”
Knauf plans regular visits with its customers using an independent third party to get a good read on what its customers are looking for.
“That is really a blueprint for us to understand where we stand and what are those things that we’ve got to be able to do,” Claxton says.
Recently, the difficulties in the home construction market have created challenges for many of Knauf’s customers.
Feedback such as this needs to be communicated to employees on a regular basis to ensure that both the employee and the customer are on the same page.
“We make it a point to make sure all of our employees understand our mission and what those propositions are with our customers,” Claxton says. “What they have to do is align their yearly development to make sure that it is directly in line with the values and the mission of the company, as well. It’s not enough for me to sit here and say, ‘This is what we need to do over the next year,’ if we don’t align the specific communication with our employees so that they ask themselves, ‘What can I do or what do I do that is in alignment with those same criteria?’”
As the leader, you need to regularly communicate to employees about your company’s strategic plan and how it aligns with the organization’s mission and vision and how they play a role in making it all happen.
Employee surveys are a valuable tool for finding out what your people think about various aspects of the company’s operation. One of the most revealing findings at Knauf was that employees wanted even more communication.
“Had I known this item or piece of information, I could have played a better role in helping the company with that,” Claxton says, reciting one of the responses he has heard. “That hurts when you hear that. It’s too simple to rectify. That is one my ears are very sensitive too.
“A person can’t get in line with their day-to-day activities if they don’t understand what we’re trying to do. We go to great lengths to make sure all of our employees know what our mission and vision statements are and the values we put into that as to how we’re going to accomplish it.”
You need to have supervisors sit down regularly with employees and draw up initiatives that both the employee and the supervisor can work on together.
“If there are gaps between the person’s core competencies and the competencies they need in order to accomplish the goals that we have, then they work those things out and they develop a plan for that,” Claxton says. “At the end of the day, they have a ranking, and the employee knows exactly what their final evaluation is.”
Another key to making the evaluation process beneficial is the ability to understand your people. Just as employees need to get out and associate with their colleagues, leaders need to engage in deeper communication to get to know the people they have working for them.
“Every person is different,” Claxton says. “Understand your audience when you discuss things. Understand what they are up against on a daily basis when you explain what you need from them. Understand what they are fighting against each day so that you can put the goals in perspective for them on how to deal with it. Use analogies and examples of what you know they go through to help them achieve those goals.”
Implementation of the more rigid standards for employee development did present some challenges at Knauf.
“People didn’t want to abide by specifics as to the process itself,” Claxton says. “In some cases, it was just because they saw it as time-consuming and not important when, in fact, it was just the opposite.”
Claxton saw its value, however, and persevered. As he looks at the company today, he believes employees are more ready than ever for the new business that is already coming in.
Knauf Insulation has grown from 1,250 employees to 1,400 and recovered quickly from a fire at one of its plants in Shelbyville early last year to continue to meet increased customer demand.
The key to meeting that demand is using the same approach taken by the Knauf family when it bought the company in 1978.
“They were very long-term strategic thinkers who were not interested in short-term gains and/or profits,” Claxton says. “They did things on a very smart, long-term basis. ... If you don’t sit down and really go through that formal process of developing a collaboration of strategy, you’re not going to be as successful.”
HOW TO REACH: Knauf Insulation, (317) 398-4434 or www.knaufusa.com