Robert Laikin does not mince words when asked to explain the
significant slowdown in growth that Brightpoint Inc. experienced
from 1998 to 2002.
“It was my fault as the CEO,” Laikin says.
The wireless device distributor had grown swiftly in the years
prior, hitting $1 billion in revenue in 1997 and $1.5 billion in 1998.
The pace of growth slowed considerably over the next few years.
The industry was consolidating and markets were shifting as
Brightpoint sought to find its way through the changes.
When 2004 rolled around, the company was still looking to get
over the $2 billion mark in revenue.
When everything is going great and revenue records are constantly being broken, it’s easy to talk about the steps you took to
help your company reach those heights. But as the CEO, you need
to be just as upfront about the steps that didn’t work out.
“As the CEO, you have the responsibility to be the lead communicator of your company,” Laikin says. “Our customers know if
they have a problem, if our people aren’t doing what they promised
to do, they will get to the CEO who will either fix the problem or
be honest with them. ‘You know what, there was a weather problem with snow and there was nothing we could do.’ At least they
are going to get an answer.”
By looking beyond the numbers to find out both what drives his
employees to succeed and what they are lacking in their efforts to
do so, Laikin has good answers to give when the calls come in.
He makes it a point to stay in contact with his employees through
a variety of methods both in person and electronically. When the
media calls, Laikin makes time for interviews. When employees ask
direct questions, he provides them with a direct answer rather than
a response through his secretary.
Through it all, Laikin says he always speaks from his heart.
“If you don’t speak from your heart and tell people what you
stand for, you are going to be perceived that you stand for nothing
and that you are sitting in your ivory tower,” Laikin says. “Just
speak the truth. Speak what’s in your heart as CEO. If you do that,
you’re typically going to give the message of what you believe in.
If you can’t give the message of what you believe in, my guess is
the CEO doesn’t believe it himself.”
Sometimes, the message that Laikin wants to give doesn’t come
to him until moments before he speaks. Before a specific meeting,
Laikin and one of his trusted advisers, Anurag Gupta, will prepare
“I’ll get up to the front and get behind the podium, and I’ll look at
Anurag and I’ll smile,” Laikin says. “He’ll know what it means. That
means I’ve just taken the script and put it in a ball and I’m going to
shoot from the hip.”
While it’s from the hip, Laikin says the key is that it’s also from
By believing in Brightpoint and conveying that belief to his 3,300
employees, Laikin has kept the company moving forward.
Brightpoint took in $4.3 billion in 2007 revenue and now has a
presence in more than 25 countries around the world.
“I believe people do business with people, not companies,”
Laikin says. “We tell our story as people, not as the company. We
tell the story and tell people about Brightpoint.”
Reinforce words with actions
As the lead spokesman of your organization, it is your role to
communicate your vision for the company and for the execution that is needed to make it happen.
Your attitude about doing so can go a long way toward determining the success or failure of that execution.
“When we sit around the table, we don’t operate it as a dictatorship,” Laikin says. “It’s more of a collaborative working environment. We empower our people.”
People need to know what’s expected of them in order to do
their job. You can never communicate your company’s values and
behavior standards enough, whether it’s through an e-mail blast or
a quarterly newsletter.
“Things like the customer is always right,” Laikin says.
“Complete customer satisfaction is what we strive for. Focus not
only on your customer, but your supplier. It’s OK to negotiate as
long as you do it in a respectful manner. It’s OK to disagree with
your co-workers as long as it’s done in a respectful manner.”
You also reinforce your values by your behavior. When Laikin
travels around the world to his company’s international locations,
he makes it a point to do more than just preach from the lectern.
“I might present an overview of the company as a whole for
someone in Sweden, but we also have a lot of informal time where
people can approach me,” Laikin says. “At our dinners, I don’t sit
at the table typically with our country manager of Sweden. I’ll walk
around and talk to the people whether they are in sales and marketing or the warehouse or in finance. I move around a lot.”
Laikin also brings others along, such as his chief financial officer
or the company’s general legal counsel or a vice president, to give
their own presentations to the group.
Training should also play a role on how employees are supposed
to handle various situations. When a new office opens, the new
employees who will work there are often brought into the home
office for a series of training sessions.
When you have people going to work in a different culture, you
want them to be familiar with both your vision and the values of the culture to which they are traveling.
“When a key corporate person goes to the field, let’s say they go
to Sweden or Australia or India, they are briefed when they land in
the country by the country manager and or the regional management team,” Laikin says. “Typically, they’ll brief them on local custom.”
The bottom line is that you need to constantly reinforce your corporate values to your people if you expect them to buy in.
“We spend a lot of time communicating with the key folks in each
region and the key leadership teams as well as talking about the procedures of how you do it,” Laikin says. “Then communicating what’s
agreed to within the senior leadership to the broad employee base
in the different regions. We share a lot of what’s said and discussed.
We overcommunicate to the broad base of employees. That helps
people who are part of the leadership team say, ‘You know what,
what I said was heard. It was thought about, and it was considered.
Every two or three years, Laikin sends out an e-mail to every single one of his employees. He asks each employee to tell him what
he or she does at Brightpoint, how long he or she has worked for
the company and how the employee believes he or she has made a
difference at the company.
“Tell me what you would do if you were the CEO for the day,”
Laikin says, mentioning the final question he poses in the e-mail. “I
hit a global e-mail, and it goes to 3,000 employees, and I’ll get back
2,000 responses. I read every response, and I respond within 48
hours personally back to every person thanking them for the time
they took to e-mail me and also talk a little bit about what they
Laikin says he has received countless good ideas from the e-mail
blast. He learned about the potential for products from Garmin, a
leader in the navigation device market.
“That gave me the idea to reach out to the CEO of Garmin with a
cold call, which six months later turned into a distribution agreement with Garmin,” Laikin says. “I probably wouldn’t have priori-tized Garmin unless one of the people in the field had urged me to
Laikin says he sometimes gets flak from other CEOs he knows
about the time he invests in the e-mail correspondence.
“Friends of mine I’ve talked to told me I’m crazy,” Laikin says.
“‘Bob, you spend two days responding to 2,000 e-mails?’ I consider it a privilege I had that one-on-one contact with 2,000 individuals to tell them how I appreciated what they did for the company.”
CEOs who have a proprietary technology or who work in a
monopoly can afford to keep more to themselves.
“But if you are in any kind of competitive business, you have to
listen to all your people,” Laikin says. “I foster a culture where I tell
all our global employees it’s OK to e-mail me at any time. In certain
cultures, people are told never to e-mail the CEO. I try to foster a
culture where people know it’s OK to reach out throughout the
Laikin views himself as the key spokesman for his company. And
by initiating dialogue and making himself open to his employees,
he encourages them to talk about the company with others.
“People who are in the company tell the stories and see what is
happening and tell other people and bring people into the company,” Laikin says. “If you do a good job at telling your story in your
space and industry and in the public markets, people want to come
work for you.”
Employees need to know that the same rules apply to everyone
as far as the behaviors and practices that are acceptable and those
that are not.
Brightpoint has a whistle-blower procedure in which a third-party
service is used to handle calls from employees with concerns.
“Any employee can call and say, ‘I think something isn’t being
done correctly,’” Laikin says. “We investigate it, and we take everything seriously. When it’s appropriate, we take actions pretty quickly.
“We are all held to the same standards. We’ve had situations, like
with all growth companies, where you have different employee
issues, whether it’s harassment, etc. Employees know that it does-n’t matter if you are the CEO or a senior manager or an entry-level
person. When people don’t adhere to what is reasonable, typically,
they don’t last at the company.”
Through regular communication and by operating with as much
transparency as is possible, you give your employees a clear sense
of what your company’s values are. You also reinforce the idea that
everyone is on the same team working toward the same goals.
“It’s company newsletters and webcasts and getting your message
out there all the time,” Laikin says. “At the end of the day, we stick
to the message and we overcommunicate it, whether it’s on our Web
site or in e-mails or continuing education about what values and
ethics are. ... The commonality is that people want to be respected,
and they want to be treated with dignity.
“Some of the easy things are branding or strategy or financial
goals. Those are easy messages to get out there and to execute on.
The cultural parts about the right way to do business, the honest
way to do business, the legal way to do business and the way to do
fair business, those are the things you educate people on over time.”
HOW TO REACH: Brightpoint Inc., (800) 952-2355 or www.brightpoint.com