Mark Hill Featured

6:22am EDT March 24, 2006
For Mark Hill, a key measure of leadership is a willingness to take a risk and accept responsibility for the results. And that’s not just talk.

In the mid-’90s, the president of Baker Hill Corp. faced a decision that tested that principle. Hill knew that his company needed to change direction to continue to grow and, perhaps, survive.

He knew that it wasn’t practical anymore — or a smart business strategy — to simply sell software to clients. Because his clients in the banking industry were having difficulty implementing his software into their systems on their own, Hill saw that his company would have to play a role in its delivery as well as its development.

It wasn’t an easy sell. For his customers, it meant extra costs upfront, but Hill persuaded them to accept his company’s switch from software developer and vendor to “experts in banking processes.”

That strategy turned out to be the right one for Hill, who founded the company — with 2005 revenue of $26 million — with his wife and business partner, Karen Baker Hill, in 1983.

Hill spoke with Smart Business about innovation, leadership and the value of staying out front, in view of his 180 employees as well as his clients.

On interacting with clients

Stay close to your market. By being out in the market with clients, talking to clients, making sales calls with our salespeople, that’s where you really get a feel for what’s going on with clients and helps you find out what those new opportunities are. As you look at our company ... we’ve had this history and this stream of innovation to this same set of clients.

Our business model has been, how do we expand these services that we provide to our clients? It requires innovation in terms of new ways to serve them, and that’s where that’s come from, really, being out with them.

On running with an idea

You have to try things and accept that you’re not going to get it right all the time. That’s one of the real balances, I think. Sometimes you need to persevere in going after something that’s new and innovative. Just because you say something and someone says ‘no,’ you don’t have to accept that at first.

But the management balance, then, is knowing when to throw in the towel. It really is a skill. It’s hard to describe, because to me, it’s an experience/intuitive kind of decision. It would be hard to say, ‘Step one is this, step two is that, and then you look at this.’ The earmarks would be continual progress. You just need to see the ball moving forward, and at some point, you may see the ball moving backward.

On making mistakes

Accept your mistakes and learn from them. To me, it’s the ability to learn from your mistakes, and in my case, there have been plenty of them. It’s one of those things I find around how we are as humans.

There’s a natural tendency to be defensive around the mistakes we make. Most of the time, when something goes wrong, it’s not one thing, but there are three or four contributing factors. So oftentimes, we tend to want to underestimate our own piece of that and overestimate others’, so we’ll be willing to accept a mistake, but only a little bit of it.

I always coach people to take on more of it as yours and learn from it. To me, that’s what growing and maturing as a leader is all about.

On the value of employees

Take care of your people. Different people might look at this differently and say if you take care of the customer, then everything will take care of itself. My philosophy is a little different, and it’s not new or unique, but if you take care of your employees — and we work really hard to take care of our people — they will take care of our clients.

We have values that we talk about and are on the wall, and one of those is work/family balance. We feel pretty strongly that work’s not the most important thing in people’s lives, and we all need to recognize that. There are times when people have other things in their lives that are more important, and the rest of us need to step in and help that person.

When I started my career, I started with IBM. They had 300,000 employees. They broke it down. We had a branch in Denver that was 50 people, and it became its own cohesive unit, where you knew everybody and you worked together.

I think that’s one of the answers — break it down into smaller groups and work very hard to make sure that the groups work together. Stay away from the ‘we/they,’ which over the years I’ve seen crop up in our business and we’ve had to manage through.

Hire the best talent, and the skills will follow. I’d rather hire the talent and teach them the skills and give up the time that it takes them to ramp up. We have a lot of people we’ve hired right out of college who have been successful and have been with us for 10 years and are in senior positions now.

We have a program where we’ll hire five people right out of college. At that point, we’re hiring talent as opposed to specific skills. My big thing that I coach my own managers on is hire the right people and then serve them, support them, help them be successful.

On innovation

Don’t wait to innovate. You could really do incremental product improvements with client input. The big innovation comes from taking the ideas that are not necessarily from the industry and applying them to the industry and doing something new. We have to because of the business and the way we position ourselves as experts in helping our clients apply technology. They’re looking to us to innovate.

They can tell us incrementally what we need to improve on, but the big innovation comes from talking to them but not having them tell us the answer. We have to come up with that.

How to reach: Baker Hill Corp., www.bakerhill.com