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Keeping his word Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

Because very few businesses succeed overnight, an entrepreneur must have the patience to navigate through challenges as the company grows, says R. Matthew Neff.

But if there is no foundation of integrity, patience won’t mean a thing, says Neff, chairman and CEO of Senex Financial Corp. Founded in 1998, Senex is a financial manager for health care providers across the United States. It is the parent company of Senex Services Corp., which is a wholly-owned subsidiary.

“There is no substitute for integrity,” Neff says. “When you tell somebody you’re going to do something, you have to do it, and it doesn’t matter whether there is a contract or not. If you give somebody your word, you’ve got to deliver.”

That can-do attitude has helped Senex increase revenue 50 percent over the past two years, and the company now has 100 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Neff about the importance of delegation in giving leaders a chance to grow their business.

Q: What is the key to getting through the early days of growing a company?

In the early days, everything has to be done by you. The good news is, nobody understands it better. The bad news is that the high-value tasks that a CEO ought to be engaged in, it’s tough to find enough time to focus on those things. You’re setting up the telephone system, ordering stationery and coming up with the first marketing program.

Find a way to get yourself out of those organizational details. When I have found the right person, I’ve always been happy to let go of something.

I can elevate [my time] to more strategic issues. Find people and assign tasks to people who can bring their unique ability to bear to most effectively accomplish those goals.

The key concept is that you need to collaborate. You cannot impose a vision on an organization from the top down. Have others involved in developing it so that everybody owns it together.

Q: What skills do you look for in new hires?

You’re looking for people that have a high level of self-confidence but who also have demonstrated the ability to be on a team.

Jack Welch talks about people who have runway. They have room for additional personal growth. They can grow into more and more responsibility and take on broader challenges in the organization.

My goal is to increasingly delegate to subordinates who are becoming a lot more successful and who are personally growing. You should not be trying to continue to pull more authority into yourself.

Find talented people, convince them that they should come to work for you and give them the resources so that they can personally grow and take on more responsibility and authority.

Q: How do you deal with problems?

You have to see what is really happening and be able to personally confront it so that your team can then confront it and deal with it in an open and honest manner.

You tend to look at situations and view them as you want them to be and not as they really are. When you’re starting a business, you have to be brutally honest with yourself and the other people on your management team. Be comfortable in your own skin. Mistakes are going to get made.

Money is going to be used on things that you wish you hadn’t. You’re going to put trust sometimes in people who weren’t right for the job. Just admit it, compensate for it and move on.

Be self-confident. You’re opening the issues up for debate and you’re acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers. By having the open debate, you encourage the buy-in.

If you don’t get buy-in, you generally don’t get the result you want, or it takes more time and capital than you wanted.

Q: What can get a CEO into trouble?

To be the CEO does not mean that you have to be all-knowing or to necessarily be the one to define the right path. Talking about it and debating with your management team will get you to a much better result.

In law school, they tell you to tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you just told them. You have to communicate over and over and over again.

(Another) pitfall is publicly criticizing people. There is a lot of wisdom in the old adage that you publicly praise and privately criticize. Having said that, you have to hold people accountable, and that’s not easy to do.

You have to be willing to look somebody in the eye. It’s hard, and it’s unpleasant.

When you’re going to fire somebody, you don’t want to surprise them. They should have known months in advance that things were not going well. If you’re properly evaluating them and reviewing them, firing them should not come as a surprise.

HOW TO REACH: Senex Financial Corp., (317) 613-3000 or www.senexservicescorp.com