“So many companies put mission statements on the wall and expect everyone to memorize it and live it and breathe it,” says Gentile, president and CEO at Independent Stationers Group Inc. “You really never know whether that’s propaganda or if it’s a CEO living in an ivory tower and not knowing exactly what the culture is and what the beliefs are in the organization.”
He works hard to make sure his mission is more than just some decoration on the wall. People need a cause or a reason to commit to a mission that is laid in front of them and Gentile has one.
“We get up every day and we’re helping small businesses compete against big business. That is a culture that has just permeated the entire organization.”
The independent office supply dealer has members ranging in size from $1 million in annual sales to locations that generate more than $80 million in sales each year. Overall revenue totaled $188 million in 2008.
Gentile’s job is to help the dealers and their collective 6,000 employees by providing the programs and services that they can’t provide on their own. But that doesn’t mean everyone has to do everything the same way.
“Too many times, we define success when we can get everything going in the same direction,” Gentile says. “At times, that may not be the best strategy. What really is the best strategy is that we’re able to achieve our objectives and goals. If we have to develop and execute different tactics to get there based on various constituency or customer needs, that’s OK.”
The key is to set a common target to aim for and then let your people, the ones you’ve entrusted with your brand, to figure out the best way to hit it. But the only way to find true success is to keep your people motivated to achieve the goals that are set for them.
Promote your culture
When an employee first starts a new job, there is a level of enthusiasm and energy about taking on a new challenge and wondering where it will lead.
“It’s a very happy moment for them,” Gentile says. “They are very happy they got their job and they are telling their family and friends, ‘Hey, I just got a job at XYZ Co. I’m really excited.’ They go to work that first week and they’re as excited as that first week they go back to school and see all their friends again.”
Unfortunately, that feeling often doesn’t last and the energy evaporates into frustration.
“I blame that, many times, on management,” Gentile says, adding that it’s not just a matter of getting a raise. “It’s also the culture and the values that are exercised in that company and whether or not management actually walks the talk.”
Gentile wanted a company in which employees enjoyed their work and felt a sense of purpose. He also wanted them to feel like they worked in an environment where they could offer suggestions and provide input.
“You have to walk the talk, no matter what it is,” Gentile says. “If you firmly believe in a new policy, you need to walk the talk. You cannot manage a process unless you know it.”
When you’re looking to change a culture from one that is dull and dreary to one with more energy, you often need to move at a comfortable pace.
“I don’t think a CEO or senior manager is going to be able to accomplish it by turning a switch,” Gentile says. “It will be more evolutionary than revolutionary. When someone thinks they can turn themselves around very quickly and change a culture, the work force sees through that and they know it’s phony. They know it isn’t sincere.”
Find some opportunities to earn small victories with your people that offer a hint to what you’re trying to do.
“There are always issues that would be low-hanging fruit that you can pick off right in the beginning,” Gentile says.
The point is to find areas where you can connect with your employees and respond to some of the feedback you get.
“If the associates and employees know that what they are going to share with you, that you are going to sincerely listen and act upon it responsibly and in a timely manner, then you’ve paved the way and broken down some barriers,” Gentile says. “It’s the old saying: Past behavior predicts future behavior.”
You also need to promote an environment where failure isn’t feared. If employees feel like they can put their creativity to use to try new things and not fear retribution if it doesn’t work, the culture is strengthened.
“We’re not saving lives in this business,” Gentile says. “If someone has an idea about how to make a process more streamlined that’s going to reduce costs, increase customer satisfaction, and increase sales and gross margin, then you have to allow people to express it freely and then allow people to test and implement it.”
Take employees from different departments in your company and allow them to work together to brainstorm. It may create some new bonds and give them a sense of what’s going on in other parts of the business.
“Without having a manager staring over them, allow them to implement something and test it,” Gentile says. “At any given time, we have three or four process improvement teams operating.”
These teams are made up of employees from places such as finance and operations, IT, sales or marketing.
“It helps people maintain a good outlook,” Gentile says. “Maybe someone could be getting a bad attitude or feel like no one is listening to them. You get them engaged in something like that, it pumps them up.”
Another thing to remember is that in many businesses, there often are no black-and-white answers to problems.
“There are many ways for approaching an issue,” Gentile says. “There’s a certain degree of trust and discretion people have to have in their decisions if they want to try something. Very rarely do you have a discussion with someone and say, ‘That’s dead wrong.’”
In an open culture, the way employees go about accomplishing the task is usually left to their discretion. But the end result is what you’re looking for, and in order to achieve success, it needs to be measured.
“Regardless of what the position is, there should be objectives attached to that position that you can manage in a quantifiable way,” Gentile says. “If you measure something, people will undoubtedly work toward achieving that measurement or exceeding it.”
The key is that your employees know how they are being measured.
“Too many times, we don’t lay out the expectations clearly and that’s where we get into situations that become very uncomfortable,” Gentile says. “We may put people in positions where their skill sets aren’t suited for it and expect them to perform. I had an old boss that said, ‘You can’t put a 20-watt bulb in and expect 40 watts to come out of it.’ It just won’t happen.”
Conduct regularly scheduled reviews so that employees know when to expect to sit down with you, but don’t be afraid to have some impromptu meetings, too.
“Midyear reviews are also critical,” Gentile says. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t have discussions throughout the course of the year regarding perfor
mance as it pertains to meeting objectives.”
You shouldn’t just focus on the same time every year to review people nor should you do it in the same manner.
“You have to use various methods,” Gentile says. “The umbrella to the success of implementing any of those methods is instilling trust and belief and sincerity. It sounds kind of esoteric, but people don’t become robots when they walk into the front door of the office. They are the same people they are when they leave the office.”
It’s even OK once in awhile to ask employees what you can do for them.
Gentile spends a lot of time on the road traveling to IS Group locations across the country.
“I’ve walked in their shoes and spent time in their businesses and listened to them and asked them, ‘What do you expect from your cooperative IS Group?” Gentile says. “What do we do right? What do we do wrong? What do you need to compete every day against these 800-pound gorillas?’”
When he first started at the company, it truly helped set a tone that he wanted to be approachable.
“That helped set the tone with our membership that they had someone who was really coming into that job with the right attitude,” Gentile says.
Learn to celebrate
When you’re the one in charge, it can be a challenge to accept that you may not have all of the answers. But if you want a culture in which others don’t just feel like they have to but they actually want to join your cause, you need to learn to do it.
“Some of the worst patients out there are presidents and CEOs because quite honestly, they’ve reached the pinnacle of their success and talent and knowledge and skills,” Gentile says. “But their talent, skills and knowledge isn’t enough to get their company to the next level. Particularly if they are in an industry that is very dynamic and changing and becoming more complex.”
One of the toughest things to accept can be the achievement of a victory.
“Sometimes the expectations are too high, and I’m not one to say lower expectations but establish realistic ones,” Gentile says. “Establish yourself in a situation where you have some very capable and trustworthy associates that you are working with and that you can depend on giving you honest, reliable and candid feedback.”
The point here is that your employees need to feel like their efforts are paying off. So celebrate the small victories when you can.
“Someone said to me that you’re never happy all the time; you have moments of happiness,” Gentile says. “You’re not ever totally satisfied. You’re satisfied with certain issues and elements that you are contending with. If you can manage yourself to that understanding, then that certainly helps to maintain the right perspective.”
Perhaps the best lesson Gentile can point to regarding small victories and their benefit to the worker was his first job as a kid selling the Boston Globe.
“In those days, you would go to their house and collect,” Gentile says. “If I did some extra things, if I put the newspapers in a plastic bag and I put it in the right spot and was timely on delivery, there was a direct correlation between good, solid customer service and what my tips would be. When someone later told me that compensation drives behavior, I said, ‘Yep, I can see that.’”
How to reach: Independent Stationers Group Inc., (317) 845-9155 or www.isgroup.org