Kathy Simmons

Wednesday, 02 November 2005 06:45

Business born over a fence

It was just another hectic day in 1984 when Vickie Hutchins chatted with her friend and neighbor, Jo Ann Martin, over the backyard fence.

As a flight attendant and legal secretary, Hutchins had young children to raise, a household to manage and not enough hours in the day. She lamented the fact that there was no time for the simple pleasures she loved, such as gardening, country decorating, and trying new recipes.

Martin shared those feelings, so they decided to take the plunge together. With no experience, they cleaned off the kitchen table and embarked on a mail-order business.

Twenty-one years later, Gooseberry Patch is a booming mail order and Internet business with $20 million in annual sales, 80 employees — and 100 seasonal employees to fill holiday orders — and a host of loyal customers.

Since 1992, Gooseberry Patch has sold more than 6.6 million copies of its homestyle cookbooks, along with its exclusive nightlights, cake-stands, organizers and country-style quilts.

Smart Business spoke with Hutchins about how the company has overcome challenges to succeed and why Gooseberry Patch is a great place to work.

What makes Gooseberry Patch a place employees want to be?
Being such a small company, there’s really a sense of community here ... we all work together to help each other succeed. We get so many cards and photos from customers that we really feel they are part of our extended family, and we try to keep that feeling alive in the office, as well.

About once a month, we have potlucks, not only to try out all our customers’ tasty recipes but also to get together and see what’s going on in each other’s lives. We look forward to coming to work ... we make it fun.

What are your most popular items?
Our books, calendars, and holiday items are top-sellers right now. Our first full-color photographed cookbook, Get-Togethers with Gooseberry Patch, is No. 1 in sales, and our latest spiral bounds, One-Pot Meals, Patchwork Potluck and Christmas Cookies are also very popular. With customers gearing up for the holidays, our calendars are flying off the shelves. Seasonal items like our Black Hobnail Cake Stands and Pumpkin Night Light are also in our top 10 list.

How are you planning to expand your product line?
We are always adding new items. Our talented buyers watch the trends and buy those which we know our customers will love. We also have a terrific bunch of creative folks to design our cookbooks, event books, calendars, organizers, bowls and night lights.

We read customer e-mails and listen to their requests, and we try to accommodate as many of their great ideas as possible to keep them happy.

What’s been your biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it?
Over the years, the company has grown significantly and there have been growing pains. One year, the response to our holiday catalog was so much greater than we had expected.

We all put in some very long hours and pitched in doing jobs we wouldn’t ordinarily be doing to make sure the customers received their orders on time, as promised.

It worked, and through this experience, I learned an important lesson. It certainly taught me to expect the unexpected and be prepared for a variety of responses.

How have your children benefited from your experience?
My children have spent all or most of their lives around the business and although they’re proud of what I’ve accomplished and have always been very supportive, I think they’ll want to blaze their own paths in the world.

I’ve set a strong example, though, of how to balance work and family, and maybe they’ve learned a little about running their own business.

How are you expanding marketing channels?
It’s a combination of mail order, Internet and selling to storefronts wholesale. Our mail-order customers are definitely the majority, but it’s exciting to see our Internet presence growing so quickly, too.

We’ve also very recently entered the exciting world of licensing, so the sky is the limit. We’ve found that trying to reach our customers through as many channels as we can makes shopping with Gooseberry Patch easy.

Our customers love to have options. The freedom to peruse the catalog, surf the Web site or pop into their local shops and pick up a little bit of Gooseberry is appealing to them.

How to reach: Gooseberry Patch, www.gooseberrypatch.com

Wednesday, 02 November 2005 05:35

Building better schools

Novelist and poet Victor Hugo wisely observed that "He who opens a school door, closes a prison."

As founder and managing partner of the Michigan Studio of SHW's, a firm based in Berkley that specializes in educational facility design, Margie Simmons (no relation to the writer) has certainly done her part in this regard.

Simmons, a CPA and certified management accountant, earned her bachelor of arts degree in accounting from Michigan State University. But she quickly realized that poring over balance sheets was not her idea of career utopia and that she craved more interaction with people.

In 1998, taking her career in a new direction, Simmons started DSA Architects, a firm focusing on higher education facilities, with her partner, Tony Duce, and three employees. In 2003, the firm merged with SHW, a Texas-based company working predominately on K-12 facilities.

It was the perfect match -- SHW was seeking a geographical presence in the Midwest, while DSA wanted to expand its penetration to include K-12 facilities.

DSA, a member of SHW Group, now has 52 employees and is one of the most well-known designers in Michigan. Simmons proudly points to the company's workmanship at the Law School at Wayne State University, the School of Education at Oakland University and the science and classroom building additions at Oakland Community College.

Smart Business spoke with Simmons about her management style and how to bring out the best in your employees.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Two things come to mind: Employee development and grand openings of our facilities.

We have many talented employees. It's been an honor to observe their progress over the past eight years. Seeing them mature and reach their professional goals has made me so proud.

This gratification is only matched by the sense of satisfaction we all experience during the grand openings of our buildings. Seeing the physical result of all of our hard work and effort is truly an indescribable feeling.

What is the most painful professional lesson you've ever learned?

We pursued a design competition five years ago. We all really wanted this business so bad we could taste it. So we poured our hearts and souls into the creative process and recommended a dynamic concept.

For political reasons, we were not awarded the business, which was heartbreaking, to say the least. The time invested over many weekends and late hours seemed to be all for naught, but it taught me not to put all my marbles in one basket.

When bidding on jobs now, we plan conservatively and recognize there are many factors totally outside our control.

How would you describe your management style?

I am a people-pleaser by nature, which has presented personal challenges in my role as manager. I have accepted my limitations and realized that, although I would love to do so, I cannot make everyone happy.

My goal is to be a high-energy, direct and fair leader. I constantly communicate with my employees and seek out advice from peers and mentors.

Of course, it helps to have employees who are a pleasure to manage. They are a culturally diverse group of people, which makes for an interesting and creative dynamic.

They are passionate about what they do, committed to a common goal and enjoy one another's company outside of work hours.

What management book are you reading now and what have you learned from it?

"Winning," by Jack Welch -- it's the best. I wish I would have read this when I first got out of school.

One thing I learned from this book is the importance of staff differentiation. You have to recognize your top 20 percent performers -- these are your go-getters who must be kept happy or they will go somewhere else.

Then you have the 70 percent B players who are solid, consistent performers, the backbone of your work force. As a manager, you must develop those with the potential to move to the top 20 percent and make sure the others remain productive and know they are appreciated.

The remaining 10 percent are your bottom performers, who you need gently to lead to other, more suitable career options.

What does the future hold for DSA/SHW Group?

We have admittedly lofty goals. In the next 30 years, we want to be one of the most sought-after educational facility design companies in the world.

With so many countries converting to capitalistic societies, we see endless opportunities for what we can offer in terms of advancing education.

Our more short-term goals are to continue the penetration of K-12 schools in Michigan and higher education facilities in Texas and the East Coast.

How to reach: DSA Architects, www.dsaarchitects.com

Monday, 25 July 2005 11:50

Queen of workplace solutions

Invite Darla King to your office, and she’ll instinctively size it up — she can’t help it, it’s in her blood. King, president of King Business Interiors, has 20 years of experience in the industry, and her passion for transforming office space is unmistakable. Not only is she the queen of workplace solutions, she’s also a jack-of-all-trades.

Tight budget? She’ll find ways to squeeze out maximum efficiency with the perfect furniture. Sick and tired of your work surroundings? King guarantees she can refresh the look and feel of the space. Dreading an office move? Relax. She’ll flawlessly execute a pain-free move. And she’ll do it all while sticking to her mantra — treat the customers like royalty.

Since its inception, her company, with 25 employees, has earned more than $60 million in total sales. As a result of her success, the president of the 7-year-old company was named the 2003 Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce Small Business Person of the Year.

But despite this royal flush, she retains her humility, giving credit to her life and work partner and overall “Prince Charming,” husband Dave King, who manages the service end of the business.

“He is a strong person and a big, supportive influence on me,” King says. “His calm nature is an ideal complement to my Type A personality.”

Smart Business spoke with King about her passion and the challenges of instilling a customer service philosophy into her employees.

What is your best advice for business owners?

Don’t wait until you feel 100 percent ready before taking the plunge. I’m inspired by Carol Burnett, who once said, ‘Only I can change my life. Nobody can do it for me.’ You must have a passion for your business. Don’t be intimidated or paralyzed by what you don’t know. Selling and delighting customers is my forte.

Banking, insurance law, tax knowledge are all necessary evils, but well out of my comfort zone. To compensate, I promptly assembled an A-Team of experts who have advised me wisely and saved me a lot of grief.

How do you instill your customer service philosophy into your employees?

Most businesses have service and sales professionals operating in different silos. They are not connected in any meaningful way. It’s really a lack of togetherness — disjointed customer service, blaming, and reduced accountability when service efforts miss the bulls-eye.

King Business Interiors uses a true team approach on each account. We take employees to customers’ facilities as often as possible so that they experience the space first-hand. We know our clients’ pet peeves, history and expectations. Each member of the team can speak confidently and intelligently about our client base, and they are each empowered and responsible to maintain stellar service.

What is the downside of owning your own business?

When employees and customers depend on you to stay on the cutting edge, it can be a heavy burden. When you work for a corporation, you can leave at 5 and let someone else worry about staying current and competitive. Business owners simply do not have this luxury. If you don’t worry about the future, there might not be one.

What challenges does managing a staff pose?

Staff management can be a challenge. I want my staff to really love their jobs. That doesn’t just happen — it takes effort and discipline from management. I use an open-book leadership style. A great book to read is “Great Game of Business” by Jack Staff, which suggests the ultimate higher law.

When you appeal to the highest level of thinking, you get the highest level of performance. In other words, don’t underestimate employees’ desire to understand the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the business. There are no secret management meetings here. Employees are in the game. We want them to think of ways the business can become more profitable. We all benefit when this happens.

How to reach: King Business Interiors, (614) 430-0020

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Factor X

Excellent teachers make themselves progressively unnecessary, and that is what Monica Navarro strives to do when developing her staff. “I give assignments and expect performance,” says Navarro, a principal at law firm Frank, Haron, Weiner and Navarro. “But I also provide the tools and support needed to get the job done. I believe in the Socrates method, which involves asking questions rather than giving answers. Most of the time, people have the solutions inside of them. They just need a little help uncovering them.”

Smart Business spoke with Navarro about how she teaches and challenges her staff.

Q: What qualities do you look for when hiring?

I look for a basic set of academic and professional achievement, but the Factor X is essential. Factor X basically means emotional intelligence.

I would choose a job candidate with astute people skills over a person with stronger academic achievements. I am convinced this is the most critical long-term predictor of success.

Gauging emotional intelligence requires careful interviewing. Does the applicant engage others at a personal level? Do they show maturity in communications and a balanced viewpoint?

When interviewing, I watch for warning signs that emotional intelligence may be deficient; for example, defensiveness or unease when the applicant is required to move outside his or her comfort zone. I look for a fundamental likability, because personality is a tremendous asset in most businesses, including ours. People want to work with those they enjoy being around.

The interview process is a critical time to determine how the applicant will be perceived by customers and in a negotiation situation.

Q: How do you train employees?

I provide a combination of formal and one-on-one training. Formal training includes seminars and workshops designed to strengthen skills.

One-on-one training is a little more complex. I always give associates tasks appropriate for their skill level and beyond to promote professional growth. It’s important not to give assignments that are outside the ballpark. This can blow their confidence.

But every project should push them a little beyond what they might see as their limits. It’s a balancing act.

I’m communicative with my associates — generous with praise but straightforward when work is not up to par. I help staff grow by asking the right questions. The end goal is to move the associates to a point that they can identify issues and fix them independently.

Q: How do you balance work and personal lives?

I feel very strongly about striking the right balance between work and other aspects of life. Without the proper balance, your outlook can become skewed and one-dimensional.

The best way to achieve balance is to operate efficiently. There are only so many hours in the day, so find a way to use time on the job wisely. You cannot do this without both discipline and a plan.

At the end of the day, I always, one, take inventory of what has been done, and two, determine what needs to be done tomorrow. Having this list keeps me in control and in charge of my work day.

Also, to the best of my ability, I avoid bouncing from project to project. Being reactive can result in a considerable amount of wasted time. Every time you get pulled off of one task and on to another, it takes several minutes to mentally get back to the place you were before. If this happens several times a day, it could mean losing an hour of precious work time.

Finally, you must devote the appropriate amount of time to every project. I could easily spend two weeks writing a brief. I could fine-tune it, and the end product would be flawless. But if I realistically only have half a day to get it done, I need to maintain the proper focus and pace.

Q: How do you deal with fluctuations in your industry?

Managing fluctuations requires two skills: diversifying and planning. Overly specialized employees are vulnerable to changes in the economy or consumer demands. Having a wide breadth of expertise allows employees to be more limber and efficient. As one sector goes down, another invariably goes up. Every organization needs to anticipate, monitor and be prepared for shifts in demand.

Trend forecasting is important in the planning process. It’s dangerous to get so focused on the day-to-day demands of the business that you lose sight of what is coming tomorrow.

Q: How do you measure success?

My idea of success is much deeper than a fat paycheck. I think those who measure success in dollar signs are actually poor people. Success includes rising up to your potential, tackling every job with tenacity and 100 percent effort, and sleeping well at night with a clear conscience.

Do the right thing, and success will fall into place. People — both employees and clients — will stick with you. Harmony and a sense of balance will be generated. You will have the unique privilege of getting paid for something you love to do. That’s success.

HOW TO REACH: Frank, Haron, Weiner and Navarro, (248) 952-0400 or www.fhwnlaw.com

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Collaborative leadership

Marty Betagole loves a challenge, and that’s exactly what she got when she assumed her role as president of Mike Albert Leasing Inc. Mike Albert is one of the top 12 vehicle fleet managers in the country, with more than 20,000 vehicles leased throughout the United States and Canada and more than 8,000 vehicles sold each year in the used car market.

Betagole’s great-uncle, Mike Albert, started the company in the 1920s as a used car lot, and in the 1950s, her father, Robert Betagole — the current CEO of Mike Albert Leasing — suggested the company begin leasing vehicles as a way to generate used cars to sell. “If you look up entrepreneur in the dictionary, my father’s picture could be there,” Betagole says.

And while she says her father’s management style is directive, she herself uses a highly collaborative approach.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “Being collaborative means you gather more ideas. However, it takes more time and patience to execute.”

Smart Business spoke with Betagole about why patience, confidence and an ability to listen are critical to growing a company.

Q: How do you manage change?

Change and leadership are unavoidably linked. If you do not change to meet the times, you disappear. Likewise, if you change too much and you lose sight of what you are all about, you may also disappear.

This quote sums it up nicely: ‘Preserve order amid change and preserve change amid order.’ That is what I try to do.

My change management style is to take a collaborative approach. There are two ways to listen, and each is equally important. You must listen internally and remember that good ideas abound in your organization.

Do you want an engaged staff who embraces change? Pay attention to their thoughts. You must also listen externally to what your customers are saying and what your competitors are offering.

Change is scary. You may feel the fear, but as a leader, it is essential to maintain your composure and reassure the troops, especially during uncertain times of change.

Q: How do you communicate your vision and message to staff?

I don’t, really, because they are part of building it. People more naturally support that which they create.

One tactic I use is to plant seeds of ideas. I sometimes perceive when we need to shift directions or change our approach. I may subtly suggest ideas in conversations with staff, so that they gradually adopt them.

This is not meant to be manipulative; it is a smart strategy for building buy-in and support.

Q: What are the key skills of a great leader?

There are many skills needed, but these three come to mind immediately.

Confidence. You must stand by your convictions and trust your intuition. You are in a position of visibility and scrutiny. All of your decisions won’t be popular. Great leaders cannot be oversensitive.

Patience. While I don’t have patience with myself, I try to be tolerant and understanding of others ... to a point.

Ability to listen. The most effective leaders know it is more important to listen than to roar.

Effective leaders are also not afraid to break the mold and be daring.

Q: How do you grow your company?

By investing in it, employing quality people and identifying customer needs, then filling them.

We have invested significantly in our company so that we are prepared for the future. This is an easy area to neglect, and we have been guilty of this.

Keeping up with technology is essential, especially in a mature industry like ours. It is one way to differentiate yourself in the market. Moving forward, we will strive to stay ahead of the curve.

I’ve learned some lessons about employing quality people over the years. For example, we used to hire sales professionals with a background in the leasing business. The logic was they could bring customers with them.

Now, we focus more on evaluating the skills the individual brings to the table. The best person is not necessarily one with a background in leasing.

When it comes to serving customers, flexibility is the name of the game. I have my personal opinions as to which type of lease arrangement makes the most sense. But the more important priority is to consult with your customer or prospect and suggest the best arrangement for their particular situation.

HOW TO REACH: Mike Albert Leasing Inc., (800) 98LEASE or www.mikealbert.com

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Leading with respect

Michele Hodges puts a great deal of stock in respect. “The hallmark of healthy leadership is respect,” says Hodges, president of the Troy Chamber of Commerce. “Respect has a very broad definition. It must be shown to your employees or customers. But it must also extend to processes, history and every entity your business affects.”

Hodges’ philosophy has served her well as she works to make a difference in the business community.

“Helping make businesses more successful, as well as helping to enhance all aspects of the community, keeps me motivated,” she says.

The Troy Chamber serves 800 business members and a community of more than 85,000 residents living in Troy and 120,000 who work there.

Smart Business spoke with Hodges about why it’s a waste of energy to battle change and why you should never do anything you don’t want plastered on the front page of the newspaper.

Q: What characteristics are critical for a successful leader?

Respect is absolutely the underlying foundation. I believe the challenge is in not leaving out any stakeholder and, depending on the issue under consideration, allowing each stakeholder the appropriate weight in the decision-making process.

Often, decisions are made without a holistic view of how everyone will be impacted. That is when leaders run into problems. You certainly cannot please everyone, but you can — and must — respect all who are impacted.

I lead with respect and balance. There is always an emotional side to every issue. But when you look at the entire decision-making pie, the emotional aspect should be outweighed by facts.

Q: How do you manage change?

The secret is in not fighting it. The changes we experience in Troy are plentiful, including the trend toward outsourcing, changes in manufacturing and deregulation.

If all data points suggest change is inevitable, you are wasting energy battling against it. The wiser move is to find opportunities instead of focusing on the losses.

It’s human nature to resist change. That is why leaders play such a pivotal role in leading change. Great leaders are persuasive and communicate that the stakeholders are going to land in a safe place, despite the changes under way.

Look at change as an opportunity to manipulate your product and build a competitive advantage. That’s where leaders’ energy needs to be spent, rather than fighting the inevitable.

Q: How do you make decisions?

I use what I call the ‘newspaper test,’ and it has worked very well for me. No matter what the decision is, personal or business, I ask myself this question: ‘How am I going to feel when my decision is plastered on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow morning?’

Basically, will my decision hold up to scrutiny? Will people impacted by my decision read the paper and wonder why they were not consulted? Is there any aspect of my actions that I cannot fully justify?

This mindset helps me involve all resources before taking action. It forces me to take the time needed to make thoughtful decisions that I will not regret in the future.

Q: How do you define success?

Many leaders define success as perfection, but I have never held myself to this standard. As a lover of theater, I use this analogy — if the performance has some bumps in the road and is not flawless, that does not mean it isn’t a success.

At the end of the play, does the audience reward the performers with a sincere standing ovation? Does the whole cast feel positive about the outcome as they stand on the stage and take their bows? If so, it’s a success.

Likewise in business, there will be failures. However, if they are leveraged to the fullest degree, they can lead to overall success.

The focus cannot be on the bumps in the road, it must be in the final outcome when defining success.

Q: What is your best advice to CEOs?

I recommend the 10 Minute Rule. No matter what the communication forum, whether it’s a routine weekly staff meeting or a feedback session with an employee, take 10 minutes to mentally prepare. Think about it carefully and remember it is worth your full attention and focus.

Leaders can easily become overconfident and complacent over time. You must be on guard for this, because not staying fresh and current means you will become dispensable.

Stay cognizant of the fact that nothing you do can become routine. Every communication you participate in is worthy of your full attention and at least 10 minutes of mental preparation.

HOW TO REACH: Troy Chamber of Commerce, (248) 641-8151 or www.troychamber.com

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Leading with passion

Patty Brisben’s career in adult relationship enhancers began in 1983 when she saw a show about women who sold the products through home parties.

Brisben, a divorced mother of four, was so intrigued with the concept that she quit her job as a medical assistant to pursue this new career.

During her first year selling for Fun Parties, she was named top salesperson out of 3,000 consultants.

“I knew from the start that this was the perfect position for me,” Brisben says. “I did my homework and carefully observed the women attending the home shows. They represented all walks of life but had one thing in common — a genuine desire to learn more about intimacy and their own bodies. I knew the home party settings provided the ideal forum.”

Ten years later, Fun Parties folded, and Brisben opened the doors to Slumber Parties, which she later rebranded as Pure Romance Inc. “I decided (Slumber Parties) did not represent what we were about,” Brisben says. “It left the impression of a bunch of girls instead of mature women. The company name is a critical first impression.”

The company had retail sales of more than $60 million last year.

Smart Business spoke with Brisben about why training is vital and the importance of surrounding yourself with good people.

Q: How important is training to growing a business?

Successful businesses go below the surface and do not simply sell a product. It is about the entire experience, which involved more than sales. Uneducated consultants can do a lot of harm to our business, so we focus on training.

Untrained consultants can easily make the buyers uncomfortable, which is the last thing we want to do. Training is a challenge but not one we can afford to shortchange.

Q: How important is it to consult with others?

Owning a company does not mean you must have all the answers. It’s wise to maintain close ties with experts and really listen to them. I have advisers at many levels, including medical doctors and experts on the trends that affect our business.

Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with great people.

Q: What qualities do you look for when hiring?

There has to be a shared vision. We consider negative stories about former employers to be a big red flag.

We look for hungry, ambitious employees who are passionate about what our company stands for. They have done their homework and truly believe in the concept of promoting women’s sexual health and knowledge.

Q: What can bring a company down and/or prevent growth?

It starts at the top. I never underestimate the impact my passion and vision have through the entire operation. I am always positive and continually work with the company’s president and other key managers on where we are moving next. They need to grow along with me because I will one day pass the torch to them.

CEOs need to believe in their dreams, take risks and delegate. They also need to get their hands dirty. I am by no means an expert at every aspect of the business, but I have been exposed to each function. I have ordered products, packed them and shipped them.

There are times when every leader becomes discouraged and experiences a dip in confidence, along with sleepless nights. The key is to push through these low times and remind yourself that your company is making a positive difference.

Q: How do you measure success?

Your employees need to be growing and maintaining their enthusiasm and commitment in your product at all times. That is one indicator of success. It cannot be defined solely in material terms.

I consider one of my greatest accomplishments to be empowering women to be more successful both professionally and in their personal lives. Giving back to the community needs to be part of the success formula.

HOW TO REACH: Pure Romance Inc., (866) ROMANCE or www.pureromance.com

Sunday, 29 October 2006 11:22

Emotional intelligence

Elaine Kelly is convinced that emotional intelligence is the key to success.

“I would highly recommend Daniel Goleman’s books, including ‘Working with Emotional Intelligence,’” says Kelly, president and CEO of Payroll 1, which provides payroll and tax services. “It clearly describes why leaders — everyone, for that matter — should strengthen their emotional intelligence.”

Kelly says that soft skills such as self-awareness, personal motivation and social skills can make or break an individual and an organization.

“We have raised awareness in our company on these competencies,” she says. “In fact, we feel so strongly about them that 50 percent of each staff member’s performance evaluation focuses on emotional competencies.”

In 1992, Kelly was working as a CPA for Coopers & Lybrand and was not considering a change. But when she was offered the opportunity at Payroll 1, she took it.

“The more I thought about it, the more appealing it was to run my own business,” she says. “The challenge intrigued me, so I decided to take the leap.”

At that time, Payroll 1 had 40 employees and annual revenue of $4.5 million. Since then, under Kelly’s leadership, both those numbers have more than quadrupled.

“I did not rush into action,” she says. “I was slow and deliberate, taking the time to talk and, more importantly, listen to as many staff members as possible. The company was very successful when I joined it. My challenge was finding a way to grow it creatively.”

Smart Business spoke with Kelly about the importance of being open-minded and the one thing that can kill a company’s growth.

How do you motivate your staff?
I am not sure you can motivate anyone. My opinion is that motivation comes from within. I do, however, know that poor management can de-motivate staff members, and that is what leaders must guard against. There are a few ways staff can be de-motivated: being underpaid, being ignored, and facing undue or harsh criticism.

Close-minded leaders put a real damper on the enthusiasm of an entire organization. It is a basic human need to want to be heard and respected. Without that, I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain motivation or generate momentum in the organization.

As for as my own personal motivation, I have to guard against negativity. I am naturally persistent and resilient, but when the mood is dark around me, I can be pulled down. During these times, I concentrate on changing the mood.

What one thing can bring a company down or prevent growth?
The first thing that comes to mind is overextension. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to do too many things. This dilutes the effectiveness of the company and is a quick way to lose competency.

A full 80 percent of technological initiatives are never completed. Scope creep happens too easily and ends up wasting valuable resources and time. My advice would be not to be overly optimistic or ambitious when setting goals and diversifying the company.

Be honest about what you don’t know. Keep things simple and stick to what you do really well.

Also, be willing to ask for advice. Tapping into others’ expertise can save you a lot of time and money. Don’t be too prideful to ask for help.

What have you learned from your mistakes?
The quality of the staff members you hire is critical. It’s human nature to see talented new hires as flawless. I’ve learned to pull myself back and remain objective at all times, including the honeymoon period. I need to honestly assess whether each staff member not only has the right skill set, but also is a proper fit for the organization.

It has also been a challenge to remember that everyone is wired differently. It is tempting for high achievers to assume everyone wants the same things from their career. That can lead to a lot of frustration.

How do you define and measure success?
The organization cannot be successful unless the staff members feel successful. Therefore, we strive to manage the needs and objectives of each individual with that of the company. We ask probing questions during the interview process and after they come on board.

My strategy when interviewing is to find out as much as possible about what makes the candidate tick. I ask about their hobbies, background, prior jobs, likes and dislikes. It helps me place them in the right role.

For example, if someone hates it when their calls are not taken, I know a sales position would not be a good fit. However, a payroll specialist might be, since their calls would be anticipated and welcomed.

HOW TO REACH: Payroll 1, (888) 999-7291 or www.payroll1.com

Sunday, 29 October 2006 05:17

High-energy leadership

Patricia Smitson is known for her enthusiasm and positive energy.

“I became a lawyer as a single parent with two small children,” says the partner in charge at Thompson Hine. “I interviewed with a number of firms after graduating. What attracted me to Thompson Hine was the positive culture and clear respect for and acceptance of women in the workplace.”

Smitson joined the law firm in 1993 and was named partner in charge in 2001. The Cincinnati branch of the firm has 140 employees and is the second-largest Thompson Hine location in the United States.

Smitson sees herself as someone who not only does the paperwork, but who also makes a difference to her clients.

“I see myself as a business partner,” she says. “We are not just drafting documents for clients. We add a depth of service by truly understanding the client’s problem at hand, along with their overall business goals.”

Smart Business spoke with Smitson about how she keeps herself and her staff fired up, and how she measures success.

How would you describe your leadership style?
No doubt about it — the team approach works best. I focus on building consensus and generating a sense of ownership among attorneys, paralegals and administrative staff.

For example, two years ago I was in charge of a critical strategic planning endeavor. I could have done this several ways, including dictating the direction.

I chose to select 10 partners to work together for several weeks on developing a recommendation. They did so and then rolled it out to the other partners, solicited their input and fine-tuned the plan.

It was then introduced to the associates, who added their thoughts. This is how good leaders build a collegial culture.

Celebrating successes is essential also. We have weekly partner meetings in which we take the time to share good news. Being able to share positive information means that the leader must be plugged in to what is happening. This involves ongoing dialogue with staff and customers.

Sure, it takes effort. But this is a sure way to build momentum and remind people how much they are appreciated.

How do you identify business opportunities?
The party on the other side of the table can be a future client. Even though it can be a meeting under adversarial circumstances, they are watching. When the opposing party is seeking an excellent litigator, we want them to think of us.

Another aspect of seeking opportunities is taking a close look at the organization and deciding how we want to be positioned. What services do we want to offer? What training do we need to do? Or should we hire those who already have the expertise?

I also believe in active involvement in the community. This goes beyond business; it is simply the right thing to do. However, doing the right thing often opens up doors of opportunity. Leaders of every organization have a responsibility to be part of the life of the city.

How do you achieve balance?
I think that is somewhat of a myth. If you are at the top of your game, you cannot have balance — at least not on a daily basis. It is more realistic to look at balance in bigger chunks of time, such as a week or month.

There are times you have to be fully dedicated to the job, and there is little time for anything else. Other times, your family needs your time and attention, and the job gets less attention.

Over the long run, if you can juggle your priorities and meet your responsibilities in a way that brings personal satisfaction, you have balance.

How do you define and measure success?
There are several aspects to success. They are equally important. If one is lacking, the others will suffer.

Are our clients satisfied with our services? We constantly seek feedback in this area. If you ask your customers, they will tell you how you are measuring up.

Are we attracting good people, and are they sticking around? Our attorneys have worked hard to get their degrees. They want challenging and complex work. We are successful from a personnel standpoint if we are providing that for them.

Are we exceeding our revenue projections and sticking to our budget? The bottom line is, the bottom line matters.

What key skills must a leader possess?
Good leaders take the job seriously, but recognize it is not life or death. There is room for humor and fun.

There are the obvious traits, such as honesty, sincerity and being willing to work hard. But the reality is, the organization is not about the leader. It is about the business and the many people who are part of it.

Leaders help set the vision and motivate their co-workers to accept the strategy and build a successful organization.

HOW TO REACH: Thompson Hine, (513) 352-6700) or www.thompsonhine.com

Thursday, 21 September 2006 06:28

Reaching new heights

Cheryl Bush has found a winning combination in her love for travel and her business acumen.

Bush is president and CEO of Aerodynamics Inc., where she started her career as a secretary in the sales department in 1978. Since that time, the company — which provides complete aviation support for Fortune 500 companies and small businesses — has grown from 40 employees to 285.

“Assuming the lead operational role at ADI was somewhat daunting, however (founder and chairman Frank Macartney’s) faith in my abilities, along with the mentoring he provided through the years, gave me the confidence I needed,” Bush says.

Smart Business spoke with Bush about the strategies she used to take her business to new heights.

What one thing can bring a company down or prevent growth?
Poor leadership. Employees are looking for direction and want to provide input. They want to contribute more and feel like part of the team’s success.

In other words, they are looking for management that inspires them. Not being in touch with employees and customers is the most common example of poor leadership.

Leaders who are poor listeners, think they have all the answers, or are more comfortable in their office than interacting with staff or customers can expect morale problems.

How do you make decisions?
Ethics are a big deal at our company. When you have the guiding principle of always doing the right thing, it makes business decisions simpler. However, the reality is that operating with integrity often comes at a high price, and you must be willing to pay it.

I make it a point to get input before moving forward on decisions. I listen to perspectives of each side and weigh them carefully. But, again, the principle of integrity is the ultimate guide.

How do you balance the demands of your job with those of your personal life?
It’s definitely easier now that my children are grown. I have always been the optimist who handles stress well. Keeping busy tends to create more energy.

I live in the moment, keep myself organized and rely on a strong support system. I have always been fortunate enough to be able to separate my business and personal lives and give them both the respect and time they require.

How do you set and review goals?
We have an annual off-site senior management retreat at which time we review where we are and where we want to go. We set goals and bring them back to the managers for input.

Once the annual corporate goals are finalized, we share the results with the entire staff. Each team then develops group goals that are aligned with our corporate goals. We also require employees to set personal goals to make sure they continue to grow professionally.

How do you recognize business opportunities?
There are two types of opportunities. First, those that fit in well with the current business plan and generate reasonable returns. Those are the easy ones.

The other type of business opportunity is trickier — they involve a longer-term strategy, oftentimes with less profit initially. An example was our 121 certification process, which was a $5 million investment, including two years of manual writing, personnel overhead and maintenance inspections.

Until the first day of operation, this business opportunity yielded no profit. It ultimately allowed us to differentiate ourselves from other aviation companies in that we not only provide aircraft support, we are also a full charter airline.

How do you lead change?
Change is always difficult, regardless of the type of business, even for those who are flexible. One of our biggest challenges came during the time we were going through the 121 certification process, which involved stringent safety reviews.

We discovered areas we could be more proactive, which led to changes. Employees were a bit resistant — and resentful — because they felt we were already extraordinarily mindful of safety.

The tactic we used to manage the change was to involve employees in the process and deliver consistent and repetitive messages.

What qualities do you look for when hiring?
We want employees who are creative and ambitious. Those that require lots of hand-holding don’t last long here. The airline industry seems to attract people who are independent and self-reliant.

Teamwork goes with the territory. When you think about it, there has to be a lot of trust. The pilots trust the crews and mechanics, and vice-versa. Most people in this business have a genuine passion for what they do — they are not necessarily in it for the money.

HOW TO REACH: Aerodynamics Inc., (800) 235-9234 or www.flyadi.com