Erik Cassano

Monday, 14 December 2009 19:00

Envisioning the vision

Your vision and values can be clearly stated on signs throughout your office, but in the end, it’s still more about what your employees think it is than what you say it is.

It’s a lesson that Michael Evans has taken to heart at the American Institute of Toxicology Inc., a forensic testing and research company that does business as AIT Laboratories.

As the founder, president and CEO, Evans says his job is to identify the vision and values for the company, and then communicate them to the company’s 325 employees with consistency and passion.

“My real job is keeper of the culture,” Evans says. “I maintain the culture, I maintain the standards by which we operate, the values, and make sure that we constantly drive those values as we make our decisions going forward. If it’s not consistent with our values, we’re not going to do it.”

Smart Business spoke with Evans about how you can build, maintain and communicate your vision and values at your company.

Know what you stand for. Establishing your vision and values comes down to knowing what you are really about, who are you, and do you stand for anything. You need to establish that early on. That message has to resonate throughout the company, and the hardest job I’m faced with is to make sure that message gets down to every employee as we continue to grow.

When we first started the company, it was me and a few other people. It’s pretty easy to communicate values at that point. But as we grew, the question became how to continually do that. It’s showing it every day, even in little ways. It’s just saying thank you to people when they do a good job, showing recognition to people when they do a good job, showing your appreciation to them, showing them that they’re valued members of the company.

As an example of how we convey our values, we donate 5 percent of our net profits to charity. We do that because it’s part of our values system. We engage our employees in doing that, we have a contributions committee that decides where the money is going to go. We demonstrate through our actions what we’re about as a company, what values we stand for.

Communicate with passion. Be authentic, be yourself and don’t try to fake it. If you’re not authentic, communicating the vision won’t work. I find it amusing that some CEOs would claim equality with their employees, but if you look at their take-home bonus at the end of the year, there is no equality. Our bonuses are shared equally by everybody. In fact, the executive management team does not share in the net-profit bonus. That’s for the employees.

You just have to be honest with your employees, even to a fault, and keep showing passion for the company, for your business, for serving your people and recognizing that people are the foundation for your company. I saw an article in the news recently about how companies are having a tough time in the economy right now. Some CEOs who are really successful are turning down their bonuses. It goes back to reinforcing the idea that you and everyone at the company are in this together, and if the team has to sacrifice due to tough times, you should be sacrificing, as well. Some CEOs won’t do that, and I don’t really understand that. You’re not showing that you care about your employees. Showing that you’re authentic and that you’re part of the team is essential to build that bond with your employees.

We have a number of committees that are run by employees. They’re not run by the management team. We tell them that their job is to communicate with the rest of the employees, their co-workers, to bring feedback to the committee and then on to the executive management team.

What is really important in that whole structure is that you and your management team have to continually demonstrate that you’re listening to your employees, that you’re really hearing them. You have to give them feedback so that they know that you want to hear what they are telling you. You need to be responsive. I do a lot of walk-around managing. It’s what I mostly do. I walk around, get a sense of what is going on, and my employees know that. I know one fact about every employee here. I know something about their family, their kids, their dog, their hobbies, whatever it may be. I know something about them because it shows I’m willing to take an interest in who they are and what they do, even outside of work. Honestly, it’s just caring about them.

Tie everything to the vision. Every decision you make, you have to place it in the context of the vision and values.

For example, back in 2000, I could see the technology changing, in terms of the type of equipment we were going to use. So we made those changes in terms of purchasing equipment. It was about five times more expensive than the technology we had at the time, but these are our values. We’re about leadership, about being thought leaders, about good science, and this is better science, even though it’s more expensive.

We decided that we weren’t going to look at return on investment, cost and profitability. We’re going to do the best science and do it well. If we do that, profits will come. It comes down to what you’re all about in the end, and we’re all about quality science. So that decision to go with the new technology hurt our bottom line, it cost more money, but it paid off because it was the right thing to do. That is what you have to consider as you make decisions that impact your business.

How to reach: American Institute of Toxicology Inc., (317) 243-3894 or

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

A piece of the pie

David Brandon has a bit of a dilemma.

When the economy is bad, people spend less. When they spend less, they don’t eat out or order their dinners in as often.

When your company is built on a foundation of delivering ready-made food to the doorsteps of your customers, it’s a problem that hits you right where it hurts.

And that’s exactly what Brandon, Domino’s Pizza Inc. chairman and CEO, has been facing as the economy has slumped over the past year or so.

“We are very much a business focused on the dinner day part,” Brandon says. “Our peak consumption periods are right around the dinner hour. So, our category — and not just Domino’s, but everyone who participates in the pizza category — has been under a fair amount of traffic pressure over the past couple of years, as a result of the fact that people are cutting back their spending.”

One of Brandon’s solutions was to get creative. With dinnertime sales lagging as more and more families opted for home cooking instead of ordering out, Brandon and his leadership team made the decision to carve a presence with the lunchtime crowd.

Domino’s rolled out a line of baked sandwiches, which use some of the same ingredients as the company’s pizza products and can be prepared in pizza ovens. Throwing all of its clout behind the idea, Domino’s — a company that had $1.43 billion in 2008 revenue —quickly became the largest sandwich delivery company in the United States.

“The idea of expanding our menu to participate in the lunch day part and expand the menu with other items that are consistent with what our brand stands for while still offering more variety, for us, seemed to be a very good strategy to combat the fact that our core category is under some pressure,” Brandon says.

Creativity is great, particularly when you can find new ways to leverage the tools already at your disposal. But the ability to weather the nation’s economic slump is also rooted in common sense and adhering to solid business practices. Brandon has been able to do both, and Domino’s had maintained its standing as one of the pillars of the pizza industry.

Stay close to your customers

The baked sandwich idea was a slice of marketing creativity that came from a couple of basic business principles that Brandon has used to help pilot Domino’s over the past couple of years: know what your brand stands for and know what your customers expect. Once you figure out what field you’re playing on, then you can figure out new ways to keep customers coming back.

Brandon was able to increase his company’s presence among the lunchtime crowd because the company’s baked sandwiches are closely related to pizza, the product that customers have come to associate with the Domino’s name.

Years before, prior to Brandon’s involvement, Domino’s tried to enter the cold sandwich market. The venture wasn’t successful. The equipment and ingredients necessary to produce cold sandwiches is considerably different from what is needed to make pizza, meaning that outfitting Domino’s stores for cold sandwich production took a considerable capital investment at the store level.

On top of that, customers weren’t really looking to Domino’s for cold sandwiches. They didn’t associate Domino’s with cold food.

“Operationally, it was just a completely different set of muscles, a completely different model for us to incorporate into our mainstream business of taking hot food out of an oven, putting it in a [heat-retention] bag and delivering it to customers,” Brandon says.

Armed with that bit of company history, Brandon has made it a point to stay close to his company’s customers, even when the economy is surging and the competition for customers isn’t as fierce.

You should never assume what your customers want or how your customers perceive your company. Gut feelings are bad when it comes to reading customers. Research and data are the way to stay abreast of what your customers want and need.

“We really don’t make bets in terms of our own gut feelings or instincts,” Brandon says. “We always start out with consumer panel testing and do a lot of focus groups. If we feel like the response we’re getting is a positive one, we’ll ultimately go and do a market test, an environment where we’ll isolate two or three markets in the country and roll the product out so we can stress test it operationally. We’ll test our marketing, test our packaging, test our name positioning, our advertising, and make sure it all works the way we hope it would.

“If we get a good read from that test market experience, there is a good chance we’ll roll it out nationally and, in some cases, internationally.”

Because pizza delivery companies take phone and Internet orders, they have a built-in way to keep track of customers and their buying habits. But regardless of what industry you’re in, customer purchase data is worth tracking. If you take orders over the phone or Internet, the details of the calls are worth saving. Over time, you’ll gain an accurate picture of your strengths and weaknesses as a business.

“We have a very rich data warehouse that affords us the ability to access who our customers are today, who they were yesterday, where our new customers are coming from,” Brandon says. “Having that kind of data gives us the ability to go back and do research with those customers to find out important things, which can help you make good business decisions.”

Having a great product is the foundation for developing a repeat customer base. But in trying economic times, customer service becomes just as critical. You should never neglect customer service, but now is really the time to give your customers added incentive to do business with you and keep coming back.

“Every customer is precious,” Brandon says. “You have to earn every one, and every one is a new test of whether you’re going to perform to the expectations of your customers. Your marketing has to be very strong, and in this environment, in this economy, it really has to communicate the value benefits of your proposition. Consumers are looking for a deal, they’re looking for value — meaning a combination of quality, service and price that is attractive.

“This is not a time to feel like you can go out and extract higher prices from customers or cheapen your service or product. This is a time to value that customer relationship like never before. You have to work harder and be more diligent, because everything you earn is going to be earned the hard way. It’s not going to come because the industry is thriving and a rising tide lifts all boats. Success is going to come because you did enough that customers chose you over your competitors.”

Build leaders

If you’re going to lead, particularly in a down economy, you can’t do it alone. You need a wide array of ideas and perspectives on the challenges you face each day. Brandon highly values a leader’s ability to build a great leadership team and counts it as his primary leadership attribute.

Brandon prides himself on identifying and grooming new leaders at Domino’s, and then putting those leaders in positions where they can help steer the company with their talent, creativity and skills.

“It’s not that they help me lead; it’s that we all lead,” he says. “It’s a big ship. We have

at any given time up to 175,000 people working across nearly 9,000 stores. To think that any one person can be the leader is crazy. What I do better than anything else is surround myself with good leaders, people with whom I have trust and alignment, and then provide them with the resources and direction they need to go out and lead their respective divisions and areas of the business.

“It’s a team sport. You have to be good at selecting, retaining and appropriately incentivizing terrific talent.”

Whenever possible, you should try to develop leaders within your ranks. But there are times when it might be more advantageous to bring in a new executive or manager with an outside perspective. Ultimately, you need a balance of both internal and external influences to construct a well-rounded leadership team.

“Long-standing members of your company have probably helped you build your culture, and that is always a great advantage if you have a number of candidates who are capable of moving into open positions,” Brandon says. “But I also believe that from time to time, you do need to bring in new perspectives and new talent, people who come from a different place and bring a fresh set of eyes into the organization. People like that bring fresh ideas and are willing to challenge what is happening.”

Brandon says creating that balance is more of an art than a science. You have to know what type of leader is needed in each position.

“There are certain positions in an organization that lend themselves better to bringing in someone from the outside,” he says. “Internal candidates are better suited for a position where you need a deep knowledge of the culture and operating aspects of the business. Sometimes employees will react better to an internally promoted leader who has built credibility in the organization. So it is more judgment on your part than anything formula based.”

Stay ready

Bad economic times will come. It’s inevitable, so you should make plans and prepare before your profit-and-loss statements are setting off alarms.

Many businesses fall into a comfortable groove when times are good. They don’t want to upset a good thing, so the company focus stays on maintaining the status quo. The trouble is, once you can no longer maintain that status quo, problems can quickly snowball into something much bigger.

Brandon says that risk needs to be managed closely in difficult times. If you’re throwing Hail Mary passes to try and dig your company out of financial trouble, you’ve got it backward.

“The best time to be taking risks and making big changes in your organization is when conditions are good,” he says. “What I’ve always advocated is that when business conditions are good, that is the best time to be tough, make changes and take risks to ensure that your business is as effective and efficient as possible.”

Brandon has spurred rounds of consolidation and head count reduction at Domino’s, even when the company’s financial data said it wasn’t necessary. Those steps have helped Domino’s stay financially strong through the economy’s slump.

“I’ve had people internally who have looked at me and said, ‘Dave, things are going so well, why do we need to do this?’” Brandon says. “My response is that, one day, we’ll be glad we did this. One of the big reasons that Domino’s has weathered the storm as well as we have is we were more prepared than some other companies. We haven’t had to do huge layoffs and huge changes in benefit plans or shut down facilities.”

The key to staying lean in good times boils down to one word: discipline. Take the same mentality to your business finances as you do to your personal finances.

“The mistake that businesses are making is really no different from the mistake that a lot of families make,” Brandon says. “Times are good, so it’s easy to spend more and run up your credit cards. You become less disciplined when times are good.

“That’s why I believe, whether it’s managing your personal affairs or leading an organization, you should never get lulled into a feeling that because times are good, they’re always going to be that way. You have to discipline yourself for the down cycle and gear your spending and decision-making around the idea that it’s going to come. When it does, you’ll be fine because you’ve prepared for it.”

How to reach: Domino’s Pizza Inc., (734) 930-3030 or

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Thinking together

Ugo Ginatta is in the gelato and coffee business. But he’s also in the idea business.

The co-founder, chairman and CEO of Paciugo Franchising LP knows that the best possible products won’t reach his customers if the best possible ideas aren’t placed on the table and considered in the company’s management meetings.

With that in mind, Ginatta has focused on becoming a kind of peer leader who oversees operations for the gelato store franchisor — which generated $10.4 million in 2008 revenue — while still giving both corporate employees and franchisees varying degrees of latitude to come up with better ways of marketing and selling their products.

“I like to be informal as a leader and like to be peer to peer when possible,” Ginatta says. “I have a completely open door because I am here for long hours. I’m normally the first one in the door and almost the last to leave in the evening.”

Smart Business spoke with Ginatta about how you can create a collaborative, idea-driven culture in your business.

Build a wide-angle view. If you want to lead your company effectively, always remind and completely demonstrate to your colleagues that what you are arguing for is not your point of view, not your pet project, but what you believe is good for the company. When we argue, we all tell each other that this is not arguing for the sake of arguing. It is because we believe in what is best for the growth of the company. Everybody has a stake when you have a small company like we do. Everybody is rooting for the company to grow and not only give us financial satisfaction but professional satisfaction, as well.

You need to continue to create that wide-angle view among your employees. In our meetings, we all sit there and talk. We know each other, and our comments are driven by keeping focused on what is good for the project or the company. We really try not to have groups or subgroups or let somebody insist on something without hearing everyone else out. Everybody needs to have the mindset that they’re going to do their best to understand our customers and our franchisees and come up with recommendations that is best for them and best for our products.

Involve people from the start. Understand that everybody wants to contribute. We keep saying to each other that we’re all ready to unplug the restroom toilet or sell the company or do anything in between. In other words, we all wear multiple hats according to our capabilities. You need to find people and train people who have a phenomenal ability to jump from task to task. If we have a potential franchisee to see how we make our gelato, anybody here can take them on the tour, whether it’s someone in accounting, shipping or wherever. The more you can build that all-around knowledge with all your people in all areas of the company, the better off you’ll be.

People we hire are sent to the first available franchisee training session. Early employees, they all came from stores. They started as store employees, then store managers and then they moved into corporate. So they develop an extremely clear idea of where the income comes from. The employees who came along later on did not go through the stores. Those are the ones who need to go through a training course to understand where our income comes from.

When you have developed a sufficient number of employees that are so well attuned to the corporate objective, they tend to pull in friends and acquaintances that have the same characteristics. If you end up mishiring someone into that kind of environment, they probably won’t last that long because they have a different philosophy. They don’t care about the product or the company, so they’re not happy and they need to look for a different job. You need to be kind of homogeneous in your hiring, like in a rowboat, everybody is rowing at the same tempo.

Know when to take a backseat. You tend to listen more closely to colleagues that have specific knowledge or experience on the given topic being discussed. I tend to keep myself very much restrained in the marketing meetings. We recently had a marketing meeting about how to relate things to customers when they walk into our stores for the first time — why is it a healthier option than ice cream, why we make it by hand and so forth. Those points need to be crafted very creatively and in as few words as possible because people don’t want to read pages and pages.

During meetings like that, I tend to keep myself more in the role of a member of the general public. I want to let the people who have the expertise run the meeting, even though I do have some background in marketing. It goes back to the idea that you want the most specialized and trained people on your team to run the show in each given situation. You don’t want to step over or around people just because you run the company.

In all situations, you have to take a look at ideas from everyone very seriously and let the people on your leadership team debate it. The proponents of the idea try to lay down the case as to why we should try something, and the idea’s opponents lay down the case as to why this might not be the best fit right now. But in the end, you want everybody in those meetings to leave with the idea that their idea was seriously considered, that no one was slighted, that both sides had a chance to give their story and the idea was thoroughly debated.

In our case, we don’t deal with a lot of weird ideas to begin with, but we do get some different types of ideas. Someone might come to management with an idea on how to enhance the grand opening of a store, drum up some publicity, and it might be something strange or a little off the wall, and we would certainly look at that because it’s a unique marketing chance for a new store that is looking to attract attention.

How to reach: Paciugo Franchising LP, (214) 654-9501 or

Monday, 26 October 2009 20:00

Beating the odds

Rick Salinas is a positive leader.

Wrapped in that six-word declaration is a lot more weight than you might initially realize.

The idea of leading in a positive, upbeat fashion is nothing new. Managers like to encourage, employees like to be encouraged, and the need for positive reinforcement is even greater with the cynicism that has gripped work forces as the nation’s economy has faltered.

But to Salinas, the general manager of Barona Resort & Casino, positive leadership is about more than smiling, waving and small talk while in public. It’s even about more than dishing out bonuses and prizes to high performers.

To Salinas, positive leadership is a state of mind, a personal core value that he has made into an organizational core value at Barona. Salinas says the mental fortitude to overcome the negativity spawned by the current state of the economy starts with him, his leadership team and the examples they set.

“Always remain positive,” Salinas says. “People look to you as a leader, especially in difficult times. They need to hear that things are going to be OK and that you’re willing to remain upbeat. That doesn’t mean that you bury your head in the sand and pretend that there aren’t difficulties, but you need to also make sure you’re honest and open about the things that you can celebrate. Whenever you can, find the good things that are happening in the organization and talk about them.”

There is no magic bullet for staying positive. You need to make up your mind that you will promote the good news as much as you have to report the bad news. You have to communicate often, which includes allowing yourself to be accessible to your employees. And you have to set the example you want everyone to follow — and do it every day.

Set the example

Leaders set an example for their employees on both a conscious and subconscious level. Even when you’re not speaking or sending out e-mail blasts, you need to remember that you’re still communicating. Employees will watch your demeanor, your attentiveness and other nonverbal indicators in an attempt to read what is going on behind the scenes.

If you are withdrawn, aloof or exhibiting any other kind of counterproductive behavior, Salinas says you should expect your employees to do the same.

“Your staff emulates the example you set — it’s as simple as that,” Salinas says. “They’re going to behave the way you behave, not according to what the core values say on paper. People emulate their leaders.”

With that in mind, Salinas has made it a point to live the culture for his 2,975 employees. “Live the culture” has become something of a business cliché, but to Salinas, it has a very real meaning. It means that he must always remain aware of how he’s leading, the verbal and nonverbal messages he’s sending, and use his perch at the top of Barona’s hierarchy to spur positive momentum throughout the organization. Part of that is frequent communication with his management team — which serves as an ongoing informal evaluation process to make sure all of Barona’s leaders are communicating the same messages to all of the resort and casino staff.

“On the conscious level, what you have to do is make sure that your leaders, the people who report to you, can articulate your core values and what they mean — what it means to be Barona Resort & Casino — and making sure the people who report to them understand the same thing,” he says. “That’s very conscious. You set a communication process in place to communicate your core values down to all levels of the organization and the meaning behind each value. We start at orientation with new folks and we hammer our vision statement and core values into them constantly.

“You constantly have to do that all the time, and I can’t stress ‘all the time’ enough. It has to be in everything you do, every piece of communication that you put out there. Every communication we have will contain a core value, so that there is always a core value or our mission statement or a business imperative in front of somebody’s face all the time.”

On a subconscious level, in addition to communicating through your behavior, you also need to develop an understanding of the feelings you’re conveying with all types of communication. Depending on how a message is worded, it can have different implied meanings to different people.

Salinas says that because subconscious communication encompasses nonverbal communication and implied meanings, it is much more difficult to harness. But it’s something you need to learn to do, because every time you’re in the public eye with your employees, you’re communicating, whether you realize it or not.

“On the subconscious level, you have to make sure that everything you do is aligned with your values,” he says. “The way pieces of communication are worded is really important. The way things are said and how they make somebody feel is really important. Our core values make people feel a certain way, and the stuff I’m doing on a daily basis should be consistent with our core values. In other words, your behavior should make people feel the same way they do when they see the core values.

“That all goes back to how do you look, how do you carry yourself, are you making eye contact with your staff and smiling. Are you stopping and sincerely conversing with people you see each day? It’s a little more difficult, but you just have to doggedly pursue this whole idea of living the culture. It really does start with you and work its way down.”

Set up feedback channels

You can pay attention to all aspects of how you communicate, but the only way you’re really going to find out if your messages are reaching every person in your company is if you give your employees a chance to have their say.

Salinas has set up many of the feedback channels widely used throughout the business world. He holds quarterly all-staff meetings with a question-and-answer period. He makes himself as accessible as he can during his walks around the resort grounds. He answers e-mail.

But Salinas and his staff have taken things a step further at Barona. Salinas has continued to utilize a program that predates his tenure as general manager. It’s called the Barona communications team, and it comprises employee representatives from throughout the Barona organization.

The goal is to give employees in every area of the organization a chance to reach management in a formalized manner and to provide an effective top-down means of communicating messages.

“This team is comprised of 40 or so front-line staff members who meet weekly with the senior vice president of human resources,” Salinas says. “I try to attend those meetings when I can, and it’s purely informational. Those staff members on the team come from all areas of the operation, they do updates about what is going on in their areas and if the people in their areas have questions, they put those on the table. The representatives are then responsible to go back to their areas and communicate the information that they’ve learned at the meetings.

“A program like that allows you to get information on the grassroots level. It also allows you to get information to your staff that is accurate, that hasn’t gone through the rumor mill and com

ing out distorted on the other end.”

Feedback is a critical element in allowing employees to take ownership in the direction of the company. If they’re helping to steer the company, your employees will generally exhibit a more positive attitude as they work toward carrying out the company goals and mission.

Feedback is also useful as an idea generator. Even if a particular employee’s job centers mostly on manual labor, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to harness his or her brainpower. Ideas can come from anywhere.

“Every once in awhile, a staff member will surprise you with a monster idea that could make you a lot of money,” Salinas says. “But those big ideas are pearls that are few and far between. You also need to look for the small things that someone might be telling you about. Someone farther down the ladder that they have this cool idea, and you might not personally see the results, but it might be big for their department. So you make it happen and do it with as much fanfare as you would for a big idea.”

Though you might be more budget-conscious due to the state of the economy, Salinas says you shouldn’t hold back financially if the idea makes sense on every other level. Most of the ideas that you get won’t be million-dollar ideas that cost a fortune to get off the ground.

“If you keep encouraging it, you’ll get absolutely inundated with new ideas,” he says. “People will keep coming to you. If that happens, you might start to get some pretty wild ideas that you know you can’t use, but it really doesn’t matter, because at least people are engaged and they’ll be thinking about what they can do to [make] things better. That’s the all-important ownership piece that you need to build within people.”

Make time for fun

You’re in business to do a job and make money, not entertain or be entertained by your co-workers. But fun doesn’t have to be frivolous. In fact, it’s essential to getting the most out of your employees, particularly as they get bombarded by bad economic news from every media outlet.

At Barona, Salinas has placed an emphasis on creating an enjoyable work environment — but he does it with an eye toward reinforcing his core values.

Salinas hands out star performer awards and cash bonuses at every quarterly company meeting, in much the same way a lot of leaders do. But he takes it a step further with a little something extra. It goes back to Salinas’ belief that little things can make a big difference in the attitude of your employees.

“It’s doing these little things where you can plug away and make people feel good about where they work,” he says. “We have quiz contests on our core values and things that are happening at the casino. It gets people psyched and excited, but at the end of the day, the real key is that someone from management took the time to say, ‘Thank you, and here is a token of our appreciation.’ It’s a simple act, but it’s amazing how that doesn’t happen enough in business.”

Salinas also made it a priority to avoid one of the biggest morale destroyers in business: taking away employee perks. Sometimes you have to get creative to keep employees happy, and that is exactly what Salinas and his staff did.

When Barona moved its casino into a new facility, the old facility was slated for closure, along with its dining hall, which also served support staff working in separate buildings around the Barona complex. Spurred by an employee’s suggestion, Salinas decided to keep the facility open and covert the dining hall into an employee lounge.

“We kept the old facility open, and we added some high-end vending machines, some plush sofas, and it’s now a place where people can just relax,” Salinas says.

“It can be very easy to save some money here and there by taking away or not implementing some of these feel-good programs, but that’s a huge mistake as far as your employees are concerned.”

How to reach: Barona Resort & Casino, (619) 443-2300 or

Wednesday, 26 August 2009 20:00

Hitting the trifecta

It’s impossible to find all the answers to leading a business in a magazine article — even if it’s in the Harvard Business Review. But you might find a good question once in a while.

That’s exactly what happened to Michael Rubin a couple of years ago.

The chairman, president and CEO of GSI Commerce Inc. was thumbing through an issue of the well-known management publication when he happened upon a couple of key questions that every company leader should ask their employees. One of the questions was culture-related, and it immediately stuck out to Rubin: Could you go around to every key employee in your company and ask them what your vision, mission and core values are?

“At that point, I knew my answer would be ‘no,’” Rubin says.

GSI is a growing e-commerce solutions company with a list of clients that includes Dell, Estée Lauder and the National Football League. From the outside, GSI looks the part of a company that generated $967 million in 2008 net revenue — healthy and in peak condition. But on the inside, GSI had a case of ambiguity.

The long-term vision, mission and values of the company hadn’t been explicitly defined by management. The guiding principles of the company might have been on paper somewhere, but the communication of those principles was so lacking that many of GSI’s 4,500 full-time employees would have had trouble defining them.

To Rubin, the answer was clear: GSI needed to better define and communicate the vision, mission and values that drive his company.

“We undertook a critical process, driven by our employee base and other key constituencies, to really define our vision, mission and core values,” Rubin says. “Once we implemented that, it has really helped to shape the company.”

Define your values

To focus your company on a vision, mission and set of core values, first you need to define what those values are. That was the first step in Rubin’s process.

“Our vision is to be a worldwide leader in e-commerce, growing from what was a U.S.-based platform,” Rubin says. “Our mission is to be e-commerce experts that really help our clients grow their e-commerce. Our core values support the vision and mission — for instance, the idea that a promise made is a promise kept. We’re in the business of delivering clients products that are important to their businesses, and we need to hold to that commitment.”

From there, Rubin and his leadership team performed a large-scale rollout of the vision, mission and values to the entire company. It was a task simple to state but complex to carry out.

Rubin uses the term “overcommunicate” to describe the level of persistence he and his managers used to focus their thousands of employees on the company’s guiding principles. In the world of business, “overcommunicate” is something of a cliché, but to Rubin it has a definite meaning: to never allow yourself or your senior managers to become satisfied with their current level of communication. Rubin says you should always strive to go above and beyond your current level of communication.

“We had a big rollout that we did to all the constituencies in the company,” he says. “We had a lot of different materials implemented and featured in all areas of the business. At our last employee meeting, we did, for the first time, a question-and-answer session, realizing the amount of stress and pressure on employees’ minds. That was really well received because people like it when you’re honest and answer things truthfully. It shows why communication is fundamental to the success of any business.”

Part of the hard work of communication is making it sound easy. When communicating wide-ranging concepts throughout your company, you need to state them in a straightforward manner and, as much as possible, tailor the message to your audience.

“In all the communications I have with people, I’m constantly explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing, why we’re investing in the areas in which we’re investing,” Rubin says. “When we went from a U.S. e-commerce platform to an international platform with fully integrated marketing services, that was confusing to people. We had to define to everyone why we are doing this, why it’s good for our clients, employees and shareholders, and constantly communicating the benefits to people. That is what we’ve done to help employees understand the evolution of our business.

“However, with that communication, I’m trying to reach 4,500 people, and within those 4,500 people, you have all different types of employees. When you’re communicating to numbers that large, you need to be sure that everything you’re communicating is appropriate for your audience.

“It doesn’t all get communicated in the same way. You might have a more wide-ranging message for your higher level employees and a more specific version of the message for the employees who are more involved in a specific aspect of your business. The way we communicate something to our overall business might differ than how we communicate, for example, to our marketing services business. We might take another level of detail to communicating with that business than we would to the overall organization.”

Develop communicators

In order to effectively move information throughout your organization, you need help. That help has to come in the form of other managers who are practiced communicators.

At GSI, Rubin develops managers on the inside and hires managers from the outside. The managers help keep the vision, mission and values in front of GSI’s employees in their daily interactions.

“Any talent search in a high-growth company is going to be a combination of people that you’ve developed internally and people you have brought in from external sources,” Rubin says. “I believe that when you look for leadership in an employee, it’s not just what you learn in the interviewing process, it’s also the back-door references you find, where you can really find out about the person’s history, track record and management style.”

Once Rubin and his staff have made a management-level hire, they send the new manager to training, during which they are taught what will be expected of them as communicators.

“We have a leadership program at GSI, during which we work on things that are important to any manager’s success,” Rubin says. “We take them off-site and work on training them as top managers, as people who are going to continue to grow the company.”

Once the training sequence is finished, the learning doesn’t end. But the teacher might change. Rubin says that he and all of his experienced leaders are teachers on a daily basis, as is the case for anyone in a high-profile position. New managers will look to you for their cue. The behavior you exhibit is the behavior they’ll emulate, so if you want them to help set and reinforce the vision, mission and values for the rest of the company, that is the tone you need to set.

“First, you must lead by example,” Rubin says. “That means the example you’re setting is something you must fundamentally believe in. It has to be honest and real, and it has to continuously stay in line with your mission, vision and core values. If you set those principles, but then do things that are out of line and inconsistent with them, people are going to notice and call you out very quickly.”

Open a dialogue

Engaging your managers is a great first step, but only if the engagement continues throughout the organizational ranks. And one of the most effective ways to do that is to give employees feedback channels. Personal contact is always best, but electronic methods such as e-mail are useful, as well.

By showing employees a concrete way that their ideas and input can help better the company, you’re showing them that they can help steer the organization, which will increase their level of buy-in with regard to the vision, mission and values.

“Great ideas come from all of [your] constituencies,” Rubin says. “If you don’t foster a culture that creates great ideas, then you’re not going to be successful. If we only solicit ideas from select people within the company, we’re going to miss out on a lot of opportunities.”

But with open feedback channels comes the need to review the feedback you get. Rubin and his management team integrate the feedback and idea review process into their strategic planning meetings. It gives them an opportunity to see if a new idea might fit with the company’s overall direction.

“You have to have the right strategy and the right financial plan and align those with your organizational goals to get everyone working together on new ideas,” Rubin says. “Each year we have a formalized strategic planning process, and out of that comes a financial planning process, which is used to get everyone in line with what we’re trying to do as a company. That gets cascaded down to individual departments and through to our individual department goals, and that’s how we get everyone focused and working together.”

As necessary as the vertical communication between management and the lower rungs of your organization is, lateral communication between departments is another key component in building a culture, reinforcing the vision, mission and values, and sharing ideas.

Rubin says that many departmental managers are more experienced in a hierarchical setting, where they’re overseeing subordinates and answering to superiors. Finding department heads who excel at taking a cross-functional approach to leadership can become a bit more challenging.

“It goes back to hiring the right people, then you have to get them into situations where they interact, and you can focus them on growing their departments by interacting with each other and sharing their expertise,” he says. “Since people tend to manage better up and down within an organization than they do horizontally, one of the qualities you have to look for during the recruiting and interviewing process is people who have a history of doing well in a cross-functional environment.

“Once you have the right people, you need the right level of alignment in order to create a cross-functional environment. Alignment happens through the goal-setting and goal-connecting process. If you can do those two things, the rest falls into place, and you will be able to get people on the departmental level who work together and make each other better.

“That is probably our biggest opportunity and, in a lot of ways, our most challenging. It’s what we talk about in our (leadership training) program — get connected, align the different goals and objectives, and make sure all those goals are connected. If you can’t do that, you have no shot of being successful as an organization.”

How to reach: GSI Commerce Inc., (610) 491-7000 or

Sunday, 26 July 2009 20:00

Start it up

For Eric Werner, everything starts at the top.

In any organization, the leader’s job is to set the vision that everyone else will follow, affirm the mission for which the company will stand, and help craft the goals that will serve as the means for realizing the vision and mission.

They are lessons Werner has learned in a career as an entrepreneur in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Werner is the CEO and owner of both Texas Subs and DFW Tanning, and he is also president of Sunset Tan Franchising LP. His Subway and LA Sunset Tan franchises generated a total of $35 million in revenue last year.

“The first thing is that, as a company, you want to have a mission statement and goals,” Werner says. “Where do you see the company three to five years from now, what is the mission statement of the company, what is your purpose of being in existence?”

Smart Business spoke with Werner about how you can build your company to be a success, both now and in the future.

Be the starting point. The CEO is the face of the company. Using the example of Wal-Mart — for years, people saw Sam Walton. He was the face of Wal-Mart. No. 2, the CEO needs to set the company’s philosophy and principles. Whatever we do, I want the people in our company to be honest, upfront and fair. If we make a decision for one person, we have to make it for another person. The third thing is, the CEO has to set the vision. Where are we going with this company, where do we see ourselves in two or three years? Most of the successful companies out there do goal setting. The leadership at Wal-Mart, Subway and other successful companies do goal setting. And that gives people something to shoot for. You might make it, you might not, but you’ve set that goal. If you don’t make it, chances are you’re going to at least fall close to it.

The person at the top of the company, even when they are around an employee, that employee looks at that person in a different light. You try not to be intimidating, but at times, being around the leader will be intimidating for an employee, just because of the position you hold. Regardless of how you’re viewed in a given situation, you do have a sense of professionalism to project out there. People are going to emulate your attitude. If you’re out there and have a poor work ethic, it will trickle down through the company. That underscores how important it is to set the tone for your company.

Build successful employees. You build confidence in employees with recognition and praise that is sincere, not just praise that you hand out all the time. If people know you are a good judge of character, they’ll respect your opinion more. I liken it to Simon Cowell on ‘American Idol.’ When Simon gives praise, it means something.

A second method is to have contests with awards. People are competing against each other, and you have an award at the end of the contest, which gives the winner a sense of accomplishment. A third method is simply the time you spend with your people in group meetings. That gives them a sense of self-worth because they know they belong to the team.

A lot of people don’t need praise, but a lot simply need to know they’re doing a good job. When they do get praise and recognition, they work harder for the company. Too many times people focus on the negative, and I always try to lead people with a positive feeling about the company and try to instill a sense of pride in working for the company.

Promote the mission. You have to have a mission statement promoted throughout the company. We have a company workbook in six or seven sections. The orientation section outlines the company, the philosophy, the policies, what you can be terminated for, how to increase your pay. We give people the ability to control their own destiny with their pay based on the number of training classes they take and based on their performance. You also could display plaques in your office that show your employee of the year or store of the year. There are many different ways to promote your mission.

Where leaders might go wrong with communication is that they’re strong on delegation, but they’re weak on following up. I always follow up, and people know I’m going to follow up. If people know you’re going to follow up, you probably won’t need to repeat yourself too much, because they know you’re going to ask. But if you’re weak at following up on whatever you’ve directed or delegated to somebody, then you’re going to be telling them over and over because they know you’re not going to follow up.

Seek support and feedback. Find a monthly CEO round table in your area, other leaders you can bounce ideas off of. They will make you accountable when no on else will. They can help you address situations to make you a better CEO. There are also CEO coaches out there, if you prefer more one-on-one coaching. They can go over how to better yourself as a CEO.

In-house, with your own employees, you can hand out surveys and set up anonymous feedback channels. Those types of surveys will ask employees questions like, ‘Do you think the company treats you fairly?’ and, ‘Do you think your manager treats you fairly?’ and give employees an opportunity to give their input on how management is leading.

Sunday, 26 July 2009 20:00

Realizing the vision

A well-crafted vision can put your company on the right course. But it’s up to the people in the business to man the rudder and stay the course.

It’s a lesson that Dave Gordon has taught to his 75 employees at Regency Windows Corp., where he serves as president and CEO. Gordon focuses everyone in the company on his vision and enables his employees to achieve it through their own talents and abilities.

“For me, leadership starts with a vision for the business and a purpose for everyone,” Gordon says. “And my leadership style is very much consensus building, communication and dialogue with the team.”

Smart Business spoke with Gordon about how you can build a vision and get everyone on board with it.

Q. What goes into constructing the vision?

The vision for the business is, at its essence, a set of objectives. It’s a direction in which you and your team head, a direction in which you take the business.

Our vision encompasses financial objectives, personal performance objectives, how we pay off on the values we have at the company. It encompasses our role in the community. It is kind of a holistic approach to what we are as an enterprise and what we want to accomplish. That is the foundation for what we do at the company, the foundation for my leadership style, the foundation for what we’re all about as a team.

Q. How complicated can you make a vision?

There are levels. In its simplest forms, when we talk about the organization, we’ll talk about our values, what matters most for us. For us, it’s simple words like, ‘Do the right thing.’ For us, that’s almost a rallying cry. It’s something we developed as a team, and it’s a phrase that helps everyone understand what we expect, what is OK and what is not OK, how we measure ourselves and what constitutes success here at the organization.

In its broadest form, you can communicate the vision that way. If you dial it up a notch to the leadership team, the vision might have some other elements added in that would be appropriate for the leadership team, such as financial objectives.

Q. How do you communicate the vision effectively?

I do it a variety of ways. With our leadership team, the core senior managers of the company, we’re together every week in a staff meeting. The staff meeting is a discussion of the objectives we have, of our progress toward those objectives, of our problem solving for each other if some part of the organization is not meeting those objectives. We support those who are exceeding their objectives and ask how we can fan those flames.

We have, at the least, quarterly companywide meetings that everybody attends. We will talk about our company priorities, starting with safety, since this is a physical business that we do. We start every meeting with recognizing top performances on safety.

We reward and recognize other contributions to the business. We read customer feedback that reinforces jobs well done. It’s a multipronged approach to reinforce the vision.

It all stems from a philosophy that I have of engagement. A winning organization has members engaged in the mission of the organization. Part of engagement is understanding what the mission is and what constitutes success, what you are trying to accomplish and how will you know when you get there. Engagement also means that people are enthusiastic about the mission, feel ownership in the mission, feel it is the right mission for the organization and are proud and willing to be part of it. Those multiple layers of communication are critical to ensuring that you have everyone on board, doing their best and doing so willingly and enthusiastically.

Q. What are some keys to getting that level of buy-in?

It starts with establishing goals and objectives that are tough to hit but not impossible. You have to put something in front of yourselves that will, with some degree of likelihood, succeed.

Second, it has to be something that you feel is the right thing to do. It has to be ethically rooted and morally rooted, something you feel it’s OK to ask another to do. Third, there has to be respect for the community involved. There is an element of gratitude in what you do every day, what you have. That has to be present.

Those are kind of greens fees, in my way of thinking, about how you get people engaged. Then you have to be able to simplify the communication of that vision to a level where it is clear, it’s simple, and it’s understandable. Short, simple sentences, not a long, committee-written sentence with big words. It has to be clear and obvious what you are trying to do to allow everyone to hold onto it.

Then you have to layer in communication. There is kind of an outbound aspect to communication, but there is an inbound aspect, as well, which is making it a dialogue. You talk to folks about what you’re trying to do, then you ask them to play back what you are asking them to do. If what they play back to you has congruence with what you want to achieve, then you know they have it.

But then you have to take it one step further. You have to check in and say, ‘Do you have the tools you need? Do you have the support you need to achieve this?’ Tools can be anything along the lines of physical tools. ‘Is the team set up the right way, tasked with the right tasks? Are they joined with other departments that understand the mission and work collaboratively?’ That is where you have to stop and listen.

Thursday, 25 June 2009 20:00

Focusing on the long haul

A year ago, as the nation’s economic backslide began to pick up speed, AmeriQuest Transportation Services was a company that had just about everything in order. The provider of fleet management services, which generated $500 million in sales last year, was nearly on pace to meet its sales plan.

“We were just a little behind our plan, and we were also building some new products and offerings,” says Doug Clark, the company’s founder, president and CEO.

Taken at face value, AmeriQuest seemed to be positioned well for an economic downturn. But when Clark reviewed the company’s strategy with his management team, they became concerned that they were looking at the future with a magnifying glass instead of binoculars. Short-term gains would mean nothing if the long-term health of the company wasn’t secure.

Clark and his team soon found themselves at a crossroads.

“The question we had as a team was whether we should continue to invest in these products and offerings, or do we stop and therefore (affect) our ability to make plan,” Clark says. “In the end, everybody took the long view, and we came to a consensus that we should be investing in the people necessary to make our company have better offerings and more strategic offerings.”

The decision to focus on long-term goals ultimately cost AmeriQuest a chance to make plan. But as the calendar pages turned, it became clear to Clark that the long-term move was the right move.

“Our team took the long view, they were hurt in the short term because they did not make plan and our bonuses weren’t what they usually are,” he says. “But it was absolutely the correct thing to do, because we started to reap the benefits in the first quarter of this year. Everybody hung in there, did more with less and kept their eyes on that long view.”

Over the past year, Clark’s challenge has been to maintain that long-range view and build it into the culture at AmeriQuest, while maintaining a realistic outlook for his employees as the daily news reports continue to bombard everyone with economic horror stories.

Build a sturdy stool

The culture at AmeriQuest is supported by a four-legged stool: transparency, collaboration, trust and confidence. They’re four principles you need to cement in the minds of your people during prosperous times, so that they’ll have the right mindset during trying times.

“Transparency and collaboration build trust among the working group, and through those three endeavors, everybody has a high degree of confidence,” Clark says. “With that resulting confidence, you will come into work with the attitude that we will persevere and we will win.”

Construction of that organizational stool needs to begin in your office, with the help of your management team. You need to decide how you want to communicate and also model the values that you want your employees to embrace.

“You have to start at the top,” Clark says. “I’d like to believe that the people who work with me in this organization truly believe that there are no hidden agendas, that there is nothing being kept from them and we are transparent. Ultimately, the culture is embedded by doing what you say you are going to do, and that keeps filtering down through the organization. The management team builds collaboration by ensuring that there are not walls being built between divisions, and that helps build trust.”

At AmeriQuest, transparency and collaboration are enabled through a great deal of in-person contact between top management and the employees in the field. The company has four offices: the headquarters in Cherry Hill, N.J., and additional offices in the Chicago area, McLean, Va., and Coral Springs, Fla., in addition to sales staff dispersed throughout the country. Clark and his management team maintain consistent contact with the other offices either by logging air miles or getting on the phone. But maintaining open lines of communication is the key.

“It’s particularly challenging when you’re not all in one place,” he says. “But we spend a lot of time on conference calls or in face-to-face meetings just trying to accomplish what we set out to accomplish. We’re a fast-moving organization, so we need that constant communication among us.”

It can be tempting to look for an easy solution to communicating, particularly in the current economic climate, when there is so much else you could concern yourself with. But Clark says now, more than ever, is the time when your people need to see you and hear from you.

There is no way around it: Promoting and maintaining your cultural principles is going to involve a lot of hard work from many different people.

“There is no one silver bullet for this,” Clark says. “It’s blocking and tackling to maintain the culture. It doesn’t come from books or once-a-year meetings where you tell everyone that this is the culture you’re going to have. It’s every day, you have to live it and adhere to it. And if you’re not adhering to it as part of the team, you should be called out on it.”

Part of communicating is modeling the right behavior. In tough financial times, when sales might be lagging and customers are hesitant, it can become easy for people to begin playing the blame game when a sale falls through or an account dries up. That is a recipe for cultural disaster. To build a collaborative culture, you need to set an example, from the top, that demonstrates a willingness to shed light on internal conflicts.

“If there is a dispute, I don’t take one person’s word for it,” Clark says. “I bring everyone who is affected into the decision circle. Everybody knows that. They know that if they have a complaint about someone or something, we’re not going to whisper down the lane. We’re going to address it and meet it head on.

“The other part to that is I try not to let things linger. If there is an issue out there, if it is a morale issue or a financial issue, we try to explain where we are and why we’re doing what we are doing. We want to communicate our reasoning with everyone. They might not end up agreeing with it, but at least they know the reasons why we’re going down a particular avenue. It’s all about continual reinforcement through your actions and words. That is how a culture is created and sustained from the top.”

Be a realistic cheerleader

With negative economic news seemingly at the top of every news broadcast and on the front page of every newspaper business section, you might feel like you’re swimming upstream in the fight to salvage your employees’ collective morale.

Swimming against the current might not always represent the best course of action.

You need to instill in your employees a belief that they and the company will endure, that times will get better and the revenue streams will pick up speed at some point. But you can’t overcompensate for bad news by attempting to slant your employees’ perception of reality.

Clark says you need to accentuate the positive whenever possible, but you also need to give your employees the straight scoop when the news isn’t as good, otherwise you’ll lose credibility and the stability of your culture will suffer.

“Part of a leader’s job is to be something of a cheerleader but not to the point of being unrealistic,” Clark says. “You need to cheerlead by conveying that you will continue to do the right things and this will all pass at some point. I tell my people that if we all co

ntinue to do the right things, we’ll be in a position to take advantage of things when the economic tide does turn.”

Remaining positive while conveying a realistic outlook requires a balancing act, especially when you and your team have to clean up after a mistake or perform a course correction.

“The key to the balancing act is that, on a macro basis, you say that your company is still doing well, that we’re still profitable or whatever positive points you have that you can accentuate. But if you have to say something that is negative, do it in a way that conveys disappointment without destroying confidence.”

Acknowledge mistakes and shortcomings without deflating the people involved even more than they already are. Instead of harping on what went wrong, use negative incidents as teachable moments and opportunities to reinforce a team-first mentality.

“If somebody missed their numbers or quotas or whatever or if there is bad news somewhere else along the line, a lot of times people will beat themselves up worse than you or I could beat them up,” Clark says. “For you to sit there and tell them they missed their numbers this month, that’s really not the right way to manage in good times or bad times. However, in bad times, it’s particularly important to create a dialogue during which you can find some solutions to correct the problem, whatever it might be.

“That doesn’t mean that you can just tell someone, ‘You did a bad job, but that’s OK,’ and pat them on the back. In a situation where a person already recognizes that they haven’t accomplished what they were supposed to accomplish and there is already negativity in their thought process, you need to acknowledge the problem, then work together with the people involved to correct it. Look at what you need to do moving forward. Don’t look back at what you’ve already done.”

Take the long view

When taking a long-range view that looks past the potholes immediately ahead, Clark goes back to a lesson he picked up from the published works of business mogul and Google investor Ram Shriram: The head of a company has to work on the business, not in it.

You’ve hired people to take care of the day-to-day operations. Your job is to make sure that those people are put in the best possible position to carry out their daily and weekly tasks by ensuring that the company is in the best possible position to succeed when times are good and endure when times are trying.

“Positioning the business to weather a down economy is something that falls onto senior management,” Clark says. “That is a major responsibility of senior management in any company. You need to look to the future and what you think the future is going to hold, then act accordingly.”

Acting accordingly means using the information at your disposal to paint the most accurate long-range picture that you can. If the projections say revenue will begin to swing upward, you might make preparations for additional hires or reduce travel restrictions. If projections aren’t as positive, you might need to rein in spending.

“Entering the fourth quarter of 2007, I was really advising our management team to enter 2008 in almost a hiring freeze,” Clark says. “The last thing you want to do is hire in January and lay off in August. That turned out to be the right advice, but more importantly, the management team followed that advice. That is why we need to get out of the details of the company and take the visionary view.

“In the end, your decisions will probably be driven by three things: cash, employees and customers. You want to accumulate cash, keep your good people and keep your good customers. That should be your focus in this economy.”

How to reach: AmeriQuest Transportation Services, (800) 608-0809 or

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Putting people first

Many leaders talk a good game when it comes to building relationships with their employees, but Denny Sponsel says that talk without action is cheap.

Sponsel, president and owner of RJE Knoll Business Interiors Inc., says that you can talk all day about connecting with your employees, but the real test comes in how you seek that connection.

You can engage your employees over something as simple as a coffee-break conversation, but you have to actively seek opportunities to speak with them and give them an opportunity to ask questions.

“Some of our warehouse employees, if the president of the company is willing to sit down, have a cup of coffee with them and talk about their families, that is the biggest thing for them,” Sponsel says. “You have to make communication very personal for them.”

Smart Business spoke with Sponsel about how to build positive relationships with your employees and how to make your communication personal.

Set a positive example. You have to set the tone and the example very early on, meaning that you cannot bark at people when they come in the door, you can’t be irritable, you have to have a very open demeanor. But also, you’ve got to demonstrate that all the time so that people feel you are approachable.

It’s one thing to have your door open or tell people that you want them to feel free to come in, meet and speak and share their ideas and thoughts. But when you demonstrate that, not only with the words but with the deeds, I think that makes a world of difference because people will feel safe again. So you set that tone, and people will get it.

They may not be used to it if they’re coming from an outside organization, but they quickly get it inside the organization. And it’s reinforced by our veteran employees that it is your style and our way of doing business.

There are a lot of ways you can set that example, far beyond words. But No. 1, you do it with a strong presence. I have a very strong accessibility and visibility in the business. We have a 31,000-square-foot facility, and 10,000 of that is showroom and offices. Every morning when I come in, it’s instinctive and natural for me to say good morning to everybody.

I’m making sure that I have a very upbeat attitude and set the tone in a positive way. Even if I have a lot of things on my mind, that is a high priority for me to make people feel welcomed.

Create your own opportunities. I am a big believer in eye-to-eye contact with the team. With an individual or a group, whether a message is good, bad or indifferent, meet with that group and be honest with them, because they have to trust you. In order to keep that very safe environment, they have to trust you.

Sometimes, you have to get off the e-mail and make sure you’re giving voice-to-voice and person-to-person communication. You have to be involved and engaged with your people. You just can’t be the person in the corner office or the ivory tower.

Giving a person or a group constructive criticism, critiquing them in a constructive way, it comes back to sharing information, giving them areas in which they can grow but also giving them a pat on the back when they do something right. They have to know that the leader really cares about them.

People are not dummies. They know when someone cares about them, and they know when they’re just a number. As the leader of the business, your employees will know whether you really care or not.

How can you show them you care? I’ll give you an abbreviaton: DWWSWWD. “Do what we say we will do.” When I bought this business in 2000, I drove that home. And I have to demonstrate that, as well. If I make a promise to someone, I come through with that promise. You set that tone.

Someone who doesn’t do that, whether it is a customer or one of your associates working with you, they see that you aren’t genuine.

Make it personal. In a nutshell, you need to make communication personal — know your employees by name, meet with them regularly and on a personal basis.

We have a lot of things we do here. No. 1 is we have regular company meetings. For example, the office and showroom staff meet every Thursday morning for an hour and a half. We have company meetings three times a year, where our warehouse and installation group meets with our office group and admin staff. We meet for formal company meetings three times a year.

But what I think is most powerful is the fact that we have 54 employees, and I have met with every employee over a four-month period, for 30 minutes at a time, one on one, in my office — not to talk about performance reviews or how are they doing in their job but to talk about them and their family, their dreams and vision for their life.

I met with every employee for 30 minutes, but I made it personal, where they realize they are a person in this company, not just an employee or an associate.

How to reach: RJE Knoll Business Interiors Inc., (317) 293-4051 or

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Setting the example

When she’s not serving in her capacity as the CEO and co-owner of Benefit Seminars Plus, Marcia Zimmerman trains bird dogs in her spare time.

Though training a dog to flush a game bird out of hiding is quite different from training an employee to carry out a company’s mission statement and embrace its core values, Zimmerman, who co-founded Benefit Seminars Plus, says she sees some similarities in the approach.

“Training is all about being simple, consistent and encouraging,” she says. “So with my people, there is a lot of telling them, ‘You’re doing a great job, and thank you so much.’ People gravitate toward praise.”

If you approach your employees with a positive attitude, they will learn to carry that positive attitude over to their work and their relationships with your customers. It’s one of the main reasons why Zimmerman has been able to grow Benefit Seminars Plus into a company that earned $36 million in revenue in 2008.

Smart Business spoke with Zimmerman about how you can empower your employees to have a winning attitude.

Take the right attitude. As a leader, everything that comes out of your mouth is a megaphone to employees. They amplify everything that you say. So you have to put on your leadership face when you walk in the door. And even if you’re having a bad day, you are having a good day when you walk in that door, and everyone who is working for you is doing a great job. I’ll pick out people and take them with me to the bank. I’ll run errands with them, and ask them what they think about a different project we’re working on. Then I’ll spin it and give them 100 percent credit for the idea. They’ve touched on something, and I’ll make that larger.

Maybe they spark an idea that hasn’t been explored, and I will think about that further. They had just touched on the tip of the iceberg, and they’re not even sure if it’s a grand idea, but oftentimes, it is. It’s those little intimate moments that make the difference, moments that don’t seem to be important, moments without pressure.

Also, in a boardroom setting, whenever I have a new hire, someone who has joined our organization, I give them a little talk before we go into a boardroom scenario and tell them all ideas are open. I call it ‘open ego.’ We don’t have ownership here. This is a mind-meld, and don’t worry about anything you say, because it could have value.

Stay humble. Whenever a leader thinks they’re the only one who can do a job well, that just shuts down any kind of creativity or ability of others to take responsibility. It’s the one thing that really bothers me when I see other executives who are so ego-driven about themselves. I’m pretty ego-driven, as well, but I don’t think I’m the best at what we’re trying to deliver. I think everybody else is better.

I open myself up to these people in my company. I had a valuable employee who left me about 20 years ago, and I was crushed, but I asked this person why they were leaving me, what happened to make them want to leave. I wanted them to tell me everything, and I took everything to heart that this person told me.

Opening yourself up like that takes humbleness. My employees know I make a lot of mistakes, and they’re always helping me correct them. I am a great idea person. I love developing systems, making things better, delivering more to the customer, but I’m not great at following those systems. They know they have to jump in and help take care of me.

Praise, but don’t gush. You have to read body language. It’s the same thing with a dog. If you overpraise a dog, the dog will shut down. The praise has to be sincere. Truly I want to manipulate them, but don’t want them to feel manipulated. Manipulation is a negative word, but the definition of manipulate is to encourage someone to do something that is good.

Everyone is motivated a little bit differently, but the bottom line is we all want to do a good job. We all want to be good people; we all want to make a difference in the lives of others, and being a leader means helping people do that.

Whenever you praise people for any idea they have, they are motivated to share additional ideas. If you’re getting people focused on the same vision, if you just do a great job and love what you are doing and give it your heart and soul, the money flows. You have to give to get. For that reason, everyone in our organization is tied to the bottom line. If we were to lose a client, everybody’s pay goes down. If we gain a client, everybody’s pay goes up.

I tell newly hired people that their basic job is to make the person above them look good. Then I tell the person above that their job is to develop the person below you. And when you get the people above and the people below working as a team and everyone [is]being recognized, it is a comfortable environment to work in.

How to reach: Benefit Seminars Plus, (214) 520-9605 or