Erik Cassano

Thursday, 25 September 2008 20:00

Shearer perfection

Robert J. “Bob” Shearer believes that there is always room for more leadership in any business, even a well-established and highly visible business like Shearer’s Foods Inc.

Shearer’s Foods has had a winning business formula for years. Possessing many different capabilities in production and distribution, the snack food company is a prime example of achieving business success in the challenging Northeast Ohio economy.

But even with high levels of success, Shearer hasn’t been content to let his company stand pat. Shearer puts the focus on his employees and the capability they have to take the company above and beyond what it has already accomplished.

Shearer believes that the head of the company doesn’t need to be the smartest person in the company — not only that, it’s better if the leader is willing to hire people with high achievement potential. So he takes an involved approach to filling out his leadership team, handpicking the people who will serve on it, and then giving them the tools to perform their jobs optimally.

Shearer says a leader cannot just hire good people. You must hire great people.

“You cannot be afraid to hire people smarter than you,” he says. “A great leader develops future leaders by giving them an opportunity to succeed.”

With that philosophy in place, Shearer’s has become a sought-after employer. From 392 employees five years ago, the company grew to 691 employees last year.

Shearer also takes his message of leadership to the community, speaking at area business luncheons and seminars, including the Lake County Entrepreneurs Club, the Medina Chamber of Commerce, the East Side Entrepreneurs Club and the Smart Business Live Luncheon Speaker Series.

In addition, Shearer takes a mentoring role among the area’s young businesspeople, mentoring college students and other young entrepreneurs who have started their own businesses.

Shearer believes all good leaders have several things in common: They lead by example, they are willing to be a part of all aspects of their businesses, and they include others in the decision-making processes of the business. The success of Shearer’s Foods is proving that his business beliefs are ones worth listening to.

HOW TO REACH: Shearer’s Foods Inc., (330) 767-3426 or

Tuesday, 26 August 2008 20:00

Direct flight

Edward Kilkeary Sr. has learned a lot about business from his clients.

The founder, president and CEO of L.J. Aviation Inc., which posted 2007 revenue of $40 million, counts some of the wealthiest people in southwest Pennsylvania and beyond among the clients of his company, which provides private aviation services.

Kilkeary calls them “old-money Pittsburgh” and says there are no better teachers for a business leader when it comes to the basics of being a good businessperson.

“There is something to be said about old money,” Kilkeary says. “They’re polite, on time and respectful. I’ve learned, from some of the families we’ve operated for in the Pittsburgh area, things like once you’ve earned someone’s trust, you should be respectful of that. It’s just a truth I’ve learned that I’ve seen over so many years.”

Over the years, Kilkeary’s clients have taught him that before you formulate a pages-long operating strategy, you first need to be sure you’re building it on a solid foundation.

Smart Business spoke with Kilkeary about how to make sure you’re focusing on the business basics.

Connect with your employees. I see everybody every day. I make it a point.

I used to watch Herb Kelleher, the former chairman at Southwest Airlines, who is retired now. He’d go in late at night, and if he’d see his workers doing a difficult job, he’d pitch in. Here is the chairman, and he walks in and asks if he can help.

It’s the same thing here. We run three shifts, 24 hours a day, and it’s not uncommon if I get home at 11 or 12 at night to just run down and see what the third shift is doing.

They get a kick out of it, that I’m going down to see how the third-shift guys are doing — ‘What are you working on; how is the night shift treating you?’

I go out every day and talk to the maintenance guys, the line guys and tell them if I think the airplane is looking nice, show my appreciation for them getting a job done so we can fly a client. Appreciation goes a long a way, and you can do that financially or just by saying thank you.

People like to know that they’re a part of the business. They’re working for a paycheck, as I am, but people enjoy that thanks from the head of the company. It means a lot.

I’ve always thought of myself as a worker. I try to lead by example from that standpoint. If there is a trip, if it was later in the afternoon or a long night, if one of my clients is out in the middle of the night and something happens, I’ll go get in the airplane and fly the trip.

You’ll never be successful if you’re just sitting there waiting for the next chip. I just don’t think that’s the way to run a business.

Associate with the right people. I want to be associated with people who will tell me, ‘No, you’re wrong, Ed,’ not someone who tells you that I’m the smartest guy they’ve ever met. Fluff doesn’t do a lot for me. A lot of times, I don’t go out on the first calls when we’re calling on a new client because I sometimes want to get some feedback from the people in the organization, to think how they fit in with our organization, our clients.

I pick my clients, it’s not reversed. If you have the money to fly privately, but you have somebody who doesn’t show up on time, doesn’t care about anyone else, I’m probably not your guy.

I want to be around nice people, and the secret to my success is I do exactly that.

If there is somebody that I just don’t want to be around, even though he has money to fly charter and can do all these things, I’m not out there flying for payments.

I can be around nice people, and generally, nice people hang around nice people. You deal with nice people, and [if] they bring you somebody new as a referral, they’re nice people, they’re not jerks.

That’s why our business has succeeded where others have languished. A lot of people look at new business, but it might not be good business. It’s not the stuff you want to have. I come to work every day excited because I’m dealing with nice people and it’s interesting.

It’s hard to be successful if you go in and you’re just clipping coupons; if every day, you say, ‘Well, I made another $10,000 today.’ I’ve never met anybody successful who went at it with no passion.

Don’t dwell on what you can’t control. I don’t dwell on things that are out of my control. I don’t view people and situations in terms of how I can effect change.

Most importantly, I don’t let successes or failures define how I lead. Once it’s done, I move on to the next deal.

I’ve always been like that, ever since I was in the military. When you’re doing a lot of complex things, some people get to the point where they just focus all the time on what happened two weeks ago. Things where I can’t effect change, I move on. I don’t worry about things I don’t have any control over.

That’s why I’ve never had any ulcers or a bad stomach. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing as a management style, but I don’t dwell on things. I just press on.

HOW TO REACH: L.J. Aviation Inc., (724) 537-0520 or

Saturday, 26 July 2008 20:00

Plain language

John Rowe has two basic rules when it comes to communication: Keep it direct, and keep it simple.

The president, managing director and co-owner of $24 million Cargo Services Inc., a global freight transportation provider, says effective business communicators put themselves in front of their employees — be it in-person or via electronic means — and offer straightforward messages that don’t get bogged down with excess language.

And they don’t stop delivering the message until they are certain everyone understands it.

Rowe says that a communication strategy built around understanding and plain language helps build trust between employees and management as workers begin to believe the actions of the company’s leaders will follow their words.

“Our leadership style is straightforward, and we are quiet and get out of the way. We let our folks know what is expected of them; we get out of the way and let them do the work,” Rowe says.

Smart Business spoke with Rowe about how effective communication leads to a sense of trust in an organization.

Communicate directly. The way we communicate is very fluid. What I mean by that is we communicate through different levels. We have monthly department meetings where we communicate quite a bit of company policy. But most of our communication is done directly via e-mail and face-to-face visits.

The No. 1 point is to be direct and communicate what you need to communicate as brief as you can make it. You want to be direct and to the point and don’t overspeak.

The second thing is to ask questions. Make sure you understand what we’re talking about, if you have any concerns, and make sure you listen.

We communicate in monthly meetings. If we’re in a meeting and I have something to communicate I try to communicate it very briefly, then ask if everybody understands or has questions or concerns. Then I’ll listen. We do the same thing in speaking with our associates on issues dealing with customers.

We just want to make sure they understand what the concern is, what our point is, then we are always asking if there is anything else they need to understand. I try to really gain an understanding that we see eye to eye and that there are no questions. That’s really important. If you go away and there are still questions, other problems might arise.

You want employees to realize that what you are saying is important. Whatever you’re communicating is important so they know that you’re there to communicate whatever issues are out there and help solve any problems that they might have.

We communicate to them upfront that we’re not here to do your job, but we’re here to help you do whatever you need to do, especially if you have issues and problems. We’re here to help you work through those without any repercussions.

If you have a culture of trust built up with your associates, where you know you can go out and speak to them about an issue, you know they’ll understand it, and you can trust that they’ll give you an honest answer.

Build trust from the beginning. When we bring someone in for an interview, one of the first things is that we give them a copy of our company vision and we go through it. We don’t just give them a copy and move on; we spend some time on it.

We go down each point and explain the reasons behind our purpose and our company principles. We ask questions. ‘Do you understand why we do this? Does that make an impact with you?’

As we go through the interview, we still gain further information about their qualities and how their personality would fit in the organization.

We also have department heads and directors interview, so somebody that we’re interviewing for a position speaks to a number of people within the company. Then we make sure we understand from our side what they think of that individual and if they’d fit within our culture. That’s one of the most difficult things you do — where we’ve hired and then realized we made a mistake and then had to correct it.

But if you get more people involved in a hiring process and speaking to a candidate, you will have a better opportunity to find out what that person is all about.

Let employees take control. If employees take the ownership responsibilities in what they have, we want them to have the freedom to do what they think is necessary, take care of their duties and tasks and business.

We want them to take ownership in dealing with customers, vendors or suppliers, doing whatever task they have, and we want them to know that we’re very interested in them doing quality work. But we also want them to know that we’re not going to be looking over their shoulder crossing T’s and dotting I’s.

We want to give them the freedom to do the work and give the responsibility to have the ability to do the best work they can, and they know that we’re not always looking over their shoulder and making sure they do everything correctly. If you have a problem or concern, come speak to us. If you made a mistake, it’s no big deal. Let’s look at it, solve the problem, learn from it and move on. If you build that kind of trust with associates, that they can come to you with a problem and not get in trouble, that we’re going to learn from it, I don’t have that need to look over their shoulders and make sure they’re doing things right because I know that they are.

HOW TO REACH: Cargo Services Inc., (317) 244-9501 or

Monday, 26 May 2008 20:00

Managing for tomorrow

Matt Emmens wrote the book on keeping a business culture fresh and relevant.

No, really, he did.

Published in January, Emmens co-wrote a book with author Beth Kephart called “Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business.” It’s a fable that illustrates what can happen if weeds are allowed to grow under a business’s culture.

“It starts with a quote from an Italian author about a city that is built on stilts,” says the chairman and CEO of Shire plc. “At one time, there was water there, but now it’s on stilts in the desert. That is kind of poignant about a culture and structure that is no longer relevant. That’s what the whole book is about. You have people doing things the way they have always done it and the world passed them by.”

Emmens calls business culture one of his hot-button issues. Many times over the course of his career, he has seen businesses fall by the wayside because the people within the company, management and employees alike, failed to adapt the culture to keep up with the times.

It’s the biggest reason why Emmens places a high priority on having an adaptable culture and adaptable people at Shire, a global specialty biopharmaceutical company that had $1.8 billion in 2006 revenue.

“That’s my biggest fear in business, that you’re going to set up a wonderful culture but it’s no longer relevant,” he says. “Then your performance falls off over the years, and sooner or later, your company is in trouble, and it’s largely due to lack of awareness and stifled creativity.”

Emmens says finding capable employees and developing a culture that gives them the latitude to create and innovate is the only way you can expect your business to flourish over the long haul. This is how he has accomplished that at Shire.

Keep your culture flexible

As a company built almost entirely on acquisitions, Shire’s culture has more potential outside influences than a lot of companies, so Emmens and his management team have a full-time job in deciding how they want to merge cultures with each acquired company.

When introducing new aspects to your culture, Emmens says it’s imperative to take a best-practices approach. It can be counterproductive to simply throw the new company into a prestamped mold. You could overlook a new perspective or a new procedure that could lead to more efficiency.

As your company grows and develops more levels, it takes more and more work to ensure that you can incorporate new elements into your culture. Often, growing companies value a stable organization above new ideas, and that can lead to culture stagnation.

Emmens says stability is good but not if it leads to stagnation. He tries to combat that at Shire by keeping many acquired companies under one business umbrella with regard to finances and communication but giving each a high degree of autonomy when it comes to operations. With that set-up, Shire’s management is exposed to best practices that can be implemented across the organization while still allowing each business unit to operate in the way that made it an attractive acquisition candidate in the first place.

“There is really no Shire way,” he says. “Culture is a constantly evolving thing. One of our recent acquisitions had a culture that was totally different from Shire, and we left it in place. That flexibility gives us a competitive advantage. We have the ability to develop specialized cultures, and I think businesses need to do that more often.”

Don’t fall into the comfort zone of valuing the status quo above all else. Emmens says the value of your organization lies not in steadiness of your culture but in your employees’ ability to create. He says your culture should never get in the way of innovation and creativity.

“As your organization grows, you have a tendency to develop these kinds of secret cultures where you have a slogan on the wall, but everybody has a different idea of what it means,” Emmens says. “That can be destructive.

“Size and creativity are often at odds with each other. When you are a large organization, it often gives you comfort to know how organized you are. But all value is ultimately created by the people in your company, by their creative acts, and I think creativity is squelched in organizations that have a lot of levels and rules.

“You’re always trying to have a balancing act of the best of both worlds, and one way to do that is through network of smaller business units that are allowed to function as a more nimble, creative unit.”

Make culture personal

It’s easy to say you have an entrepreneurial spirit in your company. It’s much harder to actually live it.

At Shire, Emmens keeps his company’s entrepreneurial spirit alive by introducing actual entrepreneurs into his company, then driving his creativity-first culture down to the level of each individual.

When Shire makes an acquisition, a major factor in whether Emmens’ leadership lets the acquired company operate with high level of autonomy is whether there is a strong entrepreneurial presence within the leaders of the acquired unit.

The stronger and more relevant the ideas and products that are coming from a business unit, the more freedom Emmens gives its leaders.

Emmens says it’s all about one word: passion. “We like to have those people stay on and have their passion continue to influence the business,” he says. “We basically license the drugs but keep that company separate and doing its thing because you don’t want to lose the knowledge and creativity those people have.

“Then, later, when they need help in terms of capital and resources, we can provide that. But having the flexibility to keep the passion of the entrepreneurs that started each of these companies is important to us.”

By keeping your company’s creative impetus close to the ground level, you can keep your company closer to your customers. Reading the pulse of the market will allow you to better meet your customers’ needs. Emmens says any business needs to give the people closest to your customers freedom to operate and meet their needs. Only when your customers’ needs aren’t being met should you intervene.

“Going back to the example of my book, it’s about not being in touch and not responding to external environmental changes,” he says.

“It’s like the idea that you built the cheapest and best buggy whip when there are no more horse buggies. It’s the idea that you have to stay close to the customer and really understand the challenges of the industry and what you have to overcome in order to be successful. Many businesses are at risk for thinking that they are the reason for the market existing. They’re not. Businesses have to follow the needs of the marketplace. You can’t become totally commoditized and falling asleep at the wheel.”

Emmens says taking a personalized approach to creativity and culture has been an uncommon concept throughout much of the history of business. If you’re not used to putting the future of your company in the hands of people other than yourself and your direct reports, it can take you out of your comfort zone. But the long-term survival of your business could depend on it.

“If you look at the history of companies that have failed, there is an element of that (lack of an entrepreneurial spirit) in a lot of them. They stifled creativity and refused to take risks, and as a result, they killed off the entrepreneurial spirit in their people.”

Build the right kind of team

Emmens says employees will respond positively when management places them in a culture where they are allowed to be flexible and creative. But that’s only part of the equation. You also need to hire people who are comfortable taking risks and working with less structure.

It starts with knowing exactly what you want in an employee. Emmens and his leadership team often discuss the traits they don’t want in a person as much as the desirable traits.

“You want to find someone who is willing to be comfortable in a rapidly changing environment,” he says. “You have to have the mentality that your company isn’t just a place to have a 9-to-5 job.”

You can start to get a feel for a person’s willingness to adapt and openness to change by looking at his or her resume and noting the number of different responsibilities that person has assumed previously.

“It’s especially important as you become a smaller company growing into a larger company,” Emmens says. “Working in a smaller company is a very different undertaking than a larger company. You need more of a jack-of-all-trades, someone willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, going back and doing the things you used to do, things that you might have had subordinates doing in a larger organization. Sometimes, that can come as a shock for someone going from a bigger to a smaller company.”

You can look at a resume and ask questions, but there is a limit to what one interviewer is going to be able to learn about a job candidate. That’s why Emmens has no fewer than three managers interview each candidate separately.

During the span of three separate interviews, you will be able to paint a much more accurate picture of a job candidate. Following the series of interviews, the interviewers confer and compare notes.

“We often choose those three people to solicit different views from each of the interviews, to contrast those viewpoints to get a full story,” Emmens says. “It’s one of the most careful things we do, finding the right people to come into the company.

“You want job candidates to be able to have real, measurable things they can show you that would prove they’re a good fit for your company. But to me, the most important thing is what they want to do, what is important to them. There are a lot of very smart people in the world, but if what they want to do is not consistent with what needs to be done, you’ve got a real problem.”

When interviewing a job candidate and getting a read on the individual, it’s as important that you give him or her an accurate depiction of the company and the job.

Emmens says you can’t sugarcoat the situation the candidate will encounter should you hire him or her. Even if the candidate is highly creative, highly talented and seems like a perfect match for your culture, if the circumstances surrounding the job are too much to handle, the hire will be a failure.

“That’s probably the first thing you have to do, explain what the company is and what the issues are,” he says. “You don’t just tell them how wonderful everything is. You tell them perhaps ways to fail in the role. You’re not just trying to attract them, you want to tell them the truth the best you can so there are no surprises.

“It’s a matter of portraying the company as accurately as possible, then contrasting that against what a person can do. You really want a person to see and be able to meet the challenges they are going to face.”

HOW TO REACH: Shire plc,

Monday, 26 May 2008 20:00

Room by room

If you’re going to get the right things out of employees, you have to put the right ingredients in first.

It’s an idea that has become one of the main pillars of Maura Walsh’s leadership philosophy as the president of HCA Gulf Coast Division, a 12,000-employee branch of Hospital Corp. of America.

Customer service, maximum efficiency, workplace safety or whatever it is you want your employees to value and embrace, you must first set the example at the top. Walsh says you do that through communication — both speaking and listening — and actively engaging your work force in person.

“It’s not just important but essential that leadership be visible within the organization,” Walsh says. “Leaders need to get to know their employees, and the best way to do that is to walk around, talk to them and give the employees the sense that you’re approachable. You cannot know what is going on in your organization sitting behind a desk. You need to be out talking to employees, asking their opinions, getting their feedback.”

Walking among your employees, asking them questions about their jobs, even casually bantering with them about their weekend plans, helps give employees a sense of confidence in your leadership ability, that you want to be “in the know” and actively engaged in what is happening on the front lines.

Walsh says it also helps tear down the walls that can exist between management and employees. If you can overcome the intimidation that can occur when an employee reaches out to management, you can make strides toward unifying your company around common goals.

As the president of a hospital group, and former president of a hospital, Walsh has learned a thing or two about rallying diverse groups — everyone from doctors to nurses to office staffers — around a single vision and a set of core values. Walsh says it can be difficult to get different groups to read from the same script, but it’s essential to a company’s long-term survival.

Build bridges

To bring a company together, you must communicate. However, the most important aspect of communication does-n’t start with you. It starts with your employees.

Walsh says you need to find out what motivates your employees, what drives them to come to work each day and to try their best.

She says you shouldn’t assume it’s a one-size-fits-all proposition. Personality, background, job type, all of it affects what truly motivates each employee.

But Walsh goes even a step beyond that. She wants to know what “excites” her employees about their work.

“As you work with your people, you get to see what makes them excited every day,” she says. “For instance, most CEOs are motivated by challenges. On the CEO ranks, there are a lot of commonalities, but you really need to get to know your individual employees, understand what gets them motivated to do their work.”

Just as a manufacturing company is composed of administrators, department heads, manual laborers and other employees whose job descriptions differ from department to department, a hospital has doctors, nurses, cooks, janitors, secretaries among its ranks. Getting to know different jobs, and the people who fill those jobs, is a common denominator among executives who seek to strengthen the relationships within their companies.

Walsh says you need to be able to get on the same level with each department by putting yourself, at least mentally, in the place of the people who work there.

“You need to hit all levels within the organization,” she says. “It’s important to understand what the more entry-level workers think, but it’s just as important to understand what those more up the ladder think. In our case, what our nurses are thinking, what our technicians are thinking, and it’s especially essential to understand what our physicians are thinking and feeling.

“Each employee has different priorities. Here, what is important to someone in the operating room is probably different than for someone who is working in the intensive care unit versus someone who is working in the lab. Obviously, there is always going to be some commonalities throughout departments, but each department, each unit of a business, will have many of their own unique concerns and ideas.”

Drilling down to that level with your employees requires you to go beyond simply noting that you have an open-door policy. You need to get beyond the open-door policy, make personal connections and give employees a reason to connect with you.

“Most employees would not feel comfortable walking into the CEO’s office to let them know what might be happening on their unit that particular day,” Walsh says. “The more visible the leadership team is, the more approachable they are to employees, the more likely employees are going to share with them important information.

“Having an open-door policy is great, but it doesn’t take the place of walking the halls and making sure the folks out there on the front lines know that you truly do care about them and do understand that you want to know what you can do to make the workplace better.”

Enable people to achieve

Walsh says employees need to know that management has placed them in the best position to succeed within the company.

Everyone in the organization — from senior management down — has to have his or her talent leveraged for maximum effect.

She says the challenge begins at the job interview — and never really stops. As a leader, you have to remain constantly on alert for ways that you can enable your employees to achieve more success.

“That’s a challenge for anyone,” Walsh says. “You can only get so much information out of an interview. If you have folks who know the individual you’re interviewing, that’s what I find very helpful. I find just using references, talking to individuals who have worked with the person, is helpful. You might think you’re only going to get a one-sided opinion, but oftentimes, when you’ve talked with people who have worked with an individual, they’ll give you honest feedback about what kind of person they are to work with.”

Once a candidate has been hired at HCA Gulf Coast, Walsh and her leadership team take proactive steps to keep their best and brightest performers, and that includes a chief operating officer development program designed to help the company fill management positions from within.

Familiarity is another key ingredient in building unity within an organization. With that in mind, Walsh attempts to fill management positions with in-house candidates before looking outside the organization.

It isn’t the ideal course of action in every situation, but internal promotion is preferable to Walsh for several reasons: It saves management the task of having to train a new employee from the start, it helps bridge the gap between management and employees when the manager is already familiar with a company’s people and practices, and it gives high performers long-term goals.

“Any organization that does long-term planning should always want to look at individuals within the company, individuals within each division and what their work patterns are going to be moving forward,” Walsh says. “If I feel I’m going to have opportunities for people three to five years down the road, I want to be sure I have the right caliber of individuals to put in those positions. You always want a talent pool your organization can draw from.”

Walsh says she looks for several key traits in people who aspire to management-level positions at HCA Gulf Coast, traits that identify an individual as a unifier and consensus-builder.

Management-level candidates at HCA Gulf Coast, perhaps most importantly, must be willing to look in the mirror and self-assess their own areas of weakness, something with which Walsh has had firsthand experience during her administrative career.

“I was, as many people are, not comfortable with speaking in public,” she says. “It’s something that does not come easily to a lot of individuals, yet in a leadership role, that’s an important skill.”

Walsh overcame her public-speaking obstacle by continually placing herself in situations where she was forced to address an audience. She wants to see the same willingness to tackle personal challenges out of her managers at HCA Gulf Coast.

“Communication skills are part of your makeup,” she says. “Some of us are naturally effective communicators, others are not. But even though we all have our strengths and weaknesses, the more we work in our profession, the more opportunities we have to fine-tune our skills and perfect them.”

Reward performance

When you have finally achieved your goal of a company united around a common vision and a set of core values, your job hasn’t ended. When you arrive at your goal, your job as a CEO shifts to maintenance.

Walsh says you must keep your employees focused on the company’s goals, which is a constant task. If you aren’t vigilant about correcting those who veer off course and celebrating those who set good examples, your new culture will quickly start to erode.

She says it boils down to one word: recognition. You must recognize what your employees are doing and acknowledge their contributions to making your vision a reality.

One of the best ways to recognize an employee is to do it in person. Walsh says it doesn’t have to be a spectacle. You don’t have to gather your managers around a person’s desk and sing a song like the waiters who bring out the slice of birthday cake at your favorite family-style restaurant. Sometimes, it can be as simple as a written note. But you can’t wait weeks until a block of time opens in your schedule.

Walsh says recognition is a dish best served fresh. “When I was working in a hospital with less direct responsibility, I was a firm believer in personal notes,” she says. “I would send a number of personal notes to employees every week. I can remember going to an employee’s office about a year later after I had left the hospital and saw one of the notes I had sent still on their bookshelf.

“I don’t know if I do (recognize people) often enough. I know our lives are very, very busy, and we don’t, as leaders, always take the time to step back and recognize the individuals who are making a difference. But when someone sees a note you’ve written, it sends a message that you know recognition is important. Everyone likes to be recognized for what they do, and I think, oftentimes, we underestimate the value of just one-onone telling someone you appreciate what they’ve done.” <<

HOW TO REACH: HCA Gulf Coast Division,

Friday, 25 April 2008 20:00

Revising the recipe

Charlie Pizzi says his greatest challenge as the president and CEO of the Tasty Baking Co. is ensuring that the company will be as relevant in 2010 as it was in 1950.

The trouble is, when Pizzi took the reins of the company five years ago, its state was much closer to 1950 than the 21st century.

The company, which produces Tastykake snack foods, had no technology platform of which to speak. Its line of baked snacks was produced in an outdated, six-story factory constructed in 1922. The building required workers to pump ingredients up to the top floor, then gravity-feed the products down through the building during the preparation and baking process. And further complicating matters was the fact that the company’s warehouse wasn’t a part of the production facility.

Pizzi says it became evident very quickly that the company needed to modernize.

“The way we were doing things, it was probably good in 1930 but certainly not after that,” he says. “Our competitors were in a situation where they had more modern facilities and had a technology platform. When you’re competing in a marketplace, you need to be as efficient as your competitors, if not more efficient.”

And that wasn’t the only problem. “Those were the leading indicators, but we had other things we needed to fix before we tackled that element,” he says. “We had to reconstruct our financial structure before we put in the new technology platform. Then we had to start marketing and advertising again to bring news and excitement back to our great brand.”

Pizzi needed to change the way Tasty Baking Co. did business. People would have to learn new systems, prepare for a move to a new facility and new life needed to be injected into the iconic East Coast snack-food brand.

But change doesn’t come easy for everyone, and many changes can have far-reaching effects. It requires finding people that can help you win over employees, having a solid understanding any change might have on your brand and making sure the changes actually stick.

Cultivate change agents

In a company of nearly 1,000 employees, the number of people who were using computers as part of their jobs when Pizzi took over was minuscule.

“Before, we had about 60 people utilizing computers in the company,” he says. “We went from 60 to 450 computer users in the company and are now probably closer to 500.”

It didn’t quite happen overnight, but the introduction of the company’s first real technology platform jolted the Tasty Baking Co. into the computer age full bore.

Pizzi says he generally favors a steady, methodical approach when it comes to change. But in the case of the Tasty Baking Co.’s technology platform, the change was so radical, it took more of a leap of faith on the part of both him and his employees.

Any type of internal change can create resistance within your company, especially if your employees are used to doing things a certain way. That makes achieving buy-in from your employees paramount, especially from the employees who have been with your company for a while.

“They are the people who are most important if they’ve worked for a company for a substantial amount of time,” Pizzi says. “They’ve seen a lot. They’ve seen things the company has done right and things the company maybe hasn’t done so well. They are looking for the opportunity to give us their perspective. If they do that, then they have bought in to the new process of transforming the company.”

Pizzi says the key to achieving buy-in from employees who have been with your company for years is to make them feel like their experience counts for something. You do that by letting them have a hand in steering the company toward its new direction, which is accomplished through proper training and creating a culture that values accountability.

“One, you can’t hold someone accountable if you don’t train them properly,” he says. “Then once you train that individual, you also make sure they understand how their job impacts the greater organization on an ongoing basis.”

It’s what Pizzi calls a “bottoms-up” approach. He gives his managers and employees reasons to get involved by actively asking for their input, then rewards outstanding ideas on a quarterly and yearly basis.

“When I first took this job, I ran into another CEO and he told me, ‘I ask one simple question: “So what do you think?” and then I listen.’ A good leader is a good listener. That is the biggest thing as to how you can get people to buy in. You listen. It’s basic courtesies and respect for each other.”

Pizzi says identifying change leaders is the No. 1 criteria for any change or transformation in a business. Those change agents can come from within the business or from outside sources. During the Tasty Baking Co.’s transformation and modernization, Pizzi recruited people from both sources.

“We brought people into this company along with identifying people within the company,” he says. “We brought significant talent to this business from lots of different places, different food companies.”

Change leaders are important because they will set the example for the rest of the company. If employees see their colleagues buying in to the company’s new direction, there is a better chance that they will, as well.

“That (leadership) is the No. 1 criteria for change that can be brought to the table, where people will follow and embrace change instead of fight it. It’s about providing an environment of trust and credibility, being open and honest, and communicating.”

Know your brand

When taking your company through a major change, you need to understand not just how it will affect your company internally but how it will affect your customers.

Pizzi says the effects of major change will be felt by the people your company serves, so you need to have a thorough understanding of your brand and how it is perceived by your customers.

Pizzi’s plan to overhaul the Tasty Baking Co. didn’t start and end with the internal workings of the company. It was also an opportunity to refresh the Tastykake brand, which has existed for nearly a century.

“You really have to have an understanding of the depth and breadth of your brand and how far that brand can be lever-

aged,” he says. “That leads you into two different decision-making processes. One is through product innovation and the other is through new geographic distribution.”

As with the company’s technology platform, Pizzi and his management modernized Tastykake’s array of products. Following the recent low-calorie trend in snacks, Tastykake introduced sugar-free and 100-calorie snack lines.

“Every company has a brand,” Pizzi says. “It’s about, what is the strength of your brand to move the business? We are blessed with one of the best brands — a brand that has lots of emotional ties to it.

“We always send products over to the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I once had a mother write me and tell me that her son is over there [and] had received some of our products. She sent an e-mail and asked me to look at the attached photograph. She said, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen my son smile since he’s been in Iraq.’ That’s what the depth and breadth of your brand is about.”

Developing a new understanding of the depth and breadth of your brand doesn’t necessarily mean you have to redefine what your brand stands for; it might mean you need to find new ways to leverage your brand while staying built around the core pillars of your business.

“You have to remain very cognizant of your core products and core users,” Pizzi says. “You have to analyze the depths of your brand and business to help keep your core consumers happy while meeting the lifestyles of today.”

In contrast with the relatively sudden and radical shift of launching the Tasty Baking Co.’s technology platform, Pizzi’s brand and market analysis spurred a far slower, steadier transition.

“You do it through a lot of analytics and a lot of consumer testing of your products, and develop a database on which to draw from,” he says. “A big part of our brand is our sales distributors. We have approximately 500 sales distributors with roots in our core market area. With my past experience of working with small businesses, we try to create an environment of trust, partnership and listening. In that vein, we created a sales distributor council where they come in twice a year to meet with management.

“We get almost 8 to 10 percent of our folks in to meet with us. They give us a firsthand view of what is going on in the marketplace. The latest thing is, with our technology platform, we have been able to provide them with lots of information so that the ordering process becomes much more mundane, as opposed to having any mystery.”

Sustain the change

When you are considering a major shift in how your company does business, produces products or brands itself, you need to ask yourself one overarching question: “Is it sustainable?”

Pizzi says short-term shifts might make your profit-loss statements look good for a while, but if you haven’t put the framework in place to sustain the transformation, the chances of a successful change go way down.

To that end, the Tasty Baking Co. has been successful. The company reported $267 million in gross sales in 2006, up from just more than $250 million in 2003, and is slated to open a new 345,500-square-foot production facility in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard complex in 2009.

“What we did when we put together our plan was to put together a sustainable plan that would provide a long-term return,” he says. “That comes back to discipline and focus.”

Once you have collaborated with your managers, received input from employees and feedback from customers, then formulated your go-forward plan, you have to will yourself to stick to it. Communication is a big factor to making a companywide plan take root and grow.

“Once you have your plan in place, you have to be disciplined in executing it,” Pizzi says. “That means don’t stray, keep your sights at hand to really make sure you execute. You have to do that through a lot of communication. If everybody understands the plan, everybody is going to be rowing in the same way.

“Everyone from our sales distributors on down the line is constantly updated with where we are in the project. We even attached a camera to the Navy Yard building site so employees can see where [we are] in that process.”

Pizzi says that, in the end, a good communicator is a good storyteller. If you can communicate your company’s story to employees and customers, where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going, you’ll be able to lay out the case for change in a compelling fashion.

“I find the most effective way is if I can tell our story to our employees, our sales distributors and our customers, and do it in on an ongoing basis every step of the way,” he says. “That was why we wanted to hook up the camera, so that everyone can actually see the construction of the facility. It is our hope and our vision that this will really revolutionize our company.”

HOW TO REACH: Tasty Baking Co.,

It was 1964. Drayton McLane Jr. was a young executive working

in the grocery distribution business of his father, Drayton McLane

Sr., and still years away from the worldwide business mogul and

Major League Baseball franchise owner he would become.

What was then known as the McLane Co. Inc. was still a small

family operation based in Cameron, Texas.

But McLane saw the potential of his father’s company, if his

father and the company were only willing to take a risk.

“We were in an old distribution center that had been built by my

father, who had been in the business since 1922,” McLane says.

“We needed to build a new, modern distribution center, and to do

it, I felt we needed to move to another city about 40 miles away.”

The company had no debt, and McLane needed to convince his

father to assume a large amount of debt in addition to uprooting

his business from Cameron to move to the larger city of Temple,


McLane told his father that the company could never reach its

full potential where it was and that any short-term adversity would

be worth it to position the grocery distribution business for

increased growth down the road.

“We were the largest employer in town, with about 100 employees, and it was going to be hard on them when we moved as well

as for my father and mother, who had lived there all their lives,” he

says. “That’s on top of going into debt pretty heavy to build this

facility. But that’s what we did, and in 1966, we opened our new

distribution facility in Temple, and that’s what really opened the

doors for our business to grow.”

McLane, who now chairs the McLane Group — a private holding

company that does not disclose revenue — says a tolerance for

risk is one of the toughest traits to build in a businessperson, especially when you’ve achieved success and feel like you’re on the

right track. But, he says, the greatest business leaders always see

the potential in their companies and have an eye toward what

might be in the future. You’ll never achieve your full potential in

business without taking risks and cultivating a work force that is

willing to follow your example.

It’s what has helped take McLane from small-town grocery distribution executive to the highly public helm of the Houston

Astros, where as chairman and CEO, he has overseen the most

successful era in franchise history.

What follows are some of the lessons he has learned about leadership in his decades-long business career.

Spread the passion

Leaders are teachers. Without an ability to teach, McLane says you

will never get your people to see eye to eye with you, understand

your vision for the company and feel the passion you feel for the


For McLane, teaching starts with getting his employees involved in

shaping the company’s future by posing problems and letting them

come up with their own solutions.

“You have to teach people your business, what the problem is or

what you want to accomplish,” he says. “You sit down in strategy

sessions, you outline it, and you tell them, ‘Here is what I think are

the objectives.’ Then let people spontaneously talk about it, maybe

go home knowing we’re going to meet at 8 o’clock the next morning

and figure out just how we’re going to do this. When I do that, I’m

always amazed at the big ideas people come up with.

“You have to give them free rein, this is what enterprise and entrepreneurship is all about, people with new, fresh ideas. Let

them feel a part of that, but also let them feel a pride in not just creating it but achieving it.”

But McLane says involvement in shaping the company’s future

should also come with a sense of responsibility and accountability.

Growth on a personal and companywide level doesn’t generally

occur when you arbitrarily throw stuff against a wall to see what

sticks, so employees given the opportunity to create must be given

parameters and then held accountable for staying within those


The parameters should fall in line with what you want to accomplish as a business.

“In a large business where you have a number of people working

for you, you have to identify what your objective is and what you

want to accomplish,” he says. “Is it products; is it services? You

have to identify the objective, what it is you want to do and what

it is you want to produce. Then you have to sell people on the goal,

what it is you want to achieve. Then the last part is the toughest

word in the English language, and that’s ‘accountability.’

“Imagine you’re back in college, and, on the first day of class, the

professor says, ‘I’ve got great news. At the end of this semester,

everybody is going to make an A. But I still want you to buy the

book, read the lessons, do the homework and be in class every


“Now, if I knew I was going to get an A regardless of what I did,

I might not try very hard. But that’s not how they do it in the U.S.

educational system. You have exams, term papers and homework

to determine your grade, so you’d better do the work if you want

to graduate. You have to be accountable in school, and, in business, it’s the same deal.”

Make time to connect

If leading starts with teaching, McLane says teaching starts with


A good leader must be a good communicator — a job that is

made exponentially harder if your business is spread throughout

multiple countries as is McLane’s business. But there is no excuse

for inadequate communication.

“That is just the job of a leader, being in front of people,” he says.

“Our company has a lot of people, about 9,000 employees spread all

throughout the country, so I have spent a lot of time going to different

divisions, talking to employees and getting to know just about everyone by their first names.”

As your business grows, it increases the importance of having

competent leadership beneath you. You can’t be in all places and

communicate with everyone on an as-needed basis the way you

might have been able to when your company was smaller, which

means you need to be able to know what to delegate to others,

who to delegate to and when to do the delegating.

Knowing how to delegate the operational tasks you used to perform will free up your time to get out among your employees on a

regular basis.

“Delegation is when you can clearly, clearly show someone or

groups of people what needs to be done,” McLane says. “You can’t

do all of the details as your business grows. You have to have the

skills and ability to pass on the responsibility to the people who

handle the day-to-day work, then hold those people accountable.

“Then, you free yourself to be upfront. You have to be that

upfront leader, be able to communicate with employees, walk around and see what kind of job they’re doing, and if they’re doing

a good job, to praise them.”

As your business grows internationally, the ability to free up your

time through delegation will become essential when it comes to

communicating on a personal level with your employees. Between

traveling for business matters and traveling for baseball matters,

it’s something McLane says he has learned firsthand.

“I recently returned from eight days in Poland, where we have a

grocery distribution system,” he says. “I visited almost all of our

employees there just as I do in the U.S., and we have almost 450

employees in Poland. Just like in this country, you have to take the

time to communicate, express your thoughts and ideas, and learn to


Use your perch wisely

McLane bought the Astros in 1993. At the time, the team hadn’t

made the playoffs in seven years and was facing sluggish attendance figures in the obsolete Astrodome.

McLane took the reins of the Astros with an eye toward

improving its fortunes on the field and at the gate. To that end,

his ownership regime has had some success, winning division

titles in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2001 and a National League pennant in 2005, marking the franchise’s first World Series appearance. He also worked with city and county officials to fund and

build Minute Maid Park, the club’s home since 2000. Since moving to their new digs, the Astros have topped 3 million in season

attendance four times, placing them among the top draws in

Major League Baseball.

But the prospect of on-the-field success isn’t the only thing that

attracted McLane to the Astros. McLane also wanted to affect the

community at large, and the highly visible perch of Astros ownership provided him the perfect opportunity to increase his involvement in community programs.

“We bought the Astros to make them a champion but also to get

equally as involved in community programs,” he says. “We have

one of the most extensive community involvement programs in

professional sports. They go to over 3,000 events in the Houston

area every year. That kind of involvement ignited everybody.”

The importance of community involvement as a business leader

is something that McLane learned from his father, who partnered

his business with the United Way, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts,

and with American Red Cross blood drives.

“It’s really one of the great features of America and American

business, getting involved in philanthropy and giving back, both

financially and with services,” McLane says. “I saw my father do it,

and as we were in business, I found it makes you feel great about

yourself and your fellow employees in the company when you get

really involved.”

McLane says community involvement should be an extension

of your commitment to running your business the right way

and not taking shortcuts. You must decide what you want your

business to embrace as its core values, and then drive those

values to every person.

“I learned early in my business career that the most important things in business are honesty and integrity,” he says. “So

set your values, hold everybody — and yourself in particular —

accountable for integrity and honesty. That’s where most businesses go wrong. They try to cut corners and not do the right


“But if you dedicate yourself to your job, if you are really

excited about your job, your company, the people you work

with and your customers, it will show. You can overcome

almost any problem when you have a feel for what you do, a

passion for what you do, and you want to be the best.”

HOW TO REACH: Houston Astros,; McLane Group,

Wednesday, 26 March 2008 20:00

A leader of leaders

Mike Weaver is president and CEO of Weaver Popcorn Co. Inc., which means, of course, that he’s the leader of the company.

But that’s not how he views himself — not exactly, anyway. As CEO, Weaver — grandson of company founder Ira E. Weaver — says that he really views himself as the person leading the leaders. At Weaver Popcorn, it’s up to the managers of each of the 400-employee company’s divisions to lead as they see fit. Weaver’s job is to stay in frequent contact with his division managers, make sure everyone is on the same page with regard to company goals and, above all, provide his managers with the resources they need to get their jobs done.

Smart Business spoke with Weaver about the best ways to lead your company’s leaders.

Make time for communicating in person. The best way to make time for face-to-face communication is when it’s on a schedule and laid out in advance, and everything is planned around being present at meetings. The second thing is reaching out to the senior leaders, and they to me, as needs arise.

I was raised that way during my early years in the company. My dad especially put a lot of emphasis on the face-to-face [communication]. It’s kind of in my DNA, and I’ll be honest, I probably don’t do it as much as I should do it because it is difficult with your time demands.

You just have to find out how important it is to you, and if it is important, then you make time for it.

In addition, you should coach your senior leaders to speak up when they have needs. My responsiveness when they want to meet face to face is important. I try to do it when they need to meet. That sends a key message to them that I’m really here to support them in helping them achieve what we agree they need to accomplish.

That’s important because they’re responsible for being accountable for achieving certain goals. I work really hard on it because I’m not really as good of a listener as I need to be. Perhaps one of the disadvantages of being in one company for years and years is the more you know, the poorer the listener you become. So what I have to remind myself of is that my senior leaders are responsible for achieving certain goals and objectives, and it’s up to them to figure out how to do that.

It’s incumbent upon me to put more emphasis on listening than for me to tell them what they should be doing, unless they ask for advice.

Keep your messages consistent.

Consistency of message is a challenge. The different divisions of our company represent many different types of businesses.

You need to be consistent with your values and your overall mission, but when you get down to the individual division, it becomes a lot more specific with regard to the customers the divisions are serving. You really rely on the leaders for the most part to take that message, the goals and objectives, and make sure that it is applied, carried out and achieved in a way that is consistent with your values and mission, but that it fits those customers and senior leaders. That’s where the responsibility really falls with the senior leaders.

Hire managers who mesh with you. First, we look for values and alignment with our values. That is the first and most important because out of alignment of values comes trust. Without trust, things break apart pretty fast.

To keep trust, it takes a lot of work, so if we have alignment of values, then we have a good opportunity to grow the relationship to one that is based on trust. Without that, we’re doomed.

Once we have the values alignment, then we look for smart people who are really able to adapt to changing challenges and opportunities. My experience is that smart people will adapt faster and understand situations faster and almost welcome a changing environment. That’s what we have in business today.

The third thing is commitment. The folks we have, I want them to be committed to becoming the best at what they’re doing in their lives, including being the best division leader.

However, it is really difficult to identify those characteristics during the interview process. There is no guarantee. It’s about the time you spend and who is involved. When I don’t include other people in the process, it’s amazing how my success rate tends to drop off. I include different people at different levels. I don’t think there is any other substitute for the time you spend face to face in the interview process.

Also, we promote from within. There is nothing like bringing people up through the organization. We’ve had success in filling roles both ways, but when you bring someone up from within, you really know them a lot better than when you bring someone in from the outside.

In any case, it’s the amount of time we spend together that determines to a great degree the probability of the relationship being successful. But it’s tough. There is no magic formula that we have found yet.

HOW TO REACH: Weaver Popcorn Co. Inc., (765) 934-2101 or

Wednesday, 26 March 2008 20:00

Principles of purchasing

When Rick Voigt vets an acquisition opportunity, he lets the other guys talk first.

Voigt, co-founder, president and CEO of 38-employee Today’s Business Products, wants to hear what the leaders of the company he’s considering purchasing have to say about their company — its money-making points, the areas that need improvement and, above all, what they think is a fair asking price.

“Think about buying a car,” says Voigt, who has completed two acquisitions since 2004. “If I tell you I’ll give you $10,000 for your car, you might say, ‘Sure, but I was only going to ask for $8,000.’ So that’s why you have to ask what they have in their mind as a fair price. After you establish that as a base, which is really the most you would pay for it, then you can work it out to a number that works for both of you.”

It’s all part of Voigt’s philosophy on acquisitions: Take it slowly, listen constantly and gather as much information as possible.

When you are purchasing a company, Voigt says you’re not really purchasing the company itself. In fact, because of potential legal liabilities, you might not want to purchase the company pound for pound. What you are purchasing is the business of its customers. As such, you want to make sure that you can adequately serve the new customers you are absorbing through the acquisition.

One of your first stops when vetting a potential acquisition, Voigt says, should be the company’s customer lists.

“After we’ve signed the confidentiality agreement, we’ll sit down and look at their customer lists,” he says. “I try to find out about the relationship with each customer. That’s where the ‘80-20 rule’ comes into play. You can probably assume that 80 percent of their business will come from 20 percent of their customers. So you really have to look at the top 80 percent of the business, how long they’ve been an account, what is the relationship with them and are there additional opportunities.”

Voigt says that due to attrition, you can only safely assume that 60 percent of an acquired company’s customers will shift to your business. The remaining 40 percent might not be the right fit for what you offer.

To maximize the number of customers you are able to bring over to your business, search the management staff of the company to be acquired for potential leaders who could fill roles on your management team. They will give you valuable insight into the history of the business, and they might be able to bring additional customers with them.

“If they have some quality current staff, we let them interview. If we can use them, we bring them on,” he says.

Customers and employees are the first groups of people you have to consider when vetting a potential acquisition. But Voigt says the litmus test of whether you pull the trigger on a purchase will be in the numbers. If the numbers you see don’t equal the words you hear, walk away.

“It all goes back to trends,” he says. “If the owner is telling me business is great, and I look at his trends and they’re going the other way, I can see that what he’s telling me doesn’t add up. That’s the big thing. You have to know you’re going to have a return on your investment.”

HOW TO REACH: Today’s Business Products, (216) 267-5000 or

Lessons of acquisitions

If you have the financial clout, purchasing another business is a way to quickly increase your company’s size and customer base.

But the road to a successful acquisition can be covered with booby traps, says Rick Voigt, president, CEO and co-founder of Today’s Business Products, so you have to go on the defensive and remember that your first responsibility is to protect your own company.

Voigt has completed two acquisitions since 2004 and has learned a number of lessons along the way. Here are a few of them:

  • Do what you say you’re going to do. “If you make a promise, you have to fulfill it. The last acquisition we made, we went above and beyond our promise to the owners. The first acquisition, we had a retirement party for the owner. He was just shocked. He said, ‘I can’t believe you’d do that for me.’ We invited his customers over to see us. It was very well-received, and he was very happy. Now, we tell potential acquisition candidates to call him, and he’ll tell you how we work.”

  • Hold the other party accountable.“When you’re talking to a potential buyer, once they have made the commitment to sell, if they’ve changed their minds, it has to cost them something to get out of it. You’ve put the time and money into making this proposal, and you have to say that you’re not going to let them do this and just walk away from the table. That clause has to be in the contract.”

  • Hire an experienced attorney. “Make sure you are purchasing only what you want to purchase, that you’re not purchasing bad debt, tax liens or impending lawsuits.”

Sunday, 24 February 2008 19:00

On a mission

Steven Altschuler believes the most successful organizations are mission-driven organizations.

He says mission-driven organizations are easy to distinguish from organizations motivated by something else if you know where to look. They are able to unite everyone, regardless of the role he or she performs, around a uniform set of goals and objectives.

It’s the type of organization Altschuler has built and maintained at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he serves as president and CEO.

Throughout The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (commonly referred to as CHOP) system, Altschuler has strived to rally doctors, nurses, administrators and support staff around the systemwide goal of remaining on the cutting edge of pediatric medical care.

It’s much easier said than done. For any business to climb to the summit of its industry and stay there, ambitious mission statements are a starting point. To get there, Altschuler says you need persistence and an unquenchable thirst for improvement — both self-improvement and the improvement of your company.

At CHOP — which has 7,000 employees and an estimated $1 billion in 2007 revenue according to — it means Altschuler must tirelessly communicate with many different groups of people, keeping messages consistent and easily understood. He must foster teamwork among departments that perform completely different tasks, and he must run a hospital enterprise like a business while accomplishing a health-care-oriented mission.

“In order for us to be successful and meet our goals, we have to operate like a business,” Altschuler says. “We have to have the same principles, we have to operate within the margins so we have the money to invest to take care of kids.

“In your business, you have to maximize profit. That’s your obligation. Our obligation is to the kids we take care of and their families, to maximize their health and development.”

Altschuler says it’s a juggling act that requires both skill and stamina. You will never totally perfect it, but over time, you can get better at it.

Becoming goal-oriented

If you want to have a goal-oriented organization, you first have to define what your goals are. For Altschuler, that process begins with a well-defined strategic plan.

“We are very disciplined in terms of strategic planning,” he says. “We recently began a new strategic planning process for the next seven years. The elements of the strategic plan really determine our yearly operating plan, which is developed in conjunction with the budget. So the operating plan is really built from the ground up.”

Altschuler says you have to get the people on your company’s ground levels involved in the process. During the planning process, Altschuler both actively and passively seeks input from his employees, both by engaging them through various communication channels and by letting everyone in the organization know that his office door is open as often as possible.

“We solicit every level of the organization for what should be our goals for the next year,” he says. “I have an open-door policy where anybody in the hospital can come and see me all the time and about any issue. Our senior executives, our medical leadership, act in a very similar way.”

He says that face-to-face communication is the most effective form when trying to disseminate a message and get instant feedback from many people at once. But since your opportunities to communicate with many employees at once might be limited, you have to make each chance count.

When seeking input and feedback from employees on issues that affect the entire organization, Altschuler says you must know your audience. That’s easy if someone stops by your office to chat or ask a question, but it gets exponentially more difficult when you are trying to speak to dozens in a particular department or hundreds throughout your organization.

“An open-door policy typically involves a one-to-one interaction with an employee,” he says. “But when you get out and talk to people, typically you might be speaking to a larger audience, many different constituencies throughout the organization. You can say the same message, but you have to tailor it in a way that fits the constituency.”

However, Altschuler says you shouldn’t try to outsmart yourself. Remember that everyone in your organization is probably interested in producing a good product. What you have to do when communicating with members of a specific group or department is show them how they relate to the topic on the table.

“Everyone wants to attain the same results, but the issue might look different to the nursing staff than it does to our physician staff or our resident doctor staff or to our researchers,” he says. “Getting out really allows me to talk to a group in detail, to try and tailor a conversation that would be most appropriate and most effective in communicating what I want to get across.”

A case for change

Achieving buy-in is enough of a challenge when your goal is maintaining the status quo. When your goal is change, it becomes that much more difficult.

CHOP is currently in the midst of a $2 billion infrastructure expansion to deal with increased demand for the hospital’s services, due to a drop in the number of pediatric care facilities in the Philadelphia area. It has forced Altschuler to become something of a salesman to his people, attempting to sell everyone from doctors to nurses to office staffers on the benefits of growth and change.

Altschuler says a period of rapid growth can become a confusing time in a business. You are trying to keep the people in your company focused on the same mission and goals while everything is changing around them.

That’s why, if change is in your organization’s future, he says you need to start communicating the need for it as soon as possible or you run the risk of allowing your employees to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Regardless of the business, he says there is a need for employees to develop something of an entrepreneurial, risk-taking spirit.

“In many ways, people here have to have a competitive, entrepreneurial spirit, so if you can show them what the outcome is going to be by embracing change, you can get them to where they need to be,” Altschuler says. “Part of change in an organization is that when you want to perform change and see it through, you have to see it through to the success of the change. Once your people see success, they are more likely to embrace it.”

As a leader, Altschuler says you will sooner or later be forced to put a stake in the ground when making a major change to your company. You will have to make the statement that change is inevitable, and in the end, your employees are either coming on board or they’re not.

However, he says the best way to minimize the difficult personnel-related decisions you’ll have to make goes back to enabling employees to take ownership in the decision-making process.

Even if you’re the one drawing the line in the sand, Altschuler says it’s always better if the employees who accept change feel like they’ve reached that conclusion themselves.

When the time came to sell CHOP’s employees on the need for expansion, he once again led his senior managers out among the people, meeting with them, proposing ideas, soliciting feedback and refining the vision.

“What I and my senior leadership do is really try to engage people in the decision-making process,” he says. “You can get to a strategy, but if you can’t implement the strategy, it does you no good. So it’s really critical for individuals in leadership positions to really be able to engage the work force and make the part of the process to induce the change.”

Altschuler has implemented some formalized methods of soliciting feedback from staff members within the CHOP organization. Aside from frequent electronic communication, such as e-mail, he holds large organizational meetings four or five times a year where he’ll lay out the current state of the hospital and the direction in which he wants to take the hospital in the near future.

Altschuler also tries to place what is going on in his organization within the larger context of the industry. He says any larger perspective you can give your employees will give them a better understanding about where they and the company stands.

“I’ll always try to give people an update on what is happening out there, how could the presidential election affect health care, things like that,” he says. “It’s always good to get out there and catch up with people and tell them what is going on. I think that develops trust in the leadership, which is critically important. There has to be trust in the vision and the ability to manage through difficult situations.”

The right kind of communication

Even if the concept of keeping your organization goal-focused might seem obvious to you, Altschuler says that’s only half the battle. Whether you want to keep everyone steadfast on consistent objectives or whether you’re trying to change course and take your company in a new direction, it’s not just what you say, but it’s how you say it.

At CHOP, Altschuler underscores the importance of a multifaceted communication approach. General messages are mass-distributed through e-mail or the Internet. If an issue requires more specific attention, he will make time in his schedule to meet with a person or group.

“A good communication strategy has many different facets,” he says. “If I’m trying to get out to the entire organization with a good message, we will typically do an e-mail message to everyone. We have a very robust Internet site for our organization, and our (chief operating officer) does a monthly blog. So it’s really multifaceted, and as companies grow, the ability to communicate through electronic media becomes more and more important.”

At CHOP, Altschuler shares a challenge with the leaders of many publicly traded companies: the need to communicate frequently and clearly with a board of directors. Altschuler needs to relay health-care-related concepts to board members who don’t have a medical background.

If you have to translate industry jargon for a board filled with members who come from diverse professional backgrounds, Altschuler says the only thing you can really do is streamline the language and prepare yourself to answer a lot of questions.

“We have to make sure that our board understands what we’re going to be doing because they are typically community and business leaders who don’t necessarily appreciate the nuances of health care,” he says. “They’re good, smart businesspeople, but health care is a bit of a peculiar business.

“My style with the board is to talk with as many people as possible on a personal basis. That’s not the most efficient style, but the board is so important, and the ability for them to understand what is going on is so important to our success; I really have believed over the years that it’s worth the time.”

HOW TO REACH: The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia,