Jeff Stiefler says a winning organization needs one thing more than anything else winning people. CEOs simply cannot have their hands on every part of a large organization at all times, so they have to hire competent, trustworthy people and let them do their jobs. At Digital Insight the $214 million online banking services company that Stiefler has led since 2003 he has constructed a loose organizational framework, allowing those under him to do their jobs with few constraints. He says that allows employees to take an active role in addressing major issues and decisions facing the company. Smart Business spoke to Stiefler about constructing a strong organization and finding the right people to fill it.
Put people first. You have to start by having the right people. It’s a wonderful concept, but if you don’t have people who are both competent from a knowledge and experience point of view, and have the kind of values which make them effective team members, you can’t make it work.
The first thing is to select and recruit people who are capable of working in that kind of environment. Then you create a framework within which decisions get made. You get clear about what the direction of the firm is in terms of its mission and strategy.
Then you get clear about the kind of values that you want people to operate under. Then, within that very broad framework, you give people the freedom and flexibility to run.
I’m going to use a sports analogy: You draw the lines around a football field, and the lines are the same for every football field, but the way the game is played varies by team.
The same thing is true in business. You create a relatively loose construct within which people have enormous freedom to operate. Then you engage people in helping you think through major issues and decisions.
Recruit effectively. You have to get clear on what you’re looking for and then use the available resources, which are all of the normal recruiting methods. But the key is to get very clear about what you’re looking for in terms of both skills and experience, as well as values, and then simply not compromise on that.
Even with all of that clarity, it is an art and not a science. It’s like a marriage. You don’t really know how it is going to be until you’re in it.
And, unlike a marriage, you don’t get a chance to date. You’re making a decision on virtually no information. You’re making a decision primarily based on an individual’s track record, which is indicative, but can be spun in a way to make it look as favorable as possible, along with recommendations you get from former employers and colleagues, and your personal judgment in a series of interviews.
If you compare that body of information to what you know about someone after you’ve been working with them for six months, it’s a thimble versus a mountain. But there’s no way to get the information you really need before you have to make a decision.
It is really a crapshoot. If it’s successful, you get better at it over time. But it is a huge leap of faith for both parties.
Know when it’s not working. The biggest mistake I’ve made in business, and I’ve made it on multiple occasions, is not moving quickly enough to replace someone who I knew in my heart just wasn’t going to work. I make that mistake, and I think other CEOs do, for a couple of reasons.
No. 1, I convince myself that I am a talented enough leader that I can fix them, and I am almost invariably wrong. Secondly, I believe I can’t replace them, at least now, because it would be too disruptive. I am virtually always wrong when I act in accordance with those considerations.
I’ve been doing this now for 30 years, and I’ve been wrong more times than I care to mention. So one of the things I’ve learned is to force myself not to do that and to realize that an individual can be a very talented, very committed, really good person, but just not right for an organization at a given point in time.
And if that individual isn’t right, then you have an obligation both to the individual and the organization to make a change if the conclusion is that individual can’t be developed fast enough.
Know what you want. It’s critical to understand what kind of organization you want to have, how you want it to operate and what kind of people you need, again from both the perspective of skills and experience, as well as behavior, and to build the organization accordingly. That means changing people who are currently there who can’t meet those standards and bringing new people in who can.
For me, because I’ve been at it long enough, it’s very clear what kind of organization I want. It’s a personal thing. That’s a decision you get to make as a CEO of a company. Rather than try to persuade other people to subscribe to my point of view, that is not a place where I’m collaborative.
I get to choose the kind of organization I want to have. The people around me on my team get to decide if that’s the kind of organization they want to have.
If they decide it is, great. If they decide it isn’t, they need to go someplace else.
Respect talent. You start from the premise that talent matters and ability matters, and that the most talented and able people have the most options, and that you are in a war for talent. And you have to realize that in order to keep the most talented people, you have to create an environment in which they feel they are making significant contributions.
If you take all that as a given, then I would argue that a CEO absolutely has to surround himself or herself with great people and retain them. The only way to do that is to create an environment in which they can contribute. There is no way to win long-term without that.
HOW TO REACH: Digital Insight Corp., www.digitalinsight.com