Why Janice Bryant Howroyd takes educated risks to get ACT 1 Group to the next level Featured

4:00am EDT January 26, 2009
Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder and CEO, ACT 1 Group of Cos. Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder and CEO, ACT 1 Group of Cos.

It didn’t take long after her arrival from North Carolina for Janice Bryant Howroyd to realize she wasn’t a natural fit in Southern California.

“When I came to California from the East Coast, I really was just so aware of how different I seemed to be than the people I was leading,” she says. “Mind you, I came to So Cal and I worked and moved around in the Beverly Hills and Hollywood environment, so I didn’t look like the people I was seeing; I didn’t speak the way they did.”

But one thing she did do just as well — and probably better — than her compatriots was come up with and act upon creative ideas. So while she was different, she was able to pose a question that was pretty important: So what?

“I was having this conversation with my mom, and she told me, ‘You’re really going to have to stay true to who you are and this adaptation has to occur from their part as well as yours if it’s going to fit,’” Howroyd says. “That means that I adopted a very firm position in making sure there was mutual enjoyment in how I lived in an environment, not getting away from who I am in order to succeed. And I believe that companies should recognize that their people can have that same enjoyment, while naturally following the law of the land and the processes you have, and there’s still a lot of room for people to be themselves in your organization.”

There certainly is a place for those people at ACT 1 Group of Cos., the staffing, human resources and management solutions juggernaut founded by Howroyd more than 25 years ago.

Howroyd, who is also the company’s CEO, has grown the company up on those principles, laying down a foundation for a culture where people grow their careers at the company through creativity and educated risks. From that culture, the company has grown, mushrooming to 1,745 employees since late 2005 — a 42 percent increase — while growing at an average rate of 9.2 percent over the last five years.

Building that kind of culture isn’t easy. First, you have to set the tone and give employees the ability to make their own path. And you have to do all of this without completely obsessing over creating a homogeneous culture, instead realizing flexibility breeds growth.


Live your culture

The starting point to building your company culture is simple: It’s you. You have to let employees see your drive and passion to push growth through risk taking and personal growth in the field up close.

“When you put forth your vision, when you restate or redefine initiatives inside your organization, those shouldn’t just be an academic exercise that people are asked to perform to,” Howroyd says. “I find that the best leaders manage processes, but they lead people, and that requires you to know the people in order to build the business forward, and the flip side is the people need to know you. More of your organization’s culture is influenced by the interaction you have with people than it is just by you putting forth a brand initiative around a product or a service that you’re building.”

So how do you live a culture that encourages people to be creative and grow? Start with creating dialogue with people about personal and professional growth.

“The thing that I do on a personal level is I really do free people up to talk,” she says. “I don’t stick to yes-no questions; I don’t stick to questions. Sometimes I ask them their perspective, as much as they care to share, in areas outside of the immediate business or immediate job that they’re performing in my company and just get a balance on where they are in their lives. That enables me to not just value whether or not they’re able to contribute to my organization, but whether our organization can contribute to their growth, as well.

“That can be very important in a company that’s growing, and it’s something all leaders should be cognizant of — just because my company is growing, does that mean my employees are able to grow, too?”

Part of this process is understanding how to maximize your conversations with people to help them realize what they can do. For example, Howroyd likes to have conversations after someone has failed.

“Not only does this allow both the person and me to investigate for future growth how we avoid future failures, it also implants within their business DNA the truth that it’s all right to take business risks,” she says. “It’s very common for leaders to applaud people on their successes. I just think it’s of value as well to go out and talk to people when they experience failures, give them a pat on the back, and then make sure that the both of you explore how to avoid those future failures or turn those into future successes.” Again, this is just the work needed to set the tone at your organization, but going through the steps to build culture requires your legwork.

“As your company grows larger, you’re not always able to talk with every person at every moment,” Howroyd says. “But what I think does happen is by you being thoughtful and selective in talking with people where you can, the message moves forward throughout the organization and people come to understand this is a culture that embraces me being able to step forward and take and recognize thoughtful risks.”


Encourage employee evolution

In her conversations with people, Howroyd realizes that not everyone at ACT 1 is growing the way they would like. Her solution to that goes to the heart of creating a culture where people can grow and be creative: She looks for new roles that can satiate their needs while growing her company.

“Organizations hire accountants into accounting roles, and they do really well,” she says. “Those same people may take an interest in technology through the use of your business system and find themselves somewhere along their career better tracked to design your internal business solutions.

“Why keep them in an accounting environment that they’ve grown beyond? People can perform well in one job for many years and get the commensurate raises and pats on the back that come with that and not be truly happy, but they might be people who have integrity to the job. Listen out loud to them in their regular performance reviews and find out where else they want to grow in your organization. By all means, if the opportunity exists, give them the chance or create the chance. There’s nothing better than having people who grow through your organization than to help them to grow your organization forward.”

That listening process comes at ACT 1 in the form of quarterly evaluations for each employee, but there is also a need to do that on a more ad hoc basis. Whenever you’re working closely with an employee on a project, take the opportunity to see if a portion of that work, which may be outside of the person’s normal realm, tickles his or her fancy.

“We also have the opportunity to do evaluations through projects and initiatives that we work on in the organization, and that’s where the real listening happens,” Howroyd says. “During those quarterly performance reviews, you should take full advantage to see where they are growing and how they can grow. You also should understand that for the employee this means the light is aimed at their face and so their conversation, while honest, can also be somewhat reserved. When you’re working with people in team initiatives or special projects, you have a splendid opportunity to find out where they might like to perform or grow differently in your organization, and it’s a much freer environment and conversation for them.”

Howroyd’s example about the accountant who might want to build out your internal business solutions hits close to home for her. Her company has grown through technology solutions, and the people who built that were existing employees with an interest in adapting the company.

“We would not have achieved the growth we’ve had, nor would we be on the track for growth we’re currently in, if we’d not engaged technology in a very basic way to how we function as an organization,” she says.


Don’t kill your culture

When you want a certain kind of culture in your organization, it’s a delicate balancing act. If you push too hard for your culture, you may deny creativity by forcing people down one path. At ACT 1, Howroyd views a good culture as a book that everyone is working from. That means there are core elements to the plot everyone understands — the need to grow personally and professionally and the desire for creativity, for example — but people aren’t always reading it at the same speed or at the same time.

“I think that leaders need to appreciate the opportunity they have to promote an evergreen environment,” she says. “For me, that does-n’t mean keeping people on the same page, it means keeping them within the same book. So, region to region, my organization may be on different pages of the same book, but the important thing for me is that we are all following the same processes, we all have the same tools and we all are able to respond at the local customer level.” Basically, if you are able to set the tone for a creative culture and you see that your company is coming up with creative products, you can’t be too nitpicky if the leader of your financial group does-n’t have as lively of a leadership style as the head of your marketing group.

“In my organization, I truly don’t mind having different leadership styles exist,” Howroyd says. “One of the things I’ve found in 30 years of building my business is that even when we deal with large corporations, those companies will have different cultures and leadership styles not only from country to country but from business department to business department. ... So differences in leadership style doesn’t have to be an issue in my company; it can be something that is just a part of how we experience diversity.”

That isn’t denying the fact that there can be negative cultures, but if your cultural tenets are growth and creativity and you aren’t experiencing those things, you’ll know pretty quickly. On the occasions that that happens, Howroyd says you have to circle back with people and go over the book again. And that doesn’t mean you point the blame at them.

“I look first of all at their results,” she says. “Given that we hired theright people and we’ve resourced them well, the conversation becomes, ‘What do we need to do differently?’ not, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”

The approach of circling back to talk about your processes and straightforward goals, instead of focusing negative attention on one person, will encourage them to look for gaps rather than sulk.

“When you approach it that way, you have your direct reports more engaged in being researchers or equally engaged in being researchers as they are in being the information providers,” Howroyd says. “Their teams work better with them and every single time this will bring a better result than just going after people to find out what’s wrong with them.”

HOW TO REACH: ACT 1 Group of Cos., (800) 365-2281 or www.act1group.com