Elliot Sainer Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2007

While many business leaders work tirelessly to inspire passion among the ranks, doing so has never been much of a challenge for Elliot Sainer, president of Aspen Education Group. As a leading provider of educational programs for struggling and troubled youths, the mission of Aspen is clear and simple: helping kids. And as Sainer points out, most Aspen employees came to the company with that very goal in mind. As a result, keeping morale high isn’t an issue, and Sainer believes his organization’s collective enthusiasm has been key in not only allowing it to achieve its goals but also in helping to grow annual revenue to approximately $150 million in 2006.

Sainer spoke with Smart Business about the benefits of consistency and how to keep employees from seeking greener pastures.

Know your team. I have a hands-off style in a sense. I put a lot of trust and confidence in people who work for me and I let them run with things. Obviously, sometimes I have to make decisions, but mine is more a consultative role than it is a top-down style.

Knowing when to step in comes from knowing who your management team is. Sometimes you’ve got to step in earlier than others, depending on who you’re dealing with. You can’t manage all people the same. I will manage some of our senior leadership team quite differently depending on their own personalities and style, rather than trying to put in place one way of managing people and trying to make it fit for everybody.

Reap the benefits of empowering others. Our business is really helping kids and families, and that’s done at the local schools and programs. If school and program directors feel they have the authority and responsibility to get things done and to do things they need to do to help these kids and their families, and they feel a sense of empowerment to do that, they’re going to do whatever it takes to get it done rather than always having to wait for someone ‘upstairs’ to tell them what to do.

If you went around our organization and talked to people who are running our schools and programs, you would find, pretty uniformly, that people really believe they have both the ability and the responsibility to run their school or program and do so that way.

The danger, clearly, is that people have too much rope, and you’ve let the rope out too far. Occasionally, you get in trouble with that, but the benefit of having people feel that empowerment far outweighs the occasional mistakes that you make along the way.

Personify your core values. We spend a fair amount of time in our organization on our guiding principles. Doing so creates a sense of unity around a common goal.

Clearly, some people are really into them, and some people are not, but you can’t communicate it enough. People need to hear it and see it.

In many programs we see, programs we compete with and even programs we’ve acquired, the ones that seem to be successful are the ones with really good communication and people who understand not only what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it.

We try to keep communicating with people, and it may not hit them the first seven times they hear it, but it clicks on the eighth. For some people, it clicks on the first, and I’m sure for some, it never clicks. It’s challenging, but above all, they need to see it at the top, and I don’t necessarily mean just myself. You need to walk the talk.

If that’s not happening at the top level of management, then it just becomes a lot of noise. We, as leaders, first have to demonstrate those principles ourselves.

Strive for consistency. We often talk here about having a successful business in terms of ‘The Four P’s.’ The Four P’s are people, product, potential and predictability.

A lot of organizations end up having good people, they have a good product and they have good potential, but it’s the ability to do it year after year — the predictability — that sets apart really successful businesses. As I work with and manage our school directors, and as I think in terms of our company overall, we have to have all four legs of that stool to really have a successful business.

As a leader, people know I’m going to be fair and consistent. They might not always like a decision, but they feel they’ve been heard and there is some fairness and consistency to the decision-making process.

When you end up having a yo-yo effect on decision-making, when people can’t figure out why decisions are made, that’s when you start getting in trouble with your people. As I look around at other people I’ve respected and other successful businesses, there’s always consistency.

Recruit and retain. The biggest challenge in a service business is recruitment and retention of good people. That’s sort of cliché, in a way, but it’s so true. It’s a constant challenge that will probably never go away.

It depends for what level of the organization you’re recruiting, but when candidates come out, they need to see a committed work force. If they can feel that, it goes a long way toward making them feel that this is a good place to work. Clearly, the normal things — a competitive salary, a competitive compensation package — are important, but it’s really about whether candidates believe that people here care about what they’re doing and that they’re making a difference in kids’ lives.

In terms of retention, it again goes beyond financials. That’s part of it, but people really want to feel part of a team. They also want to be able to grow in their positions. It might mean growing in terms of promotions, but it also might be growing just in terms of learning more.

For most of our people, these are not the kinds of jobs people stay with for 35 years. If they can feel and believe they’re getting some personal growth as well as financial growth, people tend to stay. When some of those things break down, people start to say, ‘Why am I here? The grass will be greener somewhere else.’

HOW TO REACH: Aspen Education Group, (562) 467-5500 or www.aspeneducation.com