Jim Holbrook Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

Jim Holbrook eavesdrops. Whether on airplanes or in aisles at local retail stores, he keeps a journal of what people do, why they’re traveling, what they want and what they need. That’s because the answers are in the marketplace, says the CEO and director of EMAK Worldwide Inc., a family of marketing agencies with 348 employees worldwide. Although his mantra is admittedly borrowed from another CEO, Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton, it has brought impressive results to EMAK, which posted 2006 revenue of $181 million. Smart Business spoke with Holbrook about consistency, short-term memory loss and why it’s important to weed out assholes when hiring.

Make employees feel that they are part of the team. The last thing you want to do is show up and feel like you’re not making a difference, that you’re just a cog, that you’re just pushing stuff around, that your role doesn’t really matter. Getting everybody to feel like they’re on the team is critical. Delegate the work so that they feel like they’re making a difference.

We put our business plan on one page, and everybody gets a copy of it. It’s very clear what our objective is, what we’re trying to do and what the key priorities are for the year. Everybody gets a copy of it so they can refer back and say, ‘OK, I’m working on this project, and I see how it fits in,’ or, ‘I’m working on this project, and I don’t really see how it fits in. I’d better ask somebody if I’m heading in the right direction.’

The ideal work environment is a place where people drive fast to work in the morning and drive slow home at night. I’ve worked at companies where they have massage therapists come in or there’s a barista making special espressos. That can be artificial and superficial. Employees know when they’re being bamboozled. It’s got to be a genuine effort.

If people are happy, stimulated, and feel like they’re productive and part of the solution, then the results will be better.

Avoid assholes. There’s a book out now [by Robert I. Sutton] called ‘The No Asshole Rule.’ Hire people that are good people, that have a positive outlook on life, that are optimistic and that are outgoing. It makes work life a lot better.

Look for people that are curious. The people that come into interviews and ask me lots of questions, generally, I know are well-briefed, interested and trying to learn something. Those are the kind of people that are not assholes. The curious people are the ones who really want to know what it’s like and how does everything work.

Our interviewing process is multistep. We don’t interview somebody on one day and make them an offer. It takes several rounds, meeting with several people. It’s an inclusive process, so the person gets voted on by the team.

I never recommend that we hire that person unless they ask me five or 10 questions, at least, throughout an interview. The curiosity factor — that is the real recipe for success in business.

Know when to act. At some point, you’ve got to say, ‘OK, I’ve heard enough. Like it or not, we’ve got to do something. Let’s do this.’ I think that’s the critical balance at the CEO level — know when to intake and listen, and know when to decide and move on.

My first boss at Procter & Gamble always taught me to get to 80 percent. That’s good enough. Once you have 80 percent of the data, do something. Getting the last 20 percent is so painful, so expensive, takes so much more time and has diminishing returns. If you have to be 98 percent right all the time or have 98 percent of the data or facts, the organization will become more stagnant

Remain in the present. We try all kinds of things that don’t work. If we were batting 1.000, that would mean that we were playing in the wrong league.

One of the key factors is short-term memory loss. You don’t look back. My management group spends some time talking about what we tried that didn’t work and coming up with those conclusions. Playing too much Monday morning quarterback is not a good proposition.

CEO as judge and jury is a bad role: ‘I’m going to wait for you to screw up, and I’m going to criticize you.’ It makes the organization become risk-averse, and then the CEO has to be the one coming up with all the things because nobody else wants to get criticized. A little bit of criticism, a little bit of introspection and self-analysis is a good thing.

It stretches the people. It shows the people that they can try things as long as it’s prudent. The benefit really is making the employees feel like they can push the boundaries.

Stay consistent. We set strategies that are enduring, not something that happens this quarter, this month or even this year. It’s an ongoing objective that we have to work toward. Setting those objectives and coming back to them consistently is what drives alignment and then drives the results.

Re-evaluate not the goals as much as the way to get to the goals. It’s not like, ‘These don’t work. Let’s try something else.’ Try to be very consistent, day to day, week to week, month to month, even year to year.

It gives people the opportunity to understand and get on board.

A lot of organizations change their agenda all the time, and that just confuses everybody: ‘Are we working on this? Were we working on that? Well, now we have a new agenda, so I’m not going to work that hard on this because something else is going to come down the pike.’

If people know what’s going on and have visibility into what’s happening, then it drives alignment. Alignment is the key to a successful and empowered organization.

HOW TO REACH: EMAK Worldwide Inc., (323) 932-4300 or www.emak.com