Peter T. Dameris learned about leadership from a man who made company Christmas parties all-inclusive.
“It could be the mailroom clerk or it could be the receptionist or it could be the division president, but he treated them all the same,” Dameris says of a man he started working with 20 years ago. “When they were coming up and saying thank you for the party, he could make that person feel like that was the only person he wanted to talk to in the room.”
On Assignment Inc. was founded on a culture like that, but too many closed-door meetings and subsequent cuts had deteriorated trust in the management and the company itself.
So when Dameris took over as president and CEO in November 2003, he had to give ownership back to his 1,000 employees. At the helm of a staffing firm that places scientific, IT, engineering and health care professionals in other words, a people business Dameris knew giving employees a role in the company’s success would be paramount to achieving it.
“It’s easy when you’re doing top-down management just to pontificate with people … and constantly be behind closed doors versus facing your customer,” he says. “There were a lot of closed-door meetings trying to figure out how can we cut [selling, general and administrative expenses] another 15 percent. That’s not how you grow a business.”
His plan, instead, was to involve employees. He needs their input to stay on top of changes in the marketplace and to make decisions that will position them to serve those changing needs.
“People want to be valued, and it’s not all about what you make or what your responsibilities are,” Dameris says. “If people feel that you value them and that you want to speak with them, they’re going to approach you. Otherwise, they’re going to keep their distance.”
So his goal was to build and sustain an inclusive culture that spans beyond Christmas parties into every aspect of business.
“The hardest job of a CEO is, if you’re building a good business, you have many intelligent, articulate, passionate, persuasive people who all have a separate opinion,” Dameris says. “At the end of the day, you have to evaluate all these disparate opinions and proposals and come up with the right decision.”Initiate bottoms-up updates
First, Dameris talked to everyone. If the end goal is to fit input together to come up with the best decision, the first step is obviously collecting all of the pieces.
It’s a collaborative process for Dameris, who stays connected with multiple touch points at various intervals.
“Try not to be insulated, and at the end of the day, try to formulate an opinion that’s based on many views,” he says.
His management team meets telephonically at least bimonthly, and each manager meets with his or her divisions weekly. But in between, the management team is spending as much time as possible in front of customers.
The goal is to find out how your customers’ industries are evolving and, as a result, what they’ll need from you both now and in the future. That requires understanding general marketplace trends and how individual customers will react to those.
“We don’t want to be Kodak film where, because you haven’t innovated, you’re just intermediated by digital photography. That is something that we have to think about every day,” Dameris says. “In 1999, I could have sold all the COBOL programmers that I could find to help with Year 2K remediation. But after Dec. 31, 1999, there wasn’t as big a need. So if I just focused on that skill set, I would be in bad shape and I’d have an obsolete skill set inventory.
“So we constantly have to think in terms of what’s early-stage adoption, what’s late-stage adoption and where our industries are going.”
While you’re looking at oncoming changes through long-term lenses, part of your job is sharing those glasses with the rest of your staff.
So when Dameris meets with employees for quarterly updates both positive and negative trends in their operations and end markets the sharing goes both ways. Not only does he recap what he’s seeing, he also asks employees what they’ve been hearing from customers.
“We ask the field, because they’re the ones on the front line; we have to feel for their input,” he says. “So whether it’s how we develop a new line of business to how we do better training or communications, that comes as much from the field as it does from corporate. We’re not a complete top-down organization.”
Dameris also spurs feedback with idea submission competitions in certain areas, from branding to controlling overhead without destroying service. He hopes those kinds of pushes will keep feedback constantly bubbling up through managers.
“We typically do bottoms up,” Dameris says. “We try to keep our leaders as informed and as exposed to the customer, to the industry, to thought leaders as possible so that they’re in a better position to develop meaningful and informative opinions for us to use.”Choose words carefully
Empowering employees can’t just be talk but it does start with what you say and the kind of language that you use to say it.
For example, when Dameris stepped in, he did not adopt a transformation plan. It was called, instead, a revitalization plan.
“We recognized that we needed to revitalize what was a good business, not transform it and [not] that the business wasn’t any good,” he says. “[We] really put the power in the hands of the people who created the relationships with our customers and let them believe that we were betting on them versus criticizing them.”
Although most financial cuts had affected the field, that’s where Dameris reinvested. While he expanded the customer-facing work force, he kept reminding the front-line employees how important their positions are.
“We constantly express to them that it’s their business and that the changes that they make and the ideas that they have make a real impact on our business,” he says. “This stuff isn’t being developed in some sort of ivory tower and then communicated down.
“We use the analogy [that] we always want to be looking through the front windshield of a car, not through the rearview mirror. [We want them] to understand that they’re not in the backseat, that they’re driving the car and that the direction of our business is dictated by what they’re seeing in the field.”
Make sure your language reflects the inclusive culture you’re trying to build, whether it’s extensive as the car analogy or as simple as referring to the company as a collective team.
“We try to build a sense of community versus it’s ‘us versus them,’” Dameris says. “I use that exact language.”
Communicating that message also means being honest and straightforward and thanking employees for their efforts.
“We acknowledge that it’s an honor every day that they elect to invest their talents and efforts with us,” Dameris says. “We tell them that my job is easiest when I get to brag about their efforts. I didn’t generate the revenues; I just have the privilege of bragging about them. So they really feel as if it’s their efforts.”
Publicizing employees’ ideas and successes also encourages them to get involved. On weekly field calls, Dameris does “shout outs” where he recognizes employees whose ideas have been implemented. Through that, you encourage others to get engaged so they can be recognized.
Speaking out from the podium with careful word choices can usher a lot of empowerment. But showing employees personal attention is a crucial piece to make them feel valued.
“As a group, you’re communicating to 100 people and you don’t know how each person’s going to interpret your words,” Dameris says. “But on a person-to-person basis, you see their reaction; you see their feedback. And that then multiplies as they go back and feel good about themselves and the next day talk about how they had a great conversation.
“So be out and about and talk to all levels of the organization. Understand the power of the chair that most people are going to be intimidated to speak to the leader and sometimes the leader’s going to have to make the outreach.”
When employees see, through your language and attention, that you care about their efforts, they’ll be more likely to offer their feedback.
“What we try to do is not stymie innovation or stymie constructive dialogue,” Dameris says. “So we’re constantly trying to involve people and make people feel as if they’re recognized and their voice is heard.”Build consensus
While you try to instill a long-term vision in your employees by encouraging them to think about big pictures and end results, keep in mind that you’re the ultimate puzzle master tasked with putting all of the pieces together in the end.
“Building something from the bottom up and allowing someone to have ownership helps, but it’s not a perfect democracy,” Dameris says. “Sometimes a decision has to be made and you hope that people are constructive. But sometimes you’ve got to make decisions where you feel like, as passionate as someone believes that this is the direction you go, they’re looking at just one aspect of their plan and not taking in all the needs of the organization.”
Still, try to maintain an inclusive culture in those cases. Dameris realizes that resolving disagreements can be one of the toughest skills for executives to learn but that consensus building is one of the most important. So he offers some guidance.
He calls it “charm school training,” and it teaches managers communication and dispute-resolution skills. Dameris lays out expectations for how managers should treat each other and their employees, but the bulk of the training comes through examining other situations.
“We do a fair amount of case study work where we give people examples of prior incidences in corporations and, at the end of the day, how people reacted, what the end result was, and how it could have been handled better or worse,” says Dameris, who also reaches out to third-party talent coaches for training help.
Once employees go through training, at least you’ll all have a similar arsenal of skills to use for building consensus. Then part of the process is explaining to them what makes certain options more appealing than others.
First of all, you try to explain the thoughtfulness, discipline and reason that goes into your decision-making, like how you look for the option that will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
“You look at the opportunities where best to spend your time and resources,” Dameris says. “What has the largest market opportunity? Are you focused on long-term or shorter-term success? What has the highest probability of success when you take into consideration the resources you have to deploy?”
Not everyone will always agree on the best use of resources, but you can make every decision a learning process by discussing what works or what doesn’t and why.
“Now, it’s tough to then communicate back that, ‘Hey, this was a great idea, but it’s something we can’t execute on right now,’” Dameris says. “But the way we handle that is by identifying the positives versus the negatives, showing that people’s ideas were submitted and some were implemented and have improved our business versus just focusing on yours wasn’t adopted.”
That way, you’re still reinforcing the collective team goal and fueling an employee-centered culture.
By rebuilding that culture and bolstering it with a couple like-minded acquisitions along the way Dameris has more than doubled the size of On Assignment, from 2005 revenue of $237.9 million to $618.1 million in 2008. He recognizes it can take a lot longer than that to build a culture that brings results, but it’s worth it.
“Short term, it may not generate any financial return, but like anything, you reap the fruits of your labor,” he says. “To the extent that my leadership team spends time in developing their direct reports and making sure that we have the brightest and most constructive people, it makes all of our jobs easier.
“So longer term, people really underestimate the positive benefits of having a good culture and a good leadership team that’s been trained on soft skills as well as hard skills.”
How to reach: On Assignment Inc., (818) 878-7900 or www.onassignment.com