Jeff Kupietzky stays in touch to keep employees aligned Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2010

Jeff Kupietzky is surprised that some employees may be intimidated to talk to him. After all, he was one of them not too long ago.

He was only named CEO of last year, a year after he became president and joined the board of directors at the Los Angeles company, which specializes in monetizing, registering, selling and developing domain names.

But he knows the new title means a big change in how his 150 employees relate to him.

“You no longer can count on relationships to be the same as they were,” says Kupietzky, who came on board as an executive vice president in 2006 after serving in several management positions at other technology giants. “You have to have everyone respect you; they might not all like you. And that’s a big challenge, especially when you’ve tried to have a lot of good relationships with people.”

To bridge the gap, Kupietzky tries to be as accessible and as transparent as possible — not just to facilitate bottom-up communication but also to keep employees aligned as information trickles down.

“You try and be available anytime anybody needs something, to have them understand the business issues, to give them the context of why we have to make certain decisions,” he says.

By striving to maintain a level organization where information flows freely between the CEO and employees, Kupietzky has led the company, which has more than $150 million in revenue, to new heights. Everyone is working together toward common goals and pointing out issues that might prevent the company from reaching its objectives.

“You really are in a glass house, and it’s very easy to throw stones before you sat in the chair,” Kupietzky says. “So I try and have people understand those tradeoffs even if they’re not sitting in my chair and giving them all the same information I have so that they realize decisions are not as black and white as it appears.”

Here’s how Kupietzky gives employees a glimpse into his world to keep them aligned.

Make your message meaningful

Poker chips and bingo cards are common at’s company meetings. That’s because, to Kupietzky, alignment between employees and the company starts with transparency, and he gets creative when it comes to giving employees information and making sure they understand it.

Regardless of how you set company goals — whether they’re set in the boardroom or collaboratively built with employee input — transparency is key. Usually, it’s an iterative process to align individual goals with those overarching ones, but some employees require more guidance than others.

In general, Kupietzky communicates overall objectives clearly and frequently, and then offers individual help if employees have trouble tying their goals to that.

To help employees see the connection, he uses the helicopter process. It’s a visual reminder of a chopper hovering over a forest, with both the forest and the trees in view so it’s never just one or the other.

“If you get too specific on the goals, people forget how that fits into the overall vision,” he says. “And if you stay too much in the vision, people don’t really [know], ‘What does that mean for what I do today?’ or, ‘How do I make a priority decision about two different things I could work on?’ That’s where that ongoing, consistent communication is important because it isn’t so clear to everybody.”

Maintaining that balance requires a lot of repetition as you reinforce both the big picture and details. Kupietzky holds biweekly meetings with his management team, giving them full transparency on progress toward targets. He sends monthly staff e-mails with the same information, then holds quarterly all-hands meetings to discuss trends in that data.

“This is where that redundancy comes in, where it sounds repetitive — because it is,” he says. “But it makes sure that everyone knows, ‘This is what we’re trying to achieve. This is how far we’ve come. This is how far we still have to go.’

“Everybody can make that direct connection to what they’re working on or what’s important. The reason why you do all this is [because] I can’t figure out what everybody does and accurately predict that they’re doing the right thing. You want people to understand what the company needs to accomplish and then they figure out, ‘OK, how do I help accomplish that goal?’”

To keep the message from becoming stale, spice it up with examples.

“You always try and find something new,” Kupietzky says. “I love to get wins, specific examples of where we’ve been successful in something. It could be a project, it could be a customer interaction, it could be something that we’re better than our competitors at. I try and highlight those, and I do it for two reasons. There’s individuals that can get recognition, but at the same time, it helps people see why this is real and it’s current; it’s not just the same thing I said three months ago.”

Another way to make your message resonate is tailoring it to your audience. Think about their vocabularies and try to meet them on their level.

“Words like gross margin and net margin, EBITDA, OEBITDA and operating expenses and everything, that’s kind of second nature,” he says. “Most people in the company don’t have a clue what those metrics mean and, even more importantly, why they’re important.”

When Kupietzky rolled out the budget, he showed employees white poker chips representing revenue, red ones symbolizing losses and green chips showing profit. As he moved the chips from jar to jar, he explained what was happening and how it affected the company.

“Visually showing people how white ones become red or green helps people visualize how the company earns its money and how it spends it and how it makes more in the future,” he says. “It became a very effective way for people to understand an income statement. I’ve gone back to that analogy even without using the picture to help people understand, when we talk about our results, why that’s important and how we’re doing.”

Employees have picked up on Kupietzky’s repetition. Now, when he takes the stage to deliver a message, they get Jeff Bingo cards featuring his most often-used keywords. They can win prizes for Bingo, so they’re incentivized to pay attention.

Meet one on one

Employees won’t immediately fall into line when you make an announcement, but individual meetings can help align them to the company goals and secure a role in its success.

“That’s a very effective way to manage an organization — is ensure that there’s regularly scheduled check-ins between a manager and his or her employees and between senior management and indirect employees,” Kupietzky says.

He meets with his direct reports weekly for half-hour to hour-long one-on-ones, and with employees two layers down every three or four weeks. He also opens his schedule for anyone else who wants to meet — usually setting up a time within 24 hours of the person’s request.

“As I manage my calendar, I ensure that there’s a priority for people that are looking for my time,” he says. “Obviously, I like that because i

t shows initiative from the employees to feel comfortable broaching an issue that might be two or three levels above their chain of command.”

However, it’s not an excuse for employees to override their direct managers and go straight to the top. Kupietzky makes sure meetings with him are in addition to — not instead of — meetings with managers. Unless it’s confidential, he shares the conversation with the manager later to fill in gaps where employees withhold opinions from their bosses.

Similarly, your direct reports may not tell you everything. Talk to others around them — their direct reports, for example — to get other perspectives.

“You have to talk to enough people about the issue to get a multibiased view,” he says. “Everybody’s biased, but at least you’ll get multibiases.”

Unless employees have something specific to discuss, Kupietzky questions them to see if they understand the company’s goals and the role they play in achieving them.

“When you get a, ‘No, I’m not sure. I’ve got issues with it,’ we have misalignment,” he says. “Every person should know what they’re working on, how that ties to the department goals and how that goal ties to the overall company mission. When we have people that are unsure about it, then it becomes an opportunity to talk through it.”

You want to make sure employees have the resources they need to be successful, so ask how you can help. It’s important that they know how they fit into the organization, but what matters most is that they simply know that they do fit in.

“That’s the most important thing for an employee to be satisfied, is that they feel like what they’re working on is important and it ties to some overall goal, that they can understand the line of sight from what they’re working on to what the company’s trying to achieve,” Kupietzky says.

Because you’re getting direct feedback in one-on-ones, you can make course corrections more quickly. Sometimes, all it takes is reinforcement.

“Sometimes, my job there is just to listen and give support and, frankly, cheerlead what that person’s individually working on — which is a way for them to feel connected to the overall mission of the company,” Kupietzky says. “It helps a lot, obviously, when there’s a view that the CEO took out a half-hour or an hour of what’s perceived to be the busiest schedule in the company. People appreciate that.”

Build consensus

There’s a difference between explaining things repeatedly and actually getting people on board. To really build buy-in, you need understanding plus consensus.

Being transparent about your goals and decisions is a good start, but it has to coincide with feedback from employees.

“You definitely have to give people a chance to talk through it and give them the time to air their opinion,” Kupietzky says. “You hopefully have created good relationships so when there is a difference of opinion it’s not personal and it’s really based on different points of view.”

That’s where one-on-ones are useful because they give employees opportunities to ask questions and share opinions. You can show them the same information you see so they can understand the business side of things instead of reacting emotionally.

“When they take the time to understand the issues and see it from all the different points of view, they’ll come to the same conclusion [as you],” Kupietzky says.

At least that’s the hope. But sometimes, they’ll see all the information and still disagree. That’s when your conviction is crucial.

“Then you make sure it’s very clear a decision’s been made,” he says. “You don’t want to leave it hanging that, ‘Well, we can always reverse this,’ because then people will undermine it. So I tend to spend more time on, once we got to that decision — independent of how we got there — let’s just make sure we’re all bought in to it.”

Don’t confuse conviction with inflexibility, because you may have to reverse a decision. While being clear that your decision is made, you should also acknowledge potential obstacles.

“You explicitly call out that you’re aware of the risks and the challenges, and here’s how you feel we’re going to achieve them,” Kupietzky says. “You have to be optimistic but cautiously optimistic so people don’t think that you’re just drinking the Kool-Aid. Recognize, if you are wrong and it’s something that can be reversed, you still make that reversal and admit your mistake.”

If you acknowledge that the path may change, doesn’t it give employees reason to resist? Only if they feel like you’re making decisions without reason.

“If you’ve gone through a good enough process to ensure that the issues were raised, the decisions were vetted and then you make the call, I think generally people would prefer to be moving with work being done than stagnating,” Kupietzky says. “When everybody’s in their highest gear, they rarely get concerned if we are doing course corrections. It’s when people feel, because of the indecision we’re idling, that’s when people get frustrated. Even if we don’t know the right direction, it’s just so important to get people engaged and active because you can always get to that right place later.”

Of course, outcomes will ultimately determine whether employees are meeting goals to achieve the mission. But constant communication with them will keep everyone on board and aligned. That way, even if the direction changes you’ll all be moving together.

“It’s easier to change the direction once the train is moving on the tracks than it’s sitting in the station and you’re still trying to figure out which way to point it,” Kupietzky says. “I use that analogy a lot because I think we’re better off as an organization if we’re executing well. We can always figure out where to point if we all believe we know where we’re going. [That’s better than if] we can’t get out of the station because we’re not executing.”

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