Brooke Bates

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Passion for change

Twenty years after Jeff Battin founded his company, people have finally stopped asking if he sells fax machines for a living.

Communifax, the marketing company Battin founded, confused clients because the message wasn’t strong and clear. So last summer, Battin guided 82 employees through a rebranding process that restructured the company’s mission, down to the name.

Communifax became Communifx, with a nod toward the company’s “effects” on customers.

“Everybody is charged with part of the process,” says Battin, the chairman of the company. “That project is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Smart Business spoke with Battin about how to drive a change as big as rebranding through your company.

Q. How can a leader involve employees in rebranding the company?

I have to be out there listening. We’ve grown so fast that it’s hard for me to keep up with the new faces. I’m constantly out there, putting my hand out, introducing myself. I don’t introduce myself by title; I introduce myself by my name: ‘Hi, I’m Jeff. What’s your name? What do you do?’

I think it says a lot for the chairman and owner to reach out and learn a little bit about these people that are actually driving your business. I get a sense of whether or not that vision’s shared by keeping my ear to the ground as much as possible.

Every single employee was interviewed as a part of this [rebranding] process. We involved the associates so that they felt they were part of it. Every employee was interviewed for at least 15 minutes to half an hour through an independent company and so we learned our weaknesses our strengths. Based on that, we developed the brand personality, the brand pillars, the essence.

Q. What’s your advice for a leader during the change?

Commit yourself in a very passionate way. If you’re not almost to the point of overzealous about your position and your new strategy, then you’ve not sold yourself on it. And if you haven’t sold yourself on the new vision or the new strategy, then it’s going to be impossible to sell your associates. And if you can’t sell your associates, then you’re dead in water.

A lot of it starts with your passion. You can’t walk in the office in a bad mood.

You have to leave your frustrations — whether they’re personal or even if they’re business-related — at the door. Passion starts from the top, and it works its way down. If I show up to work with an attitude or I carry issues or problems around the office, it zaps their vision, it zaps their attitude.

They view me as the leader, not only for my strategic vision but as the one who started the company, who drives the passion. I have to articulate that vision not in what I say all the time but in my actions.

Q. How do you communicate the changes to employees?

It’s important for something as important as a rebranding effort to get your associates outside of the office. We opted for a nice hotel, the Marriott. We had cocktail hour and hors d’oeuvres, and then they spent about two hours with the presentation I put together.

We did this really cool [video] and everyone got our new brand standards. They got copies of all our literature. I went through the whole process of why we did the branding, what our new pillars were, what’s the essence of who we are, what’s our brand personality.

Then I started showing them some of the graphic elements of the brand and what they could expect to see. We handed out some really nice Under Armour sportswear with the new logo. You might not think that that’s important, but we want to be associated with quality so our sportswear company that we

picked is Under Armour ... as opposed to having an off-brand.

Q. How do you continue to drive the brand internally?

We’re adding to the brand. We’re not staying, and I think that’s important. Even though it’s only been a few months, I’m being asked a lot of questions like: ‘Jeff, can we do this, or can we do that?’ I’ve

assigned someone the main responsibility for brand continuity. She’s coming to me with questions on new ideas. Because when you develop it, you can’t think of everything upfront. You’re going to miss

some things.

Inevitably, associates are going to come up with ideas on how to present the company, which is the brand. I’m saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t think about it that way.’ So try and remain flexible.

If you think about brand, the brand is impacted by customer service, so as we add more and more associates in the account management area. There’s certain ways that we handle conflict management because that has an impact on the brand. When I originally started the rebrand, you don’t think of conflict management as a part of the brand, but it certainly is. The image of the company is impacted by the way your associates treat [customers], right down to Jane who answers the phone.

How to reach: Communifx, (866) 372-7272 or www.communifx.com

Monday, 26 January 2009 19:00

Moving on up

For Dirk Benthien, the difference between $1.6 million and $16 million is about 2,500 miles.

Benthien, the co-founder and CEO of CPi — Construction Polymers Inc. — relocated his foam insulation business from Moorpark, Calif., to Barberton in 2006. The next year, the company — which had posted 2006 revenue of less than $2 million — soared to $7.2 million. And even before the end of 2008, it had more than doubled its previous year’s revenue as the exploding company moved again, this time to North Canton.

Meanwhile, CPi jumped from five employees — only two of whom made the move to Ohio — to 27.

But initially, the move wasn’t about the revenue; it was all about the customers, many of whom were traveling too far for training with CPi equipment.

“We were losing proximity to our customers, coupled with excessive travel expenses, even difficulty communicating because of time zone differences,” Benthien says. “We spent more and more time flying across the country and not serving customers locally.”

He learned how quickly your business can grow if you choose a location that has you optimally based to best serve your clients. First, find an area that is central to your customer base. Benthien plotted his 500 customers on a map and marked their distribution in a line stretching from Toledo to Atlanta.

Next, track where your competitors are and, more importantly, where they’re not. The presence of many insulation companies in the South sent Benthien north, where he could command the market.

Then, look at the economic market data of different regions to find communities where your business will fit. High unemployment rates, for example, could signal a large pool of potential employees.

But you don’t necessarily need to be downtown to attract attention and employees. CPi got lost in the Los Angeles bustle before Benthien learned that a small company can reap more success in a small town.

To zoom in on a location for your next office, consider the surroundings. You want to be accessible to customers, near freeways or airports. And if you plan on frequently bringing visitors into the office, pick a spot near hotels and restaurants.

Although your employees will be using your new space more than anyone else, you should still set it up with the customer’s convenience in mind.

“We have a nice training center that demonstrates to the customer that we’re serious about the business, that it’s not only about making profit, but it’s about putting it back into the business, investing in services for the customer,” says Benthien, who included in the new building customer perks, such as empty offices with wireless Internet and an observation deck for visitors to scope out equipment.

And while you’re making those customer-focused improvements, don’t let communication lapse. Keep your old lines of communication available while gradually weaning customers off them and over to new ones.

For the first eight months after the move to Ohio, Benthien forwarded the company’s California phone number to the Barberton office through a separate line.

“We knew when someone called the old number, and every time, we told people, ‘Please make note of it; we have a new number,’” he says.

Remember that while you’re taking huge strides to improve your connection with customers, it’s the small steps during that process that they’ll notice the most — such as simply answering their calls.

“We always had the attitude that the phone is ringing, we’re going to talk to the customer now,” Benthien says. “... Once you hang up, then you go back to worrying about getting the telephone installed properly or whatever it may be.

“The building is not going to run away. If you don’t get to it today, the problem’s still there tomorrow. The customer that you chase away today, that’s a loss forever.”

A clean slate

Dirk Benthien learned his relocating lessons when he moved his business from California to Ohio in 2006 — and revisited those lessons for a local move the next year.

After the first move, CPi — Construction Polymers Inc. — swelled from five employees and $1.6 million in revenue to 17 employees and $7.2 million in revenue. Benthien, the co-founder and CEO, used the bigger budget to get an even bigger building.

“Get as much space as you can afford, because once you have it, you will fill it with additional business,” he says.

Budget with building improvements in mind, but be aware it could cost more than you expected. Benthien planned $75,000 for the first move, and it cost $200,000. Have open credit lines for unexpected renovations, because you shouldn’t have to settle for less than you need.

“You have a clean slate, meaning that this is the perfect opportunity to look at ... what is not working well and then address all those issues in the new facility, from enough offices for the employees to proper material flow,” he says.

And although CPi moved again the next year, soon after the move from California, that should be the

exception to the rule. When you move your company, do it with the mindset that you won’t be moving again for a long time.

“You only get one chance,” he says. “If the carpet looks bad, this is the opportunity to do it right. In half a year, it will be more difficult. It’s another interruption, and you will procrastinate.”

How to reach: CPi — Construction Polymers Inc., (330) 861-5200, (877) 300-3150 or www.cpifoam.com or www.ezerosolutions.com

John Limbert likes to think of his 210 employees at National Bank and Trust Co. as a baseball team, albeit a large one.

Limbert, president and CEO, can’t pick up a bat or run the bases for his employees. Instead, he has to stay out of their way and let them succeed.

To do that, he gathers their input before setting goals and then gives them the reins to reach those goals creatively, keeping an eye on their progress and providing support when necessary.

The 40-year banking veteran says he has made it through a career of tough decisions and tasks by relying on the team effort of his employees.

“The most rewarding part about the job is giving people the opportunity to fail and then helping them avoid that,” says Limbert, whose company posted 2007 revenue of $41 million.

Smart Business spoke with Limbert about how to empower your employees to reach their goals and how to follow up on their progress.

Get input on decisions. Early in my career, I used to micromanage everything. When you do that, you diminish the worth of the person that you’re talking to. Once you’ve hired a good staff, you sit down, you formulate a plan and then you get out of their way.

There’s three pieces I normally use when I look at a situation. The first thing you do is sit down with the people that are responsible for that area and you get their perspective on what’s working and what’s not working. The second thing is you put a financial analysis, independent of the operating group, against their observations and against the metrics that you think that group ought to be earning.

Then you sit down with both the finance side and the operating side and walk your way through: If something’s earning 4 percent and we think it should be earning 8 percent, what are the steps? It’s not a one-person decision.

Baseball teams mirror what I believe a successful company is. You’ve got nine players who play the game and a manager who never takes an at-bat. I’m managing things with the input of coaches and players. You build a team, and they all have different strengths, and you’d be a fool not to rely on those

strengths.

Set the goal and let employees go. There shouldn’t be any mistake in any manager’s mind about

what the goal is. Sometimes there are lapses in communicating, but at the end of the day, most of our folks understand what the goal is, at least at the management level. If we haven’t gotten it down to the last person hired, then we probably need to re-examine our communication process.

If everybody understands what the goal is, you can tell them, ‘There it is,’ and let them be creative and figure out what’s the best and the quickest way to get there. When you do that, what you get is people who, A, enjoy what they’re doing and, B, are allowed to be flexible and creative on their own.

I don’t think the buy-in is the hard part; I think creating the opportunity for them to be successful is more difficult. It all gets back to empowering.

What’s worked for me is finding an operating mechanism that allows them to own their book of business. That management person has to be the author, not the reviewer [of their budget]. Then sitting down on a routine basis and mapping their progress to that budget affords you the opportunity to say, ‘You said you were going to operate this department with a $10,000 profit this month, and we only

made ($8,000). What didn’t work? What can we do to help?’ And then sit back and listen.

Agree on the strategy, agree on the targets and then (have) regular communication to find out if it’s working or not. It’s like sailing a ship. You’re always looking at that compass to figure out where you are. If you’re not doing that, you’re going to end up farther away than your port of call. You’ve got to keep

checking.

Use managers to keep informed. If you’ve got everybody that agrees that we’re going to go take this hill today or this month or this year, they don’t need to be told that they’re making progress. The difficult part is actually getting out of the way.

The way I’ve tried to do that is a weekly meeting with my management group every Friday morning. It’s not so much an operations meeting as it’s, ‘Tell me what’s going on in your neck of the woods.’ We wouldn’t need that meeting if I was stopping to see everybody every day of the week. Finding a way to

do that once a week or once a month is important.

Coach your employees. You’ve agreed on an annual budget, and that budget’s broken into monthly pieces. Everybody knows what their target is. I believe in the three-strike rule. If you’ve had three strikes, then we might put in pinch hitter for you the next time or maybe we’ll get you some extra batting practice on the sidelines.

If we’ve got talented people who aren’t able to meet those numbers that they’ve helped write, then we’ve got to give them some coaching. Sometimes that means moving from one department to another. Sometimes it means sending them to some off-site education, some training programs. Sometimes it means there’s a better opportunity on another team somewhere.

Coaching, counseling, cheerleading, all those things come together to work with an individual.

HOW TO REACH: National Bank and Trust Co., (800) 837-3011 or www.nbtdirect.com

Friday, 26 December 2008 19:00

Breaking it down

Jeff Evans isn’t easily overwhelmed. The chairman, president and CEO of The Will-Burt Co. has watched his company more than double its 2002 revenue of $26 million in the past five years, meanwhile expanding across three languages and four continents. But for him, growth comes one small step at a time.

“That’s a lot of additional complexity that leaders have to deal with,” Evans says. “And it’s up to me to help people keep growing so that they’re able to withstand those challenges.”

He’s avoiding growing pains at the company — which manufactures telescoping mast systems and components for other heavy machinery — by breaking down the big picture into smaller pieces. That way, all 313 employees have a part to play in the goal-setting process as Evans keeps each step aligned with his vision.

Smart Business spoke with Evans about how to set your vision and break it down into achievable goals.

Break your vision down. You have to first develop the long-range vision; that has to be set by the leader: What do we want this company to look like in 10 years? Then we look at where are we today. It takes a good analysis of where you are today and where you want to get to.

Although the CEO sets the vision, it’s up to the whole management team to develop the plan for how you get there. What are the steps that have to happen in the next 10 years to be where we want to be?

We establish some long-term goals such as 20 percent sales growth in one of our markets, big-picture

things. If that’s what you want to do big picture, what do we need to do in the next two to four years to make that happen? Maybe that is hire a salesperson in Europe. So now what do you have to do to make that happen?

You keep working it around to where you come up with a list of defined goals we have to do this year if we want to achieve our 10-year goals. By doing this map, it gets you to the point where you know the things you’re doing this year are linked to your longer-term goals.

Set goals collaboratively. We try to get [everyone] that’s going to be working on [a goal] to collaborate and come up with the best way of doing it. We don’t tell our salesmen, ‘This is your target for next year. Go do it.’ We get the salespeople to help us.

You can’t totally let people set their own goals. It’d be like saying, ‘How high can you high jump?’ ‘Well, I can high jump 1 foot.’ You could do 2 feet or 6 feet.

So we have to help people establish credible goals and challenging goals, but people need to have some input in them so they’re not ridiculous.

Setting a strategic plan is huge, and everybody in the company has some level of involvement in it. Have small group meetings, even down to the floor level, and explain what we’re planning to do.

Ask people, ‘Do you see any issues with this?’ They’re going to be pleased you asked them, and you might find out why it’s not a good idea.

Measure each goal against the vision. It goes back again to the vision of what you want to be in 10 years. If you want to dominate the U.S. market, then you’re going to resist any strategy that goes international.

Strategic planning is really about allocating scarce resources. If you only have so much time and so much money, it’s like only having so many bullets in a gun. You want to shoot at the right things. It’s that prioritization and bringing people back to the vision that’s critical.

One of the key roles of the CEO is to communicate, communicate, communicate. If you think you’ve already told people [the vision] five times, tell them six more times in six different ways.

Some people see it in writing and they understand it. Some people want to be told. Some people have to see an example. But if you want to drive a new initiative, explain why and explain it as many times and as many ways as you can.

Break down measurements of goals. Most people want to be on a winning team. It’s one thing to say, ‘Yeah, I’m part of this team with another 100,000 people, and we win.’

It’s another if you break that down into smaller groups and say, ‘Look at my team of 20 people. We have won also because these were our goals and we achieved them.’

It has to do with breaking the measurements down into small enough increments that people have the ability to measure. If our gross margins went up by 5 percent, that’s a good thing. But if they went up because we just doubled the price or because the cost of steel got cut in half, then (your employees) really didn’t have any impact. But if I measure people on the shop floor by their ability to get work done in less time [than] we think it should take, then they drive that.

It’s all about getting things to a level at which people can be measured on things that they actually have some level of input to. The smaller you can break them down, the better, [like] sales per day. That way, you don’t wait until the end of the month to find out how you’re doing.

How to reach: The Will-Burt Co., (330) 682-7015 or www.willburt.com

Tuesday, 25 November 2008 19:00

A course in communication

Darryl Greene’s search for a team-building exercise landed him here: helmeted and harnessed, staring straight up at a wooden tower that soared more than 40 feet above him.

Greene wanted to unite Cleveland Clinic employees who were unfamiliar with each other before they began working together regularly. So he took more than a dozen of them to the high ropes course at Camp Cheerful, the Achievement Centers for Children’s Strongsville location. They left as a cohesive team that communicates more freely and, as a result, works together more efficiently.

To decide whether a similar activity could patch gaps in your team’s communication, look for indicators that employees aren’t meshing as well as they could, such as employees asking you to referee instead of talking to each other directly or refusing help from another coworker, says Greene, executive director of performance and service improvement for Cleveland Clinic.

“If you hear in conversation where people are dismissive or belittling or emote less of a regard for the skills of another, there’s an opportunity,” he says.

There’s also an opportunity for team building if you’re taking on a big task and you need to work closely with people and learn to trust them.

To promote team building, Greene says you should seek out an activity in which everyone has the same goal, rather than pitting people against each other. With activities such as paintball or video games, which Greene also considered doing, “you’re going to have too much individual activity,” he says. “Shooting each other with paintballs isn’t exactly a way of forming unity.”

On the other hand, with the high ropes course, employees have to talk to each other because they are responsible for their co-workers’ success. For example, in one activity, each employee must lead a blindfolded partner to the top of the tower.

“The course has a team dynamic in terms of creating unity,” Greene says. “We’re all trying to accomplish the same thing, but we have different skill sets to get there.”

The physical factor may intimidate some employees, but challenging them in nonwork-related tasks can help bond employees on a social level beyond the conference room.

“What we saw happen is their peers help talk them through it,” he says, explaining how employees encouraged a woman with a fear of heights. “There was encouragement and empathy in the dialogue.”

After the experience, debrief your employees to relate the physical lessons to an office setting. Encourage them to push colleagues toward goals at work like they cheered them on through the activity. And remind them to trust co-workers withtheir input like they trusted them for guidance on the course.

“You had people say, ‘I really didn’t know what you were about, but I could see where I can call you to work on things, because I think we could solve some things together,’” Greene says of his debriefing session.

Greene has seen communication open up in his office since completing the course a year ago. Employees who wouldn’t even discuss work-related issues are now chatting socially.

“People are giving feedback more often, and people are listening to that feedback because they trust the individual enough to say, ‘I value your opinion,’” he says.

Greene suggests repeating this type of activity annually or more often, like when new employees are hired or you notice problems in the office. And in between sessions, continue to reference the experience as a motivator.

“Now you can talk to people in the context of high ropes,” Greene says. “‘This is one of those high rope events. ... You say, ‘It’s a big goal. It’s going to take you awhile to get up there. There are alternative paths, and if you don’t get there on your own, someone else is going to help you.’”

HOW TO REACH: Cleveland Clinic, (800) 223-2273 or my.clevelandclinic.org

An exercise in teamwork

Companies seeking a team-work overhaul come to Tim Fox, director of recreational services for Achievement Centers for Children, where he customizes activities for different facets of group development.

He says the key to development is emphasizing collectivity, so he assigns goals that can’t be accomplished individually.

“If you can put your full trust into your partner, you can accomplish the goal and your limits can get broader,” he says. “Otherwise, you may only end up 50 percent to where you truly can be.”

If everyone has a specific role, people will be less likely to attempt success alone.

“It’s not just the communication [that’s important in an activity,]” Fox says. “It’s the support. It’s the encouragement. It’s the whole team aspect of identifying where everybody’s roles are.”

With the high ropes course, not everyone has to reach the top for the whole team to succeed. The climbers wouldn’t get very high, for example, without both physical and verbal support from teammates on the ground.

And discovering each other’s roles in the team-building exercises will help employees locate their prime positions in business projects, Fox says.

“It really comes down to a better understanding of each other,” he says, “which is then related into their approach with the entire team.”

HOW TO REACH: Achievement Centers for Children, Camp Cheerful, (440) 238-6200

Brandon Brown hates treadmills. So he runs outside, even in the dead of winter — in fact, that is when he snags his best times. When people ask the CEO of Zodiac Interactive how he bears the brutal Long Island cold to clock a few miles, he explains that once he gets started, he has no other choice but to keep going.

“Fear of death is a positive motivator,” Brown jokes. “You just don’t have the luxury of being four miles out and saying, ‘I’ve had enough.’ I liken that to being a privately held company that’s self-funded — I really can’t imagine being in a position where I’ve committed to a large-scale project and, at some point deep in the project where the investment’s already been spent, coming up to the reality that says, ‘We can’t do this.’”

Before completely vesting Zodiac, an Emmy-award-winning developer of software for interactive television, in any opportunity, Brown validates ideas with an elaborate upfront process — and the help of his 135 employees.

Smart Business spoke to Brown about evaluating ideas from conception until fruition.

Validate the coolness. You’re almost like a sponge, and you just try to absorb as much as you can. Then use inductive and deductive reasoning to formulate what you believe is a direction and/or a trend and/or areas that represent uptick in a timeline that fits to what you’re looking to achieve.

You map it to your own business map. In my world, the business map really breaks into two categories: that which we call the tactical, which has no more than a 36-month delivery time for full monetization, and that which we call the strategic, which builds from the tactical and goes out as far as 60 months. Whatever it is you’re hearing, you always try to map it to: Which one of those two buckets does it fit into? That at least gives you a high-level timeline of how you’re going to prioritize this.

Then, of course, you look to common threads: Am I hearing this from more than one source? There, you’re going through a validation sanity check. Something can sound really cool, but if you’re only getting it from one source, you really have to question it.

Build external support. It all inevitably starts out with, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool,’ and then you go from, ‘That sounds cool,’ to, ‘That is cool.’ You make that leap by sitting back and saying, ‘OK, we’ve won it. We’re doing it. Now what do we do with it?’ It’s really the repeatability. How applicable is this to other players in this sector?

Now you go out and open dialogue around it. Have people talking about it, really now pulling information along: What do you think about something like this? Would this have value to you?

If we’ve got something and we believe it’s got legs to it and we believe it fits into a tactical bucket — we obviously focus more on the tactical side, being the size organization that we are — we will then proactively go out and solicit comment. Those sources will range from industry pundits and consultants to users of the technology.

The ideal state is where you’ll find a sponsor for the technology, capability or product that you want to develop. It’s always better to go into a business offering with a sponsor who’s got skin in the game and is prepared to embrace it once it’s available. Sometimes, you can carry that as far as literally getting advanced funding to help support the development of the business offering.

The No. 1 thing you want to try to avoid is what I call the flavor of the month. There are always those things that are very high on the hype cycle but never really go anywhere. Those can be the most dangerous things because everybody’s talking about them, but once you scratch past the surface and it’s no longer the frosting and now you’re into the cake, there’s just not enough substance for it to ever go anywhere. That’s where you really need to rely on your own research and validation. You have to really go into that sponge mode and reach out to the various sources and the various resources you have at your disposal.

Negotiate internal workflow. Once you’ve got the answer that this is cool, now you step back and say, ‘What do I (have to) do to build it?’ It all starts with a high-level sketch, broad brushstrokes to come up with broad brush answers. How much money can I make from it? How much money is it going to cost me to do it? There’s my first broad brush.

If it survives that validation, now you go on to the next: What’s the timeline to go do it? Simultaneously to answering that question, you have to also answer the question: ‘What’s my timeline to bring it to market so that I can make the money that I just said I can get from it?’ There’s your next validation point.

Everything, at the end of the day, is a negotiation process. Sometimes, things are tradeoffs. Oftentimes, time and timelines play into it. Each component feeds the next component. So if this component winds up taking one and a half times longer than it was supposed to, it’s not a case that, well, it’s only one and a half times longer over a two-week cycle, what’s the big deal? It becomes a compounding effect. So it needs to be negotiated down.

It’s not a case of just simply saying, ‘All right, take shortcuts,’ because that’s the last message you want to send your people. It becomes more a process: ‘Look, we really can’t delay. There are market opportunity factors. There are cost factors. There’s a host of factors, which you’ve identified as valid; now we need to negotiate around it. What are our alternatives?’

Keep it simple. The general philosophy here is pretty straightforward: This is all about moving the money from their side of the table to my side of the table. It fundamentally becomes that simple. That’s all it is that we are here to do, and in order to do that, certain things need to be present: I need to deliver value. It needs to be commensurate with the price being charged; it needs to be delivered in a timeline that makes it of value to the consumer, etc.

When you’ve got these types of challenges, it just helps if you keep things that foundationally simple, and it also avoids making it personal. It’s not a case, ‘Well, development screwed up; they’re running four weeks behind.’ It becomes more a case where you’re sitting down with development going, ‘Look guys, these are the timelines associated. This is the overall result set that we’re looking for. If there’s an impact here, it permeates through the rest of the cycle. We’ve got to negotiate through this. How do we work around this? How do we still deliver what I need when I need it so that we can get out of it what we expected to that got us into it to begin with?’

People, I find, respond very well under that structure. Maybe your ideal state is 50 and maybe what you’re being told is possible is 30. When dealt with collaboratively, when everybody understands the necessity, you wind up at 40. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of capacity based on drive and commitment.

Schedule sanity checkpoints. The checkpoints represent concerns that are flushed out. Maybe the concern is around delivery timelines. Maybe the concern is around market adoption rate. You match your checkpoints to the concerns. The most wonderful type of concern is a concern born over nothing more than delivery capability and the cost-associated because those are the most controllable — they’re internal only. The concerns that represent a more challenging domain are concerns that deal with market adoption rates, trends, external factors.

(Checkpoints should be) deliberate, because otherwise things will develop a life cycle of their own. That’s when you can really get into trouble. It’s good for something to live and to breathe and to generate its own momentum, but you want to do it in a managed, controlled way. You always want to have at least some sanity checkpoints, otherwise you just lose perspective.

It’s like that old story we learned as kids in science class. You drop the frog in boiling water; well, the frog immediately jumps out and is just fine. But put the frog into lukewarm water and bring it to a slow boil; he’s cooked before he ever jumped out. That’s what you’ve got to avoid. You just get caught up in something, it’s taken on a life of its own, and before you know it, you’ve been boiled.

How to reach: Zodiac Interactive, (516) 619-3170 or http://www.zodiac.tv/

Deborah A. Proctor leads with a mission that originated in 17th century France. It came from a priest named Jean-Pierre Medaille, who told the Sisters of St. Joseph to go out into the neighborhood, divide it into sectors, identify the needs of the people and bring others together to help meet those needs.

Now, across the globe and about 360 years later, Proctor tries to keep that calling relevant at St. Joseph Health System, the network of hospitals and other community care services the sisters planted in Orange.

A lot has changed since then. So the meaning behind the organization’s mission to be “continually improving the health and quality of life of people in the communities we serve” needs to keep up so employees can maintain a clear picture of their purpose.

About four years ago, Proctor led St. Joseph through strategic planning to define what the mission means today for the 22,000 employees across the system, which now has 14 locations.

“We grounded ourselves first in our heritage,” says the president and CEO. “We went all the way back to that point in time and looked at the call that was given to the sisters [and asked,] ‘So what would that mean to us?’”

The company invested time and involvement in the mission re-evaluation, and Proctor still strives to make its purpose resonate with relevance that her employees can understand.

“You can’t just publicize something and then expect it to become embedded in the organization,” Proctor says. “Everybody will tell you that it’s not about the creation of your strategy; it’s about the execution or implementation of your strategy that makes all the difference.”

Begin with the end

For a year before the strategic planning process started, Proctor asked her employees one big question: “How will we know if we achieve our mission?”

There were other questions, too, like, “What do you think St. Joseph is about?” and, “What should we strive to accomplish?” but this one laid the foundation for the direction of the company. The answers would define the mission in modern times.

“Sometimes, mission statements can seem fairly lofty and hard to translate,” Proctor says. “What we created was the way to say we’ll know that we’re achieving our mission when we can achieve these three mission outcomes.”

To make a mission statement new, ask your organization to explain what it would look like to achieve it.

“Leaders have to ask themselves, ‘What are the outcomes I’m trying to drive toward?’” Proctor says. “What usually happens is people develop strategy, but they don’t know the specific outcomes they want that strategy to deliver. You’ll write metrics for the strategy that measure how well you’re doing that strategy, but it doesn’t tell you if you’re getting any closer to what your mission statement is.

“My point was, we’ve got to start with the outcomes first. We need to say, ‘These are the outcomes we expect to achieve,’ and then, ‘What’s our strategy to achieve that?’”

The input she received wound up in front of about 100 leaders, including both systemwide and local hospital executives, physicians and members of the religious congregation. During a facilitated three-day retreat that included a couple 12-hour days, they worked to condense the spectrum of feedback into three snapshots of a fulfilled mission.

“We had them do visioning exercises such as, ‘What would The New York Times say 10 years from now about St. Joseph Health System?’” Proctor says. “Then we would digest that and say, ‘OK, well if they said these things about us, what was really important here was this, that we had accomplished these things, that we had improved the quality for patients, etc.’ So we just kept honing down through different exercises to get more and more focused.”

The CEO’s role in this is to listen — which may not be as simple as it sounds when you’re the funnel in a very iterative, involved process.

“One of my jobs in that retreat was to listen to everything and try and synthesize it,” Proctor says. “You listen to all of the input. And then toward the end, I took it and said, ‘OK, here’s what I’m hearing. I’m hearing these things are what’s really important to us.’ And then we debated.”

With the help of a facilitator from Boston-based Center for Applied Research, the retreat helped the St. Joseph team refine three conceptual mission outcomes: That every encounter would be sacred, that patients would receive perfect care, and that St. Joseph communities would be the healthiest in the country.

Dream big

As you’re going through this process of defining what your company is about so you can deliver it, don’t be afraid to aim high. Proctor asked her company a big question, and she expected big answers.

“I’m of the mindset that you set aggressive goals and then you ask, ‘What will it take to get there?’” Proctor says. “And then you see if it’s realistic in terms of getting there.”

For example, the team debated over the term “perfect care.” Some worried that aiming for perfection stretched too far.

“Could we ever achieve perfect care? And was it arrogant of us to think that we could achieve perfect care?” Proctor says, recalling the dialogue. “The conversation around that really boiled down to, ‘How else would you state the goal: We want to give great care 90 percent of the time?’”

In the end, the group members agreed that it was best to state the outcome in terms of their aspiration, which was the best possible scenario: perfection.

“We’re not saying we’ll necessarily never fail at that, but it’s always our goal,” Proctor says.

The goal should also be broad enough to remain collective. In other words, make it applicable to all employees; later, you can fit more specific departmental initiatives under the umbrella it creates.

“If one of my strategies is to do something with information technology, that doesn’t excite the front-line employees — unless it’s going to make their job easier,” she says. “But if that technology helps us get to perfect care, that excites the employees. After you have those clear things in place that employees can relate to, then the strategies make sense.”

You make those broad, aggressive goals less daunting by breaking them down into achievable milestones. St. Joseph sets three tiers of each goal.

“We set a threshold level, which we want to achieve, the actual target and then an exceptional level,” Proctor says. “That gives you some range of performance to achieve. We say, minimally we have to achieve this much, we hope to achieve this much, but we’d be really excited if we achieved this much.”

For example, St. Joseph set out to lower its rate of ventilator-associated pneumonia. Initially, it fell into the seventh decile of industry-measured standards. It set a threshold target to be in the fourth decile, which was above average, an actual target in the third decile and an exceptional target in the first.

Now, St. Joseph is in the first.

“One thing that’s really important is to set aggressive targets — not unachievable targets but aggressive targets that cause people to really stretch,” Proctor says. “If you put that kind of goal out in front of people, I think people really do want to achieve.”

Of course, you also help make those goals attainable by slicing them into achievable steps.

“Obviously, in 2006, I couldn’t expect by 2007 that we would achieve those outcomes,” she says. “You have to say, ‘OK, what are the likely steps we have to take to be able to achieve that to get to perfect care?’ And then you have to break it into realistic strategies for getting to that.”

A good first step, for example, is often defining and communicating the goal — or the mission outcome, in this case. St. Joseph spent a whole year on that, again getting employees involved to refine the definitions.

“We knew before we could expect that everybody was having sacred encounters that people would have to understand what a sacred encounter meant,” Proctor says, explaining it means each encounter should leave people more healed and more whole. “So our first strategy was to define sacred encounters and to get some level of clarity where people could say, ‘This is what a sacred encounter looks like.’”

Make it happen

After you’ve set goals at the intersection of aggressive and achievable, your employees need to accomplish them. You’ll get their buy-in — and their effort — when you keep them involved.

St. Joseph employees participated from the start by giving their input. They stay involved now through lean processes, referred to as the St. Joseph Way. Basically, they’re empowered to solve problems in their own work areas to improve performance in pursuit of the strategic goals.

“It’s a culture of continuous improvement (where) you’re equipping front-line employees to constantly identify gaps in performance, to identify ways to improve the organization, ways to eliminate waste, ways to save time, ways to improve our processes,” Proctor says. “It’s not management doing the work; it’s front-line employees doing the work of improving whatever the gap is that they’ve identified in their particular area.”

Employees go through training to learn specific tools and methods that can streamline their workflow.

“In that kind of thinking, you get a full understanding of your current situation and then you identify your target state,” Proctor says.

St. Joseph has internalized and customized the lean process, not only in name but in the process itself. When local hospitals take a lean look at a certain area, questions about the mission outcomes are built into the improvement effort. That way, the overarching goals stay collectively clear as employees drive improvement at the local level.

“The biggest thing is translating the strategy all the way down into every single department to where every department understands what they contribute to that particular strategy and how they play a role in it,” Proctor says.

In an organization as large as St. Joseph, her role as CEO is to communicate goals and strategies to local leaders, and then help them deliver the message to their areas of the company.

“The best you can do is create support systems that try to eliminate variation,” she says. “So if it’s a message that needs to be consistent across our entire health system, then we put together a message statement, we put together frequently asked questions statements and we provide that to the leadership across the system.

“We allow the individual leaders to determine the best way to communicate in their organization. They know their employees best. … The most important thing is trying to create a line of sight between the front-line employees’ work and whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish.”

To bolster that alignment, St. Joseph is piloting a lean tool called strategic deployment, in which one level of the organization identifies what it can contribute to achieve the strategy, then it passes the ball to the next level, and so on, all the way to front-line employees.

Proctor keeps employees motivated in this process by recognizing improvement along the way.

“When you’re trying to drive improved performance or improved outcomes in an organization, the easiest mistake could be to not recognize improvement as it happens in such a way that you demotivate employees,” she says. “You have to pay close attention to recognizing improvement and to encouraging the growth and learning.”

But when you adopt a culture of continuous improvement, you’re never done improving. The company, which grew revenue from $3.9 billion in fiscal 2008 to $4.1 billion in fiscal 2009, is still going strong. Accomplishing one initiative — like the several hospitals in the system that have gone more than two years without a case of ventilator-associated pneumonia — just frees up the company to reach toward its next goal.

“I just think that there’s too much in what we do, that we can always learn how to do it one step better,” Proctor says. “Yeah, maybe we can eliminate [certain things] altogether, once and for all from ever happening again in our hospitals, but there will be something else that has come along in the meantime.”

How to reach: St. Joseph Health System, (714) 347-7500 or www.stjhs.org

You could call Michael Bleyzer flexible — and we’re not even talking about the gymnastics he started doing a couple years ago at age 57.

Bleyzer has proven himself adaptable in business, too. After earning his master of science in digital electronics and quantum physics in what is now Ukraine, he cultivated desert land for agriculture. Then he left the former Soviet Union and relocated to Texas, where he worked at Exxon before founding a private equity firm — not quite a lateral career progression.

Bleyzer learned that formal training would only take him so far, and he had to pull from his experience to find success beyond that.

“Whatever you learned in school is not going to provide all the answers,” he says. “It’s not necessarily what you know; it’s how you approach it.”

When he founded SigmaBleyzer Investment Group LLC in 1994, the buyout firm’s main focus was turning around distressed companies in emerging markets. Though the firm has always been based in Houston, it only recently began investing in mature markets outside of Eastern Europe.

By being flexible enough to apply the same due diligence to different companies in new markets, the president and CEO has made a flowchart type of process out of his business — which is fitting, considering it’s a business built around flexibility.

“Some people call it distress, some people call it turnarounds, but it’s also known as workout,” Bleyzer says. “You work things out. That concept is applicable, in my opinion, to everything you do in life. … You are always ready to change your ways of getting to your goal.”

Bleyzer has become an expert at guiding distressed companies down new paths toward their goals. But what stays the same is his dedicated approach to due diligence when selecting portfolio companies. Because he’s focused on what he’s looking for and thorough about inspecting opportunities, he has led SigmaBleyzer smoothly from emerging to mature markets.

“Because we succeeded early on in becoming the emerging market specialist, we’ve been typecast as such,” he says. “In my mind, we are certainly successful at executing the strategy and turning around distressed businesses — whether they’re in emerging markets or mature markets, that’s irrelevant.”

Whether you’re considering an acquisition of your own or just trying to position your company to withstand challenges, Bleyzer’s step-by-step process for evaluating opportunities can serve as a model.

Understand the state

Some look for flourishing companies to acquire, but SigmaBleyzer seeks the opposite —distressed situations where it can inject value.

Regardless of what you’re looking for, stick to that. Avoid the temptation to be so flexible you try to tackle it all.

“Don’t be the answer to all prayers and then try to do everything at once,” Bleyzer says. “It is more important to focus on what you are actually looking for instead of just opening the door to the flood. The secret to developing good proprietary deal flow is to be very, very focused and know what you’re looking for.”

By setting your sights ahead of time, you make it easier to run opportunities through predetermined filters as they come up. SigmaBleyzer focuses on consumer technology and telecommunications sectors and limits the scope according to the company’s size, condition and potential.

“Our main focus is really on one question: What happened?” Bleyzer says. “There are many reasons why businesses become distressed: People may drive it into the ground, technology, obsolescence, market conditions, lack of available corporate finances, poor structure, poor capitalization.”

Whatever you’re looking for, you have to dig beyond the basics to see how an opportunity lines up to your focus. Financials and executive testimony alone won’t give you the whole story.

“You talk to as many people as possible,” Bleyzer says. “Those people include customers, suppliers, advisers, employees. It needs to be a very broad (approach) that you try to get as many different perspectives as possible, because the CEO or even the key members of the executive team will not be ready to share with you all of their difficulties and the problems that they might have caused.”

In those conversations, start general, then drill down for details.

“You start with the simple question, ‘What has been your experience working in this company or supplying this company or buying from this company?’” he says. “[If] they say, ‘We’re extremely happy,’ you say, ‘Why? What makes you happy? As compared to other businesses you’ve worked for or other businesses you buy from or supply to, how is it better?’

“On the other hand, if they say, ‘It’s been tough,’ then try to dig into that specifically: ‘What has been tough — they did not deliver on time, they overcharged you, they didn’t price it correctly, or once they delivered, you couldn’t really get them on the phone to get any service?’”

That collection of input and opinions should point to the company’s issues. Those will explain the state of the company and help you decide what you can do with it.

“If the answer is that this business is no longer needed, there are some obsolescence issues or they’re in a market that is no longer interested because they’ve been replaced by something else or the competitors are so far ahead of them and doing different things, we stop right there,” Bleyzer says. “We are not interested in those businesses that basically have no future.”

But if similar businesses are thriving, then this company has potential — pending a few changes. You can move to the next step of due diligence.

Imagine the ideal

Adopting an investor’s mindset when you’re looking at any acquisition can be helpful.

“You’re investing a dollar,” Bleyzer says. “Over the next five years, can you turn this dollar into 5, 6, 7, 8, 10?”

That profit results from the risk/reward equation. At SigmaBleyzer, the reward side of that equation gets a shorter time investment.

“We spend some time, but much less time, on understanding the upside potential,” Bleyzer says. “You first need to figure out [if] this is the right business — it’s not obsolete, it’s in the right area, there are companies of a similar footprint that are several times larger, that means that this company could probably grow several times.”

Assessing the potential reward means uncovering the best-case scenario.

“You go in with the assumption that you can create the best-in-class enterprise,” Bleyzer says. “Obviously, you have some assumptions and qualifiers on how you’re going to get there. But you don’t go in with a plan to create another mediocre enterprise.”

Now, that doesn’t mean making idealistic wishes to turn a small company into a Fortune 500 in three years. You’re aiming for achievable success within your geography or scale. To paint that picture, look at nearby success stories within your market.

“Competitor analysis is the key,” Bleyzer says. “Who else is in this space and what have they achieved? Who are the pacesetters benchmarking the best in class? All of this helps you determine: Can you do something different? Are they in a different geography? Are they in a slightly different product mix? What will allow you to compete effectively with the best in class?”

Bleyzer even goes to industry experts and other advisers to ask how reasonable his assumptions are. But he doesn’t spend too much time on this step before moving on.

“If the potential is relatively unexciting, then you don’t really need anything else. That’s just not a good opportunity,” he says. “Now, on the other hand, if you feel, under the right circumstances, it could be (five times the value), then that’s sufficient for this stage of your analysis.”

Weigh the opportunity

Unfortunately, the best-case scenarios don’t always come true. You also need to assess potential risks. Bleyzer spends 70 to 80 percent of his time on this stage, considering it not just an evaluation but risk protection.

Start with a macro assessment of the economy. The benefit of the recent recession is that now you can envision the effects of a downturn and what it takes to be prepared. Bleyzer thinks people are “slowly, painfully” starting to recover, but that doesn’t stop him from asking, “What if?”

“What if it is worse than that?” he asks. “What if, in fact, there is a double dip? Can you still survive in that environment?”

Each step of the due diligence process builds on itself. As you evaluate risks, you’re weighing them against rewards. If the market flops or strategies don’t go as planned and you have to pour in additional funds as a fix, consider what happens to the overall profitability equation. If, instead of five times the initial value, you only end up with twice as much, the opportunity might lose its appeal.

“If the overall balance looks like the upside is clearly there and it’s exciting and it’s big, No.1; No. 2, if you also see that risks are there — they’re always there — but they’re manageable, it may take slightly longer, but we can get there,” he says.

Then it comes down to forecasting how well the company can handle risks. Bleyzer looks at three measurements to determine sustainability.

“We ask ourselves three questions: Can this business become quickly cash-flow positive if it isn’t already?” he says. “Can this business survive without getting additional debt, really, having no debt? And can this business build some kind of cash reserve?”

SigmaBleyzer specializes in unleveraged buyouts, because it traditionally worked in emerging markets where credit was either unavailable or outrageously expensive. But the norm in this country, at least before the financial crisis, was using leverage to pump funds into companies that you purchased.

But now, with the post-crisis mature market acting more like emerging markets, credit isn’t readily available. And it’s a good thing, if you ask Bleyzer, because now you have to look beyond leverage.

“In this environment, how do we create value?” he asks. “Well, the old-fashioned way: fundamentals. You need to have a business that is cash-flow positive, that is not relying on debt or using no debt and has some cash reserves. If those are the three elements that a business has, then you can survive the worst possible scenario.

“No matter what business you’re in, you need to ask yourself, ‘Are you going to be the last man standing if worse comes to worse, and what will it take to get there?’ In my book, it’s pretty simple: cash-flow positive, cash reserves, no reliance on leverage.”

Those three factors play into the overall financial modeling. Bleyzer goes back further than that, though, looking at the company’s infrastructure.

“The business needs to be properly capitalized to start with, which means you need to have the right capital structure,” he says. “You need to have made the right investments, so you need to be in the position, from the infrastructural point of view, to deliver products to customers that will produce good margin. That requires certain initial investments in people, technology, systems, facilities and so on. You need to assess all of that.”

Then you move into the present, plugging the company’s current numbers into your financial model to play out different scenarios.

“There are financial models that show that, by executing those strategies, you can get to certain results,” he says. “Then you either confirm or you don’t confirm your going-in assumption that it can be a ‘5x’ or ‘10x’ idea.

“In the end, it all boils down to financial modeling. Financial modeling is a pretty technical and, therefore, mechanical thing, but the assumptions are the key.”

That’s why the entire process — from setting focused parameters up front through the due diligence of analyzing risk and reward to the final financial steps — is so crucial. That’s also why Bleyzer has been so successful managing assets valued at approximately $1 billion.

“If you have the wrong assumptions, then they will lead you to the wrong conclusions,” he says. “But if you’ve got your assumptions right, then the rest is basically mechanics.”

How to reach: SigmaBleyzer Investment Group LLC, (713) 621-3111 or www.sigmableyzer.com

Stephen E. Thorne IV thinks schools have it all backward. Since he founded Pacific Dental Services Inc. in 1994, he’s worked with thousands of dentists who have been trained to believe they’re the best of the best — and technically speaking, many are. But they’re rarely educated on the crux of the business.

“My idea of the perfect dental school would be a school where the first year they come in and they’re taught a ton about the soft skills, about human interactions, how to talk to people, how to relate to their patients, chair-side manner, questions to ask to get an understanding of their patient as an individual,” says Thorne, whose father was a dentist and tuned him in to the industry early on.

In his ideal curriculum, dentists-in-training would progress to clinical work only after they mastered patient interaction.

Thorne hasn’t infiltrated the medical education system, but he still strives to educate dentists on that all-important piece when he partners with dental practices, providing support on everything from selecting locations and negotiating leases to strategic planning and finance management.

“Oftentimes, dentists forget that attached to that tooth is a human being, a real live person,” says Thorne, president and CEO. “They’re not fixing teeth, really. They’re helping people out.”

Thorne’s focus on the end-user means better business in any industry, whether you’re dealing with customers or patients. He wants his affiliated dentists to understand that patient satisfaction is not a pleasant one-off experience; it’s really about building long-term relationships.

“Why are those relationships so important? Well, you can go straight to the financial side,” Thorne says. “It’s a lot more expensive to acquire a new patient than it is to retain an existing patient. … If a patient is a one-and-done, and (the practitioners) try to do as much as they can right there, the patient spends maybe $2,000. If a patient stays in a practice for about seven or eight years, they’d spend over $6,000. Which would you rather have? I think it can absolutely be applied to other industries.”

Consider the cycle

Pay attention to every step of the customer experience, beginning before customers even walk in your door.

“It starts at the very, very front end: How did they call, were they referred in, did they see an ad, did they go through the website?” Thorne says. “The look and feel and how that all worked is where it all begins.”

Increasingly, customers are likely to find your company on their computer screens. About 20 percent of patients come to Pacific Dental Services through some sort of digital media, and that number is growing. Thorne has to be conscious of how those outlets look and feel to the end-user.

You can make the online experience gratifying by providing information and easily accessible tools — even when your service requires that customers come into a physical office. That may be as simple as letting them tackle some necessary tasks on their own time before they see you.

“As an example, patients do all their paperwork online, hopefully, before they come in,” Thorne says. “Home at night, watching TV, they can enter their patient information so when they come into the office they have no paperwork to fill out.”

That convenience and attention has to continue throughout the entire customer cycle for the result to be positive.

“They have to have a good overall experience,” Thorne says. “That includes the entire team.”

To keep the process smooth as patients move from one interaction to the next, Pacific Dental Services developed a system called the Perfect Patient Experience.

Employees in each function receive specialized training specific to their role. The most important piece of that looks beyond their individual responsibilities and zeroes in on the transition when they pass the baton to the next person in the cycle.

“We define what each role is responsible for and what they’re responsible to do to set the next person up for success,” Thorne says. “Then we really drill down on that at a very detailed level and train on best practices.”

Employees should understand their colleagues’ roles. The receptionist needs to proactively prepare for the dental assistant, the dental assistant must anticipate the dentist’s needs and the dentist should know what the financial coordinator requires.

The steps for those transitions will vary with each position in each business, but the one steadfast consideration is time.

“We just did a study where the No. 1 element of the overall satisfaction of patients was dependent on how the team cared about the use of their time,” Thorne says. “Teams that work fast and care about helping patients [get through the] process quickly do better.”

Consistency is the biggest challenge in maintaining long-term customer relationships, so educating across the board is key.

“The more consistent we can make it, the better,” Thorne says.

Listen to feedback

As customer needs change, so should your process for building relationships with them.

Every month, Pacific Dental Services receives feedback through tens of thousands of patient satisfaction surveys.

“The patients are telling us what they like and dislike — hopefully more of what they like,” Thorne says.

Surveys should be simple to increase the likelihood that customers will respond. Currently, Thorne’s survey consists of eight questions and scaled options for answering.

Some general catch-all questions are important, such as, “Would you recommend us?” and, “Were you processed in a reasonable amount of time?” But to identify breakdowns in your customer service, solicit feedback specifically for each step of the cycle.

Direct a question at each interaction a customer has. At Pacific Dental Services, those include: Did the receptionist greet you nicely? How was your cleaning from your hygienist? Did you understand the cost of the treatment?

“We look at each role, so (the survey) mimics our Perfect Patient Experience model,” Thorne says. “We can pinpoint if they have a rude receptionist. We can pinpoint if they have a rude doctor. We can pinpoint if their hygienist is outstanding.”

If the feedback is going to have any effect, you need a system for sorting, scoring and recording it. Start with specifics so each department can see feedback regarding its function and make necessary adjustments.

“Any comments are posted once a week to the teams in the field so they can respond to any positive or negative ones immediately,” Thorne says.

He requires that operations managers personally respond to comments directed at their area, and he tracks whether they take action. For positive responses, that may mean a simple thank you or a request for referrals.

“Any negatives, they’re expected to call the patient and document what they did to resolve it,” he says. “A lot of times, you can resurrect a bad experience by just calling and talking through it with the patient.

“Maybe they can call and say, ‘This is Steve from Dr. Smith’s office, and I was just responding back to what you wrote in our satisfaction survey. I see you’re unhappy with whatever it may be, and I want to do my best to make it right for you.’ A lot of times, they just want to vent. You just have to empathize wit h them: ‘I understand.’”

Sometimes, customers may be dissatisfied about things that are out of your control. You can’t just adjust your entire business model to make one customer happy. So explain why your process is set up the way it is and why their contention may be out of your hands.

“We don’t subscribe to the philosophy that the patient’s always right,” says Thorne, who hears from many patients who are frustrated with the amount covered by insurance. “In this business, the patient’s often wrong. So we have to spend a lot of time educating.”

His goal is that patients see him as an advocate and partner who will do whatever possible to please them.

Improve systems

When you hear feedback about issues that are under your control, it may mean a more drastic fix.

Managers should tackle individual instances, but your focus at the CEO level should be on improving overall feedback scores in general areas. So you need to monitor overarching trends and watch for patterns of unsatisfactory service.

“We’ve been doing (surveys) the same way for about a decade, so we have very, very good data,” Thorne says. “The key with those surveys is consistency. … We realize there’s variability in the responses, but when you look at it over long periods of time, you look at it on scale.”

For example, wait-time scores were lower than Thorne’s expectations a couple of years ago. To rally the organization around improvement, he had to boil down the desired change into a catchy program with very specific goals. The initiative was called “4 for 45,” and it illustrated a commitment to speed the process by accomplishing four services for a patient within 45 minutes.

“They’ve got to have an understanding that there is a problem,” he says. “So we have the scoring mechanism to show and we have the patient feedback to educate [them] that there is a problem.”

To disseminate the problem as well as the solution, Thorne uses the companywide communication system, Daily XP. Each office follows a standardized meeting format to start each day with a morning huddle covering the day’s schedule and priorities. First, he made sure the 4 for 45 message was included.

Deploying a change across 190 locations can be a challenge, but technology makes it easier and even adds benefits. The development team creates training modules with built-in tracking mechanisms to guide employees through new initiatives.

“So let’s say there’s a 30-minute module,” Thorne says. “We can track exactly who was on it, who was on it for 30 minutes, who was on it for two minutes.”

Gauging the execution of improvement initiatives isn’t quite so cut-and-dried.

“We can create the tools. We can get them educated the best we know how. And then it’s up to them on the execution,” Thorne says. “That last step is the key. … It ferrets out in the results of an office. It could be (patient satisfaction surveys) or it could be financial results.”

When you’re specific about the improvement you’re seeking, success is easier to track.

“If they were very diligent on the 4 for 45 over a six-month period, you would see their wait-time scores creep up,” he says. “If they weren’t diligent on it, you would see no change or even a decrease.”

When changes come directly from customer feedback, it’s pretty likely they’ll approve of the new method. But especially when you modify a process based on a best practice that bubbles up internally, you need to roll it out slowly to get the customer’s nod.

For example, Thorne concluded that cost was a sensitive topic for most patients. He realized that they often viewed the financial coordinator as a “money guy or gal” with negative connotations. So he re-engineered the system by renaming the position “patient advocate” and refocusing their conversations on maximizing the patient’s benefits.

Those kinds of changes begin as an experiment in a single office. If the feedback is favorable, it progresses to an alpha test at a couple of offices. When it passes that level, it spreads into a beta test, perhaps across a region, where you start pouring more resources into the change. Finally, if that goes well, you plan how to roll it out companywide.

By constantly improving the patient experience with a long-term patient relationship in mind, rather than viewing satisfaction on an appointment-by-appointment basis, Thorne has built a growing operation. Pacific Dental Services reported 2009 patient revenue of $309 million across 190 offices, up from $272 million across 170 offices in 2008. More offices are projected to open as Thorne keeps reminding employees that patient satisfaction is a marathon, not a sprint.

“Over time, new patients tend to dwindle off at a specific location,” he says. “If you have not built up what we call continuing care, the practice will slide and you won’t see growth.”

How to reach: Pacific Dental Services Inc., (714) 508-3600 or www.pacificdentalservices.com

A fairly familiar diagram hangs on the wall in Matt Jarvis’ shared office. It’s a copy of legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, building on traits from cooperation to initiative to team spirit to competitive greatness.

But the picture hanging next to it at 72andSunny isn’t so common.

It’s a cover of “The Onion” with the headline “Holy shit, man walks on [expletive] moon.” Jarvis, partner and managing director at the Los Angeles-based advertising agency, laughs as he explains how the lampoon newspaper serves as a reminder not to be uptight.

“Obviously, to be successful, you have to be very engaged and take things seriously,” Jarvis says. “But things don’t always go your way, and there are bumps in the road, and how you handle those is a mark of a leader.”

With a hybrid leadership style that seems to echo those decorations, Jarvis handles bumps by balancing a serious strategy with a more modern, laid-back approach. For example, the 72andSunny website identifies him as chief strategy officer, which you’d think would warrant him an office of his own — or at least his own desk.

Not at this L.A. agency.

Jarvis shares the company’s only office — and the table in it — with the other partners: John Boiler and Glenn Cole, as well as Robert Nakata when he’s visiting from the Amsterdam location. That sets the stage for the other 103 employees to work together flexibly without sacrificing solid strategy.

“Our entire organization is based upon the premise that people — particularly in modern culture — are hybrids,” Jarvis says. “They are fluent in multiple things, not just one thing. A disease of our industry has been to pigeonhole people into one narrow function that’s really relying on only a small percentage of their skill sets, not really getting the most out of the people.”

By encouraging collaboration in an open environment where strategic initiative sets the pace, Jarvis gets more from his employees and better results from their projects.

Build a collaborative culture

Collaboration begins with the structure of 72andSunny’s headquarters — literally.

The aforementioned executive office is the only office, which leaves the rest of the floor plan open. Employees cluster together at long tables in lieu of individual cubicles.

“That, in itself, just structurally forces people to interact with each other in different ways,” Jarvis says. “We don’t sit people by function like most agencies do. Usually at most agencies, there’s a creative department. I’ve always thought that was the craziest thing; you’re in this creative business where you need the best idea and then you’re relegating creativity to a single department.”

Of course, the building alone won’t create a culture where ideas flourish from every level. You need interaction within that setting.

Because employees watch how the partners interact, it starts with the example set by leadership.

“It’s really a three-legged stool from a management standpoint,” Jarvis says. “Anytime we start talking about roles and responsibilities, it does change a little bit day to day — who’s on vacation, who’s busy with other things.”

Instead of each partner holding a narrowly defined role, the partners are collectively responsible for the performance of the organization in terms of client satisfaction, financial health and a vibrant culture. They rely on transparency, honesty, integrity and communication to keep overlaps from becoming obstacles.

The key to avoiding a free-for-all is that you set expectations in terms of generally outlined roles and tediously laid-out goals and strategies.

For example, employees are organized into teams by their core functions to ensure that skill sets on each team are balanced. Each team consists of a design-oriented creative director, a creative director with a writing background, a brand director serving as the business leader and a strategy director with a focus on research and analytics. On larger projects, the teams can scale by adding more people to each function.

“It’s important that just because you have the strategist title doesn’t mean that you’re going off in your corner writing a strategy,” Jarvis says. “The strategy is a product of a conversation between all those people. Now ultimately, you’re accountable for the strategic product and you’re accountable for bringing these people together and building consensus, but just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean that others don’t participate.”

Hire team players

Getting employees to interact collaboratively in that environment goes back a step further. It begins with bringing team players into the organization.

“We don’t do any enforcing. Our culture enforces,” Jarvis says. “People who can thrive in that kind of environment tend to be here for a really long time and have great careers. And people who don’t operate that way, there’s a little bit of a white blood cell factor. … Half the battle is getting the right people in who buy in to that.”

The 72andSunny partners have brought in a talent director and a chief culturista — who has both a background in advertising strategy and experience as a life coach — to screen candidates in terms of their team-oriented culture.

For example, they talk to candidates about environments that they’ve been most successful in. Sometimes, experience can speak for itself. If candidates have been active in team environments before, they’re probably comfortable at the firm. For example, people with athletic backgrounds often do well at 72andSunny.

“One of the things you learn really well in sports is that you can’t control the past and you need to turn around and perform very quickly,” Jarvis says. “Things like guilt and blame and victimhood, all that stuff is not productive.”

But the specific language candidates use when discussing their previous experiences and future goals can be even more indicative of their ability to push themselves in a team environment.

“There’s a lot of us versus them in advertising, like the suits against the creatives,” Jarvis says. “If there’s even a hint of that, I would say that’s kind of an automatic veto.

“If people feel like where they are or the ideas [they have] are good enough for them and they’re completely satisfied, they probably wouldn’t be interviewing with us. We’re attracting people who want more out of their careers and more out of themselves than a lot of companies in our industry are currently providing.”

Candidates don’t get through the 72andSunny interview process without meeting a lot of employees, and each interaction acts as a cultural filter. But the crucial key is having a position completely devoted to finding that fit and having someone in that position who can clearly communicate the expectations of your culture.

“Making that investment in recruitment and hiring … has been helpful,” Jarvis says. “You have to be really up front with people in the beginning: ‘Hey, this is what you’re signing up for and this is what it’s like. If you don’t want to do that, that’s fine, but you need to be aware that that’s what we’re doing here.’”

If you devote the extra effort up front to finding team-oriented players, you won’t have as much difficulty getting them to take advantage of your collaborative environment later.

Focus on strategy

Even when the right employees are in the right setting, it still takes the right process to encourage collaboration.

“There’s an open forum for everyone to lob in ideas and participate in a process,” Jarvis says.

But it’s not enough to just have an open forum where ideas can flow. The key is to have a process for that sharing. At 72andSunny, that process revolves around strategy.

“When people are presenting ideas … part of the expectation is there’s a strategic setup to it,” Jarvis says. “So it’s part of their product. If you don’t have a strategic setup to what you’re presenting, then it’s not complete and it’s not ready for consumption.”

To keep that focus, conversations center on strategy from the start of each project. The first line on each brief, for example, lays out the problem that needs to be solved for that particular client. The company starts with that goal in mind and devotes the most time to discussing how to do that.

That focus guides the brainstorming process by predetermining the parameters that define the best idea.

“There are not conversations of, ‘This is a good idea,’ or, ‘This is a bad idea,’” Jarvis says. “The conversations are, ‘We’re trying to get from point A to point B. I don’t think this idea is going to get us from point A to point B and here’s why.’ So you keep the conversation on a strategic level.”

As you get deeper into a project, keep bringing it back to the client’s ultimate goal and how your method will achieve that.

“When you do that, it definitely drains a lot of the subjectivity out of the creative process,” he says. “You can go back to the strategy and the expected results and say, ‘OK, which of these ideas is going to deliver this result?’ That’s one way of taking the ego out of the creative process. It’s not about you; it’s about the result.”

While those constant strategic reminders maintain concentration on the goal, they also encourage teamwork by eliminating ego from the equation. That keeps conversations open, giving each employee a voice and each idea a chance.

“Ego can be toxic to great creativity,” Jarvis says. “So we spend a lot of energy trying to separate people from ideas.”

One of the best tools for that, which Jarvis refers to as “the most important little slice of real estate in our office,” is a work wall. The company borrowed the concept from Dutch design culture via Nakata, who’s spent most of his career in Amsterdam. Boiler and Cole both worked there several years, as well.

“Everything that is being worked on, whether it’s a website, a wireframe or a TV commercial or a strategy deck, goes up on a work wall for the other team members to comment, consume, revise, etc.,” Jarvis says. “So you encourage teamwork by getting the work off of people’s computers and onto the wall. … When we have an idea on the wall, we’re not talking about me or John or Jim or Susan. We’re talking about the idea.”

Improve future processes

That constant visibility and transparency is crucial for monitoring a project’s progress along the way.

“This is a business where people work very hard and very long hours,” Jarvis says. “It doesn’t do anyone any good to work on things that aren’t going anywhere. And it doesn’t do anyone any favors to pussyfoot around opinions.

“People come here because they want to be great, and part of that process is sometimes doing things that don’t work and figuring out why and then going back and learning. It’s iterative.”

Results don’t always meet expectations. Because Jarvis often relies on employees to identify those breakdowns, he has to make a safe environment for them to share. The way you respond to glitches will determine whether employees open up about personal mistakes and weak spots in the process.

“You figure out where along the way did we wobble and why did that happen,” he says. “There’s not a culture of wrist-slapping. If something bad has happened, it’s already out of our control. Let’s focus on what we can control, which is our process going forward.”

If you berate employees for mistakes, you’re illustrating that the past is more pertinent than future fixes.

“There’s no blame. One of our mantras here is, ‘No victims,’” he says. “The people who work here are so conscientious. If something goes wrong, they don’t need somebody piling in on them. They need, if anything, a forum to talk about how it’s not going to happen again, how it’s going to get better.”

This is where sports backgrounds come in handy, when employees understand that the game won’t pause for them to dwell on mistakes. When results are on the line, it’s about picking up the ball and running.

That philosophy has been successful at 72andSunny, where 2009 gross billings totaled $270 million, up from $160 million in 2008.

“You just look at the process and where in the process was there a failure,” Jarvis says. “Sometimes you get great results from bad processes and sometimes you get bad results from great processes. As long as the processes are solid and improving and considered, in the long run, there will be a lot more wins than losses.”

How to reach: 72andSunny, (310) 215-9009 or www.72andsunny.com