Critical thinking: It sounds like it should be limited to academia; right? Wrong.

While critical-thinking skills are, in fact, central to academic research, they are equally important in the business environment.

As we explore effective techniques to increase visibility and influence in the workplace, we need to become the “professor” of critical thinking for our vital team members. We need to serve as a model for them to follow. Critical thinking, in its simplest of terms, is a questioning process. Consider these three questions to encourage your employees to start thinking critically about their own individual actions.

•           I hear your question. What’s your answer?

•           What would you do if I weren’t here?

•           Are you using your brain or your gut?

“I hear your question. What’s your answer?”

In their haste to keep projects moving, most management teams instinctively want to provide quick solutions when employees have problems or questions. This approach is archaic in today’s business world and does not foster critical thinking. It teaches employees to only rely on your strengths rather than developing their own.

Consider this as an alternative: Make it a policy that whenever an employee comes to you with a problem, he or she must also offer at least one solution. Force them to do some advanced thinking. This gives you, then, an opportunity to have a more constructive and fruitful discussion.

“What would you do if I weren’t here?”

Being a good manager does involve some parenting. Sorry about that. Your job is to use your leadership skills to coach employees to become self-sufficient. Continue to strengthen their critical-thinking muscles by turning the questions back to them, answering a question with a question.

•           “What are the downside risks if we take this action?”

•           “What if we did A instead of B?”

•           “What if the opposite were true?”

In most cases, that employee already knows the answer. Don’t do their work for them; but rather use it as a development opportunity.

“Are you using your brain or your gut?”

Many managers pride themselves on the soundness of their “gut instinct.” They often make quick decisions based solely on sudden flashes of intuition.

Bad idea! That’s not to say that intuition is invalid. But to be effective, it needs to be backed up with logic. If you’re modeling decision-making behavior based solely on gut instinct, you might be doing your associates a disservice.

Remember the old bumper sticker “Question Authority”? When an employee comes to you with a gut-based decision, you need to start questioning.

Consider the following questions in your dialogue.

•           “Why do you think this will work?”

•           “What assumptions have you made?”

•           “What alternatives might we consider?”

When an employee’s decision is successful, acknowledge it. Remember: praise in public (and criticize in private). If he or she makes a mistake, use it as a learning opportunity. Our job as leaders is, again, to be the catalyst for positive change. Serve as that role model for others to follow and use your “PhD in critical thinking” to move your company forward.

G. A. Taylor Fernley is president and CEO of Fernley & Fernley, an association management company providing professional management services to non-profit organizations since 1886. He can be reached at tfernley@fernley.com, or for more information, visit www.fernley.com.

Published in Columnist

Brennan Mulcahy likes to keep it both simple and smart when he thinks about his growth strategy at American Solar Direct.

“It’s about providing high-quality, photovoltaic rooftop solar systems for residential customers in California,” says Mulcahy, the company’s co-founder, chairman and CEO.

“That’s it. So we’re focused clearly on that. There is a lot of opportunity for our business in other states and other jurisdictions, but we’re very focused on getting that part of our business right. I’ve seen too many companies try to be everything to everybody.”

The measured approach that Mulcahy takes toward growth at his 170-employee company is an effort to get it right the first time and prevent unnecessary mistakes.

He wants to get the right people in place, build a strong culture of empowerment and have an operational process that everyone understands. That way, when the business does take off, there will be far less uncertainty about what needs to happen.

“You’ve got to grow in a prudent manner,” Mulcahy says. “Companies that try to do too much, too fast risk destabilizing the business. So it’s finding a balance between high growth and controlled growth. We strive for high growth, but we also want to achieve controlled growth so that we’re managing the business and our resources responsibly.”

Develop your team

As you seek to prepare your company for a higher volume of business, you need to take a good, hard look at the team you’ve got in place and see how it matches up with your vision and company goals.

“You need to take a formulated approach so you understand not only where your weaknesses are in the organization, but also your opportunities,” Mulcahy says. “Identify those high-performers who are likely going to advance in their career.”

Mulcahy holds a weekly executive committee meeting where his department heads talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the organization from many points of view, including personnel.

“We look at how we’re performing across the organization on a regular basis,” Mulcahy says. “You have to identify, as you’re growing, the key positions you are going to want to fill six months, 12 months, even two years down the road. You can’t just go out and hire everybody you want on day one. So we work together to create that prioritization based on what we need in order to hit the goals and objectives of the organization.”

You need to keep your team engaged in this discussion so that everybody is moving forward with the same information and the same goals in mind.

“You work together to set those goals and everybody on your executive team has bought in to them,” Mulcahy says. “You want to create an environment that allows them to contribute and feel that they really can contribute meaningfully.”

One of Mulcahy’s priorities with regard to personnel decisions is to see if a need can be filled internally. Just as you want your leadership team to feel part of the high-level decisions, you want your employees to feel connected to the growth plan at their level.

“I’m a big believer in growing organically and offering opportunity for advancement in the organization to the extent that you can,” Mulcahy says.

Keep the makeup of your company’s work force in mind on a regular basis and think about how the players could be moved as your company grows.

“Identify who your superstars are, those folks who are going to advance in their career in the short term,” Mulcahy says. “Understand each department and who you have coming up in that department. The way I look at it is very formulated. I look at each department and who the critical senior positions are and then I look at who in the organization is below that could fill it at some point. Who may need additional training or support to continue to advance? Where do you have gaps in the organization?”

When you have a clear understanding of what you’ve got, you’ll be able to make smarter decisions when you have to reach outside your own walls to make new hires.

Be a good listener

As you build your talent level or do a better job of maximizing the talent you already have, you have to make sure you keep your ears open to the ideas your people bring to the table.

“You have to listen to people,” Mulcahy says. “That is something that is hard for a lot of leaders who have their idea and just do it. If you bring high-performing people onto your team, you have to listen to their ideas. You may not always agree with them, but you have to listen and weigh and consider their perspective. Engage as a team and allow people to feel comfortable challenging and debating ideas.”

This kind of engagement makes people feel like they are part of the plan to make the business grow. It also gives them comfort that there is a plan and that the work they are doing is building toward bigger goals.

“If you respect peoples’ perspective and you respect their point of view, you make them feel valued,” Mulcahy says. “Then as a team, you come together and draw conclusions. At the end of the day, once you’ve had the discussion and the debate, it’s important that everybody gets on the same page to execute a decision. But again, you have to allow for that opportunity to be heard.”

It starts with you. If you openly demonstrate that you value the perspective of the people on your leadership team, they will be more likely to do the same with their direct reports. The result is a group of people that don’t just view your business as the place where they come to work and collect a paycheck.

“I want to have a culture at American Solar Direct where people feel like they helped build it, not just that they work there,” Mulcahy says.

This willingness to listen and consider other opinions is another opportunity for you to show that you want the company to be successful, but you want it to be done the right way.

“It’s a culture you have to embed in the organization,” Mulcahy says. “It’s not a process, not a policy you put up where you say we’re going to listen to our employees. It’s something you actually do and you start by doing it.”

Build customer relationships

Relationships are a key component of any organization, whether it’s between fellow employees, employees and management or a company and its customers.

“For our business, it’s not a one-stop sale,” Mulcahy says. “You can’t walk in, drop off the product and take a check. When we enter into a relationship with a customer, it’s a 20-year relationship because we lease them the solar equipment for 20 years.”

Customers make monthly payments for the equipment that allows solar energy to power their homes. In return, they expect responsive service if anything goes wrong.

“So when they visit for the first time and give them that presentation, it’s not just a quick in and out, see ya later,” Mulcahy says. “We have to come back and inspect the roof. We’re going to send installation teams in and put that system up on the roof. We’re going to have a long-term relationship so the salesperson has to do a good job in order to be successful.”

Whether you’re in the solar business or a different industry, you need to promote the philosophy that happy customers lead to confident salespeople.

“Salespeople who have a happy customer, they feel good about what they have done,” Mulcahy says. “That gives them a lot of confidence and helps them get more business because they feel proud of the job that they are doing. The second thing that happens is if you do a good job for a customer, you get referral business.”

Referrals have been especially strong in the past couple months and Mulcahy says that bodes well for the future.

“It makes their job easier,” Mulcahy says. “Anybody in sales loves a referral because you don’t have to go out and work as hard to get that customer. It indicates to them that we’re doing a good job with our frontline customers.”

Mulcahy wants American Solar to be viewed as a company that is reliable and committed to great customer service.

“It’s easier to get staff excited about doing a good job than it is going and doing a low-cost job or a mediocre job,” Mulcahy says. “We’re not setting out to be a high-volume, low-quality, low-cost provider. We’re setting out to be a high-quality, superior customer service product with a personal touch. We think that is something that makes everybody excited to be part of the team.”

American Solar Direct is expected to hit $60 million in sales this year and Mulcahy is confident that his team is in a strong position to satisfy the demand.

“We can educate the customer, provide the personal touch and make them feel comfortable with what they are getting,” Mulcahy says.

How to reach: American Solar Direct, (855) 765-2755 or www.americansolardirect.com

 

The Mulcahy File

Brennan Mulcahy

co-founder, chairman and CEO

American Solar Direct

What’s the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Communicate openly and honestly.

Why is that an important lesson?

It just saves so much time and energy. So often people spend hours or days beating around the bush and not getting down to the most important issue. I think you’ve got to really drill down to the nitty-gritty of what is important. Just be open and honest.

There is never anything to be gained by beating around the bush because you just confuse other people around you. Be very clear in what you think about something and what you want to do and just really get to the point in a respectful way if you don’t agree with somebody.

What traits are essential for leadership?

No. 1 has got to be the ability to listen. That’s critical. You often hear communicate, communicate, communicate. I agree with that. But I think the first pillar of communication is listening. People often get that backwards. They think communicating means you have to be doing all the talking. To be a good leader, you have to listen to people.

You need to be able to make decisions as well. I’ve often seen people who aren’t good at making decisions; they often spin their wheels around in circles. At a certain point, you have to make a choice and forge ahead. That doesn’t mean you always make the right decision. But you do have to make a choice sometimes and hopefully get it right more often than not.

Who has been a big influence on your life?

My brother, Tim Mulcahy. He got me started in sales when I was very young, and we started many companies together.

Takeaways:

Know what your team can do.

Engage others in decisions.

Get to know customers.

Published in Los Angeles

When Lisette Poletes joined up with her mother, Hortensia Albertini, to help lead Global LT in 2009, she did so with an air of curiosity.

“Probably for the first eight or nine months I was here, I took an approach where I really just watched what was going on,” Poletes says. “I had to build my own ideas of what I thought was working and not working coming from a different background.”

The numbers show it was time well spent. Global LT, a language training and translation provider, closed 2009 with just more than $9 million in revenue. When 2012 wrapped up, that figure had risen to more than $20 million.

“We’ve had one of the worst economies ever, and we’ve managed to not only survive but thrive,” says Poletes, the 101-employee company’s owner and CEO. “I’m very proud of what the team I work with has done. It’s to their credit.”

Earn employee trust

Poletes joined Global LT with extensive sales and marketing experience from her education at Michigan State University and her prior work experience with Pfizer. But she had not been a part of Global LT, so she had to earn employee trust.

“I wasn’t coming in to take it apart, to sell it, to bring a venture capital firm in,” Poletes says. “I was in it for the long haul.”

Words are one thing, but Poletes backed it up with action.

She invested in new accounting systems and customer relations databases and elevated employees who had worked hard into management positions. She also instituted a profit-sharing program for employees.

“We basically put a plan in place where I don’t take a dividend out of the company if they don’t all get paid,” Poletes says. “It’s fostering that environment where we all feel like we’re in this together.”

Make use of good ideas

Poletes does not need to be the lead voice on every new idea at Global LT.

“We’ve done a lot of different things based on someone saying, ‘This process doesn’t work,’ or, ‘This works in my department,’” Poletes says. “My response is, ‘Let’s make it a best practice and see if we can make it work across all departments.’”

A great example is the suggestion that was made to bring together the people who recruit teachers and translators around the world for the company’s language training department under one leader.

“It was something that had been tossed around in the past, but she came up with a great proposal and a great plan, and we said, ‘Let’s try it,’” Poletes says. “That’s probably been in place the last two or three months and seems to be working well. It may be that we move all our talent to do the entire recruiting under one giant umbrella instead of just for language.”

Keep pushing ahead

As Poletes looks to the future, she sees endless growth opportunities for Global LT’s language services in emerging markets such as China and Brazil. She also sees opportunity in the government sector.

“We just obtained our GSA certification, which allows us to go after government contracts,” Poletes says. “That will be a brand-new focus that has a ton of potential growth.”

And you can be sure that her employees will be part of the pursuit of those new opportunities.

“If it doesn’t work, you can always go back to the way it was,” Poletes says. “But you can’t move forward unless we try these new ideas and who better to come up with them than the people who do the work every day?”

How to reach: Global LT, (888) 645-5881 or www.global-lt.com

Published in Detroit

Jim Litten has a saying that sums up his approach to operating F.C. Tucker Co. Inc.: “We are a success today, but nothing is guaranteed for tomorrow unless we have our game face on.”

But it’s not the only line of attack that helped him guide the largest Indianapolis-area residential real estate agency through a real estate market that dropped 32 percent between 2007 and 2009.

“Look at most businesses; if their business was off 32 percent, that would require monumental change to everything they do,” says Litten, president of F.C. Tucker. “Do you quit matching on the 401(k)? Do you put a hiring freeze on? Do you evaluate every single expense line that you have? We went through all those different processes, and as we saw the market continue to contract, we continued to cut. If we saw the market dropped 10 percent, we cut 10 percent.”

While cutbacks were necessary, it was disheartening for Litten to make them and to see his family of agents suffer as a result. Nevertheless, he knew he had another job on hand — to keep up the spirits of his employees.

“As a CEO of a company, you have to be realistic about what’s going on, but you can’t be pessimistic,” he says. “In a sales-driven organization, there has to be a cheerleader that keeps the organization moving forward.”

Litten’s 40-year career in real estate sales has taught him that he needs to keep his associates focused when facing challenges. He says that means not backing off and staying engaged.

“And it’s letting the agents know that we were in it with them,” he says. “The downturn wasn’t something that was their problem; it was all of ours.”

Here’s how Litten leads 1,500 agents across Indiana to stay engaged, focused and on top, with more than $2 billion in annual sales.

Empower, but don’t micromanage

Many leaders understand the value of empowerment. You give your employees more responsibility, they have more control of their position, and they start looking for solutions rather than making excuses.

With empowerment, however, comes the ability to delegate. It doesn’t work if the leader is a control freak. Litten says that he doesn’t micromanage the company’s business units or their leaders. When someone is hired to run a unit, the first thing he tells that person is that he expects him or her to run the operation as if it were his or her own. That doesn’t mean that Litten is unwilling to answer questions or offer guidance.

“But if I have to come out and micromanage it for you, I’ve got the wrong person in the seat,’” Litten says.

While empowerment means more authority for employees, it also means more responsibility — and being accountable. Leaders need to have quarterly reviews with each of the division heads and branch managers and review metrics to evaluate where they are, where the market share is and the growth they’ve experienced in the position. Litten also discusses every agent in the office with their managers to see how they are doing and find out where they may need help.

He says that one of the best indexes of performance is productivity, and if your managers keep an eye on individual productivity, they will be able to manage more effectively where it is needed most.

“You may get fooled by some who can sing a pretty good song,” Litten says. “But the reality of it is just productivity. When I look at the offices, are they doing comparable to what they did the prior year? If not, why not?”

In a smaller office, if there are just a few big producers and they are having an off year, it can impact the entire office. A leader who is tuned in to what is going on will be aware of why that office’s sales are off, and instead of thinking it may be a leadership issue in that office, will be aware that agents are simply having an off year.

“You’ve got to know what is going on in your business,” Litten says. “If levels of management just go through the motions, those days are numbered for them because you can’t do it anymore. You’ve got to know what is going on, what the trends are, what the strategic issues facing you are and how you are going to deal with them.”

Communicate, but don’t hover

While it may seem to be at odds with the practice of empowerment, staying in frequent touch with employees is vital to a company’s success. However, the leader needs to draw a fine line, because if it appears he or she is hovering, employees will not feel truly empowered.

Litten says that coaching is critical. Spend time with associates not only to help them but to simply check in and see what is going on with them. If you fail to do so, it may send a message that you don’t really care enough about them to ask or that you are making assumptions about their situation.

“The worst thing that you can do is to assume that somebody is OK,” Litten says. “You have to touch them regularly. Often, unless you are checking in with them, you really don’t know if there is something going on attitudinally on which you need to work with them or just be a good listener to them and let them come in and vent.”

Your leadership team, and thus the company as a whole, needs to understand what the fuel is that runs the engine. In the case of F.C. Tucker, that fuel is the agents, which is why Litten says it is critical to be plugged in to their needs.

In any business, employers try to retain their top performers. Litten says doing so is even more critical in real estate, as the top performers are usually independent contractors with the option to go elsewhere. Litten uses a sports analogy to make his point.

“Imagine the Indianapolis Colts having a stable of superstar players, with virtually no contracts with them, and those players have the ability to take their talents to any team in the NFL,” he says. “As an owner of the team and coach of the team, you would make sure that you bring value to them every day in what you do and the systems that you put in place, the platform and the tools of differentiation that you give them.

“In our case, if an agent doesn’t like what management is doing, he or she can pick up and move across the street in a New York minute. You don’t want that. Our only real asset is our sales force.”

Use tools to be proactive

Businesses today have to be proactive, says Litten. If they just react to what’s happening around them, it can be fatal.

“And never, ever, ever, ever be satisfied with the status quo,” he says. “One of two things happen in life: you grow or you die. The same thing happens in business. You either grow or you die.”

Business is continually evolving, and if a business tries to rest on its laurels, it will find itself left in the dust, because there is always someone behind you looking to take your market from you.

“Certainly it would be nice to be able to sit back and catch your breath, but business today is just so competitive that if you back off, you become vulnerable.”

To help agents stay on top of trends, changes and sales techniques, F.C. Tucker Co. established Tucker University to offer tools of differentiation for the agents who are interfacing with the consumer and keep the management team’s skills at a game-day level. Tucker University recently started a new sales training class. During classes, Litten usually talks to agents about the company culture, its values and its belief system. He also tells them that the only things they can really control are their attitudes and their activities.

He says that if you can control those two things, you are going to get your share of the market that you are operating in. But if your activity level isn’t top-notch and your attitude is bad — whether it’s because of the economy or worrying about what will happen if the mortgage interest deduction goes away — you will find yourself struggling.

“And if you play the best you can play by being on top of your game every day, you’re going to win,” Litten says. “If you don’t, shame on you; you are going to lose.” ?

How to reach: F.C. Tucker Co. Inc., (888) 588-2537 or talktotucker.com

The Litten file

Jim Litten

President

F.C. Tucker Co. Inc.

Born: Dayton, Ohio. I was raised in a small town called Martin’s Ferry. It’s on the Ohio River by Wheeling, W.Va.

Education: I went to Ohio University on a football scholarship. I studied physical education and was going to be a football coach. When I tell people that, they look at me and say, ‘You’re doing what now?’

What was your first job?

When I was 15, I delivered groceries for a small grocery store in Bridgeport, Ohio. When I became 16, I could drive, so I could go further on the route. I was very blessed. My dad was a salesman for an oil company, and he had a tremendous work ethic. Every morning by 7:30, he had his suit and tie on and was out making calls to steel mills. I also think athletics instilled a discipline in me so that if I were going to get ahead, there were no shortcuts.

Whom do you admire in business?

I have friends in the Realty Alliance. There is a man named Ron Peltier who is president of HomeServices of America, a Berkshire Hathaway company. Ron and I have been friends for 25 years. He’s a good businessman and an exceptionally good person. I have a friend who is a U.S. senator from Georgia, Johnny Isaacson. He used to run a real estate company in Atlanta. I have tremendous respect for Johnny. He is a very, very bright and a very compassionate individual.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

Our office used to be in the OneAmerica Tower (formerly AUL Tower) in Indianapolis. When we bought the company, we were on the 25th floor. My mother and father came up to visit, and my dad was always scared of heights. He walked into my office and looked down. It was shortly after we bought the company. We were sort of all starry-eyed about it, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Son, be nice to everybody on the way up because on the way down, you're going to need friends.’ He was holding on to the side of my desk and looking out the window at the time. My father was just a wise, wise man and just a very good person.

What is your definition of business success?

To be respected by the people who you serve and to be respected by your competitors. You go about doing things the right way, and you treat people the way they are supposed to be treated.

 

Published in Indianapolis

Jim O’Neil learned an important lesson some years ago when he was a 23-year-old engineer who sometimes found himself under the gun to make million-dollar decisions.

In one instance, he had a client impatiently cooling his heels, waiting for a resolution.

O’Neil knew he was on the hot seat ? and there was no one available to call for help.

“When you are on the line like that, you need to make decisions, and you made them,” he says. “They didn’t have cell phones then, the boss might be gone, and you had to make a decision. There was nobody else around. It might have made you uncomfortable, but you did it. You made it.

The firsthand experience of being in control left a lasting impression.

“It’s amazing how much you learn versus letting somebody else make the decisions all the time. And today, everybody is so accessible, if you are in an organization where people don’t want to make decisions, then you’re not empowering your organization,” says O’Neil, CEO of Quanta Services Inc., a company that supplies infrastructure solutions for the electric power, natural gas and pipeline and telecommunication industries.

He knew that empowering people to make decisions was the direction to go.

“I don’t need 1,000 cell calls a day asking me if they can make decisions that are well within their authority and responsibility. In the technological world that we live in today, it’s easy for people to not be accountable and to not want to be empowered.”

Once O’Neil became CEO, he drew up the boundaries employees needed and then encouraged them to adopt an entrepreneurial mind-set to drive business and customer relationships.

“If I could bottle that up and train that to others, you know ? and just move it up through an organization; I think that’s one of the biggest challenges ? to give people the latitude to make decisions.”

Here’s how O’Neil brews up the kind of empowerment at Quanta Services he wants to bottle and serve to employees.

Use collective approaches

When O’Neil arrived on the Quanta Services scene, he had been employed 20 years outside the specialized industry of infrastructure. His employment at Halliburton in oil and gas service had impressed senior management at Quanta Services, as did his record of holding several positions after joining Quanta in 1999. He was named CEO in 2008. Most of the people who had moved up the ladder in the organization were either former owners of companies that were acquired or people who the management put in place to succeed former owners when they decided to retire or leave.

But that only encouraged O’Neil to instill the collective approaches to solving complex problems he desired. He realized it was his role to discourage complacency, to push the organization, be flexible and change with the customers and markets, to be creative and to seize new and/or different opportunities.

In short, he was back in the situation he was earlier ? there was nobody else around to drive employee empowerment, and he had to decide how to formulate and institute a spirit that would persuade employees to feel sovereignty over their jobs.

To O’Neil, empowerment meant a lot of things.

“It’s not only decision-making; it’s go out and develop that relationship, go out and sell services and don’t be afraid to go sell services or sell the company’s total capabilities,” he says.

“You have to empower your employees to make decisions,” O’Neil says. “You set policies and procedures and clearly define a broad range of operating boundaries, and let the employees work within these boundaries. Employees who are properly trained for that position know when and where they need to seek approval authority.

“Employee empowerment is one of the most important aspects of being a successful service company. Once you clearly state the employees’ boundaries to operate, they then are empowered to make decisions to take risks.”

Even though it sounds like a potential Camp Runamuck, part of an effective empowerment plan needs to include the structure that says where decision hand-offs are to be made.

“I think structure within some organizations is good when you set policies and procedures and somebody needs to make a decision,” O’Neil says. “Empowerment is that the people who report to the CEO clearly understand what their roles and responsibilities are and what decisions they can make.

“Through the relationship that you have with them, the working relationship, they know when to come to you and when not to come to you ? even if they have the authority to make certain decisions, they know when to at least bounce an idea off you if they’re not comfortable.”

Direct reports should feel the same way and have that same relationship. The empowerment should probably go down to one or two levels below that.

Another important goal is collaboration, and when you collaborate, everyone is on the same level.

“There is no intimidation by position, you all roll up your sleeves and make the decision,” O’Neil says. “If I need to be involved, I’ll roll up my sleeves and work with the presidents of our operating units out in the field or with some of the leadership in the corporate office.

“It depends upon what the situation is if you want to make sure everybody understands that you are all in this together. We are out for a common goal. There is no stupid question; let’s just work through it together.”

Look at it fairly

While employee-empowerment programs can be elaborate or simple, O’Neil found that simple is best, and he made it easy to commit to memory by using an acronym.

“I call it the FAIR model,” he says, with each letter of the word denoting an action that in effect serves as a type of empowerment mission statement.

“F stands for focusing everyone in the organization on the overall vision and strategy of the company,” O’Neil says.

This takes into account that you have company vision and mission statements already in place. If you don’t have them, it’s time to write them.

“No matter what job position you are in with an organization, you work as hard as you can to make a difference,” he says. “You listen and you learn from those around you. “You contribute where you can contribute thoughtfully to a discussion or a situation and good things will happen to you in the way of advancement and more responsibility.”

“A” stands for holding employees Accountable for their performance.

“You have to hold people accountable and watch for complacency,” O’Neil says. “How do you know whether people are complacent or not? One of the main ways is to set financial targets.

“Also set employee development targets for them to develop talent within their organization. Your customers are a good source to find out complacency issues within your organization. And certainly if you have open dialogue throughout your employee rank, you can get feedback from that way as well.”

“I” is for involving every employee in the mission of the company

“A CEO must always remember that employees are his internal customers,” he says.

“You have to be a good listener. More than 95 percent of all problems brought to my attention deal with the need for better communication. People often require a sounding board to talk it out. Some problems are complex and require a collective approach to a solution.”

If you have employees involved in establishing the vision, it will bring a sense of ownership and stewardship.

“Employee input is valuable, and they must feel like they have a meaningful role in the future of the company,” O’Neil says.

While longevity may bring different levels of comfort, learning doesn’t stop once an employee gains seniority in a company.

“That 40-year-old guy can learn something too,” he says. “Times change, markets change, customers change. The 40-year-old guy has a lot of experience to bring to a discussion, and we typically listen to that person.

“He’s probably the one you can listen to the most when you are trying to do the job or build a project but that person’s ability to listen to input from others, too, is critical because he can learn from others as well. So it’s a team effort.”

R stands for recognizing people for their results.

“It means understanding what each person brings to the table in the way of value, knowing that you may have people at the table who are new, and they are there just to learn,” O’Neil says. “But just the experience of sitting through that type of exercise is invaluable to anyone. I learn every day. It’s a continual process.”

Employees who are involved are more likely to generate ideas in the suggestion box.

“They’ll pretty much tell you if you empower them that, ‘Look, I know I am responsible for this right now, but if I was given the latitude to go out and do this over here … I’m responsible for A, if you let me go pursue B, I think I could improve value to both our organization and the customer,’” O’Neil says.

Quanta has a Chairman’s Challenge program that forms teams of rising stars from across the company to address a variety of opportunities, market dynamics and challenges. It seeks to harvest the best and brightest ideas for implementation.

“It’s really a servant leadership-type of mentality,” O’Neil says. “You’ve got to empower the employees, and they have to give you their input. It’s collaboration. I do that with my direct reports, and my direct reports do that with their direct reports.

“Every employee is your customer. You want them all to be properly trained for the roles that they are in and to understand that your job is to make sure they have those tools and that they are well-equipped to perform those services to your customers.”

Think bigger

Empowering employees to make decisions may be a break from the traditional management plan of some years ago, but a break from the usual is often what is needed to reach new levels of success.

“You may make decisions that might have not brought optimum results,” O’Neil says. “Somebody told me a long time ago that failure is the launching pad for success. You’re going to make mistakes, and you learn from them and you move on. That’s why you invest in people.”

Those who have an entrepreneurial mindset know how to take risks, they have to make decisions, they own their own companies and they grew them from nothing in many cases.

“I think that is a very important aspect of differentiating yourself from people who have an organization that’s matrix reporting ? where nobody wants to make a decision, it’s slow, and typically when you get into that situation, people are running a lot of things and they don’t make the right decisions.

“You want to be in an organization where people are empowered, they learn from their mistakes, and they become a valuable part of your organization when you need to make decisions in a very rapid format for your customers.”

A company that empowers its employees has to think bigger than just responding to calls for bids.

“But bidding is a very important part of what you do,” O’Neil says. “You are never going to get away from that. The more you can move ahead of that process, and partner with your customers to provide solutions ? that’s where you can really differentiate.”

Even if that project would go to bid and you have had discussions with your customer, the customers don’t have to take the lowest price.

“They want the best solution,” he says. “They look at value as well. I think you need to understand where your customers are going as an organization. You need to try to stay one step ahead of them. You can’t live in a rear-view mirror. You need to look at future trends and not only in the direction the market is going, the economy’s going, but the route that your customers are taking.”

Many customers are being forced to reduce costs and improve reliability and many of them aren’t looking for low-cost answers. They are looking for solutions for their problem.

“Because you have that relationship, and you have a reputation for providing services safely, execute projects on time and on budget, customers will continue to share more information with you as you build relationships to try to figure out how to get better,” O’Neal says.

“You want to be part of that solution. And that’s what I call partnering with your customer in order to provide them with a better outcome, and at the end of the day, it will provide you with a better outcome as well.”

With its 17,325 employees and $4 billion in annual revenue, Quanta Services is a Fortune 500 company ­? and has many of its projects are now larger in magnitude than the total value of the company when it went public in 1998. Its growth includes 120 acquisitions since its founding. Some 2,500 employees were hired in one quarter in 2011 alone.

O’Neil points to employee empowerment as a key factor in this success.

“The ideas and innovations of the minds in your company are an invaluable resource, and when you tap into it, employees truly feel ­? and are ? empowered.”

How to reach: Quanta Services Inc., (713) 629-7600 or www.quantaservices.com

The O’Neil File

Birthplace: New Orleans, La.

Education: Bachelor of Science in civil engineering, Tulane University, 1980

What was your very first job?

I turned 18; I worked as a laborer during the summer in a chemical refinery outside of New Orleans between college semesters. It was a great experience for me and taught me the value of hard work ? actually digging ditches and eventually running a survey group as I moved up between my junior and senior year. It was outside with 90-degree heat with 100 percent humidity. I really didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. So it was a great motivator to stay in school. We had to dig ditches by hand. I’m about 6’7” and that wasn’t easy.

What was the best business advice you ever received?

No matter what your job position is within an organization, work as hard as you can to make a difference; you need to enjoy what you are doing, listen and learn from those around you, and good things will happen for you in the way of advancement and more responsibility. I think I’m a good listener. I think that’s probably one of the most important traits that have helped me be successful.

Whom do you admire in business?

Well, I have a lot of respect for CEOs, thought leaders, and the like, but really those I admire the most in business are those I work with and for. I really admire Quanta’s employees who are on making critical operating decisions and interfacing with our customers and our communities because that’s really the face of our organization. Every one of those 17,000 employees represents our company. Without them, we don’t have a company. I myself don’t bring in a dollar of revenue for this company. Our people on the front line do.

What is your definition of business success?

Success is happy shareholders, customers who see the value in our services and employees and potential employees who believe Quanta is the preferred employer in the industries we serve, and world class safety performance is very, very important to me.

That’s my No. 1 objective.

Published in Houston

When Harlan Platt saw a sign for a free safety deposit box at the bank next to his, he went into his bank and asked his bankers to match the offer. When they told him they were unable to do so, Platt took all of his business to the other bank.

Smart Business spoke with Platt, a professor of finance at the Northeastern University College of Business Administration in Boston, about how empowering employees to deliver excellent service is key to retaining satisfied customers.

Q: How do you view world-class customer service?

I would describe it as when you’re finished, it’s been painless and it may even be pleasureful.

It can be something that is not pleasureful, but you feel good afterward.

The consumer knows it because it’s so exceptional, it’s so unusual, it’s (such) a deviance from most experiences that it just stands out in the same way that when you have a good glass of wine you say, ‘Oh my god, now I see why people pay for expensive wine!’

You have to empower. Obviously, if people are not empowered, they can’t do anything.

I don’t expect companies to cut their own throat. But when a longstanding customer walks in, I would have expected the manager (at my old bank) who I spoke to to say, ‘But you know, let me get on the phone and call some people and see what I can do.’ And then call me back and say, ‘I’ve got it for you.’ That’s where I think it’s not just the empowerment, I think it goes back to the hiring function — who you hire.

Q: How do you hire to ensure excellent service?

If you hire people who are ‘people people,’ if you hire people who want to do a superior job, if you hire people who go home at night and feel good because they helped somebody else, then you can have an accomplished (team). You can empower people as much as you want, but if you employ people who are very ... solipsistic, thinking mostly of themselves, it’s not going to happen. They have to extend themselves. I think that’s really what you’re talking about, is an individual extending themselves to make the product/service of a company better suited to the needs of a customer.

You don’t hire 60,000 people and insist or ensure that the ones you are hiring are ‘people people.’ It just can’t be done; it’s a whole different mission. By contrast, if that hiring had been done, say, not at a regional level but at a store level, even a big firm ... could pull it off.

You and I both have been in situations where the person you’re speaking to is nasty, makes you feel uncomfortable, tries to make you embarrassed for even asking. That’s not a good person to hire. And I think companies can inform their hiring process or train their hiring process to weed (them) out.

Too many companies say, ‘We’re going to hire 60,000 people. That’s the goal,’ not, ‘We want to hire 60,000 great people who are going to provide superior customer service.’

Q: How does delivering superior service impact customer loyalty?

Simple: They care about me. It’s just that one sentence. They care about me. I’m not just a number, I’m not just an account, I’m not just an individual who walked in. They care about me.

I had done a transfer on my online banking with (my new bank) and I think I did it twice, and one account was short and then a check didn’t clear. So I called up and I said, ‘I made a mistake and you charged me $35.’ She said, ‘I’ll change that. I’ll fix it, don’t worry.’ That’s very nice. I know one thing for certain, if I had done that at almost any other bank, they would have been very sympathetic and then they would have hung up the phone. With her, I didn’t have to fight or argue, I simply said, ‘I made a mistake and you charged me $35.’ And immediately they said, ‘No problem.’

Q: Can delivering top-notch service affect pricing?

Stonyfield Farm is a company (that) talks to its consumers and says, essentially, ‘We’re looking out for you. We’ve moved away (in the Stonyfield Farm case) from hormone-ingesting cows, going back to the old days.’

By separating itself from the pack ... it owns its brand.

What they own is a niche, and that allows them premium pricing. So if you go to the supermarket, there is nobody that can deliver the product that Stonyfield is delivering. My wife buys it because this hormone-based milk is now an association of tumors in women. She pays $3.69 for the large-sized yogurt that’s Stonyfield Farm, and the store brand is on sale for $1.49 and it’s regularly priced at $1.69. That’s a premium price.

Of course, Stonyfield doesn’t sell as much and they have higher costs. And buying milk where the cows don’t use hormones, that affects their output and so the price is presumably higher. So the higher price is somewhat justified by these cost factors, but I think your point is better taken, that they can premium price because they own the niche.

HOW TO REACH: Northeastern University College of Business Administration, (617) 373-3232 or www.cba.neu.edu.

Published in National
Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:01

Prairie City Bakery innovates and satisfies

Prairie City Bakery may be a bakery, but it operates like a traditional manufacturer, doing everything a manufacturer does – from product development to taking that product to market. Bill Skeens, Prairie City’s president, and his team produce more than 65 different bakery items, each made to Prairie City’s specific specifications.

“We are always looking for new ideas and ways to satisfy the customer and always ask ourselves, ‘Is there a better way to do this?’” Skeens says.

Though the company, itself, has a total of 11 employees, Prairie City’s impact on employment goes well beyond that. Last year, the company sold more than $20.5 million in bakery goods that were produced in seven separate bakery operations — primarily in the Midwest and Canada — that employed more than 500 people.

Skeens was named one of 2010 Smart Leader honorees by Smart Business and U.S. Bank. We asked him how he overcomes challenges, innovates and gives back.

Give us an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

Three years ago, a major account of ours was looking to develop a private label program in a very short period of time. On a Thursday, we met with their buyers and got specifically what an ideal product line would look like from a quality, packaging and pricing standpoint. The following Friday, we came back with live product, packaging and pricing and laid out 25 alternative products, two different packaging designs and pricing on all items in their conference room.

This was a total company effort involving and coordinating with all of our suppliers, creative packaging designers and financial people to deliver this is just over a week. We were in competition with much larger companies, and because we delivered, we ended up producing 15 of their 18 private label items and continue to deliver on this business today.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

Our people are all empowered to ‘Do what is right for the business.’ When I worked for a large bakery manufacturer, we only sold what we could make, and this often was not what the customer wanted. With the Prairie City Bakery model of outsourcing of manufacturing, this is a huge advantage because we want to sell what the customer wants to buy.

We do not have blinders on that say, ‘This is the only way we can do it.’ We look to solve problems and provide a solution, and then we get our reward of selling the right product that provides us with revenue.

Customers ‘vote’ with their dollars every day, and we are always looking for creative solutions that set us apart, add value and makes customers not only want to buy from us but to recommend us and to be and advocate of Prairie City Bakery.

How to reach: Prairie City Bakery, www.pcbakery.com. Read more at www.sbnonline.com/skeens.

The Smart Leaders Class of 2010

In October 2010, Smart Business and U.S. Bank recognized 10 business leaders for their commitment to business excellence and the impact their organizations make on the regional community. Treated to a keynote address by Middleby Corp. CEO Selim Bassoul, these 10 leaders comprised the honor roll:

  • Jason Beans, founder & president, Rising Medical Solutions
  • Dave Brittsan, CEO, DB Aviation
  • Joel Fruendt, GM, Clarke Mosquito Control
  • Rob Jessup, CEO, Jessup Manufacturing
  • Amanda Lannert, President, Jellyvision Lab
  • Scott Morey, president and CEO, Morey Corp.
  • Larry Neibauer, CEO, CEO Deliveries Co.
  • Nancy Ruscheinski, president and COO, Edelman U.S.
  • Jim Signorelli, CEO, ESW Partners
  • Bill Skeens, President, Prairie City Bakery

Published in Chicago