A work in progress Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007

When Rex Bright joined SkinMedica Inc. as president and CEO in 2001, the dermatological pharmaceutical company had annual sales of $1 million.

By the close of 2006, drawing on years of experience leading companies through turnaround and start-up phases, Bright had helped grow SkinMedica’s revenue to about $40 million, in part, he says, by continuously making an effort to improve the company’s culture. “Culture is something like a marriage,” Bright says. “You’ve got to keep working on it and it’s never perfect, but you have to keep confronting it.”

Smart Business spoke with Bright about how improving culture requires constant communication with all levels of his company.

Q: How would you describe your culture?

We use an acronym called ETC, which doesn’t stand for ‘and so forth.’ It stands for Entrepreneurial Team Culture. We talk about that a lot.

If you think about it, being entrepreneurial and being a team player sort of conflict with each other, but if you’re successful, it’s the degree to which you can do both. Think big, stay humble and surprise people. We really try to live that entrepreneurial team culture. You’re never perfect at it, but you keep working at it, and when you see behaviors that are outside of that focus, you have to say, ‘Wait a minute. We didn’t really adhere to our culture. We didn’t give that a guy a chance to try his idea, even though it has a pretty good chance of succeeding. Let’s not shoot him if it doesn’t work; let’s fix it and move on.’

The days are over when an entrepreneur says to everyone, ‘Get your pencils out, and I am going to tell everybody what to do,’ because if you have experienced, smart people and create an environment that they like to work in, they will come up with much better ideas than yours. Some of the ways they implement them might be quite different, but you have to give them freedom to do that.

If their style conflicts with the culture or the way we operate, if someone is looking to affix blame or take credit, that gets knocked down and confronted, but different people manage different ways.

Q: How can CEOs stay in touch with their employees and their company?

Once a month, I have a pizza lunch with everybody who has a birthday that month. You get people from the warehouse, you get VPs, you get all departments, and you sit around and talk about how you’re doing and what you need to do to get better. Another thing I do that people tease me about is once a month, on a Saturday, I open all the mail. You find out how many direct mail pieces you sent out that came back because they had the wrong address, you find out what vendors you’re dealing with.

I put fake meetings on my calendar so that my calendar doesn’t get filled up. If I come in on a day when my calendar is full from 8 in the morning until 6 at night, it will probably be one of the most unproductive days I’ve ever had.

My secretary and I laugh about it, but we have a code word for a fake meeting. What that does is it gives me time to step back and think or time to walk around and talk to people. You have to spend a period of time listening and learning. ‘MBWA’ means management by walking around. You have to walk around and talk informally to a lot of employees at every level in the company.

Q: What traits do all successful business leaders have?

Leadership and vision. From a vision point of view, you have to show people what’s possible and sometimes what’s possible hasn’t been done before.

You have to make them believers, and you really have to believe it yourself that you can get there. One skill of leadership is knowing when to drill down and manage more closely, and when to back off and let people have more autonomy.

The other part of leadership is inspirational. One trait that all CEOs must have is you have to be able to sell. It’s what we all do. I’m selling the board, I’m selling Wall Street, I’m selling investors, but you’re also selling your own management team on how good they are and what they can accomplish.

A lot of leadership comes naturally, but you can get better at it. I’ve learned to listen better just from mentoring, and my mentoring comes from the people who report to me.

An important part of leadership is humility. You have to be humble enough to be able to listen to someone’s idea that’s very different from yours, and sometimes it’s hard to open your mind.

But if you do, often you’ll find that their idea really is better than yours.

HOW TO REACH: SkinMedica Inc., (760) 448-3600 or www.skinmedica.com