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Marilyn Orr made a little change in her office that had a big impact on the environment at Beacon Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.

When the executive director first moved in, the placement of her computer forced her to sit with her back to the door — and her employees.

“I put the computer on the desk return so that I was facing the door,” she says. “As people would walk past, I wanted the opportunity to be able to speak to my people.”

It was important for Orr to be accessible and approachable so her 275 employees could bring her ideas for improving the company’s treatment and rehab centers.

She also trains her management team members to look for innovation outside their industry. They bring books and articles to meetings then dig up data to help translate the ideas to Beacon. Throughout the process, Orr relies on their input.

“It is all about building a strong team,” she says. “You can’t do this alone.”

Smart Business spoke with Orr about eliciting ideas and input to innovate your company.

Find ideas to innovate. You have to have relationships that allow you to forecast for the future and prepare your organization for what’s coming in your industry. You’ve got to get that information from somewhere, and I get that from my professional organization. [A leader] needs to draw heavily upon the professional organizations available to us. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You simply need to be open to what other people are doing.

You’ve got to be a reader. I have several listservs that I belong to that bring wonderful information. I’ve got at least one or two books at the bedside that I’m trying to read through.

I share magazine articles, Wall Street Journal articles [with my team]. That is very common within our organization, and it goes up and down, so I know that my staff are looking for those things, as well. We set aside a portion of each management meeting that we have to discuss things like that.

You have to build your team so that they actually are willing to share those things. A lot of it is done by praising people who participate in the process, letting them know that I appreciate their input and doing it publicly in front of everybody.

Learn from other industries. I’m looking for things that are pertinent to [my industry]. I’m looking for quality measures. I’m also looking for technology. Everything that we do, quite frankly, is done from the perspective of how does it impact the patient. You really have to keep that front and center. So we’re looking to talk to our peers to find out what do you do to make that experience different and better.

I think some of it is not to wear blinders. You can learn a lot about your own industry from others. I look at the banking industry and some of the technology gains that they’ve made for transactions.

I always look, as well, at who provides outstanding customer service and what do they do. So the Nordstroms of the world or the Marriotts, how they have trained their people to provide outstanding customer service.

You have to communicate what you learn, especially with the people that you directly manage. You’ve got to be able to share it in a concise way, and you have to be able to build buy-in so that everyone is all on the same page.

Get input in person. When you create a team, one of the core elements of that is trust. People have to trust that the information that they bring forward and that the information that I’m bringing forward is all of value to the team.

[Trust] comes about, quite frankly, because of interpersonal relationships. I like to have face-to-face meetings with each of my managers. I keep an open-door policy. I really need to know my people. E-mail just doesn’t cut it. There’s a lot that can get lost in an e-mail. It’s a give and take that you can have in a face to face. But you have to make time to make certain that those things happen.

You ask for [input]. I’m looking for everyone on the team to give me honest feedback.

The point is you have to have an environment in which [debate is] allowed to happen. You have to seek that because the last thing you need is a team that does not challenge. I need people to bring forward all of their objections, good ideas as well as concerns. You don’t think of everything. So you’ve got to have a team that feels that they’re empowered to do that and that they won’t be punished for doing that.

We talk it through. I want to know more about what it is that is bringing that concern forward.

Back up ideas with data. You have to have some way to capture data and present in a format that actually is compelling. I can’t just simply walk into a meeting and say, ‘I’d like to do this.’ They’re going to ask for the data as to what makes a good, sound decision for our company.

We’re in the process right now of trying to determine if we want to have a telephone software that contacts patients as a reminder that their appointment’s coming up. So some of the data that I’ve been looking at is talking about the number of patients that come for appointments, how many appointments are actually made for that particular week, how many people no-show for their appointments and how many people cancel their appointments.

We’re pulling our data to reinforce the fact that maybe we need to do this — that this is standard in the community and this is something that maybe our patients might want or need. [We’re looking at data from] within our company, but also I’ve talked with people outside of our company that have implemented different software packages to see what their experience is.

How to reach: Beacon Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, (513) 354-3700 or www.beaconortho.com

Published in Cincinnati
Sunday, 26 July 2009 20:00

Accounting for the downturn

Dan Simms has a lot on his plate as managing partner and CEO of Habif, Arogeti & Wynne LLP, but right now the problems in the economy are his top priority.

“The biggest challenge currently is managing the organization in a slightly down economy,” Simms says.

The best way to successfully do that is for the CPA firm’s 300 people to focus on the clients that they serve.

“It’s, first and foremost, making sure that everyone within the organization focuses on great client service because the clients need us, really, now more than ever because most businesses, I wouldn’t say that they’re struggling, but as a general rule, their profits are not as strong as they have been in the past, and of course, their balance sheets have taken a little hit over the last 12 to 18 months,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Simms about how to effectively manage in the downturn.

Provide great client service. It starts with having great people within the organization and making sure that everyone in the firm understands that we’re in the service industry and the clients know that we’re there, so it’s about reaching out to the clients and having meetings with them and trying to understand what their issues are and what problems they’re having and try to help consult and manage and provide guidance to the clients about how to manage through some difficult times.

Make sure that you understand the client and the industry that the client is in and then the economy and the region and how their business is being impacted by the economy and the region that they’re in. But it’s about meeting with the client and reviewing the operations with the client, strategizing on the problems that they’ve identified and helping identify other issues that may not have surfaced at this point, but maybe to try to plan for the future to identify if there’s issues that haven’t surfaced and try to head those off before they become an issue.

Find people with characteristics you want. It comes through making sure that you understand the background of the individual, the work experience of the individual, talking with individuals, talking with the references that are identified by the individual and making sure that you do your due diligence, especially when the candidate is at a higher level, either a senior manager, a director or a partner level.

For me, it’s probably more of a feel based upon not just one conversation but maybe two or three meetings, depending on the level of the individual we are recruiting, to make sure they understand the culture of our firm and making sure they agree with our approach to client service. When it actually gets down to making the decision to hire or not to hire, a lot of it comes down to those meetings and interactions, and as a general rule, if those are positive, then you pull the trigger and make the decision.

You also recognize that you’re not always going to make the right decision, whether it’s about bringing individuals in or other business decisions. ... You have to realize that nobody makes all the right decisions. If you made a decision and it didn’t turn out the way you envisioned, then you have to make another decision to correct a problem that has not been corrected with a prior decision that was made.

Know you’ll get through it. Probably the most important thing to keep focused on is that there will always be cycles, not only in the economy but also in different industries. Understand how to manage through those cycles and also recognize that, as a general rule and for the majority of businesses, it will turn. But once you recognize that there is a downturn, [you need] to manage cash flow, to manage the operations, but also to continue to motivate individuals in the organization and to also be honest with the individuals in the organization as to how the company is performing. But again, there is a balance between what is communicated and making sure that you communicate honestly with the individuals within the organization.

In planning the communication, you have to be very clear and concise on what you want to communicate and the point you want to make to the audience. You have to say it several times. If you’re delivering a presentation, whether it’s a live presentation or a video presentation, it’s important also to release the text of the communication so that if there’s any uncertainty with the communication, if they want to go back and read it, they can read it. If there are questions, you have to deal with those maybe in a different format. You try to keep everyone informed of the direction of the organization, how the organization is performing on an overall basis — maybe not specifically, so that those individuals aren’t consumed with concerns that they may not have a position in the near future.

Address personnel issues quickly. You’re probably constantly reviewing performance in the organization and providing counseling and trying to help individuals who may not be performing at a baseline level be successful in that organization, but if they don’t have the right attitude or the desires and goals, sometimes you have to make those tough decisions.

You have to constantly review or evaluate the personnel within the organization and make sure that they’re performing at a baseline level. Theoretically, it should be ongoing all the time but, at a minimum, annually — preferably twice to three times a year on a more formalized basis. If an individual is performing, then there needs to be communication and there needs to be recognition. If an individual is not performing, then there needs to be counseling throughout the entire year, and if an individual doesn’t rectify the underlying problem, that’s when the company has to make the tough decision to make a change.

How to reach: Habif, Arogeti & Wynne LLP, (404) 892-9651 or www.hawcpa.com

Published in Atlanta
Thursday, 25 June 2009 20:00

Finding the fit

Robert White and Paul Kaplan are loyal guys. They both married their high school sweethearts, for one. And White was a CPA at the firm where they met for 10 years; Kaplan, more than five.

So when they founded KW Property Management & Consulting LLC together five years ago, they knew the first trait they would look for in their employees. 

“The first trait that we’re looking for is loyalty,” says White, the managing director. “Whoever we hire, we want to make sure that they’re going to want to be with us for a long period of time.”

Since then, they’ve pretty well figured out who they’re looking for. And they’ve had plenty of practice, swelling to more than 400 employees.

“It’s not an easy thing,” says White, who led the property management firm to 2008 revenue of $17 million. “This is not an exact science.” 

Smart Business spoke with White about how to interview potential employees to fit your firm.

Get involved. The way we control the hiring process is that myself and Paul both need to be notified when they’re going to hire somebody. What we’ll do is we’ll talk to the two people that are going to be doing the interview process about a few things: What’s the position for? What’s the job description? In that process, we’re determining is the position actually needed? Sometimes these managers will sit in with us on other interviews so they can hear our questioning and learn what we’re looking for.

[Leaders] should be intimately involved in the process, especially the higher up the ladder. Ultimately, the people that you hire below you are mini-leaders; they have to get the troops below them to follow them. It’s just important that you are intimately involved in that infrastructure.

Maybe if it’s a huge public company that hires thousands of employees, the way you do that is through your HR department. Just be intimately involved in the internal control structure of your HR department to make sure the company’s executing the way you want it executed. I would say, for a small- to medium-sized business, to be intimately involved and not just turn it over to your HR department. Actually sit in on the interviews. Meet the people before they’re hired. Ask your own questions.

Interview in layers. Normally in the interview process, you have two layers of management interview the person. You have the direct manager or supervisor and then that person’s manager or supervisor performing the interview. When it comes to executives in the company, then Paul and I are always involved. We’ll get in the interview process and we’ll ask specific questions on ... their experiences relating to banking. That’s probably a third of the interview process. 

A third of the interview process is we go through why are they leaving their current job or why have they been dismissed. I don’t like to hear that there were disagreements with the boss. Usually what I’m focused on is that they liked the company and they’ve hit a ceiling as far as their career path.

In this third of the interview, we also focus on their resume and have they jumped around for a lot of jobs. We’re trying to see, are these people loyal or are they changing jobs every year or two? We really focus in and drill down on the reasons why they’re changing jobs. Let’s say they give the answer that, ‘I hit a ceiling and there’s no room for growth.’ Then I start probing later in the conversation. I try not to make it obvious, but I’ll start asking, ‘What’s the size of the company? What was the size of the company a few years ago?’ I try to see, was the company growing? Was that a true answer?

Get personal. The third part of the interview process is what I call breaking off track. Usually, that’s at the end of the interview, and it’s when everybody’s relaxed. You just start finding out what kind of person they are. Do they follow sports? Are they involved in hobbies? In that part of the conversation is where you get the true sense of a person, where you get to know a little bit about their personality. Usually during that I always try to explain to the person our culture as a company.

The worst question you can ask is a question that you’re not allowed to ask by law. In this part, where it’s kind of relaxed and we’re no longer in an interview-like mindset, those are the times where you might [ask], ‘Hey, are you married? Do you have kids? Where are you from?’ You’re technically not allowed to ask those questions, but in that type of discussion, sometimes you might accidentally say something. So you have to be very careful when you’re trying to get a feeling if they’ll fit into your culture or they’re your kind of person.

Step out of the box. As a company, we do not have a standard list of questions. [It’d be a mistake to] do an interview out of a box, to have a list of questions that you ask everybody and always do every interview the same way. We have a core set of questions like, ‘Why’d you leave your last job?’ but for the most part, it’s like each interview evolves.

We make the interview process with the different people individual. So I’ll meet with them, the manager below me will meet with them, Paul will meet with them. After the candidates leave, we have a meeting amongst ourselves and discuss: What did you talk to them about? What were their answers? Did you like them? Somebody will bring to the table something that they learned about the candidate that maybe I didn’t learn or I didn’t ask about. Then I’ll tell them something I learned about that they didn’t learn about and we’ll talk about that aspect.

At the end of the day, it’s a vote. It has to be unanimous. If one person feels strongly that it’s a no, we will move on to the next candidate.

How to reach: KW Property Management & Consulting LLC, (305) 476-9188 or www.kwpropertymanagement.com

Published in Florida
Thursday, 25 June 2009 20:00

Leading with patience

Marcia Manker had to make this change work.

After years of being owned by a for-profit insurance company, Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center had become part of the not-for-profit Memorial Health Services.

“Because we were a closed system, we didn’t have to work to create our volume,” says Manker, who was named CEO at the 1,100-employee hospital in 1998. “It was a huge change to have to be service-oriented toward those community physicians and those patients coming in. We had to do a lot of training and changing out staff that couldn’t adjust.”

One of the most important lessons Manker learned was that you can’t change everything overnight.

“You just stay after it,” Manker says. “You have to be relentless and understand that not everyone is going to get on board. You have to be visible and dogged in your pursuit of the vision and you have to be able to communicate in a manner they can understand and connect with.”

The hospital has found its way, reaching $197 million in 2008 revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Manker about how to put yourself in the right position to get your organization to where it needs to be.

Develop a plan. Put your goals down on paper and set specific time frames for when you’re going to accomplish it. Identify who needs to participate in that effort and keep measuring it.

We had goals and deadlines and people responsible for that, and we measured it monthly. We had people out questioning our key constituents constantly for feedback, and we’d bring those brutal truths back to our folks to say, ‘This is where we’re not hitting it. This is what they are saying.’

Show your confidence. Give employees the confidence that they are going to survive the change and that we are all going to be better off for it. A lot of people, they may lose something in the process, and you have to help them with change resilience. It’s constant communication and coaching, reinforcement and encouragement. Sometimes it’s a kick.

But we’re all human beings and you just can’t be pounded on all the time. You need to reward behavior in addition to looking for opportunities for improvement.

Don’t just go out and give a speech. You’re walking the floors and you are communicating it in every venue. You’re always on, and you never let down your energy level. Even if you are in the cafeteria purchasing a bagel, you have to have your game face on. That cashier wants to know that you are positive and you believe this is going to happen. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t slept all night [or] you don’t have any energy. You are on stage. Show you are the one that has the energy and vision to carry everyone through the tough times.

Make time for yourself. You don’t do your best thinking when you’re constantly bombarded with work issues. You have to replenish. With me, I just got a dog and I have to get out there and walk him.

That sounds so selfish that I spend that time with him but, frankly, that’s when I can plan and sort out what I need to get done. Plan it into your schedule and make it a key aspect of your day. It depends on the individual. There isn’t one approach for everybody.

Learn how to communicate. I ask employees, ‘How do you like to receive communication?’ Some are visual, some are auditory and some are tactical. There isn’t one form that works well for everybody, so I don’t think we could ever rely on just one form.

You just have to recognize that everyone is looking through a different set of lenses or hearing things differently. Be cognizant of how they are receiving you, whether it be your nonverbal or your verbal.

I just ask so many questions. I do less talking and more questioning and listening. Maybe a key point in how to communicate is to be a good listener.

Learn how to listen. You’re never very good at it. You may think you are, but even when you think you are listening, you are formulating a plan or response and you can be missing key points. You have to develop that skill of listening.

Ask the person, ‘This is what I heard from you; did I get it all? What did I miss?’ They believe they have been heard and haven’t just been sitting there.

It takes an amazing bit of self-control and discipline to control that. Count to 10 inside your head. Take notes while you’re listening.

Be humble. You are supposed to be strong and they are paying you to be the leader. But you also have to be secure enough with yourself to know you are not perfect. You probably have huge areas for improvement and you have to be very careful in who you select to trust.

You’ll have a lot of people managing upward, and they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear and maybe withhold some of the hard issues. The insecure leaders are probably the ones that you have to worry about the most. They think they have to appear strong and all-knowing and all things to all people when that’s not how it works anymore. It’s more of a participatory situation.

Show a united front. You argue like mad behind closed doors. You flesh out all the differences, and you set the ground rules: ‘Within this conference room, we want all the disagreements to come out. But once we leave the room, we have our talking points and our message.’

How to reach: Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center, (714) 378-7000 or www.memorialcare.com/orange_coast

Published in Orange County
Thursday, 25 June 2009 20:00

Talk ain’t cheap

Marcie Zlotnik co-founded StarTex Power in 2004, so she knows the company well, and stepping aside to give her growing employee base a say has been a struggle.

“It’s a lot easier for me to go up to them and say, ‘Well, why don’t we do this?’” Zlotnik says. “That’s not how you build a company.”

As the electricity provider that she founded with her husband, Robert, has grown to 82 employees and revenue of $136.7 million in fiscal 2008, Zlotnik has improved the company culture and delegated responsibilities simply by asking employees more questions. To empower employees, StarTex had a feedback program called Block and Tackle, in which employees could recommend ideas to save time and make money.

Zlotnik says empowerment starts with encouraging discussion, listening to employees’ ideas and making sure they understand what it is you’re trying to communicate. And that, she says, can be as simple as asking them, “Hey, what should we do this month?”

Smart Business spoke with Zlotnik about how to empower employees through conversation.

Encourage discussion. You have to listen and promote discussion and encourage dialogue to empower employees. You’ve got to listen to what they’re saying. If your answer is always no, you’ll never get any ideas brought to you or any suggestions.

I have a rule with people. Just because I said no to you the first time, if you really believe strongly in something, go back, regroup your thoughts, put something else together and bring it back to me.

Don’t come back to me with exactly the same thing, but if you think you could have presented it differently, then try again.

Be visible. Make yourself available. I don’t think it is at your desk. Who is going to walk into the chairman’s office and say, ‘Hey, I want to talk.’ It’s not going to happen.

But we’ve had bowling alley parties, we’ve had putt-putt tournaments. That’s where you develop the rapport with employees.

My office is right in the middle of the office, and I make sure whenever I leave the office, I go one way and I come back the other way so I have an opportunity to walk by everybody’s office and desk, and I try very hard to stop and say something to someone.

It’s amazing what they’ll tell you in their environment, not yours.

Meet them on their level in an environment that they’re comfortable in, which is at their desk. Any time I say to someone, ‘Can you come into my office?’ the red flags go up. That is never a good sign, even though many times it is.

Talk to somebody. Talk to them when you see them walking down the hall.

I want to go up and ask them something that is poignant to what they’re doing. For example, customer service: ‘What have you seen today in calls?’ It’s personal. It’s not just, ‘Have a great day.’

Know what your employees do to help you better understand what they’re saying. You listen by understanding what they do. I believe that aside from a couple of the jobs in the office — I can’t program a computer — I could do most of the jobs at the company, and people understand that, so they’re comfortable talking to me about a problem.

You have to really know your business to be able to listen to criticism about the business because you realize then it’s constructive, not destructive.

Go and actually perform those jobs for a day and sit. For example, if you were to be at my office, most employees … have to sit in customer service for at least a day and listen.

They don’t have to answer the calls, but they have to sit and listen all day to what the customers think before they go into their job.

We’ve brought on two new senior VPs, and that’s where they start. The successful senior VPs have been the ones who have literally said, ‘OK, that’s great, but how did you get this? Where did you come up with this?’ Not, ‘OK, this looks like it reconciles.’

Make sure employees understand what you’re trying to communicate. You ask them — instead of saying, ‘So what did you think?’ because the answer is, ‘Oh yeah, I agree with you,’ — ‘Before you walk away, Suzie, what is your gut feeling? How do you think you’re going to implement this?’ Or you ask such open-ended questions as, ‘How would you apply what I just said?’

You can’t leave having done all the talking. You can learn Excel, but until you really do some Excel worksheets, you really can’t learn it. You can read all you want in the books, but you’ve got to go through two or three days of doing it to really learn it.

So if I’m doing and explaining how better to deal with customers, well, that’s great, but let’s put it in place, let’s have a role-playing between two employees.

We do a lot of training: ‘Hey everybody, come in, and in a particular area, let’s go through this example live. How would you do this? What do you think went wrong here?’ [That’s] rather than an e-mail: ‘Dear so and so, next time you need to do this.’

I like most learning environments to be question and answer, and I like for me to do most of the question asking. ‘Well, how would you handle that situation? What do you think could have been done differently?’

I think all of us have that school mentality of there’s only so much you can listen to; you’ve got to be able to do something creative with it.

How to reach: StarTex Power, (713) 357-2800 or www.startexpower.com

Published in Houston
Thursday, 25 June 2009 20:00

Preparing for change

Mike Koziara can empathize with the turmoil his employees felt during their company’s sale and acquisition. Even though, as Care Choices’ chief financial officer, he helped lead the process, he wasn’t sure what the changes would mean for him.

“I probably wasn’t any different than any other employee,” he says. “Although I was involved in the due diligence, I myself wasn’t certain, ultimately, as to where my career would end up.”

Fortunately, he landed with Priority Health, the health insurance company that acquired his, as the vice president of provider network strategy and East Region. He has more than 130 employees under him in the region, which accounts for about $200 million of the billion-dollar company’s revenue.

Throughout the transition, Koziara had to keep his employees informed of the changes and provide a support system as they made the decision to stay or go — all the while, keeping them focused on the business goals at hand.

Smart Business spoke with Koziara about how to guide your employees through a life-changing transition.

Be intimate. Before the acquisition, the leadership team made a decision to communicate what was occurring. The one key message was, ‘The company’s moving down a new path. That path might entail the sale of the company, it might entail the merger of the company, or potentially, it might mean the company will continue as it currently is.’

With a message that says, ‘Hey, we’re going down a path and it may take different forms,’ of course, the first question is, ‘Well, what form is it going to take? I heard we’re going to be sold and we’re all going to lose our jobs.’ All forms of the communication said, ‘When we know something definitive, you’ll be the first one to know.’ So there was a decision that says we will pursue a merger or sale. And when that decision was made, we let the staff know.

The communication was probably the most important thing through the whole process. It was at the company level, it was at the departmental level and then it was at the one-on-one level. The leaders spent quite a bit more time engaging throughout the company. We’d simply sit down and talk to any staff level throughout the company to gauge how they were feeling, were we connecting with them when we had the group communications, were we touching on the right points?

That built a sense of trust and openness, as opposed to proclaiming, ‘This is where we’re at. Send us an e-mail if you have a question.’ We had an open e-mail Q&A process that augmented it but most effective was the one-on-one.

Support employees’ decision-making. The other aspect of the communication was the straightforwardness: ‘We don’t know at this point what the final disposition will look like. But what we can encourage you to do is to take the information that we have presented to you and you need to make your own decision. You need to look at your opportunities in the marketplace, your opportunities with the probability of continuing employment if the company is merged or acquired.’ So we encouraged the staff to take accountability for themselves. That was a value we gave these people by letting them know early on what was happening.

[When the acquisition was announced,] the messaging changed and we said, ‘OK, we can’t guarantee any of you employment, but a substantial number of you will be hired.’

Even that’s a tough message. We again reminded them that we have a plan, we have to execute the plan and that our expectation of you is to accomplish these goals.

Encourage them, ‘We’ll provide you new tools. We’ll provide you new technologies, capabilities so that, in fact, you can even achieve those goals more effectively.’ It’s a constant reminder that you’re here to do a job and we’re improving your capability of doing it.

The choice to stay or go, we wanted that to be as informed a decision as possible. Through the entire process, from day one, we had increased the amount of human resources staff that were available. We had human resources staff on-site. We brought consultants in to help with career planning. So if somebody said, ‘I’m not sure what I should do,’ we had our own HR people to help them with the decisions. It’s emotional. It certainly affects them. So we actually gave them a resource to help them manage through this. So that’s part of the empathetic part, is helping them through this.

Keep employees focused. The leadership team continued to focus on the business goals — both before as well as after the sale. It’s easy to become consumed by the huge workload of the transition. So what we did was reminded our employees that it’s our mission that’s most important. We have a higher calling to serve our customers, our providers, our members. That was a strong motivator when things got difficult for people. The call to action was, ‘Remember, we’re serving our customer.’ And that was continuously stressed.

We tried to partition our focus. Every day, we had a meeting about the transition; we had another meeting about the business. I spent a lot more time on the pre- and post-transition activities, but some of my colleagues spent the majority of their time on running the business.

Another aspect of that is there was a business plan throughout the entire process. So instead of a lot of the staff’s emphasis on, ‘Well, what does the transition mean to me and my singular goals to go from one system to another system?’ you’re actually here to achieve business objectives from day one. That becomes the emphasis. The ‘what does it mean to me on a day-to-day basis,’ you can’t ignore it. But you can refocus people on the right work.

You do have to recognize that there is change. There will be change. And you have to expect change at the individual level, as well. I think the messaging is continuously, ‘We are going through change. There’s lots of it. It will affect you. You have to recognize to some extent you’re moving into a new environment.’ Be very straightforward and clear about that.

How to reach: Priority Health, www.priorityhealth.com

Published in Detroit
Thursday, 25 June 2009 20:00

Lift off

Phil Graffy has a hard time giving his people a hard time.

Graffy, the owner, president and CEO of Interstate Lift Trucks Inc., is constantly looking for ways to improve customer service, but the fact of the matter is that his roughly 100 employees get it.

The new and used dealer of Toyota forklifts has been honored again and again with Toyota’s prestigious President’s Award, given to its top dealers. With his people polishing that brass, it can be hard to criticize.

“They’ll say, ‘We just won the award as the best and you’re not happy now?’” Graffy says. “I get a lot of that, so I’ll say, ‘OK, we’ll celebrate for the next 24 hours.’”

When that celebrating is over, however, it’s back to focusing on things like money-back guarantees for the rare unhappy customer and creating systems to maximize efficiency for buyers.

Smart Business spoke with Graffy about how you can create simple systems to ensure customer satisfaction and why a good starting point is never saying no.

Say no to no. We’re a can-do company. The reality is I started out in sales, so I’m very customer-driven. As far as I’m concerned, the word no is nonexistent, and it’s up to me to show them a better way through technology and through training.

We’re fairly large now, but we treat every customer like they’re the only customers we have. And just by the fact that we never learn how to say no, it always comes back and we’ll have brainstorming groups and things like that based on customers. And a lot of times we’ll make better practices based on new ways we’ve served the customers.

We have a series of values we tried to create. For everything with the customer, it’s a can-do attitude — that supports the yes theory all the time.

Actually, we get excited about customer challenges. … I had a customer call up one time, it’s Friday and it’s 1 in the afternoon, he just got a contract, and he said he just picked up a new customer and called us up and said he needed 12 forklifts, and we just said, ‘OK.’ They wanted 12 brand-new lift trucks with special attachments, so we went out in the marketplace and, through our rental place and wholesalers, and any way that we could, begged, borrowed and dealed, and we found the attachments. Even though it was a Band-Aid approach, we got the customer up and running and then got the complete order together in the next few weeks. What we learned from that is there’s just nothing we can’t do, so we’ll say yes and work from there.

Create systems that make an impact with customers. I’m an expense item. Bottom line: When you buy a forklift, it’s going to cost you money, and it’s a necessary evil for them, so to speak. So what we try to do is create the best efficiencies that we can … show customers how they can save money year in and year out, and at any point in time, they can call and find out what the cost per hour is — which is almost like a cost per mile to put it into the car industry terms everybody knows.

We’ve created an accrual account, and it’s there to support customers. Let’s say a guy takes a chance on getting a forklift, and for some reason, two or three of them break down. … What we’ll do is say, ‘Listen, if you need a part or service to take care of your truck, we guarantee same-day service or same-day part. If we can’t get you up and running, because our mission is never, never have a customer have downtime … we’ll send you a free loaner. So you’re never, ever going to be down because of me. So it’s very easy to get people to switch from competitors because there is no risk. That’s big from a sales standpoint because that’s the biggest thing that holds people back. They say, ‘I don’t want to make a decision and get in trouble because you’re saying the right stuff, but everybody is.’ We back it up by making sure a customer is never down.

And there’s money just sitting in there to take care of the rental department when they take it out. And the beauty for me is, for maybe a few hundred bucks it costs me to get a truck out to the customer, I’ve taken care of a guy that probably would have told 10 people that we screwed up, and he probably would have gotten in trouble with his company and etc., etc.

Hire, train and then listen for new solutions. You have to be a good listener, you have to be a good implementer and then you have to get out of the way. Manage and get out of the way. It’s really training and trust and delegation.

That all comes down to trust, and in the beginning, we teach our processes and teach what we do. I want people to understand what we do and then really, once they get involved in it and understand it and understand their job, I make sure that rather than micromanage the job itself, I follow them around and make sure the delegation happens and the action steps happen. Once you get trust going, and you know that person can add a lot of value, then you start listening to feedback. Everybody wants to be an impact player. For example, (our CFO) is an impact guy, but he had to learn our system. Once he learned it, from there he comes back and teaches us to do it even better.

We won’t bring people on who aren’t customer-driven. We talk and talk and talk to them, and if they’re not customer-driven, and we get any negative feedback on the road or don’t like their attitude in house, we can’t have that. I’ll tell you what, it’s probably one in every three just doesn’t do it in the interview process; you can say, ‘That guy just doesn’t have it.’ And if they haven’t experienced it, they’ll probably have a hard time doing it.

How to reach: Interstate Lift Trucks Inc., (216) 328-0970 or www.ilttoyotalift.com

Published in Cleveland
Thursday, 25 June 2009 20:00

Chris Boue solves problems at CH Mack Inc

Chris Boue had a problem when he took over CH Mack Inc. last January.

The company didn’t have a strategic plan. It had about five. 

“But day to day, those strategic plans weren’t executed on. What was executed on was what they needed to finish out this quarter or this year,” Boue says. “We had to figure out what our horizon was.”

So the new president and CEO rebranded the company, which provides health care technology solutions. As a result, it saw $5 million in 2008 revenue, a 140 percent increase over 2007.

To fully understand what the company had to offer, Boue had to start with a clean slate.

“It’s real easy once you’ve seen market successes to put those market successes on as sunglasses and miss a lot of things,” says Boue, who leads 60 employees. “But when I came here, I had to put some of those successes away because your biggest successes can also be your biggest downfalls.”

Smart Business spoke with Boue about how to assess your company with fresh eyes to uncover your core.

Do your research. The worst thing a leader can do is have all the answers. I had to clear myself of my history so that I could have a better future. I relayed this to staff as I was talking to them, individually and in groups, that I love success and I love to take a group with me, but we need to figure out our winning strategy. I talked to some of the customers and the board members and investors and even some of the key employees, before I started with the company.

Anybody that is looking at changing a company, whether it’s new walking in or they need to see it with new eyes, needs to look at three categories. The past performance was the first one — things like why were they successful in some areas and why were they failing in some areas. The answers to both of those, and particularly the failures, can usually lead to how you have higher leverage in the future. The second major one was present strategies, where they are now. The usual suspects in there are the people that are involved, the processes that are used and the technologies that allow you to leverage your people and your processes. And then the third is future challenges and opportunities — things like barriers to your success, resources that are going to be needed, what type of culture changes need to happen in order to promote success.

A fourth one, and it underscores everything, is you have to know what land mines are there. The reason the enemies use land mines is that people aren’t looking for them. So as a leader of a company, you have to be looking for the problems. In fact, we had a session where we told all leaders we needed to have on our doors, if not in our language, to ‘Bring me the bad news.’ It was that type of attitude that I’d recommend anybody start with because you can’t really know what to improve or what to change unless you know what’s needed.

Gauge employees’ visions. When I joined the company, I sat with every staff member. It was necessary to start at the staff level to understand people’s perceptions. And then [I sat] with the different groups to ask them some key questions from an internal standpoint: ‘What would you change if you were in my role? What things would you leave the same if you were in my role? And what things would you suggest everybody else do that somebody in the company’s doing?’

[The] staff had to know that what they told me stayed with me. I took a lot of efforts and a lot of time to make sure that people had time to spend with me and they got to tell me what their feeling was about the future. From an external viewpoint, like knowing the market, I also talked to the sales and marketing folks and then [our competitors].

One of the best things you can do is talk to the competition about the strengths and weaknesses of the company. We needed salespeople at the time. I was in the interview path of sales candidates, so I could talk to those from competition nationally about where the market was but more specifically where they saw our company.

Discover your core. To be successful, you have to know what your passion is, you have to be great at it and you have to be able to make money at it. So I was looking for what our company was truly passionate about, not only from internal [standpoint] but what the people from the outside saw. I was really looking for what we were great at on our best day and our worst day.

The direction was more about seeing the need in the industries that we service. And then after seeing the need, go back to all the feedback, both internal and external, to see what our real strengths and weaknesses were. I wanted to come from a place of integrity on what we could truly do, not what we wanted to do.

So I got the idea of where we were, which I think is one of a leader’s greatest strengths, if they can truly know where they are and then get a vision of where they want to go. The vision for our company is to make a substantial difference in health care through care management software. That’s a big vision. To do that, we can’t have just a local or regional focus. We have to have a national focus. That means that we have to step up and talk to large customers.

And then secondly, I had to figure out what the core was — meaning your strategic people, processes and technologies, the things that are really going to get you to what your vision is. If you can know your core, those are the things that you protect and grow relentlessly, without question. And then, of course, the last thing you have to execute, you have to figure out how you get your core things to be leveraged so that you can meet your vision.

How to reach: CH Mack Inc., (513) 936-6000 or www.chmack.com

Published in Cincinnati
Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Going global

Too often, companies fail when they try to expand internationally because they don’t fully understand the market, says Edward de Valle II.

Oftentimes, companies go global without first researching sustainability or their operations don’t cater to market needs, says de Valle, founder, president and CEO of AMG Worldwide.

Since the marketing company’s inception in 2002, de Valle’s knowledge of the global economy and his approach to expansion has strengthened the company as it’s grown, posting 2007 revenue of $62 million. AMG Worldwide has nearly two dozen offices and alliances across the world.

You can’t overlook putting in the time and research to do it right, de Valle says.

“I look at the general business climate — who is doing what, who has done well and, most of all, who has failed,” he says. “It is also important to look out for trending reports, where foreigners have done well or poorly in business in that country.”

Smart Business spoke with de Valle about where to begin when expanding your company into other countries.

Do the research to understand the feasibility of expansion. One of the things that I would recommend — and it worked in my case — is that I don’t just go to India and say, ‘I’m going to open an office in Bangalore, India.’

I research companies that are like mine, set up appointments, open a dialogue with those individuals. From that dialogue, I find out other opportunities that exist in that market.

You need on-the-ground intelligence. It is crucial. The CEO is not going to get the information from the paper.

A core example of what companies do wrong is, they all say, ‘Well, Brazil is doing really well, and so is Russia, and so is China and so is India.’ But they don’t follow the trends. They only look at the bright side.

They don’t look at the fact that when there is an economic recession, especially when it’s globally, the first countries to be affected are the emerging markets.

Now you might have a CEO who, because he only looked at the bright side, has invested $100 million in a new venture in Brazil without ever, ever, ever having studied, spoken to, been on the ground, worked with the local government to understand the economy and the fluctuations that it has.

The other part of it is speaking to other business leaders in those countries and taking the time to really do your due diligence. As the CEO of a company coming into a new market they might not be familiar with, I think it would be important to be able to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis.

I would like each individual that I come in contact with to explain to me what the strengths of their market are. I would like each of those individuals to express to me what the weaknesses are, what are the threats.

And then, I’d look at other individuals to give me the brighter side, which is the opportunities. Those four things are crucial.

I would not only rely on the sources I go to, I would also rely on government resources. You can even go into a U.S. embassy in Russia, for example, and ask them, ‘What experiences have other Americans had doing business in this country?’

Most people don’t take the time to do that. I would say it’s anywhere (from) six to 12 months before spending a dollar in a real infrastructure to do business.

Think locally to better serve clients. Other companies say they’re global, but in order for them to really be global, they need to invest money. They need to invest dollars and they need to invest time overseas with the people that are actually going to be operating their business.

Not only that, but it’s very important that they have a very good (business-to-business) kind of dialogue with other CEOs across different parts of the world for them to be able to have that information.

We have very quickly understood the importance of the global economy and how we’ve been able to expand with our partners and our alliances into those countries to be able to offer on-demand intelligence on a regional basis.

What happens is, you have a lot of global companies in America that say, ‘Oh, I have an office in the U.K., and they’re going to service Russia,’ for example. But they’re such different markets, so they really aren’t giving people the full-scale intelligence of what that particular regional market might be.

What we’ve done is open alliance networks … offices in strategic global locations, where they act as a hub for maybe five or six countries around them. That also helps the alliance gain a lot of competitive advantage.

Find the right employees. Above all, recruit talented people you can trust to oversee an operation when you’re gone.

To do this, you learn from those people who gave you the instinct that you want to do business there. Ask questions, get to know who their confidants are and hire them.

Once you’re set up, move quickly. Don’t think too much. Get set up with legal and confidants, and get to the sales floor.

In a new business, you have little time to play in the first years. Sales mean everything. Leave all the (other) stuff to those you put in place to do it and get out on the sales floor.

How to reach: AMG Worldwide, (305) 572-9883 or www.americasmediagroup.com

Published in Florida
Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Interviewing 101

You’re not getting off the hook easily if you’re interviewing with Hany Girgis.

The founder and CEO of SGIS wants only A players sitting at his company’s desks, which means each potential employee receives a grilling.

Those lucky enough to land an interview must answer questions that cover a range of topics. And while the interviewee talks, the multiple SGIS employees asking the questions write down the answers to create a report for discussion after the interview.

“I don’t think interviewing is obvious,” says Girgis, whose 750-employee company provides IT, engineering and intelligence services for government agencies. “I think many people don’t know how to interview, and so that’s why we’ve created this process.”

Having a process in place that involves multiple employees is critical to attracting and hiring the type of employees you want, says Girgis, whose company posted 2008 revenue of $87 million.

Smart Business spoke with Girgis about how to make sure you’re hiring the right people.

Recruit employees. We have internal corporate recruiters who are responsible for going out and identifying potential candidates for our open positions. They’re doing a lot of scouring, so they’re actually calling into our competitors and trying to sell them at an opportunity here.

It’s pretty proactive. It’s not, ‘Put a posting and see what kind of resumes come in.’ We go out and try to find opportunities. The best employees out there aren’t necessarily always the ones who are looking, so being proactive is really part of their job.

I really encourage my people to talk to our competitors and find out what they’re doing, what they’re doing well, what they’re not doing so well. As part of that process, you interact with a lot of your competitors out in the field at networking events, and that’s really a great opportunity to recruit. If one of my people comes back and says, ‘Hey, I met this guy at so-and-so company and I think he would be really great for our company,’ that’s a really good recruiting opportunity.

Take the time to do a thorough interview. We have a long interview process. It’s basically a two- to three-hour interview with each person, and there’s usually at least two members of the team.

There’s a preset list of questions, and they’re really questions that are meant to dig out … some of these qualities [we’re looking for]. The key is to not have a short 30-minute personality-type interview but really ask questions that dig.

We go in and talk about their college experience and their extracurricular activities in college. What they thought of their prior managers, what their managers would say about them in prior jobs.

Ask in-depth questions to identify characteristics you’re looking for. One of the questions is, ‘Give us a feel for what kind of school you went to. Was it large, small, rural or urban? Generally, what your college years were like. What kind of school activities did you take part in? What people or events during college might have had an influence on your career? Were there any class offices or honors or special achievements during your college years? What were the high points during your college years?’ And then, we also ask for low points.

For some of the work history questions, we ask, ‘What would you say some of the mistakes or failures you experienced in your jobs were? What is your best guess as to what your supervisor honestly felt were or are your strengths, weak points and overall performance?

I think for some of the questions about extracurricular activities, obviously, if they were a fraternity president or they took on some sort of office or they were the leader of their math club or the yearbook team, it shows some sort of leadership there. If they have a 4.0 [GPA], that shows that they’re smart and have a good work ethic.

Maybe they didn’t enjoy school, but they went through the motions and they worked hard and they studied every night in the library to 12 o’clock at night to get good grades. That says something about their work ethic, their desire.

The jobs that they’ve been at, what were the reasons they left, what were the reasons they stayed there, what did they like about those jobs?

Are they willing to admit to some of their mistakes they made at their last positions, and if they are, how did they resolve them? That shows their problem-solving abilities.

Include multiple employees during the interview process. When we hire somebody, we want it to be unanimous. If two people are iffy and two people are gung ho, we want to know why those people are iffy, and maybe that is an opportunity to go to somebody else.

It just improves your chances of getting the best person in the seat, that A player. There’s a stronger likelihood that a 100 percent unanimous decision will work out better than a 50-50 decision if you have four people interviewing them.

When there’s multiple people in the room asking these questions and firing off these questions, No. 1, it’s less time for the interviewee. Rather than going to these three-hour interviews with five different people, you can do the three-hour interview with a set of people in one room, and then you can also see how they handle pressure and how they react to the questions as a group because some people ask questions differently.

How to reach: SGIS, (858) 551-9322 or www.sgis.com

Published in National