More than words Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2009

Alain Couder has no interest in taking responsibility for all the innovation that comes out of Bookham Inc.

Couder, president and CEO of the developer, manufacturer and provider of optical solutions, constantly makes it a point to tell his people that they’re in charge of innovation. And that communication with his 2,200 employees is a priority. In fact, Couder says that it’s those communications that drive the company.

By consistently building messages focused on where the $235.5 million company stands and on the need for accountability and innovation instead of standard office politics, people begin to understand the call for action.

“Communication is extremely important, and I do know that some people will follow right away, some will resist, but the majority of people are just waiting to know whether we are serious about moving ahead,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Couder about how to engage communications about breakthrough products and why it’s important to shut people down when they start talking office politics.

Engage midlevel employees for fresh ideas. All the best ideas exist in the company, and top management doesn’t need to have many of those. When you do a turnaround, the first phase the executive team is smart enough to understand what to do, and then, in the next phase, the executive team is not smart enough to find the idea.

So middle management plays a very important role in that — and innovation is the same thing. The individual engineer has to come up with some new idea, and as the leader, you listen and you can grab those.

This is not the kind of idea you will get through a business review; this is where you will get the idea through a midlevel meeting. Meet with a team at the next level below or two levels below you or work with the higher-potential lower management and technical people. But it cannot be the job of the CEO alone; it has to be the job of every executive.

The best business advice I’ve received was from one of the HP executives when I was at Hewlett-Packard, and it was about imagining the user’s needs. All business books tell you about listening to the customer. ... The problem is, no great product has ever been invented by listening to the customer because they don’t know about breakthrough technology.

Your engineers have to imagine how things could be done differently, or you don’t create breakthrough products — like the iPod. No customer survey would have told you to invent that.

So when I joined Bookham, I would visit R&D and say, ‘Where is your skunkworks?’ And they’d say, ‘We don’t have a budget for that.’ And I said, ‘You will never have the budget if you don’t (start it up) because I’m worried about your ability to innovate.’

So that’s the kind of comment that makes people think it’s OK to come up with or share new ideas, even if it’s not part of the budgeted plan.

Create communication around accountability. You have to drive accountability in the organization by having good financial metrics for every job, but you also have to make it visible. For instance, we created bubble charts. The graphs show the profitability of the various product lines and the growth of the product lines, and people don’t like when their bubble is in the wrong part of the graph and they try to move it.

We reorganized the divisions so everyone gets a look at their share of overhead so they know how much they contribute to the profit of the company, so that’s the basics of accountability.

With the road map for new products, initially we are very good at having a road map and it’s always up to date because it’s revised every month. But it was never looking at the original road map compared with the current one, so you just put up the initial road map with the current road map. Just by showing things to people, things happen magically; people don’t like to have those red dots on their targets.

Bluntly share the reality. Look for numbers, metrics, facts, etc., and don’t deny it. Listen to them, look at them and share the conclusion.

I have a reputation for being fairly blunt and fairly direct, and I will show them the financial information in the company — I don’t want to make everyone an insider, that’s the thing about being public — but at the right time, you can do it and say, ‘Look, we are going to make this company successful even through tough times, and this is what it’s going to take.’

Kill office politics. Most of the time politics happen by having your executives come to your office and tell you, ‘I heard that so-and-so is doing this, and I’m not sure about this,’ and all kind of suspicions. So my first answer is, ‘Did you talk to that person to tell him or her that you have a problem with the way they’re managing?’ And if the answer is no, then it’s, ‘Go ahead and go. Leave my office, and go talk to him or her, and then we’ll talk. If the two of you cannot communicate, I can help. But it’s not fair to come to my office unless you have done that.’

The root of office politics is the leader accepts that people come to them with derogatory statements about their peers. Most of the work has to happen between my executives; I don’t need to be involved in every detail.

So if they cannot talk about difficult things, then it doesn’t work.

HOW TO REACH: Bookham Inc., (408) 383-1400 or