Division of labor Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

Susan L. Kelly likes to think about flocks of birds and emergent structures.

Science hasn’t precisely figured out how birds know how to flock without a single leader, but Kelly is working on a similar construction with her nearly 500 employees at K/P Corp. Kelly, president and CEO of the $60 million comprehensive marketing solutions company, needs her people to move together through systems that make clear everything about everyone’s roles so that they can act independently while working together.

“Because if it all has to come top down, if I have to think of all the changes that need to be made and communicate that, it’s too late,” she says. “So we have to have a way for people inside the organization to change on a dime and not crash into each other and yet still make progress.”

Smart Business spoke with Kelly about why you need a distinct chain of command and how writing out what keeps you up at night can help you get your work done.

Accept nothing less than a clear division of labor. When I first came in here, everybody felt like they had the right to know everything about everything. It was really a mentality that people felt they had a right to vote on whatever capital items we would buy, and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute; this isn’t an entitled society here. This isn’t democracy; this is a business, and we’re going to get our division of labor going and we’re all going to shoulder the boulder and push from the same side.’

If I delegated a person to make decisions, let them make decisions. As much as they try to pull you in, have the discipline to stay out of it. Say, ‘No, that’s yours, decide, and whatever you decide, I’m going to go with it, and if you fail, then you’ll fix it.’

After awhile, everybody realizes, ‘Oh, OK, maybe I should just get back to my work,’ and when it’s their turn to have a say, they know they will be the person deciding.

The other thing is reinforcing natural consequences of action. I would get e-mails from somebody telling me what they thought of me or the company or what we should be doing, and I’m thinking, ‘There’s natural consequences to that because you didn’t talk to your manager. I will let that supervisor know that you came to me, and if they feel that that is wrong, you may be terminated.’

People realize my devotion is to my senior managers. You have a right to come to me confidentially, so long as you use the channels right — and your manager’s there to help you, coach you.

A couple of behaviors like that that deal with natural consequences, it doesn’t take long for an organization to snap into that.

Draw support through fair practices. I wanted to make sure we had fairness of practices and fairness around pay, career promotions, positions and recognition. Once people believe that there’s a fair system, that if something is not right, they have a way to be able to scream or just cry foul, change management is a whole lot easier.

We had a roll-up of many businesses that were bought in a consolidation, so they grew up with all different practices, including compensation and organization structures, so things like making titles and positions more equalized across the organization is helpful.

Make sure you really take a look at pay and compensation and understand the levels and positions. Have a way to benchmark and a fair way to assess work and compensate for it, making things a little more transparent.

Obviously, the supervisors and managers communicate that and they can get behind that when they have issues inside the organization.

The thing that always stuck with me is what can be found out will be found out. Don’t ever think you can keep a secret, because what can be known will be known.

Just take the high road as to how you deal with that — not sharing salaries or anything. When they start to see that you’re actually doing benchmarking in the industry, and they’re seeing why they’re not getting a raise at this time because the average position salary is this and they’re kind of at the mid or top range, it’s a little easier for them to understand.

For the most part, they’re not going to look at their next-door neighbor and feel like they’re getting an unfair advantage.

Clear your mind to focus on your labor. Make sure you don’t spend all your time just managing the what-ifs and make sure you’re innovative enough to grow your business.

It is a lonely job … because you have to make fundamental changes in your business constantly, and you want to be able to think out loud about it. But how do you get your deepest inner thoughts and communicate that and make somebody your sounding board without making it your management team? That’s a tough challenge for most CEOs.

It’s more quiet time, it really is isolating myself, and then I kind of map the world. I sort of write what this all looks like and sometimes you can get some clarity by doing that. It’s like a whiteboard — you start to work yourself through it and eventually you start to find a path using chaos theory: What are the three things that keep you awake at night, and then what plans do you have for those?

That starts to clean it out so you can say, ‘Now, I have my energy on the right things.’

How to reach: K/P Corp., (877) 957-2677 or www.kpcorporation.com