Adaptive technology Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

Brian NeSmith has seen his industry change, change and change again. From feeling helpless during the technology bust at the turn of the century, to watching his company, Blue Coat Systems Inc., explode to roughly 900 employees with nearly 400 percent growth in the last five years, NeSmith is constantly adjusting his strategy on the fly.

It’s no surprise, then, that NeSmith, Blue Coat’s president and CEO, works nonstop on ways to get the right employees for that adaptation and to prepare them to evolve with the changing industry at the company, which secures Web communications and accelerates business applications across the distributed enterprise. To do that, NeSmith has developed a system of informing employees about the development of the business and then letting them help redesign the company’s path, a tack that has pushed Blue Coat to $177.7 million in revenue in fiscal 2007.

Smart Business spoke with NeSmith about why you need to make sure you’re hiring someone who really wants the job you’re offering and how to get people motivated for change.

Involve employees in change. It always starts with explaining the context, why the change needs to take place, the vision of where you’re going — not with complete clarity but that we’re going to figure it out together — and then articulating that.

It works most by saying it. You get your managers to say it, you say it every chance you can — even to the extent people are poking a little fun at you, like, ‘I’ve heard this speech before, Brian.’ OK, good, can you repeat it back?

You explain what you think you know, you explain what you think we need to answer together, and you challenge people. Say, ‘I think this is right, but I’m looking to you to provide leadership in this area.’ Then ideas come from all over and the picture evolves. It’s being as honest as you can and not presenting what you don’t know but something you think to be true and why.

The more people who are involved in the creation of where we are, the stronger they get involved in the success of that outcome. The line between success and failure, both as individuals and companies is, yeah, there’s the elegant strategy, and we all admire that when we read Harvard Business Review, but there is nothing like a person passionate about a result.

That person, to some extent, could make poor decisions, but they’re so passionate about it that they inspire everyone around them, and you power through the mistakes you make.

Find those who know which job they want. During the interview, I try to find out if this is really the job this person wants. The majority of turnover is people say they want a certain job and then, when they actually start to live it, they start making a case why they should be doing a different job.

I spend time trying to understand why people change jobs, why did they leave a job, why did they go to a job, what did they learn and would they have done it the same way looking back. It’s not that there’s necessarily right or wrong in terms of how much time you spend at a company, but it helps me understand their thinking. If I don’t get good answers to why a person left, that causes me to question whether that person understands what they’re looking for.

I ask, ‘What is it you like about this job? Sell me on why you want this job, not why you’re qualified.’ And you have to wait because everybody will say, ‘I’m motivated by challenges and the reward.’ Well, OK, we’re all motivated by challenges, but I want to know about this job in particular.

It’s not that hard to figure out whether someone is qualified. Occasionally you’ll make a mistake there, but the bigger the issue is, a lot of times, someone who is qualified for the job but didn’t really want to do it ends up failing, and it looks like they weren’t qualified.

Reinforce change with positive examples. Say you expect people to change, then find examples and ways to reinforce that with individual behavior and reward people.

You can’t simply stand up, tell people to change and expect them to do so. You have to do that to start with, because you can’t expect them to change without telling them they need to, but it’s one of those, tell them, watch what they’re doing, then continue to tell them by finding individual cases where you find the behavior you’re looking for.

Always put your passion on display. You have to be careful as a senior executive when you go through periods where you are depressed or sad. Maybe it’s personal, maybe it’s business, but you have to do as much as you can to departmentalize that so that you are never really truly sad or pessimistic.

In situations where it’s too much for you to handle, take a break or step out. A lot of people aren’t going to go through the same basic analysis to figure out whether they should be interested in this and, to some extent, people take their measure of trust and confidence in something through you.

So maybe I woke up with a headache, but if I’m going to get up in front of a bunch of employees, I need to show that passion. If I can’t, I need to cancel the meeting or do something else. You have to understand that the more senior you are, the more critical it is that your passion be seen, shown and understood.

HOW TO REACH: Blue Coat Systems Inc., (866) 302-2628 or www.bluecoat.com