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Eli Tene, principal and managing director, Peak Corporate Network

Gil Priel and Eli Tene were about to take on not one, but two significant challenges that would literally reshape the way that their business would be run. The fellow principals and managing directors went into the effort with their eyes wide open to the inevitability of bumps along the way.

“It’s not going to be seamless and it’s not going to be smooth,” says Priel, who shares the title of principal and managing director with his partner, Tene. “But we didn’t do it overnight.”

The partners wanted to take a number of different companies that they owned and combine them into one organization under one brand name: Peak Corporate Network. Once that was done, they wanted to implement a customer relationship management system to bring clarity and order to the process of helping clients of the 230-employee company buy, sell and manage their real estate.

“As time went by, we really felt our clients wanted to have our service,” Priel says. “The fact that we had the different companies was just confusing. It was tough to sell.”

The key to a successful transition in both the brand change and the CRM implementation was the attitude with which the partners brought it to their employees.

“It’s important to embrace them, empower them, educate them and make them part of the process,” Tene says. “When we’re changing this atmosphere, people need to understand it’s a partnership between the leadership of the company and the people that work there. That makes the process much easier to go over and makes it much easier to get everybody to work through this in the best interest of the company. That was a challenge we’re still going through.”

With the move to one brand, Priel says the tough part was getting people to look beyond their specialty and push other areas that were now part of their company too.

“They resist the adjustment because they are used to doing things in a certain way and they are afraid that change can reveal weakness,” Priel says. “They have to start thinking and talking about everything that we do together as a big company. They can’t just talk about their specific service.”

When you engage your people in regular dialogue and portray change as being something that you’re going through too, you make it more palatable.

“It’s something that leadership must be part of,” Tene says. “You can’t just implement it without support. It needs to be reinforced from senior leadership.”

As for the implementation of the CRM system, Priel says similar principles apply. Implementing change comes down to helping people feel comfortable with it and helping them see the benefit of it.

“You need to start with baby steps,” Priel says. “Like anything else, what do you need from me? You need to come to those people who need to work with the CRM and you need to show them what it means for them. Why it’s good for you to use. As long as you can explain that and show it and make sure the training process is painless and something they can understand, it should work.

“The initial reaction is, ‘Oh my God, I’m being monitored, where before I wasn’t.’ That’s your hurdle. You say, ‘Yeah, you’re being monitored. But you’re going to know yourself when the last time was you called on this guy. Why has his business gone down this year compared to last year? Maybe you need to go visit him more often.’ It’s being able to prioritize channels and clients and it makes everybody’s work so much easier.”

There may be some people who can’t make the transition to what you’re doing and you need to be ready to accept that. But if you take the mindset that you’re all on the same team working toward the same goal, you’ll stand a better chance at achieving success.

“We see the results,” Tene says. “The sales are jumping.”

How to reach: Peak Corporate Network, (818) 591-3300 or www.peakcorp.com

Don’t give up

When you’re taking on major changes in your business, you’ll undoubtedly face a situation where someone isn’t ready to do what you need them to do. You’d be a pretty cold and heartless person if you just cast them aside without checking first to see if they could help you in other areas.

“Some of the stuff we’ve implemented has shown us that someone might not be right for the position they are in,” Priel says. “So we think and we strategize about how that person has a lot of qualities. Where can we utilize those qualities? We’ve had several people where we’ve moved them from one company to the other or one division to the other and they have succeeded. We’re trying to set people up for success, not for failure. Before we ever fire someone or lay someone off, we think about where he could be useful. What strengths does that person have?”

Published in Los Angeles

David Hoffmann has never tried to make DHR International Inc. the most affordable executive search firm in the market. His goal since launching the firm in 1989 has been to provide the most value to his clients.

And despite an economy that still has some business leaders feeling skittish about their finances, Hoffmann says his philosophy about pricing still fits.

“The overall competitive global landscape that we are all dealing with today makes price a secondary issue,” says Hoffmann, founder, chairman and CEO at the 410-employee firm.

“[Clients] are more interested in something that can change the marketplace and give them a competitive advantage that before this product or service offering, they didn’t have. In almost any business you can think of, they are all going after market share.”

Pricing may be more important in some industries and less important in others. But however your clients feel about your costs, how can you get them to really focus on the great value that your company wants to provide them through your product or service?

“If you’re going to have that ‘McDonald’s hamburger’ around the world, you need to be consistent,” Hoffmann says. “Any great company has a consistency with its message and a consistency with its product. General Motors is a big client of ours and those cars are distributed all around the world.

“They pretty much function the same in any part of the world as they do in Detroit where they are manufactured. Consistency of quality and consistency of brand is critical when you’re thinking about growing a company at any level.”

That doesn’t mean that you come up with one way to do something and then never change. It means you’re consistent about how your product is presented, consistent about how it is packaged and consistent about the way you respond to concerns.

“We say, ‘Look, not only are we going to find you the best executive to fill this need, but we’re going to tell you how we did it, demonstrate how we did it and build a competency that tells you that this is not just a good candidate, this is the best candidate on the planet and here’s why,’” Hoffmann says.

You need to be the kind of company that clients know they can turn to for anything and you’ll come through for them. You build a reputation and they just expect you to come up with great results.

Those results don’t just come from your own initiative, however. They come from an intense and consistent study of your competition.

“One needs to look at the competition and say, ‘OK, where are they weak?’” Hoffmann says.

Go back to the time when you launched or took over your business and identified a need you wanted to tackle in the marketplace.

“You had to see a need or why would you have started the business?” Hoffmann says. “I would define those needs and then I would exploit those needs in terms of messages to the marketplace. It could be that my widget has a lifespan that is 50 percent longer than the next competitor’s lifespan. Be able to demonstrate that is factually correct.”

The key is you’re constantly focused on your product or service and never assuming that you’ve got it all figured out.

“One needs to explore their competition, analyze their weaknesses, create a product around those weaknesses and exploit it to the potential customer base in a way that is going to be effective through advertising, marketing or media placements,” Hoffmann says.

“You have to be adaptable to change in a changing environment and evolve, but keep the fundamentals of that business intact. At the same time, you have to be anchored to that which made you successful in the first place.”

Being consistently great is never easy, but it’s what your goal needs to be. Don’t be afraid to use your team to make it happen.

“It’s getting everybody together and saying, ‘Look, in 30 days, let’s go out and figure out what our competition is doing and see how we can differentiate,’” Hoffmann says. “It’s not a bad starting point.”

How to reach: DHR International Inc., (312) 782-1581 or www.dhrinternational.com

Do your homework

Studying your competition is a very different thing than copying what they are doing. You’re trying to take what they do and do it better, says David Hoffmann, founder, chairman and CEO at DHR International Inc.

“The way I did it is I looked at our competition that was much bigger than us and I looked at their outlets that they utilized to get their message out,” Hoffmann says. “So we looked at the competition of the big five search firms in the world. Today, we’re one of those.

“Look at who is doing it really well, look at where they are going and take aspects that you think you can capitalize on in whatever business endeavor you’re in. Some of those will be attainable and some of them won’t.”

Hoffmann knew he couldn’t replicate the kind of advertising campaigns of companies such as Coca-Cola or Budweiser. But he found ways to sell his brand in a way fit his budget.

“There is just a whole host of ways to get one’s name and brand to the marketplace,” Hoffmann says. “You’ve just got to see what fits.”

Published in Chicago

Kurt Artinger turned an idea he had 10 years ago into a 40-employee business that made $8.1 million in 2010. Replacement Services LLC, which helps people find replacements for their lost or stolen jewelry, grew at an average annual rate of 30 percent over its first decade.

Few would have questioned Artinger if he slid into cruise control and just tried to keep a good thing going as long as he could, especially at a time when so many companies are struggling.

But Artinger had no plans to take his foot off the gas pedal. He wanted to grow even faster.

“If you’re thinking about continuous improvement, then I don’t care what I developed two years ago,” says Artinger, the company’s founder and CEO. “What I’m going to develop a year from now is going to be a heck of a lot better than what I did two years ago.”

In order to make that thought a reality, Artinger accepted that substantial changes might be necessary. The difference this time as compared to when he founded the company was that he now had a group of people around him to assist with devising a winning plan.

“So we sat down with basically a blank sheet of paper on a wall that was about 8 feet long and we put our value stream process down,” Artinger says. “What processes can we eliminate? What has value to our clients? Is that value worth that touch? We started identifying how to streamline what it is that we do.”

Artinger wanted to get down on paper every step that his company took to deliver a service to its customers. The goal was to figure out which processes worked really well and which ones required some tweaking to improve performance.

“That’s the reality of growing a company,” Artinger says. “The little problems that you have aren’t that huge, they are little problems. But if you double it or triple it, those problems become huge. So that’s what you have to identify.”

It becomes a simple process if you can set aside your ego and listen to what your people are telling you.

“Egos get in the way of so many good leaders,” Artinger says. “They have the ability to lead and change, but your ego comes into play and it’s like, ‘Is it about me personally or is it about the company?’”

Artinger just wanted the business to keep growing. Ideas that rose to the surface included achieving better inventory control and finding a simpler way to track items through the system.

If these problems were solved and the company grew even faster, Artinger would get all the glory he wanted. More importantly, his people who made great contributions to the effort by identifying key issues that needed to be addressed would get recognition and take a big step toward becoming leaders themselves.

Artinger just needed to take the time to work with them and see what thoughts they had in mind to integrate their ideas into the company’s work flow processes.

“It would be real easy for me to sit there and say, ‘You know what? That’s a great idea. Here’s what we’ve got to do,’” Artinger says. “If I do that, have I put them in position to be a potential leader later on? I haven’t. I’ve just solved the problem. It’s not my intention to beat them up, but to help them have a well-thought out plan.”

When your people have suggestions, ask questions to see how much thought they have put into it and don’t put them in a position to wait to be told what to do next.

“I don’t want to dictate how to resolve issues or problems,” Artinger says. “I want them to tell me what they think the solution is because I’m always learning how my people think.”

Through this effort which began in January 2011, Replacement Services has made progress, especially with its shipping department.

“We took a process that was about three days and our average turnaround time now is three hours,” Artinger says. “We exceed customer expectations and that’s one of the big things we look at.”

How to reach: Replacement Services LLC, (888) 205-2522 or www.replacementservices.com

Show your passion

Kurt Artinger looks forward to getting hit with a challenge when he arrives at work every morning. It’s what makes leading Replacement Services LLC fun.

“If you’re managing a group of people and/or you’re the CEO of a company, you have to be passionate about what it is that you do,” says Artinger, founder and CEO at the 40-employee insured jewelry replacement company. “In this environment, I don’t hit near as many walls as I used to. It’s always growing, always learning and always continuous improvement.”

Your people are going to look to you for clues about whether or not they should be excited about a new initiative or a new way of doing things. And one of the best ways to build excitement is through inclusion in the work that needs to be done.

“I’ve got people who say the only way I’m leaving the company is if you pry my dead butt from the seat,” Artinger says. “And that’s because they have value. That’s what people want, to be valued as employees and valued as people. If you do that, you’re going to have a very successful company.”

Published in St. Louis

Courtney Lyder was curious. He wanted to know how many of his employees at the UCLA School of Nursing had read the most recent 10-year plan that was about to expire. It was more than 20 pages long and Lyder had a pretty good idea what kind of response he was going to get.

“The answer was very few,” says Lyder, who is dean at the 150-employee school. “My rational was if we have a plan that is 20 pages long that no one is going to read, why do we have it?”

Unfortunately for his team, Lyder had a solution.

“So I was convinced that a 20-page plan is something that no one is going to read,” Lyder says. “And 10 years is a very long time in business. So I said I wanted a new plan that was no more than five pages. They said, ‘You’re crazy. It’s not going to happen.’”

So what do you do when you see something that needs to be done and your people don’t believe they can do it? You can start out by giving them reassurance that they can in fact do it, but you then need to move quickly into selling your plan as to how they actually will do it.

“There has to be a sense of trust between the leader and the employees,” Lyder says. “They have to buy into the sales pitch.”

Lyder talked about how important it is for an organization to have direction. People need to know why they are doing what they are doing and what it actually accomplishes.

“For me, if I don’t have a plan, I don’t know what I’m doing,” Lyder says. “If we don’t know what we are aspiring to, then how are we going to look at tomorrow?”

Lyder needed to sell his team on the need for a plan, but he also needed to sell them on a plan to develop that plan.

“Knowing the culture of my organization, I have discovered that we get much more buy-in when people feel part of the decision-making process,” Lyder says.

So Lyder created a task force. He selected the people for the group because he felt like he could construct a team that would work well together and have a good shot at accomplishing his directive. He didn’t want to force anyone to join it and he didn’t want people who would just give each piece of the project a rubber stamp.

“I wanted people who would critically analyze and look at our brand and the previous plan and ask questions,” Lyder says. “How will we reimagine what we do?”

Ideally, you create a task force that has an odd number of people. And it really shouldn’t have more than 15 people if you want it to function effectively.

“If you have more than 15 people on a task force, it just becomes chaos,” Lyder says.

Once the task force was put together and a chairman was appointed to lead it, Lyder backed off and let them do their work.

“The key is if you’re getting regular routine updates on the progress or lack of progress,” Lyder says. “If I saw after two months that one page was written, that’s when I would intervene. That’s why it’s key for me being the leader to be in frequent conversations with the chair to get my finger on the pulse of what’s going on. It’s not that I want to shape what’s going on, but that they are moving. And if they are not moving, what’s the rationale? Maybe I do need to pay a visit.”

By taking a more hands-off approach while at the same time being an encouraging voice of support, Lyder’s team came through and came up with a new plan that looked at the next three to five years and was just two pages long.

“The key is to keep an open mind as to what the final product may be,” Lyder says. “Get the organization to embrace the document and make it a living document. In this particular exercise, the task force did a sterling job.”

How to reach: UCLA School of Nursing, (310) 825-3109 or nursing.ucla.edu

Give people a voice

One of the key aspects of developing a strategic plan is getting the support of everyone in your organization. You need to make everyone feel like they had a voice in its creation.

Courtney Lyder knew there was no way he could put all 150 of his people on a strategic planing task force and expect to get anything other than chaos. But he wanted those people who weren’t on the 11-member task force to feel like they were given a chance to offer their thoughts.

“We all have our biases,” Lyder says. “We all have to recognize that even the leader is biased to some extent. So you give every single employee ample opportunity to critique and to ask questions. Give them a chance to say, ‘This is crazy,’ or whatever.

Then you can go back to the committee and say, ‘We need to think about this perspective.’ Sometimes we might go, ‘That was a great suggestion. Why didn’t we think about that?’ As long as people think the process is transparent and have an opportunity to critique it, that alleviates a lot of the anxiety about the task force.”

Published in Los Angeles

Pat Whitaker was ready to step away from the day-to-day responsibilities of running Arcturis. But she wasn’t prepared just yet to give it all up and call it a career.

With that thought in mind, Whitaker did some research and found that with a lot of workspace design firms, there was no succession plan in place to ensure a smooth transition from one leader to the next.

“One thing I didn’t want to do was sell my company to an outside source,” says Whitaker, founder and CEO at the 50-employee company. “I wanted the people here to own it.”

In order to make that happen, Whitaker needed to find someone who she would feel comfortable with as the new leader. She wasn’t looking for a clone of herself, but she did want to find someone who shared her values.

“They can have a little bit of a different strategy about how to get there,” Whitaker says. “But if their basic values and basic vision is drastically different, it’s probably not going to work.”

Whitaker began the process by asking employees to step forward who had an interest in taking over as company president. She then asked them to write an essay.

“I asked them to write a description of why they thought they should have the job, and they all did that,” Whitaker says. “One person thought he was entitled to the job because he had been here a long time. Another person thought he should have it because of his marketing skills. And the third person, she wanted to make a really good contribution to the firm and the future. She was much more visionary.”

It was what Whitaker was looking for. You need people who care more about the big picture than their own needs or their own skill set to serve as leaders in your organization.

“It’s got to be somebody who is a strategic thinker as well as a tactical thinker,” Whitaker says. “Lots of people think they are strategic thinkers and they are not. So that perception kind of came out.”

Whitaker composed a job description for company president and began to dig deeper into what each person brought to the table to see where there were matches.

“You have to develop a job description so that even though they see what you do, they kind of know what’s involved in the job,” Whitaker says. “Then you have to ask them. I spent time with them. I don’t know that I exactly interviewed them, but I did ask them why they wanted the job and I sort of vetted them that way. It’s not like I didn’t know them. I knew all these people pretty well.”

But her own intuition couldn’t be the sole basis of her decision. In any personnel choice as important as that, Whitaker says you’ve got to do psychological testing.

“If I look back three years ago, a person who I thought was going to be really good in that role was absolutely the wrong person,” Whitaker says. “After the testing was done, I could see those traits in the person. They were really good at one thing, but they weren’t the right kind of person to lead the firm.”

If you haven’t used psychological testing before to help with personnel decisions, Whitaker says it’s a good tool to test leadership skills.

“Part of it is an intelligence test,” Whitaker says. “Will people follow you or not? What kind of marketing experience do you have? How dedicated are you?”

Whitaker did not want an important matter such as this to be decided in a rush. It helped that she wasn’t in a hurry to leave the company and wasn’t even going to leave completely once a successor had been chosen.

In the end, the methodical approach brought Whitaker to the right successor. Traci O’Bryan was named president in July 2010. And while it hasn’t been easy, Whitaker has learned to let O’Bryan find her own way was as a leader.

“You just have to keep your mouth shut,” Whitaker says. “Just because it’s different than the way I would handle it, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

How to reach: Arcturis, (314) 206-7100 or www.arcturis.com

Know your place

Pat Whitaker lets Traci O’Bryan come to her if she has a question about something that needs to be addressed at Arcturis.

“If she needs advice from me, I give it to her,” says Whitaker, founder and CEO at the 50-employee design firm. “But she makes the decisions. At first, she didn’t really make them too often. But after a couple months, she started doing it.”

Whitaker says O’Bryan still reports to her, but it’s O’Bryan’s company to lead and manage.

“She’s running all that stuff and I’m coaching her and working with her and doing marketing to try to get the firm work,” Whitaker says.

There are still times, however, when Whitaker misses being on top.

“If there’s a meeting that I usually go to, I tell them, ‘Oh, I don’t really need to go to that meeting,’” Whitaker says. “And then I say, ‘Oh, you didn’t invite me to that meeting.’ You want both things that are in conflict with each other. But I’m getting used to it now. It’s been over a year, and it’s getting better.”

Published in St. Louis

As the president of the traveling exhibition company, American Exhibitions Inc., Marcus Corwin knows that creating the “blockbuster” exhibitions that the public wants to see involves creativity and ingenuity. But it also takes a lot of patience and upfront research.

“You don’t get Broadway successes overnight,” says Corwin, who joined the Boca Raton, Fla.-based exhibition company in 2006. “Most of them don’t make it. So how do you create something that people are going to want to see, that they’re going to be excited about, they’re going to be engaged?”

The company must develop new products all the time that it knows will resonate with customers. Corwin says that step one is figure out what fascinates and excites your potential audience — a million-dollar question for any business. This was the goal he had in mind when the organization developed its Mummies of the World exhibition, which focuses on a topic that has fascinated people for centuries.

“When Pepsi or Coca-Cola go to design a new soda, they’ve gone and done some focus groups, they’ve done some development, spent money on marketing,” he says. “And as good as they are, sometimes they get it wrong. So with regard to how do you find a product that you want to bring to market … sometimes we have it in our gut.”

Part of creating a hit with customers is having a sense for what the public wants by doing your homework and knowing who your customer is. By looking at similar exhibits that resonated with consumers, for example, Corwin was able to recognize trends toward subject matter such as human anatomy. The fact that these exhibits were extremely popular with consumers around the world evolved into the concept of mummies.

“Our thought process was what else would be people interested in seeing, because people are always interested in their history and the cultures that came before them,” Corwin says.

From there, it’s finding out how much they like it, what aspects resonate and most importantly whether they will pay and how much they will pay for it.

“We went and we had focus groups here in Florida,” Corwin says. “We had focus groups in Boston, Mass., and we had focus groups in Philadelphia — all which helped us identify the public’s perceptions of mummies and the public’s needs of why they choose an exhibition to come to, why they chose a museum to come to, how they spend their money and what are their trigger points in coming to see an exhibition like mummies.”

With focus groups, it’s important to examine a variety of feedback. Corwin specifically wanted to know which points of interest appealed to the majority of the audience, what price points could turn that interest into business, and which marketing materials were inviting versus frightening.

In the end, the company was able to put together the largest collection of mummies ever assembled in history from Egypt, South America, Asia and Oceania.

“We’ve had over 500,000 people see the exhibit already,” Corwin says. “Over 85 percent of them liked the exhibit a lot and would recommend the exhibit to their friends, family and relatives.”

Corwin says that when you have a product that’s successful, you need to then be asking yourself questions such as “What is our progression of additional product?” and “How do we continue to grow?” so you are always building on success.

Since the company opened the exhibit, it has done exit surveys at every location to determine what drove customers to attend and what they did and didn’t like so they can continue to improve the product. Now that it has built this brand and knows that people like mummies, Corwin says the next venture is to create sequels, such as Mummies II.

“From my company’s viewpoint, it’s almost like being at the helm of an ocean freighter,” Corwin says. “When you’re at the helm of an ocean freighter, you are looking way ahead, because it’s going to take you a period of time to shift the direction and speed of the ship. So I’m looking not one year out, but where am I going to be two, three, four, five years out with our company.”

How to reach: American Exhibitions Inc., (561) 482-2088 or www.americanexhibitions.com

Considering costs

In any kind of strategic planning, budgeting is very important. When you’re putting on a nationwide exhibition for thousands of people, it’s critical to map out your budget as clearly as possible so you can deliver for your partners and customers.

“The budget and forecasting is the premise of why you’re going forward with a project,” says Marcus Corwin, president of the exhibition company American Exhibitions Inc.

This was the greatest difficulty for Corwin and his team as they planned for “Mummies of the World,” especially because the economy is so uncertain.

“Sometimes we’re in a strong economy,” he says. “Sometimes we’re in a weaker economy. You can only make the best effort that you can do, but sometimes with the outcome, you are powerless.”

Once the budget and forecast make sense, being able to execute on that successfully involves a number of factors. One of the most important things to keep in mind is not getting carried away with ideas that haven’t been thoroughly vetted and can end up draining more resources or money than you have available. By making sure you are effectively planning and managing the costs, you can deliver your product at a better cost and profit.

“You have to deliver your product within those parameters,” Corwin says. “We found like typical in all worlds, designers have great ideas. And sometimes those ideas are pie in the sky and you have to be able to make sure that those ideas work, those ideas work within a budget and that the exhibit can be produced within that budget.”

Published in Florida

Javier LaFianza will listen to any idea an employee offers up or any suggestion he might get from one of the 4,000 volunteers at Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, more commonly known as HOBY.

That doesn’t mean he’ll always agree with it or even think it’s an idea worth pursuing. But he will listen and give the person a chance to make their case for whatever point they are trying to make.

“If people are giving you two or three suggestions and you’re shooting every single one of them down, they will be left with the impression that this isn’t real,” says LaFianza, the youth leadership training organization’s president and CEO.

The “this” is the idea that you are an open-minded leader who has an open-door policy and wants to hear from your people.

“If the only way you’re communicating is through memos, e-mails and big staff meetings, you’re just reinforcing the perception that you’re higher up, you’re not all that interested and that communication is a one-way street in your organization,” LaFianza says.

So if your suggestion box is covered with a thick layer of dust, it may be more of a punch line for your employees than an actual tool that makes them feel empowered. You can start to turn things around by first closing your mouth and paying close attention to what your people have to say.

“If you listen to them and you say, ‘Thank you for sharing, thank you for your feedback, I’ll consider that,’ they feel like they have been heard,” LaFianza says. “They appreciate that a great deal more. You still may not end up going along with their idea. But at least you listened. That is something that really helps.”

There may even be times when your people bring up an idea that is worth implementing. LaFianza recalls an experience at a job he had before coming to HOBY.

“It functioned a lot like an insurance company would in terms of processing claims from providers, mainly child-care providers,” LaFianza says. “We didn’t have a single place where providers or parents who had complaints or issues or needed particular help, we didn’t have a single place for them to go. One of the line-level staff said, ‘Maybe we should set up a customer service center and have a group of people who are dedicated to processing some of those issues. We set that up and it increased our customer satisfaction dramatically.”

LaFianza says senior leaders need to know their place in their organization and try to stick to it.

“Your job is really to develop a strategic priority, develop the metrics and develop the strategy on how you’re going to achieve those things,” LaFianza says. “Then you turn it over to the rest of the staff or your managers to implement that. You have to trust them to do that and hold them accountable. Otherwise, you’re wasting time, talent and money.”

So if you want your company to be known for providing great customer service, explain that message to your leaders and then let them figure out how to make it happen.

“If you’re doing that and you trust your managers and they feel empowered and they’re making a difference and implementing and are able to be innovative and creative, you’ll find people will work harder and be more efficient and more excited and happy with their jobs,” LaFianza says. “That will trickle throughout your organization.”

HOBY is all about teaching young people about being leaders and so it would be inconsistent if LaFianza didn’t lead with the same philosophy. But it’s a philosophy that applies to any type of business.

“If people feel like they are going to lose their job immediately on every project, they are going to be paralyzed and they’re not going to develop their leadership and management style,” LaFianza says. “They need to feel like it’s a safe environment and they can take a risk, within reason. If it doesn’t work out, they can learn from it, do a diagnostic and move on. You’re going to be instilling a culture of learning and discipline and not just a culture of shame and fear.”

How to reach: Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, (818) 851-3980 or www.hoby.org

Look for the signs

Javier LaFianza has learned to identify leadership traits in individuals at a very young age. That might have a little to do with the fact that he’s president and CEO at Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, a not-for-profit organization that has helped more than 375,000 youngsters hone their skills as future leaders.

“As a leader, some traits I look out for are if someone is taking an initiative,” LaFianza says. “Is someone speaking up both with positive ideas and what may be frustrating them? Are they offering very good suggestions? Are they not just complaining, but following up their complaint with a suggestion? Are they able to communicate clearly enough so that people are gravitating toward them and getting bought into their idea?”

And perhaps most important, are they willing to go along with someone else’s idea if their idea is not chosen?

“If you’ve made a decision that you’re going to go down this road instead, are they able to get on board and implement it and make it successful?” LaFianza says. “Those are all key signs to me.”

Published in Los Angeles

Dan Croft doesn’t train his employees as much as he should at Mission Critical Wireless LLC. It’s a fact he freely admits, but he just doesn’t have the time to do it.

“If somebody tells me I don’t train them enough, I say, ‘I agree with you, I don’t train you enough,’” says Croft, the 100-employee company’s founder, president and CEO. “I will tell a prospective employee, ‘Do not accept a position with us, even if we offer it to you, if you are not absolutely passionate about wireless, because I cannot pay you enough and train you enough to know what you need to know. You have to take an incredible amount of self-initiative.’”

Croft operates in an industry that is changing by the second. Mission Critical helps clients find the right wireless mobility solution for its needs. Five years ago, the most common answer centered on a BlackBerry. Now, he and his clients have a whole range of products to choose from, and those clients expect Croft to help them make the right choice.

“We have to be ahead of the curve in terms of our knowledge and experience with mobility technology,” Croft says. “That means you can never sit still.”

So Croft’s challenge is to find people who have technical expertise as well as the ability to relate to people and help clients get to the root of their needs.

“I can’t hire somebody off the street and put them to work the next day,” Croft says. “We’ve developed our own battery of technical competency tests that we use as predictors of their capacity to get down the learning curve. But we will also probe them during the interview process just looking for signs that in their life, they were always curious and looking to gain knowledge beyond what the basics of the job required.”

When he interviews prospective employees, Croft tries to see if they have what it takes to thrive in a business that is constantly changing.

“I’ll ask a prospect, ‘Give me an example of something you learned outside the company that you brought into the company,’ as opposed to, ‘Did the company train you properly?’” ne says. “Tell me about the most difficult client you’ve had to deal with and give me an example of how you dealt with them when they were very upset and unhappy. I’m not necessarily looking for whether what they did was the proper thing to do.

“What I’m looking for is were they able to think outside the box? Were they able to really determine the source of dissatisfaction and come up with creative ways to address the root cause of why a customer or client was unhappy? See how they respond under duress. When you are in the services business, I guarantee every single client is going to have something they are concerned with.”

The key to having a work force that does what you need them to do is your ability to articulate your expectations before you make the hire.

“If you don’t instill in the individual that, ultimately, they own the responsibility to be as knowledgeable about what we do and the product space that we participate in, if they don’t own that responsibility and take it seriously, they will never be successful,” Croft says.

It’s a cliché for many companies, but for Croft, the importance placed on achieving great customer service seems to make sense.

“I only have my service,” Croft says. “If I don’t do this well, if I don’t service you well, I’m out of business. That’s all I have. There is no other measure of my success.”

How to reach: Mission Critical Wireless LLC, (866) 629-7070 or www.missioncriticalwireless.com

Don’t be the hero

Dan Croft doesn’t want to be the smartest guy in the room in the eyes of his clients. His goal is to make the people who lead the businesses his company serves look good in the eyes of their employees.

“One of our challenges is always that our clients view us not as, ‘Well, we’re going to use them because we’re not capable of doing this,’” says Croft, founder, president and CEO at Mission Critical Wireless LLC. “If that’s the basis of the relationship, there’s always going to be some friction that you really don’t want to deal with.

“We work very hard at letting them know that when they engage with us, they’re picking up their own staff. It’s their staff. We work for them.”

Croft is proud of the expertise his 100-employee wireless mobility company provides, but he doesn’t hold it over his clients.

“Our goal is to make our clients — and typically our client is an IT manager or a director or a CIO — our goal is to make them heroes and to make them look great,” Croft says.

Published in Chicago

Frank Porter wanted to get people more engaged in the key decisions that had to be made at Central Cadillac, but he found that employees and even department heads weren’t as eager as he thought to be brought into this circle of trust.

“They were used to funneling information up the chain and waiting for a decision to come down,” says Porter, the car dealership’s president. “It took a long time to embrace the fact that you’ve got all the facts there in front of you and as a department head, while you can certainly discuss it with me, I would expect you to make the decision.”

Central Cadillac was founded by Porter’s grandfather about 70 years ago and he was then followed by Porter’s father, who took the helm in the 1960s. His father brought an authoritarian management style to the job that was not a fit in any way with Porter’s personality.

Porter was surprised, however, that his attempt to bring collaboration and open discussion into the mix at the 75-employee company was met with such anxiety.

“I thought this would be something that would be a couple meetings and we would just sail out,” Porter says. “I thought this was what my department heads were looking for. I found that we had to change the entire culture, the whole way they had been brought up and managed up to that point. So no, it was not easy. I was surprised at how tough it was.”

The big hurdle to transforming the car dealership’s culture was instilling enough confidence in his leaders to be willing to make decisions without seeking out his help and advice.

“They wanted someone else to make the decision,” Porter says. “They didn’t feel at all comfortable sitting down with employees and talking through an issue and talking through a potential solution and getting their buy-in.”

Porter’s initial lesson to his leaders was that you can’t fear making a bad decision.

“If I make a wrong decision, I’m not going to get blasted for it,” Porter says. “That’s part of the learning process. Sometimes, wrong decisions are better than no decisions. Usually they are. It was a whole process that we went through with all the department heads.”

If you’re trying to transform a group of employees who haven’t had a lot of input up to that point, create situations where they can offer their feedback.

“We revamped our mission statement,” Porter says. “That was done by an interdepartmental group of employees that put it together and worked it. They came up with some basics as to how to guide our employee group in making decisions.”

Take part in those meetings, at least at first, and demonstrate and actively encourage people that it’s OK to offer their opinion, even if they don’t fit in with what the leaders at the top believe.

“You have to bring out in those meetings that it’s alright to discuss a problem,” Porter says. “It’s alright to criticize your manager. It’s the only way we’re going to move forward.”

Porter sees leadership as less about removing obstacles from his employees’ path and more about showing his employees how they can take part in removing those obstacles.

“I think we clear obstacles as a team,” Porter says. “If we’ve got things running in the right direction and if we have people who are self-empowered and working collaboratively within both their department and in the organization, I should be able to get out of their way and let them run. There are always going to be situations that pop up where you have to sit down and say, ‘OK, we’re faced with this issue. How do we best address it?’”

If you create a collaborative environment, your people will have more answers than questions about this concern.

“Give people an opportunity to have some control over their own destiny,” Porter says.

How to reach: Central Cadillac, (866) 733-1822 or www.centralcadillac.com

Talk about it

The only thing worse than leading an organization and not giving your people any control over their own destiny is misleading your people into believing that they have control over that destiny.

“There’s nothing worse than having the responsibility and no authority,” says Frank Porter, president at Central Cadillac. “In that situation, your people kind of throw their arms in the air and say it’s never going to get solved.”

One of the challenges for Porter at Central Cadillac was convincing his employees that he really did want to give them more authority and more power in how the 75-employee car dealership operates.

Success with this or any other operational problem often comes down to your willingness to sit down and talk it out.

“If there’s an issue that is more outside the framework of what they have experienced in the past, I might say, ‘Why don’t you get your facts together on that and let’s sit down and discuss it,’” Porter says. “We can talk through the situation and the issues. If they need more assistance in making that decision, there may be other resources I can bring to bear that would help them."

Published in Cleveland

Bill Giesler has had to endure more change at Pedco E&A Services Inc. in the past five years than the company has had in its 30-year history. The climate of the current economy, the moves necessary to adapt to it, clients’ changing needs, and the start of retiring baby boomers has given the company a wake up call.

Giesler, Pedco’s owner and president, knew that with all this happening around the 84-employee design and consulting firm, business operations and the way leadership looked at the company had to change.

“We said, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got to really change how we look at this business, how we manage the business, and how we lead the business,’” Giesler says. “In the last five years, this company has made a right turn from wherever we were headed; we deviated significantly from that path and really took control of our destiny as opposed to just floating down the river and going wherever it was taking us.”

That revelation and the ongoing changes inside and outside the business led the company to explore strategic planning.

“Our clients are changing in the downturn and they’re getting leaner and meaner and looking for quicker, better, cheaper ways of doing business, and we’ve really got to stay in alignment with where they are and what they’re doing,” Giesler says. “It really boils down to managing change. A lot of changes have been occurring over the last couple of years and just trying to stay in alignment with our clients on one side and then on the internal piece, we’ve got a lot of transitions occurring internally.”

The company had run itself tactically over the years and needed help making the transition to more strategic business and processes

“Over the last five years we’ve really opened ourselves up to bringing in outside experts and we brought them in for marketing, business development, HR, strategic planning, project management training and not just local experts but national experts as well,” he says. “What we’ve done is really tried to learn what the best practices are nationally and those that apply to us that we can use we grasp those and implemented those into our processes and how we look at the business.”

Trying to problem solve challenges internally was no longer garnering the best results. Giesler needed to strategize about how the company could improve for the future.

“You have to start off with strategic planning. … Think strategically and be open to using outside advisers and experts to understand best practices industrywide and utilize that,” he says. “The process that we went through recently is we discovered to a deeper level who we are. We developed six critical success factors to our business and we had really never thought of our business in those terms. Once you kind of focus on that you understand what drives what.”

Strategic planning is a great way to make your company nimble and adaptable to change. To get the most out of it you have to involve a team.

“You need to involve a cross-functional team in that process,” he says. “When we started out revisiting our process we were just going to use three or four of the very senior people to develop the plan. To have success at that strategic planning process and really get buy-in and then be able to implement it you need to involve a whole lot more people and it needs to be cross-functional. You need to reach out into every part of the organization that has an important role and involve somebody at some level in the process.”

HOW TO REACH: Pedco E&A Services Inc., (513) 782-4920 or www.pedcoea.com  

Roll with the changes

As a result of a new strategic plan, Bill Gielser, president of Pedco E&A Services, kept pace with change by finding out more from the company’s clients.

“It’s really developing your critical success factors, action plans and priorities as a result of the strategic planning process,” he says. “You have to continue to have those high-level meetings on a periodic basis to make sure that you’re staying in alignment.”

Surveying and measuring customer satisfaction in some way shape or form is an important process.

“It really takes a lot of doubt out of how well you are doing,” Giesler says. “We also do an annual survey to understand what’s going right and what’s not and we look for themes. We’ve really implemented that strategy so that we stay close to them and that we’re looking at that and analyzing that and really setting goals based on that on an annual basis.”

Along with staying aligned with customers, it is critical that you continue to invest in your resources as much as possible.

“A lot of times the first thing to get cut in a recession is investing in training and development and I would really challenge people to do your utmost best to continue to invest in those things even though it’s a down economy,” he says. “That will pay dividends over and over and over as you move forward and as you come out of the down economy.”

Published in Cincinnati
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