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Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Training opportunities

Charlotte A. Martin hates the word mistake.

“We want people to take risks, so you can’t very well hang them up to dry for a mistake if you want a culture of risk-taking and constant improvement,” she says.

The president and chief operating officer of Gateway EDI LLC refers to herself as the chief cultural officer, and in that role, she fosters an environment of risk-taking and idea-suggesting in order to develop employees and, ultimately, the company. Essentially, instead of bringing negative attention to mistakes, the company uses “training opportunities” to identify steps that could have been taken and ways employees can learn from the incident.

The positive spin has helped the electronic data interchange provider’s 260 employees generate $39 million in 2008 revenue. Now, not only are employees taking risks and responsibility for their actions, a Process Improvement Team has been created to encourage employees to take the lead on their ideas for company improvements.

Smart Business spoke with Martin about how to develop employees through a culture of learning.

Live the culture you want. The first thing I think that you have to do is make it an environment where people feel comfortable admitting that they made a mistake. Our whole culture is around customer satisfaction, making improvements, and so you want to create an environment where people don’t feel that they’re going to commit career suicide by admitting a mistake.

You have to do that first, and then you have to provide an example of people high up who admit mistakes and learn from it. Talk about it so that people at all levels feel comfortable. If I’m willing to do it, then other people will [be willing] too.

It sounds really simple, but it really has to be a culture from the top down, and it has to be a live-the-values-type thing every day. It can’t be, ‘Oh, this week, I’m going to do this, but in all other parts of my life here, I’m not going to live those values.’ It has to be the values that you show and live every day.

You don’t want to do this if you aren’t prepared to sift through a few failures. You have to be careful that you don’t have a culture of blame because if you start encouraging people to step forward and admit mistakes, and then learn from them and try to make improvements, if you punish people for that, it will never work.

Identify opportunities and work through solutions. Let’s say that somebody is working on a project and either that outcome doesn’t go well, or let’s say somebody is working on the front line and there is a miscommunication and a customer is upset and it escalates.

A supervisor gets information about this issue. So what they would do is have a conversation with that person and ask them, ‘Tell me what happened.’ You want to hear the whole (story). After you listen to them, you continue to ask them questions about, ‘You’ve thought about this. If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently? What could you have done to (make) this better? What preparations could we have made to handle this differently?’

If the person finds something that’s great, they’ll usually say to you, ‘Oh, I should’ve done such and such, and so I already went back to so-and-so, and I said this and this and this and that; now everything is fine.’ And they feel good about it.

If it’s a big enough issue … like an issue that affects a lot of people, we try to get employees to talk about it in their staff meeting. ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s what I did that I should’ve done better. Here’s how I fixed it. Here’s what I learned.’

But let’s say they don’t find anything that they could’ve done better, that it’s just sometimes things happen and you do your best and there isn’t any resolution. We really try hard not to blame people. We have what I would say a learning environment because it helps people grow and take risks. If you put their head on a totem pole, they’re going to keep it down.

Use specific language to reinforce your message. You don’t say ‘I,’ it’s always ‘We.’ Things are very much nonpersonalized so it’s ‘a plan’ or ‘the plan’ or ‘we did this.’

You never really single somebody out for any kind of negative reinforcement. You’ll single people out for positive reinforcement when they do something good, things that you wanted them to do. But if things don’t go well, you’re very careful not to do that.

Now, if somebody makes mistakes every day, they’re going to get reprimanded and we’re going to take care of it, but in general, people make mistakes because they don’t have enough information or because there was a misunderstanding on what they were supposed to do.

For us, if you look at it positively, then that’s the training opportunity.

Involve employees in positive opportunities. One of the ways, if an idea comes up, without scaring the person half to death — this is the old, parent-teacher-organization (model) — if you bring up an idea, you’re usually in charge of it. A lot of times, people won’t bring up ideas because they’re scared to be in charge, but along that line, if people bring up ideas, you want to encourage them to find a way to break it apart small enough that they feel good starting to take it on. There’s another training opportunity.

If someone has an idea, then you start asking them questions about, ‘Well, what do you mean? How would that work? How would that affect our customers? How would we move forward with it? Have you thought through those sorts of questions?’ You get people comfortable with solving problems and just sort of logically thinking through issues and ideas that they have.

There’s a lot of people with ideas, but that doesn’t mean a lot unless people know what to do with them.

How to reach: Gateway EDI LLC, (800) 969-3666 or www.gatewayedi.com

Published in St. Louis
Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

The voice of change

The path that carried BullsEye Telecom Inc. to its 10-year milestone this year has been full of dips, twists and turns. But Bill Oberlin, the company’s founder, chairman and CEO, relies on his customers like a compass, using their feedback to reveal new directions for the telecommunications solutions provider.

“If you ask people around here what’s the real constant, they would probably say change,” Oberlin says. “We have to adapt [to make] the customers happy.”

When Oberlin monitors how his 140 employees interact with customers, he tackles two tasks at once. He listens to the customers to gauge their satisfaction and to the employees to measure the service they provide. Then he tries to bridge the gap.

“Ensure your customers are satisfied,” he says. “Do everything you can to make them satisfied, because it costs too much to replace them.”

Oberlin’s approach has kept the company nimble and led it to 2008 revenue of about $65 million.

Smart Business spoke with Oberlin about staying in touch with your customers through your employees.

Monitor customer service. The major thing that any company should be watching is their own customers and the degree of customer satisfaction that they have. You have to listen every day to your customers.

Our executive staff — including me and directors, plus the people who are managing these accounts — all monitor calls. Every month, we have a different person we monitor. What we’re looking for there is what is it that we’re doing to satisfy customers and what could we do to impact it?

Not only do we pick up teeny little issues that we ought to have some training done on — how to present a new feature or something like that — but we pick up what customers are saying they need. Instead of getting it washed down by staff as it bubbles through the organization, it’s much better for us to get closer to the customer.

Are we formal enough with them, even though they may know their first name and be close to them [or] may have handled them for five years? [Do we] still treat them with respect? They’re our customers. Make sure that we thank them for their business. Make sure we tell them what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it.

My big thing is if you tell a customer you’re going to do something, do it. If you can’t do it for some reason, at least you should tell the customer. Tell them that you haven’t forgotten about them, that you’re following up. The worst thing for a customer is to expect something to be done and then they don’t hear anything. It does two things: No. 1, they think you’re not doing anything. And No. 2, it causes another call, and then you’re right back to where you started. I call it closing the loop. Make sure that we do what we say we’re going to do, and we do it on time.

Pinpoint problems. We hear what the customers hear, but we might find a problem with it. Like, ‘I’ll get back to you on that tomorrow,’ doesn’t sound bad to the customer. But it is bad if they should have known the answer to the question. So we pick up a lot in monitoring that we want to add to training. We want to isolate that for the whole group because it’s a question we’ve heard more than once or twice.

It’s highlighted by monitoring as to whether or not the whole group needs training on a new product or down to the individual level, where we heard something that says this person really doesn’t know how this works. We know that just from the repetition of monitoring. If it comes up all the time, you know it’s a problem that everybody needs to be trained on.

If it’s something we hear constantly, more likely a product or something that we’re not able to give them quickly via our system, we’ll say, ‘Hey, we need to enhance the system to make sure that our customers are satisfied right then and there on the phone.’

[If] we see that all of our account managers are having trouble describing this new product or how we do this particular thing, this way of processing an order, we’ll make that part of training.

It comes down to either [that or] it’s an individual issue that we hear on monitoring, and we’ll give them remedial training. Sometimes it is as simple as, ‘There are a lot of long pauses where you’re probably looking in the system or you’re thinking about something. But you’re spending time with a customer that you don’t need to. In those cases, maybe it’s better if you do call them back with an answer if you can’t get it right away.’

Share your results. For the top staff in the company to spend the time listening, it really helps. Not only does it help what we’re trying to do, which is customer satisfaction, but the people that are in finance, they very rarely know what customers are saying. It’s really an eye-opener for them. It really allows them to understand customers more.

We go over these monitorings in our meetings. Now, not everybody will listen to the whole monitoring, because that might have been 30 minutes or more. But everybody [hears], ‘This is what we need to work on.’ That’s what gets passed into training.

We don’t take all these monitorings and share it with the whole company so that Sally Jones’ bad call is shared by everybody. What we do is I find out that Sally Jones doesn’t know something about a product. That gets to account management, and they’ll talk to that employee or they’ll add training.

We are sending the monitoring down lower and lower in the company so more people can hear it. Not enough people in the company understand the value of a customer, what customers are saying, what customers want, and how hard it is to match up what customers want and what we provide.

How to reach: BullsEye Telecom Inc., (877) 438-2855 or www.bullseyetelecom.com

Published in Detroit
Monday, 26 October 2009 20:00

Learning from a mistake

David Comar didn’t think it could ever happen to him. He recently was looking to hire an employee at Genesis Direct and was completely charmed by the candidate’s personality during a job interview and decided to make the hire.

It turned out to be a mistake — one that Comar hopes he never makes again.

“I’m a little more careful than I was a year-and-a-half ago, and I’m making sure I get a lot more specific,” says Comar, co-founder, co-owner and principal at the private direct marketing company. “At least now I’ll be able to give a better reading on intent and effort and not just someone that speaks well.”

Comar, who also holds the title of vice president, has not changed his tune on the importance of personality and energy. In fact, he wants people who can fit in to the 110-employee company’s high-energy culture. The challenge is to assess the skills, assess the energy and make a good decision on whether to hire a person or not.

Smart Business spoke with Comar about how putting your best foot forward can help you find the right people.

Show your spirit. Folks respect me and respect the leadership of the company. We don’t demand it. They see how hard we work for our clients. They see we’re in the fray. It’s not some direction coming down from on high. It’s someone who is working directly with the client on an ongoing basis and getting the feedback they need to put together the correct programs.

It’s busy. There’s not a lot of downtime. Because of that, folks get involved. We set up good systems, we’re consistent with our message, and we have the right teams in place. Responsibilities are very clear and very measurable about whether folks are doing the job they need to do.

Share spirit with job candidates. Take a step back and ask what makes your company attractive either for a new client or for a new employee. You’re not selling your company; you’re creating a value proposition. It’s a value proposition for your client, and it’s a value proposition for your employee.

If the employees feels there is positive energy, a vision and a plan and all of this has been presented to them and people know where they’re going and there is some level of ongoing growth, hopefully, the employer can show that.

Make sure they talk to the folks of the company who share that same level of positive feel that I would as the owner of the company.

If you’re not able to hire the right employees, I don’t think you’re representing your company the right way. Let’s say the next day you were shutting down your company. Where would you want to go work? Obviously, you worked for someone at some point. Why did you work there? What companies did you feel best about and what did you do?

Employees need to understand their contribution to the company is well-represented in the actual job description. It’s not just, ‘Hey, we need an account manager.’ They need to know that their position is important.

Be specific. You can learn a lot more out by asking extremely specific questions. In other words, from a client services level, I would be asking about specific accounts they handled and specific situations they were in with clients and how they handled them. When they give me the answers, I would ask more specific questions. ‘Well, if that happened, then did this happen?’ They can walk you through the whole process in their own words. The more defined you can get in your questioning and how they handled specific situations, the more you can find out.

When you ask general questions, you get general answers. When we interview here, they see five or six different people. So I get a lot of input, too. People ask the questions that are required from the desk they sit at, and then we get a consensus and move forward.

It’s important that they have been part of the interview and approval process. If it’s like, ‘Here’s Joe; train Joe,’ that’s tough. They have been a part of it. They feel like, ‘I’ve made this decision along with everyone else here; I’m going to make this work.’

Don’t be mean. I’ve had people talk to me, professional interviewers, and tell me that my system is all wrong. And for all I know, it could be. They say ask uncomfortable questions and keep them on edge. I don’t know how to do that.

All I know how to do is give them a comfortable surrounding because that’s what I do for a living. That’s how I interview. You don’t get the answers you would get if they were uncomfortable or on the spot, which I think is what some interviewers say.

But I think I still get there, I just go a different way.

Provide a mentor. We have two or three stars in every single department and I park them with a star. They are going to be part of the team. Let’s say I put someone with an account manager. There’s account managers and production coordinators and folks that work within a team to support a client. So it’s to the advantage of the account manager to get those folks up to speed as quickly as possible.

They need additional resources for their team. So the training that they do is very self-serving. It’s the right thing to do for them. If they don’t get it based on that, that would be a real problem. I would question their future employment here. I think that’s pretty basic stuff. It’s not like you’re training someone to take your place. You’re training someone to be part of your resources and client services.

How to reach: Genesis Direct, (813) 855-4274 or www.genesisdirect.com

Published in Florida
Monday, 26 October 2009 20:00

Striving to be better

When Tony Argiz was rising through the ranks of his accounting and consulting firm, he took every evaluation seriously. If just one employee criticized him, he would devote the next year to improving that aspect of his leadership style.

Now as CEO and managing partner of Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra LLP, he encourages his 261 employees to seek progress in their career paths, as well.

“Obviously, they’re our No. 1 asset. It starts with our employees,” says Argiz, who led the company to fiscal 2008 revenue of $60.2 million. “If our employees aren’t happy and they’re not developing, we can’t really grow, and clients are going to not be satisfied.”

Argiz uses employees’ personality profiles to pair them with mentors and to deliver their evaluations. All the while, he stays in touch on a personal level to see how they’re tracking.

Smart Business spoke to Argiz about guiding your employees toward development.

Match mentors by personality. At the time of hire, we do a personality index on the individual. It’s called a predictive index. From 120 questions, it gives you four main components of the employees: whether they have leadership skills, whether they’re introverted or extroverted, whether they’re multitasked, and whether they’re detailed.

We determine: Is she going to be a business development person? Is it someone that is going to be more technical? We look at their strengths and try to gear them in developing their careers based on that personality index.

You use the input from the mentor’s PI and you also look at the new employee’s PI to match them based on personality. If their predictive index indicates that that employee is quite extroverted, that might be someone that we could develop as a business development [person]. They’re going to try to match that person with a mentor that’s been successful in the business development area. Or if that employee shows that they’re very detailed and multitasked and introverted, they might go to someone that’s highly technical.

One supervisor might have five mentees. They will go to lunch with them once a month and try to give them ideas: ‘What are your problems? What are you doing to succeed in your career? Are you getting your MBA? Are you studying for your CPA exam? Do you want to develop in other areas?’ Try to get that information upfront so that employees’ development path can be monitored and assisted.

We do it on a 12-month basis, so they have the ability every year to select someone else that they feel might have more of their traits. The only rules are that it be in the same department. You don’t want a mentor for an auditor to be in the tax department, because they really don’t work with each other. It has to be a supervisor that’s constantly working with that employee so they can help them through their careers on a day-to-day basis.

Evaluate employees’ progress. We try to make sure that they’re evaluated after each job and that that evaluation is discussed with them. Beyond that, at the annual basis, there’s a self-evaluation and also you evaluate your supervisors, and they evaluate you. It’s important information to read and stay up to date with so you can react and make adjustments.

As an example, for communication skills, the leadership evaluation [asks], ‘Keeps my team and others informed. Expresses thoughts clearly and forcefully. Is an active listener seeking to fully understand the meanings of others’ communication.’ Every supervisor and manager is graded on a possible score of 4 to a 1.

Say a supervisor ranks very low in the communication skills. You’re going to sit with them and get some feedback from the employees that work with that manager: How can the communication skills of that manager improve?

Say, ‘If I were to do this next time around, these are some of the techniques that I would use.’ Do it through a learning experience. Sit with that individual and give them some feedback as to how they can become more efficient and effective in doing that work next year. You’ve got to be constructive, but be honest with the individual, too. Ask them what they did [and] what they should be doing.

If a person’s got the leadership trait when they do the predictive index, you’re going to let them take it on their own a lot easier than if you’re talking to someone that draws on the left of the axis when it comes to leadership. They’re more of a follower. Knowing the strength of that individual on the predictive index, you’re going to go, ‘This person’s a leader,’ you just feed them the information. The person that’s more to the left of the axis on the leadership trait, you’re going to sit with them and go, ‘Here’s how it should be done.’ They want you to give them the road map.

Stay in touch. A lot of the problems with the employees don’t necessarily come up to the top. You don’t want them dying at the employee level. [It takes] constant communication with the employees to get that feedback. Don’t play the CEO role; play a humble role and communicate with the employee so you can fully understand what their problems are.

Lunch is probably one of the best places to really get them free of stress and let them open up. I try to … not have a meeting that’s set up on a certain time and ends by another time. Let people have a constant communication and jump around in questioning so you can, at the end of the conversation — however long it lasts — get a true feeling of how that employee feels about the firm and their progress.

It’s important to take it out of the office. In the office, you’ve got the phone, the e-mail, various things that are going to draw your attention, so outside of the office is always critical to get the employees relaxed and feel that you’re giving them 100 percent of your time.

How to reach: Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra LLP, (305) 373-5500 or www.mbafcpa.com

Published in Florida
Monday, 26 October 2009 20:00

A living example

The 10-year trek from manager to investor to owner hasn’t bloated Stacy Hastie’s ego. He knows he can get further by leading his team laterally than he can by charging ahead.

Since Hastie took control of Environmental Operations Inc. in 2002, he personalized the company’s mission. To him, “We do what we say we’ll do,” means he does what he asks employees to do.

He works side by side with employees to set an example at the company, which provides environmental consulting and contracting services as well as demolition and waste management.

“I walk in every day with a can-do attitude,” says the chairman and CEO. “That’s the only way to keep reminding them. You have to live it every day.”

The work force has grown to 150 people from 60 in 2002. And since 2004, revenue has rocketed from $7 million to more than $50 million.

Smart Business spoke with Hastie about setting an example for your company culture and bringing employees on board with passion.

Lead with passion. You all have to share in the same mission. If you don’t have buy-in from 100 percent, it’s next to impossible to grow a company. You need universal buy-in.

First of all, you’ve got to be able to sell it. And you can’t sell it by just speaking it. You have to live it, and they have to see you living it.

You have to lose a few, and they have to see you losing a few to really believe it. They’ve seen me lose a few where we lost pretty big dollars. But we still did what we said we would do. They need to see you in the bad times, too, not just the good times.

You need to stay positive. I’ve been calling the last few months, instead of an economic downturn, this is opportunity for us. So I’m kind of spinning it and they’re seeing it.

You don’t lose sight of your mission. You remain passionate and persistent. And you have to do that day in and day out. If you’re starting to second-guess yourself, it will start trickling down.

You can’t tell them you’re passionate. They have to sense and see you being passionate. You have to be sincere about it. They just see how excited I get when we come up with a good solution on a challenging project or how active our company is and I am in the community.

Work side by side. Secondly, you also have to do your best to train them and work side by side with them. Not just you and them one on one, but you and them with your client, maybe with the financial institution, with all parties involved in a transaction so they can see how you react in a meeting and how you read people and how you ask questions.

You need to know what the hot buttons are, and you need to understand how to ask the right questions to get the answers that you need so you can get that understanding. That just comes from experience. So I try to share my experience with everybody.

[You build trust] by not asking them to do something that you will not do. They see me working as hard as they do, if not harder, leading by example.

Our executive team, all of them have been in front of me with multiple clients. I call it baptism by fire. I make sure that they’re very active in the process. I don’t try to dominate it. You want to give them ownership. The first deal that they enhanced and facilitated, it’s a rewarding feeling for me because it’s very rewarding for them.

Gauge buy-in by attitude. Seeing is believing. They need to work side by side with you — at least on a few deals, I mean five, 10, 20 — and see how we approach the project. You can sit there and tell them what to do all day long, but the only way is to show them and let them experience it personally, sitting next to you. Then they see how it works, and it’s like a light bulb goes off all of a sudden.

It’s easy to tell by their performance, first of all, and it’s easy to tell if they have buy-in just by their overall attitude on a daily basis.

I evaluate the solutions that they’re bringing to me. You can tell a lot by those solutions.

If they’re coming in with a solution that is very expensive and it’s pretty obvious that there’s a less costly solution that may not make as much money for our company but it would save the client more money, they’re not bought in.

You can only work with them so long. If that type of performance continues, they don’t belong here. Do we kick them out the door the first time or two? No. You have to evaluate the person’s personality, their attitude, what you believe their capability is. That factors into how long you’re going to keep them here. Somebody you may give 90 days to buy in; somebody you may give three years to buy in.

Maybe they didn’t come up with the best solution but once you bring it up, they run with it gladly. You’re going to give that person a little more time. The person that fights you and doesn’t appreciate your critical analysis and doesn’t look at it as learning, that person’s going to be short-lived here.

Let them go. I don’t know how you can grow and micromanage. If you do grow and micromanage, I don’t know how you’re going to sustain growth or be successful.

You make sure they’re prepared before you release them. Once you release them, you’ve got to let them do it. You’ve got to let them make their own mistakes, and you’ve got to let them make their own successes.

Of course, if there’s a gross mistake going on, you need to bring it up and discuss it with your staff or the individual that’s working on it. But you’ve got to let them go with it, no matter how hard that is. Otherwise, you’re not going to continue to grow your entire organization.

How to reach: Environmental Operations Inc., (314) 241-0900 or www.environmentalops.com

Published in St. Louis
Monday, 26 October 2009 20:00

Staying ahead

Richard Glikes sees the change coming, and he’s telling everyone he can about it.

As the executive director of Home Theater Specialists of America, he knows that people have changed the way they think about home entertainment drastically in just the last few years — and the more technology improves, the more they’ll expect.

So at HTSA, the 60-member cooperative of home theater and systems integration specialists, Glikes is constantly pushing the group to be ready for tomorrow.

“The business model is changing rapidly,” says Glikes of the group, which did $450 million in sales last year. “Our members who are retail stores are going to end up being like general contractors, they’re going to be like technology specialists … and there’s going to be a lot of new technology that we’ll have to understand and communicate to them.”

Smart Business spoke with Glikes about how he keeps his priorities straight while keeping up with those changes and about what Bob Dylan taught him about training.

Stay on track. I had a directing project in graduate school at Villanova, and I had a scene that had about 15 people and I called a rehearsal and I’d gone to all my friends and said, ‘Do you want to be in the play?’ And they all said, ‘Sure’ and about five people showed up. I called it again and eight people came. So what I did was I cut out the scene. Basically what that taught me to be was flexible — you have to be able to adjust on the fly, and you can’t be rigid.

You have to be able to adjust to the situation and be intelligent about it, and a lot of people get overwhelmed. If you have 10 different things you have to get accomplished, my way of business is you attack them one at a time. Other people get overwhelmed because, ‘Oh, I have 10 things I have to do; I can’t get them done.’ That’s because they’re trying to deal with 10 things at once. I will sort them out and deal with them one thing at a time. The same with personal problems: People have three or four personal problems, they get overwhelmed, they get stressed out. Deal with them one at a time.

I try to prioritize; I make lists every day. I have a yellow pad that’s on my desk and I try to prioritize who I’m going to call, and then I check them off as I call them, and I work through a list on a daily basis. You also have to prioritize where you’ll get the most action. I’m fortunate I have some very good assistants that I can delegate specific responsibilities to, and they do a very good job.

If you write it down and refer back to it, you get it done. If you just leave it to your imagination, you’ll get distracted. It’s much easier for me to have it down on paper, in front of me, and I know I’ll get through it. I don’t believe in calling people back the next day; I believe in calling them back the same day.

Treat people right. I think doubt, questioning and insecurity are very bad for a business environment. You treat people like adults, you give them specific responsibilities, and you compliment them. Most businesspeople don’t tell people they do a good job enough. I like them to know they’re appreciated. I also really believe in teamwork, so I try to let everyone know everything that’s going on with what’s going forward at least six months out. I try to keep them involved in the process, then there’s buy-in, then there’s not as many questions. We’ll review what’s coming up short-term, midterm, so that everyone knows what everyone on the team is working on. If you treat people like adults, you give them responsibility, and you mark their papers and they do well, you let them know so, and if they don’t, you tell them.

My people pretty much come and go as they please. I’m very flexible with that. They don’t have to be here at 8:30, they can be here at 10 so long as they get it done, and they get it done because they appreciate the fact that it’s not rigid. One of my favorite sayings is smart people can solve problems, and if you hire for intelligence and you give people flexibility to be themselves, you get good results.

Spend the resources on training. What did Bob Dylan say? ‘He not busy being born is busy dying,’ and if you don’t move forward, then you’re absolutely going backward. We’re in a fast business to begin with, and we are the leaders, really, in our category, and as a result of that, we need to be upfront with the latest technology. The bad news is that the vendors have basically abandoned training because it’s expensive. But the companies that still believe in it long term will have more success. We believe in it, we have a full-time sales trainer, so we’ve taken over the burden from the vendors.

(He) visits with them, and then we try to make it as advantageous as possible. Green is very big right now, and we’re trying to have a lot of green options available, so take solar. We’ve just sent 10 people to school last month, and we’re sending another 13 or 14 this month, and so they’ll be able to sell solar panels to save on electricity, and so what we’ll do is we’ll have twentysome people trained, and then we’ll bring that up again, and if they have success, then it will filter through the organizations.

When you have 60 different companies you want to have a unified message, you want to have a unified purchasing, you want to be all in step. I can’t travel as much as it would take to get to 60 stores or 60 dealers and 97 locations and so he does a very good job of that. And it’s done a very nice job of coalescing the members into the unity that we’re looking for.

How to reach: Home Theater Specialists of America, (610) 363-9055 or www.htsa.com

Published in Philadelphia
Monday, 26 October 2009 20:00

Keeping it all together

Mike Mountford continually promotes his vision and culture throughout the facility at AllAmericanDirect.com, which is the DBA name of National Programming Service LLC. Sometimes, he even finds ways to promote the culture through the most ordinary of tasks.

“It’s kind of funny, but I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to get out and talk to people is on the way to and from the restroom,” he says. “I don’t have a restroom adjacent to my office, which is good, because it means I have to go down the hall, say hello and meet people.”

Mountford, the founder and CEO of the Internet-based electronics store — which generated $30 million in 2008 revenue — says the lesson is to treat every venture outside of your office as an opportunity to engage employees and promote your culture. Even walking the halls on mundane trips like coffee and restroom breaks presents an opportunity to get in front of your people.

Smart Business spoke with Mountford about how you can use everyday opportunities to promote your vision to employees.

Get out of the office. I try to make it a point to get out and mix with all the employees several times a day. It’s key that they see you out there. They like seeing you out there. I also do individual meetings with employees. I start hammering that home with our training classes for new employees. When I speak to them, I stress to them that if they ever want to meet with me, send me an e-mail and we’ll make a time. Even if they come knock on your door and you’re busy, tell them to send you an e-mail and make a time that works for both of you.

Developing that level of familiarity, that sort of business friendships, with employees is a matter of getting them on board with what you’re trying to do. It’s easier to sell the vision and sell the story. That’s the difference. It’s the ability to communicate the vision and the purpose a lot better when people know you’re there and they can work with you, associate with you.

Make the time. You need to be sure that you’re making the time to engage people on a more personal level. It’s just like anything else in the world of business. You just make up your mind that you’re going to do it and find a way to make it happen.

Every time you’re walking the halls, it’s a chance to talk. When I’m walking down the hall just doing my everyday tasks, a lot of times, someone will stop me and ask me a question.

On top of that, if I find that I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for too long, I start to feel like I need to get out of the office. I make a reason to go and talk to someone, mixing with people and saying hello along the way. There just is no substitute for walking among the cubicles once in a while. It’s not like you want to be looking over their shoulders all the time, but you want to show everyone that you’re there and supporting them as they do their jobs.

Believe in what you are communicating. Be true to yourself. That is the primary thing to remember. Be true to the vision. If your vision is not something you believe in, your employees will know. It’s really important that you live the vision every day, that it’s something that you are working toward every day. Your employees need to know that the vision is something to which you are committed, and they need to know that you are not just making a halfhearted attempt to achieve it.

Being true to your vision means that every day, you’re trying to get a little bit closer to your goal. Goals are not met all at once — certainly not big company goals. Our goal is to make $250 million in e-commerce in the next five years, and we know we’re not going to get there next year. But one of the pieces was bringing in an e-commerce manager. So, one day, you come in and say that you need to take this step, you size up how you’re going to take that step, what resources you need, and make that step happen. You put that piece of the puzzle in place. It’s really just keeping the goals of the company in mind over the long haul and tackling them step by step.

Foster unity. You set the vision and point toward it, and get everyone in the company understanding that we’re all working together toward the same purpose. For example, I talk to every training class as they come through, try to give them a little bit of the vision, try to get them to understand that we should be on the same page. The company is here to prosper, every person is here to prosper and we should be able to put those two things together. If those things aren’t going hand in hand, if the company goals aren’t meeting your goals, you need to find out where that is going wrong and see if you can reconcile that and get that corrected.

Everybody needs a sense of purpose. You can say in our organization that we take phone calls to sell a certain product but what does that mean? You’re selling five TVs, so what does that mean? You get a bonus if you sell 10 TVs in a month, but what does that mean in the larger picture? That extra $20 bonus for selling those 10 TVs means the company could go public in five years. You’re working for the profitability of the company, and that’s the mindset you need to instill in your people.

How to reach: National Programming Service LLC (DBA AllAmericanDirect.com), (800) 249-1063 or www.allamericandirect.com

Published in Indianapolis
Friday, 25 September 2009 20:00

Helping employees help you

Lynne Wines wants to develop her employees, but there’s a catch.

They have to help her grow, too.

So the CEO of CNLBank’s South Florida region, which claims 32 of the company’s 225 employees, looks for team players. She expects them to call out her mistakes, just like she does to help them improve.

She cultivates that culture by setting an example. Although she’s not perfect, she relies on her team members to fill in the gaps.

“Look for mentors on every level,” says Wines, whose region has $275 million in deposits as of June 30. “You can learn from people that are a lot more experienced than you, and you can learn from people that work for you. Being open to that process is an important part of my development.”

Smart Business spoke to Wines about setting the pace for your culture of teamwork and interdependence — and improving yourself in the process.

Find team players. Having the right people around you that tell you when you’re crazy or tell you when you’re wrong is very important. From my husband and my son to the people that I’ve worked with for a long time, I count on them to tell me when I’m wrong or when I’m not seeing the whole picture or when I’m not necessarily thinking clearly and I’m maybe thinking too emotionally or haven’t looked at all the facts. I count on all the people I work with to point that out to me. Part of their responsibility is to tell me when I miss something.

I’ve always been a big believer in building a team that complements each other but that are not necessarily alike, so we create interdependence amongst each other. We create an environment where we rely on each other to cover our backs. You find that by figuring out … who’s self-serving and who’s a servant leader.

If somebody tells you about their mentor, you can usually tell if they are willing to credit somebody else with some of their success or whether they have to own all the credit. Generally, if somebody has to own all the credit, they’re not going to be willing to mentor others or be mentored by others or be a good team player. So that’s a good question to ask, ‘How have you been mentored?’

Build interdependence. That comes by building the right culture of open communication and respect for each other. So I wouldn’t call anybody else out in public and embarrass them, and I wouldn’t expect somebody to do that to me. But if I thought one of my employees made a mistake, I have a responsibility to point it out to them because I have a responsibility to try to teach them to grow and improve. They have that same responsibility to me. It’s really building a culture of respect and interdependence and teamwork.

It absolutely starts at the top. If somebody comes to me with a solution, I will say, ‘Have you checked with the other three people on the team?’ Over time, they get that they’re not even going to bother to come to me with a suggestion or a solution until they’ve already checked with the other three people. That’s how you build teamwork. They start to learn that they’re going to be more successful if they work as a team than if they work independently.

Set the pace for your culture. Most people are reluctant, particularly if they’ve come from an organization where that wasn’t the culture. Culture takes time to develop; you don’t turn on a light switch and say, ‘OK, now we have a new culture.’ Over time, you open the door to communication.

I’ve done it by sometimes revealing things about myself — not necessarily terribly intimate but just admitting your own mistakes. I usually let people know that I have made a lot of mistakes and I’m not going to kill anybody for making a mistake.

[When someone makes a mistake], I might find an opportunity to talk casually and maybe mention that I did that the same thing once and this is how I went about changing it or this is what I learned from it. Making somebody feel bad doesn’t do anybody any good and doesn’t help the organization.

It’s just letting people know that you’ve got their back as much as expecting them to have your back. If they do make a mistake, you know what? We’ve made the mistake together because we’re a team, and we’re going to fix it together, and we’re going to figure out how to move on together.

It’s passing down credit. Pushing credit for successes down into the organization — and not owning credit yourself — breeds more success.

Make yourself approachable. We’re big believers in the five-minute walk around the office rule. You get as much accomplished by stopping in and asking someone how their weekend was and leaning against their doorway as you do in formal meetings.

I try to remember their kids’ names. If they don’t have kids, I try to remember their pets’ names. That’s what’s important to people. It breaks down barriers when you use people’s names as opposed to just, ‘How’s the kid?’ or something.

I just try to, without being intrusive and certainly not asking anything about anybody’s personal life, sometimes share something about my weekend, which would make somebody open up more about their weekend.

I’m actually a very private person and my nature is to be very introverted. But part of my job is to be more of an extrovert, so that’s something that I work at very diligently: to try to be open. It can be whatever we did over the weekend; it can be a restaurant that was good, anything that just breaks down barriers and makes you human.

It comes from practice. It also comes from having people around you that you trust, which I’m very fortunate to have. You put yourself out there and you force yourself to be in positions where you may not be totally comfortable. But it’s part of the learning. It’s part of challenging yourself.

How to reach: CNLBank, (561) 961-2460 or www.cnlbank.com

Published in Florida
Friday, 25 September 2009 20:00

Trust and support

Constructing your company isn’t all that different from constructing a building to house your company: You need to begin with a strong foundation.

At The Cimarron Group, that is exactly what Bob Farina strives to do.

The co-founder, owner and CEO of the marketing and advertising firm — which generated more than $30 million in revenue in 2008 — says a strong foundation starts with the principles set by the head of the company. A leader must give employees the resources to perform their jobs, a sense of purpose within the organization and mediums through which they can communicate their thoughts and concerns.

“You have to believe in the team, trust them to do what is necessary for success, and you have to give them the support and the resources to get the job done,” Farina says. “I like to give people an idea of what the goals are and let them figure out the best ways to accomplish it.”

Smart Business spoke with Farina about how you can lay a foundation that supports your employees.

Get your people involved. The more people are invested in a plan, the more they put their heart and soul into it, the better the results will be. It is really important to be decisive. I tell my staff that you may not always get the answer that you like, but you’ll get an answer immediately. Leading a person to not have an answer or to just sit around and wait for something is never helpful.

Simply stated, it’s communication. You have to sit down and talk to them. You have to listen to them. It’s not a matter of telling. It’s a matter of describing your ideas, what the goals are and working with them to get there. If you just dictate things, people don’t care. You have to get them involved.

Face-to-face communication is the most important form. I walk the floors twice a day. I see people and talk to them. I ask them how projects are going, are there any issues, are they getting enough support, are they getting enough help. It is always good to get their opinions on things. You don’t always have to agree with them, but you do have to listen. As I said, if you listen to them, they become more invested.

Make communication a dialogue. Don’t lecture your employees when you communicate. Always engage your employees in dialogue and solicit feedback from them. Listen to what people have to say. Good ideas sometimes come from the most unlikely places. When you talk to people, collect your thoughts, and it’s always important to be sure that when you talk to people, that they understand what you’re talking about, that they understand what you are saying. Sometimes you can shortcut something in your head, you think the message is clear, but they don’t get it. In a face-to-face dialogue, you can sit down, look at people’s faces and tell whether or not they are understanding something.

A lot of my ability to read people comes from 30 years of experience. I know what is required to get the job done in many cases. If someone is sitting around, they’re at a roadblock and can’t get to where they need to be, you know there is a problem. That’s when you sit down and ask them what is the problem. It all comes back to good communication, asking people what they need to get the job done.

If you ask them, listen to what they have to say and respond to them, they start to build trust. If you give them the tools they need, they don’t feel like they’re out there floundering somewhere. They know that they’re supported and that they can trust you, which is really what it’s all about.

We have regular technology meetings here at the company, where every division comes in, sits down and tells us what they need on a weekly basis. So we engage in that kind of dialogue on a regular basis. We look at the projects and work that is coming in and we come right out and ask them if they have the resources they need. So we try to stay a step ahead of them.

Set a positive example. Focusing employees on your company goals starts with a strong corporate culture. When you get people to understand what the goals are and you ask them to participate and you get them invested in it, they’ll come along with it. If they have a problem, they’ll tell you, but they’ll come along with it. If we’re going to do something, I’m going to go around and tell everyone exactly what we’re doing and why I’m doing it and what the benefit to them is, how they will become part of something bigger and better. When we successfully launched the agency, I had a party here and thanked our entire staff for the success of traffic.

When people feel like they’ve contributed and they’re being thanked for it, they’ll do it again. Public acknowledgement is a great motivator. We have ways that we bonus people, but when someone is singled out in front of their peers, when their work and success is acknowledged, that is probably the best motivator. I think everybody likes to feel like they’ve contributed to the success of something. When their supervisor or boss or the owner of the company singles them out, it makes them feel good. Great motivation techniques really add to someone’s personal feeling of accomplishment.

How to reach: The Cimarron Group, (323) 337-0300 or www.cimarrongroup.com

Published in Los Angeles
Friday, 25 September 2009 20:00

Preventive medicine

The old adage says an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In business, an ounce of prevention saves a lot of headaches and lost productivity later on. Especially when it comes to employees.

It’s a concept that Dr. Jim Spahn has taken to heart and tried to live every day at EHOB Inc., a health care products provider that generated $20 million in revenue last year.

Spahn believes that daily engagement of employees, learning their ambitions, likes and dislikes, and what makes them tick, is an effective way to not only build meaningful, productive relationships with his co-workers but also stave off potential problems and conflicts at the pass.

“We show our people respect,” says Spahn, EHOB’s founder and CEO. “We listen to them, we know them, we talk to them. It’s a friendly, nonadversarial environment. We have controversies, but we don’t tolerate the inside fighting and such. It’s the culture that keeps people happy.”

Smart Business spoke with Spahn about how you can stay involved with your employees.

Listen first. The biggest thing is to take time and go listen to your employees. I’m trained as the physician, and it might be kind of the same as bedside manners. Take your time, sit down, listen to them, get to know them, but don’t just become one of them. You’ll have to make tough decisions, but take the time to tell them when things are going good. And when things are going bad, you ask for their help. It’s surprising how everybody pitches in. If a machine goes down, I’ve never had anybody tell me that they have to go home. Everybody is willing to stay around and do whatever is necessary to get stuff done.

It’s kind of like preventative medicine. If you take the time upfront, you save a lot of time at the end. So you make a point of going around, walking the floor, asking everybody how it’s going, asking them if it’s going all right. You can sit down and talk with them, as long as you don’t talk too much. Obviously, you still have to get work done. But you just act like you’re not in a hurry, talk to people and listen to them, smile when you pass them.

To wait until you have chaos on the floor or in the business to try to correct the problem is probably about 20 to 30 times more time-consuming than being preventive, talking with them upfront and catching a problem before it gets too far.

To put it more simply, it’s good time management. You can accomplish a lot if you just spend 5 percent of your time going around talking to people. That can save you a lot of grief down the road.

Focus on what you can do. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. You don’t have to get personal when you have an opinionated discussion. That is to a great degree what our culture is, working together and getting along, even if there are situations where you disagree. You can disagree, but don’t let it get to the point where the interaction becomes adversarial. You do it with respect, and if respect isn’t occurring, maybe you need to ask people to leave, because if people start getting personal, that can be very disruptive in a business.

Stick to the facts of what you are talking about. Stick to what is happening and how you can help the situation. We give people chances to correct themselves, talk it out, give them action plans for correction. From there, a lot of people decide if that is what they want. People do sometimes leave on that basis, but at least they know why they’re leaving. You have your rules to enforce.

You have to know what the issue is. Really, it’s Problem Solving 101. Here is the problem. Let’s understand it first, then make the solution to it. A lot of people will jump from the problem to what their personal solution is. But if you don’t understand the whole thing, that is a very one-sided approach. What we say is that everybody has their opportunity to discuss either the good or bad in a situation as it is occurring. Once it is evaluated, only then do we go toward making a solution. Hopefully that solution will benefit both parties.

Practice problem solving. People understand 95 to 98 percent of the concepts, rules and culture of the company. You don’t have to have a whole lot of people in the room when you’re discussing problem solving, but we’ve discovered that when there is a conflict between two employees, be it high or low on the ladder, you need to have a third party talk to them, and ultimately, you have to get everybody into a room. It doesn’t have to involve a ton of people, but ultimately, you need to have the involvement of a third party that is willing to sit and listen. Then you have to have someone who has the ability to make the decision of what is right and wrong, so that if people can’t comply or won’t comply, you can take corrective action to make sure people on both sides understand that this conflict can’t and won’t continue.

Sometimes, both people in the conflict decide to leave the organization. But at least you know they had a chance to talk about things.

Take early steps. Another thing is you try to recognize problems that could lead to conflict early on. We do a lot of counseling and helping people get stuff done as they might be working through stuff in their personal lives. That is just doing the right thing. Fortunately, we haven’t had a whole bunch of those issues. We don’t have a ton of instances where people are leaving or being asked to leave. So a lot of it gets resolved way before it gets to the level of a serious problem, which is key.

How to reach: EHOB Inc., (317) 972-4600 or www.ehob.com

Published in Indianapolis