Everybody knows that men and women think differently. But do those differences matter when it comes to working remotely and managing remote teams? In my opinion, they matter a lot. Managers who don’t understand and embrace these differences do themselves, their companies and their employees a disservice.

In my new book, “You Can Have It All, Just Not All At Once,” I cite scientific studies that show how women’s and men’s brains function differently from one another. These differences are important because managers who are unaware of these conflicting world views might assign values to behaviors that don’t get the desired results.

Break it down

A major difference in how the sexes’ brains function is that women tend to be skilled multitaskers, while men are able to concentrate on one task for longer periods. Neuroscientific research confirms this, and women often take pride in their ability to handle several things at once.

This is a plus and a minus, both for women and for those who manage them. I believe it’s a core reason that women tend to overcommit. Those who manage women remotely can benefit from understanding this, especially since excessive multitasking can inhibit creative thought and lead to burnout.

On the flip side, a man’s ability to focus on one thing for a long time can be seen as beneficial, but it can also lead to tunnel vision and insensitivity to people and any behavior not seen as mission-critical. There’s also a tendency to believe that the amount of time spent on something equals better results, which is not always true. Often, short bursts of concentration bear better fruit than agonizing over tasks for extended periods.

A major difference between the sexes that impacts managers is that women are generally more likely to speak up if they’re unhappy about their circumstances, while men tend to suffer in silence. Normally, men will tolerate a negative situation longer than women will. This doesn’t mean that a woman’s complaints are without merit, or that men don’t experience the same misery.

But if a woman mentions that something is wrong, she might be seen as a complainer by a male manager. Conversely, a female manager might take a man’s stoicism as being uncommunicative or not proactively trying to improve a situation. Such value judgments can harm a working relationship.

Without the daily contact and familiarity of working in the same location, it can be difficult for managers to understand what’s going on with their team. One person’s laserlike focus is another’s antisocial moping. A willingness to abide short-term discomfort for long-term goals needs to be balanced with a willingness to change and improve the current situation.

Seek solutions

Understanding how gender impacts behavior is a key reason why good leaders take the time to get to know their people and look at results, not at specific behavior that can be misinterpreted.

Gender Difference No. 1: Typically, men communicate in bullet-point style and strive to get to the point quickly, while women are more prone to tell a story or paint a picture. Women share experiences to show commonality and build on other people’s discussion points, whereas men focus on statistics and rankings and relate by sharing stories to “one-up” each other.

Solution Strategy: Women need to get to the bottom line quickly and succinctly. Men need to understand that when a woman tells a story, she is building common ground.

Gender Difference No. 2: Women like to talk about a problem, to emphasize their feelings, and to process thoughts aloud as a way to include others. Men like to move to problem-solving right away, alone. They place high value on achieving results and prefer activity over discussion.

Solution Strategy: Women should not try to get men to talk if they’re not ready; they should observe and listen rather than processing out loud. Men need to understand that processing is a way for women to include others and build relationships.

It is my belief that men and women can become one through understanding, value and honor. We all need each other, and even when we don’t agree on everything, we can learn to disagree while still showing respect for each other’s differences.

Sherri Elliott-Yeary is the CEO of human resources consulting companies Optimance Workforce Strategies and Gen InsYght, as well as the author of “Ties to Tattoos: Turning Generational Differences into a Competitive Advantage.” She has more than 15 years of experience as a trusted adviser and human resources consultant to companies ranging from small startups to large international corporations. Contact her at sherri@generationalguru.com.

Published in Dallas

Sue Schick is well-versed in the art of the uphill battle.

Two years ago, she was named CEO of the commercial business line in UnitedHealthcare’s Pennsylvania and Delaware region. It was a unique assignment. UnitedHealthcare is one of the pillars of the health insurance industry, with a strong presence and widespread brand recognition in numerous markets around the county.

But in Schick’s 1,044-employee unit, the company was a relative newcomer, broaching the Pennsylvania/Delaware region less than a decade prior.

“We have only been here seven or eight years, so we don’t have the widespread brand recognition yet,” Schick says. “One of the big things we have done in my time here, particularly last year, was to focus on building our brand and increasing the level of brand recognition.”

And it’s not just about TV commercials, billboards or sponsorship deals. For Schick, increasing the profile of the UnitedHealthcare brand in her region means connecting with the community and teaching current and potential customers what the company’s brand stands for.

“Some leaders think they have to build their brand, so they just go about putting their company’s name on a bunch of billboards and the sides of buses,” she says. “But we wanted to take a really comprehensive approach that included setting ourselves apart as thought leaders. For us, it becomes not just a matter of advertising. It’s a question of how do you become a part of the business community. How do you really put down roots in the community and find ways to contribute to it?”

To develop the connection between UnitedHealthcare and the communities in her region, Schick needed to develop a better connection between several thousand employees and the goals, vision and mission of the company. In short, she needed to reinforce corporate culture, creating a work environment in which employees would be empowered and impassioned to realize the goals and mission.

Paint a picture

The first step in motivating employees is to give them aggressive goals built around a compelling vision for where you want to take the company, then set the example from the top of how you want your people to accomplish the goals and realize the vision.

Schick started by reaching out to community organizations, placing an emphasis on community involvement and philanthropy that she expected her executive team to demonstrate as well, pushing the message to their teams and throughout the unit.

“We had several of our national executives in town meeting with the local chamber of commerce and meeting with an executive women’s forum,” Schick says. “We became very involved with philanthropy and corporate nonprofits.

“In fact, I think just about every member of my executive team sits on the board of a nonprofit now. I’m personally involved with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Pennsylvania chapter of the March of Dimes. It takes an organized effort to get to the point where you are not just advertising, but you are a part of the business community.”

However, you have to create a bigger message around your community endeavors. While community volunteer work and service on nonprofit boards is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself, if you want to integrate it into the overall culture and mindset of your business, you need to reinforce the altruism with internal communication.

Anytime Schick is in front of her people, whether in large audiences or small groups, she uses the opportunity to get her people thinking about their purpose and the potential of UnitedHealthcare in the Pennsylvania and Delaware marketplace.

“For a leader, one of the most important things you can do is paint a picture of the future,” Schick says. “Showing everyone what success is going to look like — what is the vision and what is the company’s full potential in the marketplace. It is a matter of inspiring those leaders to fall in behind that vision, and it all starts with communication.

“When you don’t have a team behind you, when you have failures in teamwork, many times the root cause of that is a lack of communication. Every opportunity I have to communicate with the entire team, I am talking about the vision, focusing them on our purpose and what we are trying to get done for our customers and members in Pennsylvania.

“Whether I am meeting with them one-on-one or in large groups or sending out a written communication or a video communication, it’s always a focus on reinforcing the vision of the future.”

With UnitedHealthcare, a relatively speaking new kid on the block, part of that vision involves embracing competition. Schick knows UnitedHealthcare faces stiff competition from health insurance providers that were established in the region long beforehand.

In connecting with the community and promoting the organizational goal of spreading the brand, Schick wants her team to embrace the challenge provided by competition, and realize that competition can benefit everyone in the end.

“If our ultimate goal is to help people live healthier lives, we have to look at the opportunities to make that mission real in this region,” Schick says. “The opportunity to really breathe life into that is to create a situation where employers and businesses have a choice, where they have true competition in health benefits so they can make the best choice for their employees.

“We see that wherever there is competition, that is going to lead to better and more innovative products, higher service levels and, over time, it is going to lead to more affordable costs.

“So when my team members get up in the morning, I want them to really think about what we can do to serve the business leaders in Pennsylvania and Delaware, what can we do to serve the consumers in the region, so that we are really helping to bring choice, which is a key component in bringing this vision of health and wellness to life.”

Live the culture

Schick thinks a lot of CEOs look at culture as a touchy-feely thing — an aspect of business leadership that has its place, but covers the rather squishy, formless subjects of motivation, purpose, morale and assorted other topics that might be more suited for discussion on a therapist’s couch.

In other words, culture is soft. It doesn’t impact the bottom line like hard data and numbers.

Schick sees it differently.

“When you have a positive, supportive culture, you can drive better results,” she says. “You can improve team satisfaction and engagement, you can improve customer service. If you’re focused on people and building relationships, if you’re focused on innovation, high integrity and developing people who approach their work with a compassionate spirit, you have a positive culture.

“Some people might say that’s soft. I say it’s not. A culture like that drives hard results.”

The CEO’s role is to set the values that comprise the foundation of the culture and ensure the company’s goals and vision are attained by methods that are in line with the cultural principles.

Schick began taking steps to strengthen the culture in her unit from her first day on the job and hasn’t stopped performing daily maintenance. She realized early that UnitedHealthcare’s success in branding and connecting with the communities of Pennsylvania and Delaware would heavily depend on how her employee perceived the company’s culture.

Before you can go out and build your brand to prominence, you need to know who you are as a company.

Schick focused on developing a mentality that embraced ambitious goals, learning from failures and creating the resourcefulness necessary to take advantage of market opportunities. She wanted a company in which focus on the cultural principles was a priority, not an afterthought.

“We talk about culture all the time,” she says. “The key to success in creating a really positive culture is that you talk about the culture first. You don’t have a business activity and then talk about the culture at the end. Culture is not like a side of fries. It’s not something that is optional. Culture should be embedded in everything you do.”

A positive culture is rooted in engagement, particularly when it comes to employee ideas and innovations. Employees have to feel like they’re a part of what is going on at the company. To that end, Schick and her leadership team carefully monitor the process by which employees are encouraged to bring new ideas to the table for consideration.

No company can use every single idea that employees bring forward, but how you accept or reject an idea can go a long way toward determining whether that employee accepts or rejects the culture of the company.

“It started small, with people bringing very small suggestions to life, and then we acted on them,” Schick says. “We publicized it and recognized people for bringing their ideas forward.

“The result has been that we have created a culture where people see innovation as their job. We set the pace, and now everybody wants to wake up in the morning and say, ‘How can we operate even more efficiently? How can we bring innovative products and solutions to market?’ It is a positive cycle of encouraging people, acting on their ideas and recognizing people when their ideas are successful.”

If an idea can’t be used, or isn’t ultimately successful, the creator of the idea receives recognition for speaking up in the first place.

“We celebrate failure, too,” Schick says. “The worst thing you can do is not speak up if you have an idea about how we can do a better job of serving our consumers out in the marketplace. Not every idea can work, so what can we do when it doesn’t work? We can recognize that person for having the guts to suggest the idea.”

It comes back to Schick’s philosophy on goal setting: If you really believe in something, aim for it. Don’t be afraid of overambitious goals.

“I’d rather aim for the stars and celebrate if you can get close,” she says. “I would rather not aim low or set low standards on goals. Sometimes if you take that approach, it requires a little bit more flexibility from a leadership standpoint, but it has worked pretty well for me in my career.”

If you want your employees to believe in your culture, your role as the leader is to avoid saying “no” unless the situation absolutely calls for it. That can be a judgment call, and it can be difficult to make at times, but if you have an employee who truly believes in an idea and truly believes it will be good for the business, work with them to modify the goal.

Schick believes goals can be both ambitions and sensible. When you can attain both, you’ve hit the sweet spot.

“If you’re setting a goal for an idea or project and people don’t see any way to reach it, you’ve just demoralized and disengaged your entire team,” she says. “The challenge for leaders is to figure out how to find that sweet spot. That gets back to the vision, the ability to see the future and paint a picture of what’s possible.

“If you can paint that picture, and you have a team that is engaged in the mission and values of the organization, they might see that this goal really is attainable.

“If you can work together to create the plan, and find a way for everyone involved to really contribute to that plan, I think that is when you are in the best situation.”

How to reach: UnitedHealthcare, (914) 467-2039 or www.uhc.com

The Schick file

Born: Long Branch, N.J.; Grew up in Fredericksburg, Va.

Education: Economics and business degree from Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, Va.

What was your first job?

I was a dishwasher at a steakhouse in Virginia. You learn a lot about hard work doing a job like that. I was 15 at the time.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the importance of taking care of your team members. That means investing in them, making sure we’re meeting their career goals and needs, and making sure we’re letting them bring ideas to the table.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

My answer is probably a little different from what it would have been a few years ago. Now, I’d probably say resilience and flexibility. The world is always changing, and what has worked in the past might not work in the future. So you need to have an attitude where you embrace innovation.

What is your definition of success?

I don’t look at my own success. I look at the success of my team and the satisfaction of my customers as my yardstick. If my employees are meeting their career goals, I am successful if I have helped them do that.

Published in Philadelphia

At some point in the past few years, it hit Rick Dawson: He had hundreds of experts working in his business, but no one was really working on the business.

The president and CEO of Bal Seal Engineering Inc. had 450 employees around the world. Just about all of them were performing at a high level, helping to vault the industrial solutions company into an era of growth, while most businesses were dealing with the effects of the recession.

“That has been the good news for us,” Dawson says. “A lot of businesses have been struggling, but we have been growing at a rate of just over 15 percent per year.”

Last year, the company generated $75 million in revenue, up from $64 million in 2010. The sailing was smooth, there were no alarm bells ringing at the company’s headquarters. Bal Seal was in a rare place of peace amid tumultuous economic circumstance.

Yet, Dawson sensed trouble forthcoming if he let the company continue to ride on its own momentum. Specifically, he saw a company that could strain itself by growing too fast, and growing without a well-defined strategic plan.

“We have been expanding into new markets and new regions,” Dawson says. “That definitely puts a strain on your capacity and resources. So, working with our leadership team, it has been important to establish clear goals and objectives of what our on-time delivery expectations are, what our product development requirements are, what our sales goals are. Then, make sure everybody clearly understands the direction and measures those results.”

Dawson has worked with the leadership team at Bal Seal to formulate a strategic plan that could help the company better manage growth, but that is only part of the equation. He and his team have also needed to work tirelessly to create alignment on plan throughout the company’s associates, spread among offices in Colorado, The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong and Japan, in addition to the company headquarters in Foothill Ranch.

Start at the top

Like many businesses, Bal Seal organizes yearly strategic planning meetings. In those meetings, Dawson and his management team plot out the umbrella goals and objectives for the coming year. The companywide goals are then used to formulate goals for each division and team within the organization.

“We develop functional goals and objectives for our operations team, sales team, health and safety team, and so forth,” Dawson says. “Those are then put into even more specific goals and objectives.”

The goals and objectives are what Dawson terms “smart goals” — specific, measurable, achievable and realistic. Dawson wants his employees to stretch beyond their comfort zone at times, but not so far that they’re reaching beyond the realistic capabilities of themselves or the company at that point in time. Goals need to be ambitious, but still realistically achievable.

Dawson and his team monitor the progress of the departments in implementing the cascaded goals through a series of stoplight meetings, which got their name from the three-color system assigned to the progress level of each objective.

“It’s a two to 2½ hour meeting each month, and each department manager is responsible for reporting the progress on their goals,” Dawson says. “Green means there are no problems and there is nothing to really talk about. Yellow means you have a problem, but you have worked within your own departmental team to come up with a solution. Red means you have a problem and haven’t been able to come up with a solution. If you have an objective that you have classified as “red,” we can then schedule a separate meeting to assist in dealing with that problem.”

Though Dawson likes to limit the number of meetings throughout the company, he has found value in the monthly stoplight meetings, which have helped to identify and address problems before they become major issues that compromise the pursuit of a department’s goals.

“The operations team was working on an on-time delivery objective, and what they found was that they were struggling to get a specific order out on time,” Dawson says. “It was an aerospace customer, and we had lead time issues with getting materials in on time. Then on top of that, we were having capacity issues.

“But by communicating with the sales team, those of us on the management team were able to identify exactly what they were struggling with, and the history of the customer that were impacted.

“Once we did that, the sales team was able to step in and get some relief from the customer. We were able to explain the delay, which was resulting from raw materials that were delayed offshore. Once the customer understood, it provided relief to the operations team, which helped us get the orders ready on time.

“Because we were able to get together and talk about it, we were able to identify the customer and the problem, and the problem was resolved before the product was late to the customer.”

Create alignment

As the layers and locations within your company increase, creating and maintaining alignment on organizational objectives becomes a more difficult and more involved task to accomplish. With 450 employees, Bal Seal doesn’t face the communication challenges of companies that employ many thousands. But with locations around the world, the management team still had its work cut out.

To help strengthen alignment, Dawson does what a lot of CEOs do: he logs air miles, visiting each of Bal Seal’s facilities twice a year, and having in-depth meetings with the facility directors at each stop.

“It’s important that you’re promoting the message to everyone, from the machinists to the managers,” Dawson says. “I also want to reinforce the messages laid out in our plan at the start of the year. We know at the beginning of the year what the schedule is for Europe, for Asia, but it is a constant challenge to make sure the staff remains aware of it, and is kept up to date on what is going on.”

There is a limit to how far down in an organization a CEO can, and should, reach. If the company is large enough, your place is not managing the factory floor. But you still have to construct a system that allows you to connect with everyone in the organization, from the top to the bottom.

If you can keep your finger on the pulse of the mood and attitude of your lowest-rung employees, you are in a much better position to determine whether your messages are permeating every layer of the company. You are also in a much better position to cut off the rumor mill, should issues arise.

“For example, we’re currently building a second facility in Colorado Springs,” Dawson says. “When I said we were building a new facility there, what everyone in the company heard was,‘We’re moving the company to Colorado Springs.’ That wasn’t the case. We’re expanding there. That’s where having a means of staying connected to everyone in the organization is so important. I had to reaffirm that we’re continuing our growth and expansion, not relocating.”

Dawson didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time he presented the message to a new audience, but he did have to tweak it in a manner that addressed the questions and concerns of whichever group within Bal Seal was receiving the message.

“It’s important that you’re promoting the message to everyone, from the machinists to the managers,” Dawson says. “To the machinists, you’re promoting the idea that the expansion allows for more job security. You’re soliciting input from the managers, and on the executive level you’re promoting the vision for the overall corporate goals, and the deliverables in order to achieve those goals.

“The communication and interaction is something constant, something that you can’t push into the background.”

Another aspect of alignment centers on the widely-held business truism, “What gets measured, gets managed.” If you want to create alignment around organizational goals, you need to create universally-understood methods of measuring them. Usually, that means measuring the statistical categories most important to the success of your business.

“I measure cash, I measure sales, I measure on-time delivery, and I measure safety, which is my number one category,” Dawson says. “So you’re monitoring those on a regular basis, and talking with your managers about it.

“You are going to view your management team as something of a mouthpiece, since you can’t be everywhere at once. So you have to help them stay aligned on the plan, and monitor what they’re saying to their teams. You just continue to provide guidance.

“If you manage the relationships with your managers, you can better manage the flow of communication throughout the company. You oversee those relationships with your managers by ensuring that you are comfortable, and they are comfortable with the vision and direction, and thoroughly understand it.”

Build your team

Consistency is one of the biggest keys to maintaining a message for a large audiences over an extended period of time. That means consistency in how you communicate, when and where you communicate, but it also means maintaining consistency in the structure of your management team.

Turnover will occur. If a member of your team is talented and driven enough, and has reached a ceiling in your organization, that person will likely leave when a better opportunity comes along. So it’s prudent to develop new leaders from within.

When the time comes to fill a space on his management team, Dawson prefers to promote internally, looking outside the organization only when he believes there is a need. Internal candidates have proven that they can help promote and execute the strategic plan. But even when promoting from within, it’s not an exact science when looking for those who have the right competencies and right attitude.

“You break your people into quadrants,” Dawson says. “There is willing and able, willing and unable, unwilling and able, and unwilling and unable. Obviously, you’re looking for willing and able. If you have someone who is willing and unable, you have a performance issue. If you have someone who is unwilling and able, you have to see if you can educate them in the process. If you have unwilling and unable, you’re probably not keeping them.”

To hit for the highest possible willing-and-able average, Dawson wants to see prior evidence of accomplishment, creativity and integrity in the work experience of job candidates.

“A lot of people will come into an interview and say ‘I’ve been the manager of sales,’ but when you ask them how they ran their sales organization, when you ask them about their vision and direction, they can’t get down to specifics. If that’s the case, they’re probably not the right fit for the organization.

“After you hire someone, you’re continuing to assess them. You’re working with the person to set goals and objectives, and if they’re complying and conforming, you’re doing great.

“If you are seeing a continuous pattern of not meeting goals and objectives, then you have to be willing to be very honest and candid with the person, explain to them what the issues are, and from there, you can assess the next level of whether they’ll be a fit for your organization moving forward.

“But it is important to continue to work with the person to help them succeed. Building a team is a continuous process of communication and direction.”

How to reach: Bal Seal Engineering Inc., (949) 460-2100 or www.balseal.com

The Dawson file

Rick Dawson

President and CEO

Bal Seal Engineering Inc.

Education: Mechanical engineering degree, California State University, Long Beach; MBA, Pepperdine University

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

The No. 1 rule I’ve learned is that you can never run out of cash. You need to have liquidity in the business. You also need to have an ability to make strategic and tactical changes. If you have a strategic plan, implement it and then measure it.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

I think the No. 1 thing is communication. On top of that, you need perseverance, because things don’t always work out the first time. It is also important that as a leader you are willing to take the time to understand your people and communicate with them.

What is your definition of success?

To meet the plan you set out to accomplish. If you want to grow the business at a certain percentage, success is meeting that number.

Published in Orange County

Frank Venegas Jr.’s company, The Ideal Group Inc., was facing what you would call, well, not an ideal situation.

The year was 2008. Even if your company didn’t file for bankruptcy or face an existential threat, you probably had a bottoming-out point about that time or thereafter. At some point, your company probably reached a nadir, and you knew the only place to go was up.

The Ideal Group’s low point came when the company had to slash nearly 14 percent of its workforce. For founder, chairman and CEO Venegas, the staff reduction was a fork in the road. He could have chipped away at his staff little by little, reducing the short-term trauma level, but potentially forcing his company to go through multiple rounds of demoralizing cuts.

Or he could take the lump-sum approach, get it all the cuts over with at once, causing more short-term trauma, but beginning the healing process sooner.

Venegas chose the latter approach.

“At that point, we were probably operating the company at 30 percent larger than what it needed to be,” Venegas says. “What we told everyone was ‘Here is where we are at, we are going to cut it really hard and heavy, and we are going to do it one time, instead of doing it every month.’ And we were fortunate because we were able to hold true to that. We did it once, and we held on.”

As the saying goes, laws are like sausages; you really don’t want to know how they are made — you really don’t want to know how staff cuts are made. It’s a stomach-turning process for just about every business leader to decide why one group should remain employed and other group members should lose their jobs.

But in uncertain times, information is your company’s lifeblood. Venegas quickly realized that if his industrial manufacturing, distribution and solutions company was to recover and emerge stronger, he’d have to lead the way.

That meant keeping his remaining employees in the loop regarding the company’s status, why the cuts were happening and, perhaps most importantly, the reasons to get excited about the future.

“You can’t do much about the short-term morale of the remaining people,” Venegas says. “The only thing you can do is keep them up on what you’re doing as a company, and be honest and forthright. You try to give them new opportunities whenever possible, and really establish an entrepreneurial culture where people have the ability to try new things and make some mistakes along the way.”

Create a culture

Employees do come to work for a paycheck. They rely on your company for the money that provides food, shelter and other basic life necessities. So to say money has nothing to do with fulfillment of employees is flat-out wrong. Money is a factor.

However, it’s a basic factor. If you can’t provide competitive wages, the discussion regarding talent retention ends there. But if you can satisfy an employee’s financial requirements, employment does become about something else.

In short, once the money matter is settled, fulfillment is a matter of engagement. Employees want opportunities to think, create and innovate. They want a leadership group that is responsive to their input.

Employee engagement is increasingly critical when a company has to do more with less.

Ideal’s staff cuts were the product of a customer base that was about 70 percent automotive. When the U.S. auto industry took a historic nosedive during the depths of the recession, the ripple effect hit Ideal. While the company was able to endure the shock better than some of its competitors, sales slipped to under $100 million in 2009, making cuts necessary.

While those left behind had to deal with the collective morale damage and other fallout, Venegas saw an opportunity. Ideal had to do more with less, but the opportunity was there for his remaining staff to flex its entrepreneurial muscles and demonstrate their versatility.

Entrepreneurship is something that has always been a part of Ideal’s culture, but Venegas realized the time was right to embrace the concept anew.

“When you walk in here, and see the way the company looks, the way we run the company, it doesn’t take you a long time to realize that we are a highly entrepreneurial and change-oriented company,” Venegas says. “We’re like a Silicon Valley company in that we do things far differently than anybody else.”

The key to developing and maintaining a focus on innovation within a company is to educate employees, which is as simple — and as complicated — as communicating with them. You have to reveal your vision, your strategy, your methods and, when possible, your financial numbers, to your people.

If you can paint a detailed picture regarding where the company stands, and where each person fits into the larger picture, you stand a much better chance of motivating employees and keeping the idea stream flowing.

Venegas likes to keep his employees apprised of where the company stands financially, whether the numbers show a profit or a loss. Though some leaders might look at a financial loss and see something that would damage employee motivation, Venegas believes the act of informing employees is a motivator in and of itself.

“You get people to buy into an entrepreneurial culture by making money,” he says. “So for our purposes, we want our people to know whether we are making money or not. We run a monthly financial statement for each of the six companies that we have, and those are reviewed not only by senior management but also by the people who lead those companies — which we call BUMs, or business unit managers. They are in charge of their balance sheet, P&L and the whole deal.

“You just make it really clear for everyone to see whether you are doing well or not so well. Everybody should be able to hold their eyes open and take a look.”

Informed employees have a better idea of how to formulate new ideas that walk in step with what the company needs. They feel more empowered to take calculated risks, live with the consequences, and if the plan fails, to turn it into a learning experience for next time.

“We don’t box many people into any particular role,” Venegas says. “My brother and I own the company, and I guess we were taught how to take things apart and put them back together. A lot of times, if we didn’t need this part or that part for a given project, we didn’t get it.

“So we were always looking at how we could build things faster, less expensive and more reliable. That is a concept we’re always trying to pass on to our people here.”

Feed their careers

Venegas believes employees want four things out of an employer, apart from financial compensation: consistency, opportunities to express their ideas, opportunities for promotion and the chance for longevity.

“My CFO just celebrated her 15th anniversary here,” Venegas says. “When she initially came to work for me, she was a graduate intern from the University of Michigan. Obviously, she wasn’t the CFO when she first started, but she grew into that position, she demonstrated great learning habits, and it has been a real blessing to have her here.”

To Venegas, the long tenure of his CFO reinforces the importance of career development as an employee motivator. In particular, Venegas values hands-on employee development that coaches his team to think, create and innovate in a real-world setting, formulating ideas that will be relevant to the company moving forward.

“Our career development operates every single day,” he says. “We are a very well-managed company. The key, I believe, is to set your missions in a very clear way, establish performance metrics and go through them frequently. We go through them not only on a monthly basis, but on a weekly basis.”

Venegas also has his team conduct frequent meetings. Though many business heads view meetings as one of the biggest time-wasters on the company schedule, Venegas still sees value in getting a group of people together in a room to exchange ideas, and share what is working and not working in the company’s operations.

“People say meetings are a waste of time, and that is their opinion,” he says. “But here, it really gives us time to open up and talk. Here, our meetings are pretty open, and you can say what you want. When someone proposes an idea for a new project, we start out with a white board, and begin listing the pros and cons. There is no particular recipe regarding the how and why of the projects we pick, the things we are going to go after.

“But I do find that it is pretty apparent over the course of the meeting whether it makes sense or not. We can generally see whether we’re filling the white board with reasons why we should do something, or reasons why we shouldn’t do it.”

As long as the conversation remains respectful and all viewpoints are considered, Venegas says his team will come to a consensus on how to proceed. If there are any disagreements or conflicts, those have to be addressed in order to get everyone back on the same page.

Motivating employees means respecting them — their work, their opinions, their careers, their ideas. Venegas has promoted that viewpoint at Ideal, and it has helped lead the company out of the recession to $201 million in revenue last year.

“We look at our company values during our meetings, and our mission statement, and from there it’s really not that hard to put together what we have to do in order to be a success. I remind our people — and sometimes, I have to remind myself — that we went through this whole recession, and we’re still here. We remain strong, and we didn’t have the problems of some of our competitors and other companies.”

How to reach: The Ideal Group Inc., (313) 849-0000 or www.weareideal.com

The Venegas file

Frank Venegas Jr.

Founder, chairman and CEO

The Ideal Group Inc.

History: I started the business 33 years ago because I won a Cadillac in a card draw. I sold it a few days later, took the money, put it in my banking account and started Ideal.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

My grandfather always told me that if you do what the boss doesn’t want to do, you’ll have a job every time. Also, you need to create a reason why you’re in business. Do what someone else in the market isn’t doing. You could be in the window-washing business, but it might be how you present yourself. Maybe it’s how you let customers inspect the final product. But you do something a little different, and that draws the customers back to you.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

Have integrity and don’t lie. I’d say that’s the most important thing by far. Once you’re not honest, no one wants to work for you.

What is your definition of success?

Being happy in anything and everything you do and seeing everybody around me fulfilled. I lost $18 million on a business deal in 1998. I did something that I should have thought harder about. The company made it back, not because I was a great leader, but because of the people who work for me. It takes a whole bunch of effort from a whole lot of people to keep a company happy.

Published in Detroit

Craig Clark is one of several general managers who have held the position at The Rivers Casino within its first three years of operation. But that inconsistency at the leadership role has made it hard to create programs that benefit the casino’s customers as well as its employees.

The Rivers Casino, which opened in 2009, has more than 1,800 employees and saw 2011 revenue of $434 million. Clark, who became GM in June 2011, has been focused on enhancing both the customer and employee experience to make the casino a better business overall.

“The key is really consistency of leadership so you can put together programs with the community and programs within the facility to allow team members to grow and advance,” Clark says. “I think that’s the key to my leadership. In the gaming industry some people move around, but for myself I like to be located at one facility for quite a period of time.”

Before coming to Rivers, Clark spent nearly 15 years at Turning Stone in upstate New York where he was able to develop the facility.

“That’s where I spent most of my career, and we had a complex there that we kept adding to for years and years,” Clark says. “(In Pittsburgh) we have a great complete facility that we keep creating different entertainment experiences within and reasons for our customers to come and visit.”

Currently, Rivers Casino has 80 table games, 30 poker table games and 2,970 slot machines. It also includes five different food and beverage outlets, a banquet space and three bar locations on the casino floor. All combined, there is plenty of opportunity to impress guests with customer service and create programs that motivate the employees.

Here is how Clark is driving customer- and employee-related initiatives.

Develop key programs

In an industry where excellent customer service and employee training are staples of operating a business, it isn’t enough to simply talk about having good service. To ensure customers are treated well and employees get opportunities to advance, you have to implement programs that keep service and training as a top priority.

“We have a variety of different programs here at the property,” Clark says. “We’ve introduced a 12-Star program, which is a program for our young business leaders to learn more about all operations of the facility.

“We have leadership training components within that training program. We have accounting practices. We have how to do a review and give good feedback to team members when you give them their annual review. It’s a 12 different part program.”

While one program may be aimed at learning all aspects of the casino business, other programs offer employees a chance to learn what it takes to perform specific jobs.

“We have a dealer school here where people from outside can interview and be trained as dealers and team members who are currently dealers can learn other games that they might not have perfected to date,” he says.

The casino also has programs aimed at recognizing employees who are going above and beyond the expectations of their jobs.

“We’ve put in a program for team member of the month and we have team member of the year, where both an hourly and a salaried team member are recognized for their great contributions to the facility,” he says.

“We are also putting together right now a supervisory leadership training program focusing on how to ensure our supervisors are consistent and thorough in their coaching and their mentoring of team members so we get the right consistency throughout the organization.”

While setting up a program is one thing, continuing to improve it and make necessary changes is another. The key is to view it as an on-going process.

“It doesn’t start one day and end another day,” Clark says. “It’s actually a process that you have to live and breathe and it has to be part of your business soul. You need to focus on it each day because as a leader, the team members are looking at you as the example.”

When you can listen to employees and listen to their ideas and make a positive change, that’s how these programs are developed. You have to ensure your team continues to focus on service levels because it’s not lost on clients, customers or guests.

“Our guests have such a high expectation of coming here and they all want to be treated as if they’re that special person; our goal each and every day is to ensure that we do that and they walk away with a memory and an experience of coming here to the Rivers,” Clark says.

Be well-rounded

One of the biggest reasons Rivers Casino has the amount of opportunities available to its employees is to offer them a chance to grow and learn about the whole business. This creates employees who thoroughly enjoy what they do and strive to be well-rounded.

“Sometimes people are narrowly focused and I think the more that you can explain to them or educate them on more parts of the business, the more valuable they become to your organization,” Clark says. “If a dealer understands how the marketing promotions are being created and what our goals are with those programs, they’re our salespeople that are out there each and every day and it just makes them more informed and better team members and better guest service professionals.”

To help encourage employees to become well-rounded, it is crucial that you provide outlets for them to be recognized.

“Those types of programs start from one-on-one contact with team members and ensuring that you recognize them as you walk around the facility and thank them for their hard work,” he says. “That’s something that business leaders need to continue to focus on because that pat on the back is one of the best rewards that a person can have each and every day if somebody can have that personalized recognition.”

Another way to develop your employees is to establish expected criteria and highlight the individuals who provide strong examples of the attitude, behavior and work ethic you expect.

“When you look at human resource programs, we try to create the criteria that establish what the right business behavior for a team member or team leader is,” Clark says. “We want to take those people who are examples of that behavior every day and put them on a pedestal so people look at them and say, ‘Matt is a great guest service deliverer every day. He walks the walk and coaches team members.’

“He is an example that they can look at for that consistency. Consistency is the hard part in the hospitality business because things happen in your personal life and when you come to work you have to shed anything that’s not positive and ensure you put that smile on your face and be positive and proactive in what you do at the workplace.”

Strong employee development ultimately comes down to how much employees want to help themselves become better. If you can get your employees to want to achieve greater things and you allow them outlets to suggest improvements, you create a culture that fosters continuous improvement.

“Quite often some of the best ideas come from listening to your team members,” Clark says. “Keep an open mind. I’ll walk the casino floor and some of the best ideas I get are from team members who come up to me with suggestions or ideas that were passed on from a customer. You have to take those ideas, and as a leader our job is to align the resources, when practical, to implement those great ideas.”

On a quarterly basis Clark does something he calls “communication corner” where he sets up a table in the team member cafeteria for all three shifts to get their input.

“I ask them for their ideas, suggestions and concerns because a third of the ideas come from the leadership team and their experience, a third comes from our team members who are in the workplace each day and a third comes from customers,” he says. “So I can get two-thirds of the knowledge I need by just listening to our team members.”

An outlet such as Clark’s communication corner is a great way to gain access to employee’s ideas. However, the key to continuing that practice is to show them you are acting on those ideas.

“A lot of it is listening to those ideas and then having the team members see the change,” he says. “That openness to listening as well as showing action, positive actions reinforce that behavior. It’s like anything else in life, if you’re an athlete or if you’re a business leader, you have to exercise those behaviors. As business leaders we have to exercise the behavior of listening and we have to exercise the behavior of implementing the things that are practical to our businesses and cost-effective.”

Drive customer service

The concept of customer service seems simple on the surface, but to achieve it and be a leader at it your company takes the right employees first.

“One of the keys is starting with the selection process of the team member,” Clark says. “The next most important thing is we have a two-day orientation here at the property. Part of it is going through policies and part of it is really talking about hospitality and talking about our guests and the expectations of our guests.

“Also, it’s how we ensure that we are focused on those good behaviors to make it a great experience for the guests when they come here and how all the systems work.”

An orientation program is a key way to set the tone for someone arriving in the company. It gives employees a good overview of the type of businesses that they’re entering in to and ensuring they’re the right person. The casino doesn’t stop there.

“From that, we have a 90-day checklist program which really follows the job description and what their core functions are as a team member,” Clark says. “We make sure we go through that checklist to ensure that we have good training programs set up to ensure that they focus on the job function, the quality and the service.

“Those types of things tend to work out well where team members really understand the expectation and deliver the best results.”

To measure whether employees understand their job and are delivering desired results, it is important to have some form of review in place.

“We do a 90-day review of a person who joins the organization and then an annual review,” he says. “An annual review should never really be a surprise. It should be a summary of the year’s performance of the team member. The key is to have ongoing communication and ongoing coaching and praise.

“When you have a balanced program and all those cogs of the wheel are working together, that’s where you have the best result. If there is something team members need to advance their skill on, the key is helping them out with that as soon as it’s identified. If they’re doing great things it’s recognizing them immediately because that’s where you’re going to create the best team loyalty and the best team culture.”

To keep customer service levels at their peak it is important that you use what resources you have available to you. Rivers recently implemented a secret shopper program to help test customer service.

“We have an independent party that will evaluate service levels looking at it from a guest perspective,” Clark says. “A shopper service will come in and they’ll go through experiences as if they were a guest and then give us their feedback on individual team members and the property overall.”

There are a lot of great resources, some of them free and some of them you can acquire. “You have to stay current on different practices and different education processes,” he says. “The world is changing rapidly when it comes to online training. We’ve put several tutorial programs in place this year. The key is really seeing what the most effective way is to use this technology to train team members and ensure that they are current on all their practices.”

How to reach: The Rivers Casino, (412) 231-7777 or www.theriverscasino.com

Takeaways

-          Design programs around initiatives.

-          Provide opportunity and outlets for employees.

-          Enhance the customer experience.

The Clark File

Craig Clark

General manager

Rivers Casino

Born: Endicott, NY

Education: Received an associate degree from Broome Community College in business administration. He also has a bachelor’s of science degree from SUNY Binghamton.

What was your first job, and what did you learn from that experience?

I worked with my father as a residential carpenter during high school up until I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. What I took away from that was hard work, an understanding of what you can create with your hands, and a strong work ethic.

What is some advice that has held true through your career?

One of the things I think is most important is education. Somebody should always focus on educating themselves and continue that education throughout their life.

Who is someone you look up to in the industry?

I spent most of my career at Turning Stone and I worked with Frank Riolo. He was somebody who always believed in me and continued to challenge me and give me opportunities to grow.

Do you ever gamble and what is your favorite game?

In the state of Pennsylvania, I rarely gamble. If I make a trip to Vegas, I gamble a little bit, but not very much. I like to play craps. I enjoy the entertainment experience.

What are you looking forward to at Rivers Casino?

I’m looking forward to the continued development of Rivers. I love to grow a business and I really believe in the business plan. That’s why I enjoy this job because I can see the growth of the team members and the growth of the property and the success that’s driven by both of those.

Published in Pittsburgh
Friday, 31 August 2012 20:00

Donna Rae Smith: Authentic Leadership

Can you recognize an authentic Picasso painting from a really good reproduction? Unless you’re an art expert, probably not. Fortunately, authentic people are easier to spot.

We know authentic leaders because their words and actions are aligned, and we know them by the way they make us feel — inspired, motivated, and ready to jump on board in support of their vision. Truly authentic leaders have a way of leveraging their authenticity to positively impact the lives of others.

What are some of the key traits of authentic leaders?

Authentic leaders know and accept themselves. At the core of authenticity is self-knowledge and acceptance. They aren’t trying to be someone else. They are genuine. They lead in the truest sense, rather than being a mimicker of others. Because these leaders are fundamentally comfortable with themselves, they foster an environment where others feel at ease to be authentic too.

Richard Branson comes to mind because he certainly isn’t trying to fit into a cookie-cutter mold of a CEO. Not surprisingly, he has created brands that reflect his self-confidence and uniqueness.

Authentic leaders demonstrate vision. There’s a tendency in today’s economy to lead by the bottom line numbers. That’s understandable, but it’s misguided. Of course, the numbers are important, but they can’t be the sole driver in decision-making.

Authentic leaders are motivated by a vision of the companies they are trying to build and the service they want to provide, and that vision guides every decision. That vision is consistently communicated in their words and actions. It’s that vision that motivates employees, earns their commitment, and gives the workforce something to rally around.

Be willing to do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. I like to say that authentic leaders do the “harder, right thing.” By that I mean authentic leaders have the courage to do the right thing even when it’s not easy (and it’s often not easy). Because authentic leaders are true to themselves, they are able to keep true to their principles and vision. That motivation enables them to do the harder, right thing time and again.

Why is this important? Repeating what’s familiar is easier, but it doesn’t move you forward. Instead it keeps you stuck in the current state, potentially losing time and money. Doing the harder, right thing initiates movement and enables progress.

Speak from the heart. We all know the feeling of listening to someone who speaks from the heart. We feel connected and drawn to them. We are energized and engaged. When leaders speak from the heart, it translates to enhanced effectiveness and productivity. Those around them are motivated by their sincerity, honesty and passion.

Engender trust. Authentic leaders create trust between themselves and their employees. It’s pretty easy to spot inauthentic behavior — when values, words and actions don’t align. People catch on to this, and they are rightfully reluctant to trust.

One Bright Side client, a supply chain executive representing 120,000 employees, has modeled this well: During a recent calibration session, he was very open with his team about his biases. He asked others to call him out if he couldn’t provide logical, rational arguments for his ratings suggestions.

By revealing his true thoughts, he fostered trust within the group. Almost immediately, others felt comfortable to acknowledge their own biases. This frankness allowed the group to work cooperatively, rather than thwart progress with hidden agendas.

Recognizing the elements of authenticity is a first step to becoming an authentic leader. Ultimately, authenticity requires courage: the courage to trust yourself and your vision and a willingness to put yourself “out there” — to expose your ideas, your thoughts, your inspiration, and your values to others. By doing so, you give those around you something real to latch on to and a reason to follow you.

Speaking from the heart is a good place to start. It doesn’t have to be a public conversation — yet. Start with yourself. Are you leading authentically? What is your greater vision for the future?

Who do you consider an authentic leader? What behaviors do they exhibit that tell you they’re authentic? What is the impact of their authenticity, and what can you learn from them?

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com.

Published in Akron/Canton

Going into 2008, Chip Conley was concerned about the future, and not just for the obvious reasons. Yes, there was the looming possibility of another economic downturn. And with his company launching 15 hotels in a 21-month period, he wondered like many business leaders what impact a recession would have on his organization and its 3,000-plus employees. The difference was Conley’s personal life was also in turmoil.

“We were growing as fast as we ever had at a difficult time,” says Conley, the founder of the San Francisco-based hotel group, Joie de Vivre Hotels. “I also had a family member who was going to San Quentin prison wrongfully. … I had a long-term relationship end. I had five friends commit suicide during that time.”

Soon, the CEO faced the repercussions trying to juggle so many emotions.

“I had my own flat-line experience,” he says.

After finishing up a speech in St. Louis, Conley fell unconscious. In the five to 10 minutes that it took the paramedics to arrive, his heart stopped.

While Conley fully recovered from the heart attack, his experience sent him through a search for meaning, a way to make sense of all the things happening in his life.

“CEOs — you sort of think that they’re above all the emotions and the difficulties and no one should be pitying any CEOs,” Conley says. “You know — ‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina.’ But the bottom line is that I was really confused by all of the emotions I was feeling — a lot of things were falling apart in my life at once.”

As the leader of a $250 million business, Conley knew that he couldn’t be the only one facing this challenge. To empower himself as well as other leaders he did extensive research on the psychology behind emotions and how this translates in business, writing “Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness+Success.” The book focuses on how business leaders and individuals can become more emotionally fluent, and subsequently, improve their organizations. To date, his transformational leadership practices have been featured in publications from Time to Fortune and The Wall Street Journal.

“In business, what we want to do is influence things,” Conley says. “We want to have an impact. And usually it’s very external: how can I have an impact or influence the world? What I’m saying is if you can influence and impact your emotions, you can actually be more impactful as a leader in the world.”

Become a CEO (Chief Emotions Officer)

Conley’s research on emotions led him to the work of author Daniel Goleman and an interesting finding that the author made in his book “Emotional Intelligence” 16 years ago: that two-thirds of the success of business leaders comes from their EQ — emotional intelligence quotient — while just one-third is due to IQ level or experience. This statistic struck a powerful chord with Conley.

What it means for a CEO is that the best leaders have more influence and control over their emotions. The most effective CEOs are “chief emotions officers.”

“First of all, the more that you’re emotionally fluent and emotionally intelligent about what’s going on inside of you, the more effectively you’ll be as a leader and the happier you’ll be,” Conley says.

The first step in becoming a chief emotions officer isn’t an easy one for all, however. It begins with becoming more attuned to what’s going on inside of you by taking your ego out of the equation.

Conley notices that many young leaders tend to use talking to motivate people. They have a tendency to think that if they give a good speech or make a proclamation that that the emotion will get people excited. While this works sometimes, he’s learned over the years that trying to motivate people without good information can also backfire.

Frequently when people want to get things done, their ambition in tandem with success can lead employees to interpret it as narcissism, Conley says.

“What happens sometimes is a leader of an organization wants to get people fired up and people think that he or she is really out of touch with what they are seeing,” he says. “So it’s a fine line, because you do want to be a visionary as a leader and help people see things that aren’t as obvious, but you also have to keep your feet on the ground.”

Practicing empathetic leadership starts with becoming a better listener.

Conley uses the example of commercial airlines. When jet fuel prices went up and they started adding new charges for items such as amenities, luggage and so on. The exception was Southwest Airlines, which considered the impact on employees when it decided to maintain many of its pre-recession policies.

“The airlines teed off us — the customers — for charging for bags and for food and no longer handing out peanuts, except on Southwest,” Conley says. “So they upset us, but more importantly, they also upset the flight attendants. Because they were going to start charging us for bags, we brought all of our bags on the plane. You turn flight attendants into baggage handlers and the level of the satisfaction of the flight attendants went way down. And guess what? Customer satisfaction plummeted, except at places like Southwest.”

Understanding people’s feelings takes a two-way conversation. So instead of giving a speech about how it’s going to be, Conley now asks his people how they want it to be. As CEO, he frequently had dinners with different groups of employees, taught classes for team members and maintained an open door policy to encourage people to share their emotions and ensure they felt heard.

“When you can understand the subtleties and the nuances of what this person in front of you is looking for in their life, it allows you to deliver on those needs a lot better,” Conley says.

Identify the variables

The challenge in learning to control emotions for most people is becoming more responsive to them. Because people tend to react quickly when something happens to us, they often don’t take time to think about the root cause of emotions or worse, push them off, Conley says.

Due to the stresses of day-to-day business dealings, it might take CEOs days or weeks to realize that something has been eating at them because they were too busy to deal with it at the time.

“Sometimes efficiency takes us away from our emotions and we just ignore them, and then they come out in other ways,” Conley says. “We wonder, ‘Why am I so angry about this?’ and you don’t realize that yesterday this person sort of blew you off when you were supposed to have a meeting with them. And you just had other things to do so you didn’t focus on it.

“So something happens and we react. The lifespan of an emotion physically in your body is usually 90 seconds long, but we actually hold on to it a lot longer than that. It gets stale, but it’s still that emotion that you’re holding onto. Learning how to be more responsive and less reactive is a good thing.”

In a business culture, emotions are contagious, from smiling to yawning and frustration, to fear and anxiety. So not addressing the fear or anxiety of one person — or yourself — can quickly turn into the emotional neglect of many, causing creativity and innovation to suffer.

When Conley researched “Emotional Equations,” he found that although emotions seem fleeting and uncontrollable, they are actually quite predictable. Once you identify the emotion that you or your people are feeling, you need to examine ingredients that created it. Most can be broken down into simple math.

In a study done several years ago, participants were given two choices: get an electric shock now or get an electric shock randomly in the next 24 hours, but it would be half as painful. The vast majority of people in the study chose the option to get the shock immediately.

Why? They had more control over the situation by knowing when the shock would happen, lowering their anxiety.

“Anxiety has two different ingredients: uncertainty and powerlessness, or what you don’t know and what you can’t control,” Conley says. “Once you start to realize this you can actually influence the ingredients and then may influence the emotion.”

Other examples include (Disappointment = Expectations - Reality) and (Workaholism = What Are You Running From?/What Are You Living For?)

By dissecting emotions into variables, leaders can influence the variables to better control the emotions themselves. Take anxiety, for example.

If employees in a company harbor anxiety, they will eventually become distracted and less productive. So when leaders find out that people are anxious about their jobs and finances, they should look for ways to deplete some of the powerlessness and uncertainty they may be feeling.

“If we know that uncertainty and powerless is what creates anxiety, and we know that anxiety makes people less creative, less innovative, less engaged, less productive, then when we have bad news, we better figure out how to package it quickly and get it out to people,” Conley says.

“When people are just stewing about what they think will happen, it becomes a big distraction from what they really should be doing in their work.”

While reassurance with words is always helpful, you also need to take action. Set tangible goals. Provide comprehensive feedback. Get employees more engaged in innovation.

The same goes for anxiety of a CEO. By creating more certainty in your life and taking power over the areas that you can control, you reduce the anxiety that can paralyze you and your organization.

“Even in a time when people are worried about things like layoffs, they can feel like ‘Ah, I have some power or some influence in terms of my effectiveness if I do the following three things,’” Conley says.

Make it a commitment

CEOs who use empathy in their decision-making processes can create cultures with happier employees, who in turn, provide better service.

“What we saw is the more employees felt engaged, the happier they were and the more likely they were to give a great experience to our customers,” Conley says. “So our employee satisfaction went up and then our customer satisfaction went up as well.

“When you get more engaged employees in a service environment, you’re able to put an environment together that allows the customers to get solutions faster. And the employees are going to feel not just engaged but they feel like their fingerprints are all over the business.”

Seeing the power of emotional equations, Conley began teaching them to leaders at Joie de Vivre to help them better identify with their emotions and empathize with the emotions of others. And so far, the impact on organizationwide morale has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Initially people thought, ‘Oh God. Here’s Chip with his New Age stuff again,’” he says. “But honestly, the last few years have been an emotionally trying time for people in the business world. So the fact that I was being vulnerable and authentic about my own fears and frustrations and concerns about life meant that people felt like, ‘OK, I can breathe. I don’t have to be Superman.’”

Giving more voice to emotions doesn’t mean productivity has to suffer either. In fact, it should be the opposite. When people have the safety to express their emotions, they’ll be more empowered to make decisions because the fear of making a mistake or anxiety about their job security won’t be distracting them.

“If you have a problem in a hotel or any kind of business, you want the person right in front of you to solve it,” Conley says. “You don’t want to have them say, ‘OK, well, I’ll talk to my manager.”

While he’s transitioned from the role of CEO, Conley continues to promote the equations at Joie de Vivre as a strategic adviser. Today he focuses on creating one emotion in particular: joy (Joy=Love-Fear), which is also the company’s mission statement.

“Our company name is Joie de Vivre, which means joy of life,” Conley says. “The fact that we have an underlying message and many of us wear these wristbands that say “create joy” is a reminder that that’s what we’re in business to do.”

How to reach: Joie de Vivre Hotels, (800) 738-7477 or www.jdvhotels.com

The Conley File

Chip Conley

Founder, former CEO and strategic adviser

Joie de Vivre Hotels

Born: Long Beach

Education: BA and MBA from Stanford University

What was your first job?

The fries and shake station at McDonald’s

What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?

Compensation is a right and recognition is a gift so I try to provide two honest and detailed forms of personal recognition to people I work with daily. If I slack off one day, then I add those to the next day.

What would your friends be surprised to find out about you?

I’m not sure that many people know that I have a 35-year-old stepson, a six-week old baby and three grandchildren, with the oldest being 17 and 3 inches taller than me. As much as Joie de Vivre and our various hotels were sort of like my children and family, I feel fortunate to have these kids and grandkids in my life as they remind me of what’s truly important at the end of the day.

If you could have dinner with one person you’ve never met, who would it be and why?

Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines who was in that position for 37 years. He created a compelling culture that walked its talk around the customer coming second and the employee coming first. The airline industry is brutal — cyclical, high fixed costs, lots of unions, big risks — so I’d want to learn more about how he dealt with the emotional roller coaster that came with being CEO for three dozen years. He outdid me by a dozen years since I was CEO of JdV for two dozen years.

Published in Northern California

Tony DiBenedetto will never forget “the watercooler incident.”

“We were in our very first office building, and at that time everybody was bringing in their own bottled water,” says DiBenedetto, who is the co-founder, chairman and CEO of the national IT services provider. “We wound up having this meeting to talk about what we were going to do about the water.”

He and the other two principals sat down to deliberate the issue: Would they use bottled water or filtered? What about enlisting a water service? The meeting ended two hours later.

“At the end of that meeting, I looked at my two partners and said, ‘Guys — we’re never doing this again,” DiBenedetto says. “This is insane.’”

Seeing the inefficiency around decision-making, the partners agreed that something needed to change. With Tribridge still in its infancy, they understood that the way they handled decisions in the beginning years would set the precedent for the company’s future.

“What it led to was an acknowledgement that we all three did not need to be included in decisions,” DiBenedetto says. “In partnerships, a lot of times everybody feels the need to vote on every single issue and talk about every issue, and it doesn’t allow you to grow very fast.”

Assign roles

What the watercooler incident demonstrated is the age old problem of “too many cooks in the kitchen” combined with the mistake of bringing in the wrong cooks. When there are too many people involved in a decision, it’s hard for people to accomplish anything quickly or efficiently.

And if people are also participating in decisions that don’t concern them, they won’t have time to handle the issues that do.

What DiBenedetto and his partners realized early on was that most people at Tribridge, themselves included, didn’t really know what decisions were and weren’t their responsibility. They needed to divide the decision-making so that each person and department had clear areas of decision-making authority.

Today, each of the company’s partners has specific items that fall under his decision-making jurisdiction. For example, anything involving strategy lands within DiBenedetto’s arena, and sometimes, all three of the partners.

“I feel like my role here is to drive strategy, so if we’re going to stray from the strategy that is a decision I would want to be involved in,” DiBenedetto says.

Not all decisions in the company should be pushed down the ranks either. When it comes to large financial transactions, debt, M&A or strategy, you definitely want your top leaders to take the lead. As CEO, DiBenedetto still offers his input if there is a major decision that people want feedback on or when it’s a hire or fire decision where his expertise may help.

At the customer level, however, he’s rarely involved in decision-making. When the company opened its first office in Dallas, for example, DiBenedetto told Managing Director Bobby Priestley that he was charged with making all the decisions concerning Dallas — and not just some of them, but all of them.

“People closest to the decision make better decisions,” he says. “We have consultants in the field and 3,500 customers. They’re out there making decisions for a customer. They are in the best position to make the decision. They understand the customer’s needs. They understand what the firm can do.

“So to have them elevate that through a series of management layers is ridiculous.”

Rarely if ever has DiBenedetto seen a good decision that satisfied a customer but impacted the company negatively. That’s because the customer feedback loop can typically tell you whether or not employees are on the right track with their decision-making.

“We’ve got a nice built-in check and balance there — where if decisions are good for the customer, they’re good for Tribridge,” DiBenedetto says.

“In my 14 years at Tribridge, I’ve never felt like, ‘Oh my gosh, this person is such a rogue decision-maker, and I have to reel them in.’ I’ve never felt that at all — zero.”

Say what you need to say

When you have a lot of people making decisions every day, effective internal communication becomes much more critical. If communication breaks down, and decision-making becomes siloed, your company invites conflict within departments and across them.

“We probably have 100,000 decisions made a day, and the way our business works, we have 450 people making those decisions every day,” DiBenedetto says.

“A lot of times we make decisions but we don’t tell somebody either why we made it or even that we made a decision. So you might do something for a customer and not tell them, or you might do something internally and not tell somebody. Being able to communicate the decision is another lesson learned.”

One way to keep everyone apprised of important organizational changes or information while preserving decision-making autonomy is to have set meetings to share updates, talk strategy and discuss progress on goals.

At Tribridge, the company currently holds a monthly meeting for its national leadership team in Tampa as well as an all-company meeting each February, where more than 400 employees meet in-person at a chosen location. In addition, it conducts an all-employee phone call once a month.

Regular meetings are a great opportunity for people to bring topics to the table, submit questions and voice any issues or concerns that could require outside attention. But a two-hour meeting about bottled water? Absolutely not, DiBenedetto says.

In the case of the watercooler incident, it wasn’t the meeting itself that caused inefficiency. Rather, inefficiency occurred because the people in the meeting didn’t need to be there. So instead of vilifying meetings, which can contribute to productive, creative and helpful communication, the company does the opposite — it encourages them.

“One of the culture points for us is the very open communication process,” DiBenedetto says. “Most people here are very comfortable raising topics. So anybody can call a meeting. Titles are not involved. We don’t put titles on our business cards. It’s an open culture where people can call a meeting if they need to.”

However, another rule at Tribridge is that if anyone ever feels like they are in a meeting that they don’t need to be in, they are completely free to excuse themselves.

“They can say, ‘Hey listen, I’m not going to contribute to this meeting, so I don’t need to be here,’” DiBenedetto says. “It’s not looked upon as a bad thing. The culture of the company is not just to meet for meeting’s sake.”

The bottom line is that you don’t want to shackle people with endless meetings or ask them to check in constantly about their progress. This defeats the purpose of pushing out decisions in the first place. Once you give people power over decisions, you also need to give them the freedom to succeed or fail.

“I can’t come back later and constantly start micromanaging,” he says. “So part of it is a leadership point that you’ve got to allow the decision and the success or failure to happen. If it doesn’t happen, then nobody learns from it.”

So after any big decision is made at Tribridge, whatever group that is involved in that area of the business, whether it is a client, a region or the entire company, is also involved in a debriefing process. This step reinforces that every decision, good or bad, is a learning experience for your business and your employees and the key to continuous improvement.

If the decision was good, ask why was it good? How could an OK decision have been better? And what went wrong with the bad ones?

“You have to be able to keep learning from it,” DiBenedetto says. “It’s a skill set. So you get better at making decisions the more decisions you make. The fact that we have these hundreds of thousands decisions being made every day means our people are better decision-makers than if they worked somewhere else.”

Empower the right people

In the tech business, where you’ve got to be rapidly changing and adapting your business all the time, you can’t afford to have a culture that puts individuals on pedestals, DiBenedetto says. When you trust people to make important decisions that impact your customers, you need to feel confident they’re focused on helping the customers, not themselves.

That’s why DiBenedetto prioritizes a person’s cultural fit over his or her resume when he hires someone for a position of authority at Tribridge. Specifically, he looks for whether the person has the trait of “entrepreneurism.”

“The first thing we tell people who come to work here is that when we say ‘think like an entrepreneur,’ there are two elements of that,” DiBenedetto says. “One, keep improving Tribridge; two, really on an everyday basis when you’re working for a customer, pretend that you’re one of their shareholders. When you’re thinking like a shareholder for them, you’re making the best decision in their interest.”

Hiring for entrepreneurism doesn’t mean you only want people who plan to start their own companies or create new products. Instead, it defines a person’s willingness to take risks, make changes confidently, and guide the decisions based on how he or she thinks the customer’s business is going to go, DiBenedetto says.

“Culturally, it’s looking for people who have an entrepreneur’s mindset, who are comfortable making decisions in risky situations,” DiBenedetto says. “The easy decisions aren’t the ones that you are worried about. It’s the tough decisions where you want somebody who has more of an entrepreneur’s mindset making them.”

To get a feel for this trait when hiring, the company’s recruiters first ask job candidates to provide broad situational examples, such as a time when they used teamwork or faced a tough challenge. Then they use “critical behavioral interviewing” techniques to analyze the candidate’s behavior in those different situations. What they did when they made a mistake or when they had to give negative feedback?

“We’re looking at how they handled it, not the answer to the question,” DiBenedetto says.

“You’re not asking them about being honest. You’re asking them about teamwork or something else; and they start telling you the story. And you keep drilling down until you get to a situation where you have witnessed through their story what their behavior was. So it’s a crafty way of doing it.”

In behavioral interviewing, recruiters also look at the way people phrase statements and the subtleties of what they say. This can help you identify red flags in a person’s cultural fit. Big egos, for instance, don’t bode well when you’re making decisions for a team.

“Sometimes you’ll ask somebody, ‘Tell me what someone else on the team does,’ and they’ll answer the question by telling you what they did,” DiBenedetto says.

People who are new to an organization with decentralized decision-making may not feel confident making lots of big decisions right away. But by hiring people that fit well with the culture, demonstrate entrepreneurism, and are team players, DiBenedetto finds that most people can succeed in this kind of empowering environment.

“When you surround employees with people who help them all the time, that aren’t in it for themselves, that plan a team environment, and they are empowered to make decisions, they tend to like it,” he says.

“It translates into better decision-making, faster decision-making and therefore things happen quicker here. There’s a sense of urgency to get things done as a result of that, and that leads to growth.”

While DiBenedetto had some initial reservations about using a decentralized decision-making structure, today he can’t imagine doing things differently at Tribridge. From 2006 to 2009, the company grew its revenues 272 percent, generating $65 million in 2011.

“We’ve grown dramatically over a 10-year period,” DiBenedetto says. “We’ve had 9/11, multiple wars — we’ve had a tech bust, a real estate bust, a credit crunch. Yet our company continues to grow organically pretty quickly, and it’s because we have decentralized decision-making.”

How to reach: Tribridge, (877) 744-1360 or www.tribridge.com

  1. Give people clear responsibilities.
  2. Make meetings more efficient.
  3. Hire people who can make decisions.

The DiBenedetto File

Tony DiBenedetto

Co-founder, chairman and CEO

Tribridge

Born: Brooklyn, NY

Education: Florida State University

What was your first job?

A paper route

What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?

Waking up my daughter

What would your friends be surprised to find out about you?

I write a lot, especially poetry.

What’s the biggest challenge in the future growth of Tribridge?

The strategy for us to get to the next level has been built around something we call ‘Concerto,’ which conceptually is the brand that we’ve coined for the business we’ve moved to the cloud. If you think about Tribridge, we do services for customers and we use a lot of different technology. We’ve built a private cloud and we’re offering this technology that’s some Tribridge intellectual property as well as Microsoft’s applications. We’ve integrated that and offered it to our customers. … The next five years if I look at tremendous growth — that is it. With that come some opportunities and challenges. One is where are the next 500 consultants going to come from? We’ve got to find the next 500 team members.

What trait does a leader need to be successful in today’s business environment?

With the really turbulent economic times we’ve had the last 10 years, we’re lacking the thinking big — blind confidence. We’re lacking the ability for our leaders to think bigger. Because it’s humbling to know that things are unpredictable, we all get stifled in our decision-making. Thinking bigger is something I see as an attribute that allows people to fight through the stifling news that you get from watching or reading the news. We’ve got to ignore that, keep thinking big, expect more. Expecting more is really about how can I make this better? How can I keep getting better? So if I’m thinking big and expecting more at the same time, that’s just driving success.

Published in Florida
Friday, 31 August 2012 20:12

Paul A. Larkins: Achieve peak performance

Every organization has a culture, whether it is purposefully created or not. A great culture, when combined with great operations, contributes to a healthy, productive work environment that spurs employees to reach their peak performance.

Culture is multifaceted. It is unique to each organization and grown organically, which makes it difficult to define. That said, culture is best described as the personality, character and soul of a company. It includes the concrete aspects of work life, such as compensation, benefits and career development, as well as the non-concrete characteristics formed through employee and leadership attitudes, behaviors and values.

Culture is also an extension of your brand and reputation, which means it impacts all your stakeholders, whether clients, partners, investors or the public.

Unfortunately, some companies discover the important role of culture only after they’ve had a crisis, whether a disgruntled employee, product failure or financial misstep. A company that allows operational achievement to rule the day can quickly lose sight of the importance of building strong culture. While operations might determine what goals must be achieved, company culture defines how those goals are met, and to what degree of success.

Recipe for a strong culture

The secret to creating a strong company culture is two-fold: equal parts tightly-knit community and recruitment and retention of a team of A players who focus on the what and the how of peak performance achievement. Top performers are driven, ambitious, innovative and hardworking, and they typically excel at working as a team toward a common goal.

Building a strong culture doesn't happen overnight. It is an active process that is the responsibility of every employee. Culture cannot be “handed down” from the top, although it is leadership’s responsibility to create an environment for culture to flourish.

For a strong culture to take root, management must provide employees with the tools they need to excel — from health insurance benefits and fair compensation plans to the right technology and resources to do their jobs.

The company also needs to nurture a healthy cultural environment that inspires participation and engagement from the entire workforce. This includes building a work community that inspires camaraderie between colleagues and helps employees feel eager to come to work each morning. In such an environment, employees are working under the best possible circumstances and motivated toward peak performance as individuals and as an organization as a whole.

Putting values into action

Once a company has the plan in place for strengthening its culture, the next step is to define company values and put them into action. The values of SquareTwo Financial are focus, alignment, accountability, integrity and trust. Here’s what it takes to transform those values words into daily practice.

Alignment

Every company operates as an interdependent community where it is in everyone’s best interest to help colleagues succeed. The finance and HR departments may not seem to have much in common when, in fact, employees from both departments are looking beyond their specific roles to advance a common company purpose.

Accountability

Employees are encouraged to evaluate their own actions and their consequences, and are rewarded for being action-oriented, results-driven and passionate. Top-performing companies don’t overlook accountability. Instead, they are deeply obligated to excellence, with employees expected to bring their A game to work every day.

Integrity and trust

Character is essential to long-term success, personally and professionally. Sound moral and ethical principles are part of culture; they are traits that hiring managers look for when recruiting. Employees are encouraged to — and recognized for — always acting in the company’s best interest. They also strive to build strong, meaningful relationships with each other, partners, clients and other stakeholders.

Focus

All employees are focused on achieving individual goals as well as the company’s strategic objectives. Employees have a deep understanding of how they fit into the broader organization. And as a result, they are constantly evaluating how to better achieve their goals, and goals of their department and the company.

Paul A. Larkins is president and CEO of SquareTwo Financial, a leader in the $100 billion asset recovery and management industry that along with its network of legal partners employs about 2,000 people in North America, including 160 in the state of Florida. For more information, email contact@squaretwofinancial.com or call (303) 296-3345.

Published in Florida
Friday, 31 August 2012 20:09

Victoria Tifft: Growing pains

Most companies start with outstanding customer value propositions. But as time passes, and customers change, the once-upon-a-time on-target value propositions become out of date. Soon customers become dissatisfied because vendors don’t seem to understand their current needs. They begin to believe they’ve outgrown their vendors and start to look for new answers to their problems.

This isn’t true of every company. Some companies make staying close to their customers and understanding their changing needs a top priority. These companies use a process to check themselves and ensure that they’re constantly staying on top of changing customer priorities. The process starts by asking several questions:

1. Who is your customer? What do they do? What are their challenges?

2. Have your clients aged? Have their needs changed?

3. What is your customers’ cost structure in this economy?  Do your bells and whistles deliver the value they did in boom times?

4. Is your customer using technology to do some of your core offerings?

5. How well do you truly know your customers? How often do you visit your customers?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, then it’s time to get back to basics. Here are a few steps to get you going.

Step 1: Get to know your customer again.

Recently, our company found that many of the people with closest ties to our clients were starting to retire. We put together a customer visit “blitz” to visit all our existing customers and prospects within our existing accounts. We made sure they knew who we were and what we did, but most of all, we listened. We inquired about new challenges and took time to learn how we could understand the root of their problems.

The point is, if you want to understand your customer’s changing needs, don’t just visit the people you are familiar with — get out on the front lines with the people doing the core work and buying new products or services. Find out what your customer’s requirements are for timing, cost and quality. Really listen to your customers so that you can understand their goals and the obstacles that prevent them from reaching those goals.

Step 2: Re-center yourself in your customer’s new world.

After listening to your customer, develop a new value proposition. We realized that our customer’s budget constraints were far more severe than we originally thought. Our customer had no choice — they had to do more for less. We had to figure out a way to whittle down what wasn’t essential and find ways to add real value through technology, resourcing, and efficiencies.

Step 3: Change.

Ouch, yes — change. Your staff will be entrenched in the way they do things, or the products you offer, but change will be imperative. Without it, you risk losing your business over time.

Put your staff in a room and present your “new” client’s needs to them. Ask them, “If we had to start over today, how would we support this type of a client?” You may need to develop high-level processes, add resources or create a realistic profit-loss statement. Then, ask your management team to look at how that differs from where you are today. Create strategies that will allow you to execute and deliver your new value proposition.

Present your customer’s “new” need. Create a new value proposition. Go back to answering your customer’s requirements of time, cost, quality, and peace of mind. The result will be a path to change that’s been developed by your people in a non-threatening, problem-solving way. And best of all, it will be in sync with your client’s needs.

Victoria Tifft is founder and CEO of Clinical Research Management, a full-service contract research organization that offers early to late-stage clinical research services to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. She can be reached at vtifft@clinicalrm.com. Clinical Research Management Director of Business Development, Lori Gipp, assisted in the writing of this article.

Published in Akron/Canton