Fuel for thought Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

When you turn your key in your car’s ignition each morning and your engine roars to life, do you think about everything that goes into that small action? It’s easy to take for granted, but a lot has to happen before you hear that satisfying rumble. Hundreds of small parts all need to do their jobs for the entire operation to run smoothly. Matthew Beale, president of Fuel Systems Solutions Inc., understands the importance of making sure each part works, whether the operation in question is an internal combustion engine or a 1,000-plus employee organization. “Success is the sum total of a lot of individual efforts,” Beale says. “What is very important is that the individual efforts that make up that success take ownership of that success, as well.” Beale says that, in many organizations, the people who have contributed to the organization’s success are not aware of how their everyday work affects the big picture. You need to make sure your employees can make the connection between their jobs and the company’s goals. Beale calls it “delegating success.”

Fuel Systems designs, manufactures and installs propane and natural gas fuel systems for more than 30 different vehicle models produced by 10 automotive manufacturers. The company’s revenue grew from $220.8 million in fiscal 2006 to $265.3 million in fiscal 2007. Projections put fiscal 2008 at more than $380 million.

By heavily involving his employees in the company’s strategic decisions, Beale has gained insight from their hands-on experience. He’s used their input, data and institutional knowledge to guide Fuel Systems through a period of rapid global growth.

Here are a few of his keys to involving employees in the management of an organization.

Share your vision
Beale says the foundation of successful decision-making is making sure your employees share and understand the company’s vision.

At its root, a vision is really a very simple expression of the potential of an organization. If you want to get the best out of your employees, you need to find a way for them to understand the organization’s potential. If you don’t involve your employees, you run the risk of two classic managerial problems. First, no matter how often you walk the floor, you aren’t as in touch with the issues your company faces every day as the employee who deals with them on a daily basis. So if you refuse to use your employees as resources when making decisions, you are ignoring what could be valuable insight.

Second, by letting employees go about their daily work in a vacuum, unaware of how their job fits in to the company’s strategy, you may be wasting their potential.

“Many times people will operate in isolation, and they will produce something or do something and maybe don’t even know why or how it contributes to the broader mosaic,” Beale says. “Part of that is just getting people to understand the objective from the beginning and what their piece of the puzzle is contributing to the whole.”

To make that happen, Beale has set up a system that ensures employees know the importance of their roles and how the work they do on a day-to-day basis helps the organization’s bottom line.

The first step is to involve your employees in every aspect of the strategic planning process, from the ground floor on up. This does-n’t mean you have to somehow find a room large enough to hold 1,000 people — it just means that you have to encourage communication at every level of your organization. Make sure your direct reports are talking to their direct reports. Part of their job is taking the big-picture view and distilling it for their particular department.

“You want to create an environment where people are also questioning, ‘Why is this? How is this part of furthering our aims? How is this part of achieving our objectives? How is this part of realizing our vision?’” Beale says. “The starting point has to be just an understanding of what the objectives are and what the direction is. That is an important way that people are able to understand their contribution to the whole and take ownership for their part of the success.”

By keeping his employees in the loop instead of in the dark, Beale creates a culture in which his employees don’t just know how to do their jobs — they understand why they do their jobs. Because their managers meet with them to keep them informed on company matters, the employee base is more knowledgeable, and knowledgeable employees are more likely to ask the type of big-picture questions that Beale wants them to ask.

If your employees understand the company’s long-term goals and the plan to achieve those goals, they become more flexible if the plan needs to change.

“The plan may change while the objectives stay the same,” he says. “When you are focusing on steps and process, you can lose sight of the end goal. But it’s all about continuing to measure and test your progress as you move toward a business objective. That, by itself, is what allows everyone to be a participant and protagonist in the plan. It’s an indirect mode of communication, but it’s a very important one.”

Find the knowledge
When you’re hunting for the data you need to help make a difficult decision, you should explore every resource available to you. However, there may be an underutilized, valuable resource right under your nose — your own organization’s institutional knowledge.

“If you have an understanding or an experience that is sitting out somewhere and you’re not drawing on it, that’s an organizational failing,” Beale says. “Calling on them should be your first port of call. You are calling on experience; you’re calling on like situations. In an organization that has been around as long as we have, there is a lot of experience.”

In many organizations, you are unlikely to find a situation that someone, somewhere in the organization, hasn’t been through. The key is finding that source of knowledge and flushing it out. The larger the organization, the more difficult this becomes.

Beale says the first step to finding the sources of institutional knowledge is creating an environment that is welcoming to them. If you are encouraging communication throughout the organization and sharing your vision, then you’re already on the right track to bringing these people out of the woodwork.

“You have to dig and open up the organization and get people talking and communicating,” he says. “That’s a real challenge because there is a lot of knowledge out there that you need to bring to the forefront and apply and know how to source it.”

Beale says you can increase your chances of finding the employees who hold this knowledge by keeping your management structure flat. By adopting a simpler management structure, you can eliminate several barriers to communication between the leadership team and the employees whose knowledge and experience could make them very valuable resources.

Of course, for some worldwide organizations, a flat management structure might not be practical. Another way to draw out the most knowledgeable employees is to simply get to know your peers. Talk with them about their skills and capabilities, and then involve them in any decisions that concern their area of expertise.

“Whoever in the organization is most in touch with a particular initiative or project or market is going to be involved in those types of dialogue — and probably will be leading it,” he says.

In most organizations, the knowledge is out there. It’s simply a question of leveraging it. Beale says if you think you are facing a crossroads with a decision, your starting point should be your organization’s sources of institutional knowledge.

“Unless your team is communicating, and you know who your peers are in other parts of the organization, you know who your counterparts are geographically, you know who has what skills sets, it will probably never emerge,” he says.

Be a communication catalyst
Providing opportunities for your employees to exchange ideas becomes even more important in an organization that spans multiple continents, because in those instances, employees may not even know their counterparts in offices across the globe.

Beale says setting a meeting is the most effective way to foster communication and interaction between colleagues and the quickest way for them to gain respect and understanding of what their peers bring to the table.

“Sometimes you have to stimulate that; you have to provide a catalyst to do it,” he says. “Sometimes you have to force communication, but it almost invariably flourishes informally as colleagues who don’t know each other get to know each other and gain respect and admiration for the skills their counterparts have.”

While you may occasionally have to provide a push for different groups within your organization to meet, you must also be the catalyst for your own management team’s communications.

Beale and his management team meet formally on a weekly basis, but they also keep in contact informally throughout the day. This can help you stay in touch with how the organization is progressing toward its goals. Informal communication can provide you with the most up-to-date data and input available. However, you need to complement the informal communication methods — e-mail, phone calls, quick conversations — with the more formal process of getting together as a management team and taking stock of where the organization is in relationship to its goals.

“The most effective way of communicating is always informal,” he says. “Informally, there is a constant exchange of ideas and thoughts. It’s all about, ‘I think I’m seeing this milestone; do you think you’re seeing that? Are you seeing what I’m seeing?’ We continue to constantly challenge each other.”

Occasionally, being the catalyst of communication means you have to be a sounding board for your team’s ideas. Sometimes you need to take a position you may not agree with, but challenging each idea instead of simply letting it slide through the process will ensure only the strongest strategies will be implemented.

Challenging your colleagues’ ideas can be difficult. Beale’s advice to aspiring devil’s advocates is simple: Be constructive, not destructive. You have to remember that by taking a position, you are encouraging people to look at their own position from a different perspective or a different angle.

“You have to help people test their own hypothesis, test their conclusions and test their strategies,” he says. “Depending on situations, you have to be able to ask the right questions — without guiding, necessarily, because in the end, an effective devil’s advocate will allow the subject to arrive at their own conclusion.”

HOW TO REACH: Fuel Systems Solutions Inc., (714) 656-1300 or www.fuelsystemssolutions.com