How William Wang promotes a culture of innovation at Vizio Featured

7:01pm EDT December 31, 2011
William Wang William Wang

William Wang believes in the power of optimism. As Vizio Inc. endured the darkest days of the recession, Wang continued to believe that the brainpower of his 340 employees would be the ultimate separator that would allow his company to not only survive the recession but flourish after its end.

With that in mind, Wang has been relentless about creating a positive mindset throughout his company, starting with the example he sets.

“I believe that what goes around is what comes around,” says the founder and CEO of Vizio, a consumer electronics manufacturer. “I feel that I’m innovative as a leader, and the rest of the company follows me. Innovation isn’t just about the products we make, it’s about the way we operate. So we get our suppliers to move faster, we get our trucks to pick up merchandise faster, all the little details here and there. We’re a young company, so innovation is actually a pretty common thing within our walls.”

Wang founded Vizio in 2002, and has grown it to a company that generated approximately $3 billion in revenue during 2010. To keep Vizio’s people focused on what’s next for the company, Wang needed to engage his employees through many different avenues of communication, continually spread the basic principles of the company’s values and mission, and continually keep his long-range vision for the company at the front of everyone’s mind.

“I have to act as the cheerleader for the company,” Wang says. “There is nothing we can do about turning the economy around, so we’re going to focus on what we can do within the company instead of changing the economy around. Let’s just focus on the things we can improve ourselves, and remember that we have a good track record. If we keep on doing the same things we’ve done before, we can counteract a lot of the negative news in the environment.”

Set a common goal

If you want to develop a central focus within your organization, you need to form a central goal and put it in front of each person. No matter what task each employee performs within your organizational structure, they are helping the company achieve its goal.

In Vizio’s case, Wang wanted the innovative power of his employees leveraged to create products that are not just on the leading edge of technology, but affordable — and produced in an efficient manner that reduces process waste and gets products to market as quickly and simply as possible.

“Our business was fortunate in that it did not get impacted as much as some of our other competitors by the recession, and affordability was something that was of an even stronger focus as we accommodated the weaker demand in the consumer electronics sector,” Wang says. “That’s why our business is still hanging in there despite the economy, due to our strategy to make products affordable. For example, we recently launched a tablet computer, and instead of fighting with companies like Apple, we came out with a product in the $300 price range. Hopefully by doing that, we’re trying to create traction for Vizio in a new marketplace.”

To Wang, efficiency in the production process is another form of innovation that ultimately affects the consumer. The end user might never see the process by which a product is conceived, tested, produced and brought to market, but efficiency plays a large role in Vizio’s ability to offer electronics at prices below many of their competitors.

“We still have maintained our strategy the same way, regardless of how weak the economy has been,” he says. “In a weaker economy, you have to be super-efficient to be able to pass the savings on to the consumer. That’s how you grab market share away from your weaker competitors.”

Wang’s plan for recession survival is based on basic principles that just about every manufacturing business has employed in some form. Streamline operations and try to get your product to marketplace with a competitive price attached to it. That in and of itself isn’t where you need to expend most of your energy as a leader. Where you need to do most of your work is in your capacity as a communicator.

At Vizio, Wang believes the best innovation comes from employees who realize that they are, in some way, a part of the company’s brain trust. They might not be in the boardroom making large-scale, strategic decisions, but they are constantly challenged to come up with ideas — new products, new spins on established products, new processes, new policies.

All of the ideas can’t be used, but the bigger issue is employee engagement. Your people need to be enabled to think for themselves. For Wang, it comes back to setting the example himself, and getting others to follow his example. Wang can’t afford to communicate simply to hear himself talk. The company won’t advance if he is the only person doing the pulling. Wang needs other employees to provide momentum, as well, by facilitating their own communication opportunities.

“It’s all about teamwork,” he says. “In order to build a team, you can’t just tell people what to do. At some companies, the leadership will tell people, ‘Go do this and do that.’ But that doesn’t always work. People have to be able to know each other. So it is critical in my opinion to have that lateral communication. I encourage that by trying to do it a lot. I walk around the building all the time and try to talk to as many people as I can. It still helps that we only have 340 people. It used to be extremely easy for us, because when you have 30 people, you know everyone by their first name. But we still try to spend a lot of time sharing ideas.”

Wang believes that setting the example for engaged, motivated employees isn’t something you can talk about. It’s something you have to do. The only way employees will follow the path you’ve laid down is if they see it demonstrated in actions instead of words.

“I don’t plan for communication,” Wang says. “I just do it. I like to communicate with everybody. I think it’s something you have to do and make part of your culture. It’s the communication age, you have e-mail — though I really don’t like e-mail because it’s a one-way form of communication — and you also have the opportunity to call each other, get out into the office and talk with each other. And especially if you are in a smaller company, you should take the opportunity to walk around and talk to people.”

Be a coach

The best CEOs are often like the best sports coaches. They set the goals, they forge a path to meet those goals, and they teach the principles that will allow their charges to walk the path. Beyond that, you have to trust that the lessons have taken root and your people will take the principles that you have taught and run toward the goal with them.

In other words, you have to delegate responsibility and accountability to the appropriate level. In Vizio’s innovation-centered culture, that means Wang sets the parameters within which employees can innovate but tries to exert very little control over the process beyond that.

“I want to be a coach,” Wang says. “I don’t want to be a player. If every once in a while someone goes off in a wrong direction, I have to point them back to the way I see fit. But once you decide to delegate, you don’t bring that responsibility back. I don’t spend a lot of time challenging them on what to do.”

If you are in Wang’s position and have either founded your company or been a key player since early in the company’s history, you might be used to certain processes. But as the company grows, you should learn to rein that in and, as much as possible, allow employees to come up with their own ideas and their own processes for trying out those ideas. As long as they aren’t innovating their way off into left field, away from your company’s goals and mission, you should allow room for the mistakes and trial by error that is inherent to the innovation process.

“I used to be more of a micromanager, but I don’t do that anymore,” Wang says. “I found it is a lot more effective if I find capable and willing people to help me execute on the goals of the organization. I don’t believe I can do it all, so I focus more on the vision and delegate the details to the great group of people that we have here.”

Your main roles in the delegation process are to hold your direct reports accountable for reaching the goals that have been established and to ensure that the goals are realistic and reachable. It is not an exact science, but it involves setting a balance between where you want to grow the company and the capabilities of your people. You want goals that are aggressive, yet can be attained without stretching your manpower and resources to the breaking point.

“Everybody has to have a common goal, but the goal has to be reachable,” Wang says. “I see a lot of CEOs set out in pursuit of impossible goals that their people will have a hard time reaching. You have to make sure the goals are achievable, which is why our goals as a company are approved by myself and my top management.”

Wang also points to incentivization as a way to ensure that goals are reached. If you put an extensive rewards program in place that include bonuses, recognition and other gifts, you will make the goals of your organization more personal for your employees.

It’s not wrong to ask your employees to be motivated by serving the greater good of moving the company forward, but personal gain is still a powerful motivator in just about any company.

“Ultimately, we’re in a business situation, so the rewards for us are going to come in the form of money, bonuses and profit sharing,” Wang says. “We do quarterly profit sharing, so the more the company makes, the more the individual team members receive. I believe that when people come to work, the single biggest reason is to make more money — that, and to fulfill their desire for achievement.”

To get the most out of your employees, you need to strike a balance between motivating them through personal gain and motivating them through serving the greater good of improving the company’s outlook. Wang says that stimulating innovation has elements of incentivizing, promoting employees to greater levels of responsibility and large-scale goal-setting.

“Money might be the No. 1 motivation for employees, but it doesn’t mean it’s the number one motivation for them to do their jobs right,” he says. “Our goal of being No. 1 in the U.S. in our industry is a great motivator, not only to give people a reason to work hard, but also to associate themselves with a company that is growing in spite of the economy.

“But it still starts with the person at the top. You have to be willing to give them an incentive first before the positive reinforcement takes place. People have to know that I want to share in our success, then people will work hard and want to come to work. If they have coworkers who share the same values, that is really how you start to get a family-type atmosphere in the workplace.”

How to reach: Vizio Inc., (949) 428-2525 or www.vizio.com

The Wang file

Born: Taipei, Taiwan

Education: Electrical engineering degree from the University of Southern California

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

My best lesson is to learn how to delegate, which I learned through years of experience as an entrepreneur.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

The business leader has to be inspirational, has to have charisma and provide people with hope, and they have to be willing to share with everybody. A business leader has to be generous.

What is your definition of success?

Being in a position where you can come to work every morning with a smile on your face.