How team building has helped Don Murray construct a more responsive organization at Resources Connection Featured

7:01pm EDT January 31, 2012
Don Murray Don Murray

Over the past few years, founder, Executive Chairman and CEO Don Murray has led Resources Connection Inc. by betting on customer service. The company’s upper management has coached the sales representatives at Resources Connection’s 80-plus offices around the world to spend as much time as possible with the company’s more than 1,900 clients.

“Lots of our clients have been going through huge issues, and you have to be empathetic to all the issues they’re going through,” Murray says. “There are a lot of ways that we can still help them. We have a great client base, and for us to be successful, we have to really keep on top of our clients and help them get through all of these issues.”

The focus on client relations has helped Murray keep Resources Connection in growth mode. The company — which operates through its subsidiary, Resources Global Professionals — generated $545 million in fiscal 2011 revenue, up from $498 million in fiscal 2010. But it has taken a lot of effort from management to find the talent and set the cultural principles that have allowed the company to continue performing at a high level, despite the economic climate.

“It really starts with the hiring,” Murray says. “If we don’t hire correctly, nothing else is going to matter. You really can’t teach talent, and to be successful, you have to have an inner drive, you have to be kind of impatient and you have to have a sense of urgency that is going to help you get through all of this. If you don’t hire the right people and you let your people become complacent, you’re never going to be successful.”

Play matchmaker

When Murray founded the company in 1996, he made up an acronym: “TIEL.” In short, TIEL spells out what type of person Murray wants on his team — the basic traits all company employees need in order to embrace and promote the culture at the company, and achieve success within the company’s framework.

“It stands for, first of all, hiring people that have talent,” he says. “We don’t want to have people who don’t have the necessary talent or skills, because then we’re carrying those people on our backs, and you’ll never win the race that way. If they have the talent, we need to make sure they have integrity. If they have those two things, we want them to have enthusiasm and a positive energy. Then, we want loyalty, so that we know those people can work well in teams. So that’s TIEL — talent, integrity, enthusiasm and loyalty.”

Job candidates, particularly for management-level positions, are assessed against the TIEL principles from the moment they walk through the door for the first interview. Murray and his leadership team try to get a grasp of a candidate’s alignment with TIEL throughout the interview process, asking questions about the person’s past professional experiences and past record of maintaining customer satisfaction.

“You get them talking about their experience and how they have actually handled things,” Murray says. “You get a feeling for whether they’re just telling you stuff that they think you want to hear, or whether they really have relevant ideas and experience. What we’ve found a lot is that people who are leaving their positions because of the changes in the economy, a lot of those people have become stale, they haven’t kept up their skill sets. So you bring all of that out in a conversation, over the span of a number of interviews. We do probably seven or eight interviews for people we are trying to hire internally, to get a broad range of opinions about that person.”

Murray says your decision on whether a job candidate is a match for your culture and mission will ultimately come down to a subjective judgment call. You will have to make up your mind one way or another. But if you know what you want in an employee and can measure each candidate against those selected qualities, you can make a much more informed and accurate decision.

Enforce standards

An involved CEO is always the best kind of CEO when it comes to management-level hires. You don’t want to sidestep your human resources department, but you do want to know what is going on, and get a detailed background on people that could potentially find their way into an influential role on your team.

At the company, Murray and his president, Tony Cherbak, don’t delegate interviews for key positions. They see to it that one or both of them have a chance to sit down and oversee a round of interviews.

“We make sure we interview those people, whether they are going to be in our Singapore office, Brussels office, London office or wherever,” Murray says. “Too often, CEOs delegate the process of hiring someone who is going to be very important to the company. With that approach, you have different people in the company doing different methods of hiring, which means you don’t always adhere to the same standards.”

Below the upper management level, Murray might not interview the candidate directly, but he sees to it that the people who are performing the hire maintain the same standards.

“Below the people who are critical to us directly, it is really about working with the managing directors in the offices, to give them the same sense of quality,” Murray says. “We keep the principles of TIEL in front of them, and ask them to focus on those principles. That is how you keep those standards consistent, no matter where you’re hiring throughout the company.”

One of the hardest components to maintain high standards in your hiring practices is the willingness to wait out a drought. If satisfactory resumes aren’t showing up in your e-mail inbox or candidates don’t impress you during the interview process, you can begin to feel the pressure to get someone hired as the process shuffles along. But you need to remember that the wrong hire will cost you more in the long run than having a vacant position in the short-to-medium term.

“We have offices that could use five more people, but those offices haven’t yet found the right people to hire, so they aren’t hiring,” Murray says. “We have some places that are three people down because they can’t find the right people. What happens is you need the people already in place to chip in, do a little extra and realize that you’re just going to have to lose some of the short-term growth that you would have if you were able to hire a few more good people. You keep reminding them that hiring the wrong person creates so much negative energy, it wastes so much time, you are simply better off not having a person than having a person who creates a negative effect.”

Get motivational

Even with the most thorough and well-defined hiring practices, the employees you hire will only bring their raw materials to the table. It is up to you and your leadership team to mold them and leverage their skills and talents to improve the company.

It’s a question of culture, and culture starts at the top of the organization. You have to set the values you want emphasized, communicate those values frequently and develop a system of accountability. Murray wanted client satisfaction to be the focus at the company moving forward, so he communicated and developed incentives around it.

“A lot of companies have great mission statements, have really good slogans and philosophies, but a lot of the behaviors at the top don’t back up the mission statement,” Murray says. “That leads to a loss of leadership’s credibility in the eyes of the organization. You have to keep instilling what you think is important, you have to keep reinforcing your culture with your behavior. You can’t tolerate bad behavior.”

To align incentives with the performance and values that Murray desires, the leadership team has tied a portion of the compensation system at the company to group performance. If a given unit performs at a high level regarding client satisfaction, the whole unit receives a bonus.

“People don’t want a substandard person on their team, so when you reward teamwork, you help enforce high standards across the board,” Murray says. “A lot of companies put an emphasis on awarding the most money to their stars, and they have a performance rating system where 70 percent of the company is rated as average. We don’t tolerate average, and our employees don’t either, because a portion of their compensation is tied to how their group does. No one wants to be average, because no one wants an average person bringing down the whole group.”

Use customer feedback

You can accomplish a lot by developing and enforcing high standards internally. But if customer satisfaction is the lifeblood of your business, there is no substitute for giving your customers a voice, and letting your company hear it.

If you want to know if you’re achieving customer satisfaction, ask your customers if they’re satisfied. Murray and his management team frequently meet with clients during stops at field offices. Once a year, the company holds a meeting of all staff members who interface with clients. During the meeting, Murray asks representatives of several client companies to take part in a panel discussion.

“We typically have three or four clients on a panel,” he says. “Those clients give their view of how we’re doing, how we could do better, and then they’ll answer questions from the people in the audience. We have a number of our major clients represented in that forum, and that approach has been very successful. Last year, we had a meeting in Detroit in a building attached to General Motors. When our people around the world hear our clients talk about what they like and how we can do better, it is a lot more effective than having one of us in management do it. It involves our clients in business, and shows our people that our clients want us to be successful.”

Building those bridges help engage customers and motivate the employees that you worked so hard to identify, hire and train. It is an example of perhaps your most important role in the living, breathing organism that is your company — that of connective tissue.

“Nothing is better than visiting with your clients,” Murray says. “It helps you assess yourself, it allows you to listen to what people are trying to tell you. A lot of cultures in business are based on the belief that you don’t want to tell the boss anything bad, so if you want the reality of the situation, you need to find out for yourself. You need to visit your clients and customers, you need to talk with them. You need to thank them for being your customer, build that relationship, then get an assessment from them on the service or product you are providing. That will help you get a feeling of whether the people in your company are telling you the whole truth about how you are serving your customers.”

How to reach: Resources Connection Inc., (714) 430-6400 or www.resourcesglobal.com

The Murray file

Born: New York City

Education: Accounting degree, California State University, Los Angeles; MBA, University of Southern California

First job: I worked in an A&P supermarket in New Jersey when I was 15 or so.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

One of the most painful lessons I’ve learned is that you can’t change people. If somebody doesn’t have a sense of urgency, it is very hard to instill that in them. Over the long haul, you really can’t motivate low performers to be high performers, and you can’t teach talent.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

You need to be a good communicator. You have to be intelligent enough to understand the environment of business. And you always have to be on the lookout for new ideas. Don’t become mired in the old way of doing things.

What is your definition of success?

If you look at the best athletes in the world, they are usually very well balanced. So my definition for success is being balanced. If you are serving your clients well, and motivating your employees, and all of that is in balance, the business is usually successful and you are pretty happy.