How Karen Caplan stays focused on leadership at Frieda’s with top-shelf values Featured

7:01pm EDT December 31, 2012
Karen Caplan Karen Caplan

As the daughter of her company’s founder, Karen Caplan is a hands-on leader.

That’s a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is, she has detailed knowledge of everything that happens at Frieda’s Inc., the specialty produce wholesaler she leads as president and CEO.

The bad thing is that knowledge can sometimes draw her into operations-level matters that take time away from matters of strategy and goal setting for the company at large.

At times, it is a challenge for Caplan to simply cruise at 30,000 feet, without the cockpit radio humming to life with a request to dive in for a closer look at a certain project in a given department.

“I’m guessing it’s pretty common for most CEOs, especially if they’re homegrown, as I am,” Caplan says. “It’s so easy for somebody to come in and get you dragged into some detail that you don’t really need to worry about.”

In the more than quarter-century that Caplan has led Frieda’s, which produces revenue in excess of $50 million annually, she has learned how to keep her distance from matters that don’t require her attention by delegating responsibilities, building a sense of mutual trust with her employees and, quite simply, learning to say no.

“I don’t quickly react when someone asks me something or requests I get involved in something,” Caplan says. “Earlier in my career, my knee-jerk reaction was to solve the problem. But I’ve found that’s not the best way to lead a company. I’ve been very vocal throughout the company that I’m not a detail person. I say it to myself; I say it out loud. It’s going to mess things up when you get me involved in the day-to-day stuff.”

 

Set it down

Caplan’s mother, Frieda Caplan, who now serves as the company’s chairman, founded Frieda’s in 1962. Caplan joined the business in 1977, followed by her sister and COO, Jackie Caplan Wiggins, in 1983. With the business developing into a family affair and Karen taking the reins as president and CEO in 1986, she began to take stock of herself as a leader and how the mother-daughter leadership dynamic at Frieda’s would behave moving forward.

Caplan says the tendencies of her mother and sister initially spurred her to develop boundaries regarding leadership responsibilities. As a young executive, she enrolled in a Dale Carnegie leadership course, which gave her the initial framework for effective delegation.

“My sister and mom are both ‘knee-jerk reaction, everything is urgent, solve it now, do it now’ kind of people,” Caplan says. “I remember taking the course, coming back to work, and I remember saying to them, ‘When you have a really urgent issue, write it down on a piece of paper, set it aside and let it sit there for seven days.

“‘If, after seven days, you look at the paper again and the problem is still a problem, I want you to mention it to me at that point.’ That eliminated 99.9 percent of the issues, right there.”

Caplan also learned to stay away from areas of the company that didn’t overlap her background in sales and marketing. Through trial and error, she quickly learned that if the issue involved pricing or logistics or other areas apart from her background, she was more apt to make a problem worse by getting involved in the matter.

Over time, and through repetition of the message, Caplan has empowered her employees to tell her when she’s complicating matters through her involvement.

“Pricing and logistics are very tactical matters in our business,” she says. “I give direction, but when I get involved any deeper than that, it’s just not a good thing. And my employees know it. Everyone gives me that look that says ‘Karen, stop.’

“I’ve given everyone around me permission to tell me to stop. I feel very strongly that I can’t just have a bunch of ‘Yes, Karen’ people around me. If all you’re going to do is tell me yes, I don’t want you here. I want you to stand up and tell me what is going on. You’re not going to get fired for it. In fact, I’ll actually respect you more.”

Make it cultural

To ensure that the strategy people aren’t dragged into tactical or operations matters, you need a clear organizational structure with a separation of responsibilities. Often, the most effective way to create and maintain a firm organizational structure is to incorporate it into your strategic planning and core values.

If the concepts of personal and team accountability are promoted as part of the culture you live each day, they stand a much greater chance of taking root as foundational principles that everyone in the organization embraces.

“Everybody knows their responsibilities,” Caplan says. “The key is to have a high level of trust with the people you work with.”

Caplan says the best strategic planning processes are often homegrown. Third-party consultants can help you craft your strategy, mission and vision, but if they aren’t leading you in the direction you want to take the business, you’re probably wasting money and time.

“About five or six years ago, I said I was sick of strategic planning and tired of hiring consultants to take me and a group of my high-level people off-site to form a consensus around the company strategy,” Caplan says. “I cannot tell you how many times that did not work.

“So my sister and I decided that we knew what we wanted to accomplish. We worked with our CFO, who is excellent in strategy, and the three of us met for about two hours a week over the span of a few months, creating our company vision, mission and strategy.”

Caplan and her sister centered the company on four key values: personal accountability, service orientation, trust and playing fair.

“Those are what we stand for,” she says. “If you cannot trust the people on your team to do what they’re supposed to do, to go the extra mile and show personal accountability, you have the wrong people on your team. And that is how I feel confident in delegating the tactical issues. There is a very high level of trust in our company. We talk about it every day, and we show it through our actions.”

Hire for trust

Effective delegation requires a sense of trust throughout your organization, and trust needs to develop as a pillar of your culture. But the pillar will crumble if you don’t hire trustworthy people who align with your company’s values.

Finding and hiring those people means putting job candidates through a thorough, exhaustive interview process — particularly for management-level positions. And if you hire people who don’t fit with your culture and values, you need to either find another place for them in the company or send them packing.

“A good mantra is ‘hire slow, fire fast,’” Caplan says. “We spend a lot of time in the hiring process. Our standard is we interview people three different times, by three different people, in three different places. Every time you bring someone back, they look worse. They always look fantastic on the first interview.

“You bring them back, someone else interviews them, and suddenly, they don’t look so fantastic. By the third or fourth interview, you’re probably starting to see the real person. So you don’t get hired at Frieda’s very quickly.”

During the interview process, Caplan and her team don’t want to know just about a candidate’s professional accomplishments. The interview process delves into the candidate’s personal life and personal motivation.

“In interviewing people, you can ask them about why and how they made certain decisions or how they prioritized their life,” she says. “I don’t want to simply talk about someone’s work life. I ask them about their passions in life, about the last book they read, about the things they do on the weekends. That tells me a lot.”

Once a hire is made, the pressure is on to take the raw materials that prompted you to offer the candidate a job and cultivate them in a way that allows you to get the most out of that person. You can plant the best seeds, but they won’t grow without adequate sunlight and water.

“The thing to remember is, your core values can’t be somebody else’s core values,” Caplan says. “They have to be your own. If I didn’t live personal accountability every day, if I wasn’t prepared for all the meetings I’m called to attend, if I didn’t respond to emails quickly, everyone would say, ‘It might be listed as a value, but it doesn’t apply all the time. Karen doesn’t live it.’

“So, whatever you say the company values are, those are the real values. You hire to those values, you live those values, and if someone isn’t living the values, you move them off your team — no matter how wonderful they might be in their position.”

How to reach: Frieda’s Inc., (800) 241-1771

or www.friedas.com

 

The Caplan file

Fast fact: Frieda’s introduced the kiwi fruit to the U.S. in 1962. The company now distributes more than 600 varieties of fruits, vegetables and specialty food products throughout the country.

 

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

 

To treat all people with respect. Everyone gets treated the same, regardless of the role they perform in the company. When someone enters the office and I see them, I say good morning to them by name. You have to make sure that no one is anonymous. If you can address your people by name, you’ll have a much higher level of engagement.

 

Caplan on firing fast: It is never easy to fire someone. That is something else I learned at the Dale Carnegie management course. If you ever aren’t affected when you have to fire someone, you should probably get out of management. But if you are fair, if you have given someone every opportunity to correct their behavior, you can stick by your decision.

I remember with one individual — she hadn’t been with the company long — and I sat her down and said, “You’re not happy, I’m not happy, and we can’t continue this way.” That was pretty straightforward.

You know immediately if someone isn’t a good fit. What happens when you hire someone, within the first week, you know if you’ve made a good hire or bad hire. Every manager, every CEO will tell you the same thing. And if they weren’t what you expected, your gut feeling is to give them more time. We are so ingrained in this country to give everybody every opportunity to correct their behavior. But unfortunately, one week of tolerating becomes one month becomes a year. Soon enough, you have someone who has been on the team for more than a year, and you’re saying to yourself, “I knew they weren’t right for us from the first day on the job.”