31 best management ideas Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2008

We’ve all had days where we would rather not open the newspaper, turn on the TV or pick up the phone for the fear of learning about more bad news.

Unfortunately, there have been a lot more of those days for all of us lately.

The stock market is going through extreme ups and downs, capital has dried up, and key customers are cutting back. You start to wonder where the sales are going to come from to enable you to make this quarter’s budget. If things don’t turn around soon, you’ll have to consider drastic cutbacks yourself.

In times like these, what’s a CEO to do? The answer: Get back to basics. Focus on the things you do best and do them as efficiently as you can. Use your strengths to exploit your competitors’ weaknesses and outhustle them.

It’s often the simple things that made you a success in the first place, and it will be the simple things that keep you afloat during the economic storm.

With that in mind, we’ve assembled the best pieces of advice garnered from Orange County’s top leaders from throughout the year. We think you’ll find some great ideas to help you improve your business within these pages, and we encourage you to keep this issue as an ongoing reference to help you find your way through the trying times that lie ahead.

Get involved

Robert Ott
president and CEO, Claim Jumper Restaurants LLC

When Claim Jumper Restaurants LLC opens a new location, Robert Ott, subject of our May cover story, will be there. But the president and CEO won’t just be there to cut the ribbon and smile for the camera. He may be busing tables, or you may find him on the cook’s line. He delves deep into the operations of each new Claim Jumper because it provides a great opportunity to communicate with his employees and helps him maintain a solid grasp on the challenges facing his team.

“You can’t run your business from behind a desk,” he says. “If someone brings an idea to me, and they say, ‘Hey, this is something the guests are asking for,’ if you’re sitting behind a desk, you may not understand the reason why. But if you’re working with the managers and talking with the guests, they bring up examples of things that need to be changed. Then you have a deeper understanding of why this needs to happen and why the change needs to be made.”

All that face time with employees can cut into the other responsibilities of a CEO, but Ott says the benefits outweigh the extended hours. He visits stores several times each week, and his discussions with employees — from management all the way down to the hourly workers — have a direct influence on the direction of the company.

By making himself so accessible, Ott often finds himself stopped in a hallway by an employee with something on his or her mind, but he says the quality ideas you end up gathering are worth lengthening your day.

“It can be a little bit disruptive, but it’s a good kind of disruptive,” Ott says. “You may see a problem or hear about a problem that might come to bite you much harder six weeks or six months from now. You solved it ahead of time because that door was open and someone saw something that needed to be addressed, and you addressed it before it became a bigger issue.”

Create opportunities for your stars

Michael Crawford
CEO, Sukut Construction Inc.

Michael Crawford was only 24 when his mentor and boss, Myron Sukut, decided Crawford was ready to lead one of the company’s biggest projects. Now, as president and CEO of Sukut Construction Inc., Crawford gives each employee the same chance to excel that his boss gave him.

“The reason we continue to grow is I don’t want to lose the really good people,” says Crawford.

“So if we’re going to make opportunities for people within the organization, sometimes you have to grow.”

Highly talented and motivated employees need to see opportunities to stay with a company, so the company’s growth goals work hand in hand with the employees’ personal goals. In some cases, that may mean exploring new opportunities and opening new divisions to take advantage of new markets.

When Sukut’s management team publishes its five-year strategic plan, it identifies the new positions that would result from possible expansions. Those opportunities are advertised on job boards within the company.

By showing them the potential for growth, Crawford eliminates the risk of losing his best people because they have no opportunity for advancement.

“We try to take the lid off things,” he says. “We say, ‘Hey, you can aspire to be anything you want.’”

Give feedback to get feedback

Peter F. Bastone
president and CEO, Mission Hospital

Peter F. Bastone, president and CEO of Mission Hospital, says you should establish a process through which your employees see how their ideas are moving through the organization.

“Once you engage them, and once you ask a question and they give you input, you have to assess that input and get back to the people,” he says.

Even if you don’t see an idea immediately being stitched into the fabric of the organization, you still need to show the employee who originated the idea that his or her thoughts were carefully considered.

“If that’s the case, we get back to them and say, ‘Great idea, but we don’t have the infrastructure,’ or, ‘This is a systemic issue, but we may be able to do it in the future,’” Bastone says. “It’s a matter of cataloging, being an active listener to the people who are in those meetings, assessing the value of the recommendation and getting back to the group or individual who made the recommendation with a yea or nay.”

Whether you reject the employee’s idea outright or simply place it on the back burner, your reasoning doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you took the time to consider the idea. Bastone says that if you show you value employees’ thoughts, you will improve the quantity and quality of the feedback you receive and also reap the rewards of having happier, loyal employees.

On the rebound

Tracy K. Price
president and CEO, The Linc Group

Jack A. Hockema
CEO, Kaiser Aluminum Corp.

When Enron offered to buy his software company and put him in charge of a $6 billion division, Tracy K. Price thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime. It turned out to be the beginning of a two-year nightmare.

Price’s company, FieldCentrix, was rolled up with three other companies to create ServiceCo, a new building services company under the Enron umbrella. Nine weeks later, Enron collapsed and the newly minted ServiceCo didn’t stand a chance.

“We never even got the stock issued,” Price says. “It made the dot-com implosion look like a protracted illness by comparison.”

Even though the ink had barely dried on their contract, Price’s team was buried with negative overspray from the scandal. So he immediately began damage control and tried to sever his ties to the sinking corporation.

There was a lot of work to do to repair the company’s tarnished reputation, and he began by forging a new corporate identity, renaming the company The Linc Group.”

To combat the nagging specter of the “crooked E” that continued to haunt him, Price strove to make The Linc Group the polar opposite of its former parent company. He took employee accountability to new levels by operating in total transparency and purged the company of anyone who wasn’t on board with his changes.

Price led The Linc Group to more than $500 million in revenue in 2007. He’s not finished either: The 4,200-employee organization is projecting nearly $600 million in revenue for 2008.

Jack A. Hockema didn’t want to be the CEO of Kaiser Aluminum Corp. He certainly didn’t want to deal with the burgeoning asbestos lawsuits, escalating medical and pension obligations, and underperforming business divisions at Kaiser, let alone the avalanche of debt that was threatening to crush the company.

He was perfectly happy running the company’s fabricated products division, the lone ray of sunshine in the company.

Hockema had been asked before if he would be interested in the CEO position. He declined and said he would only take the job in the event of an emergency.

A few months later, Kaiser’s CEO stepped down, and Hockema got a phone call asking if he would honor his commitment. Hockema stood by his word and currently serves as Kaiser’s chairman, president and CEO.

“Somebody had to do it,” he says. “And it was pretty clear that I was the one to do it at that point in time. We just strapped it on and addressed the issues.”

It took Hockema nearly four and a half years to pull the 2,425-employee company out of its nosedive, but in 2006, Kaiser emerged from bankruptcy with its books balanced and a plan to move forward.

Let go

William Wang
founder and CEO, VIZIO Inc.

William Wang founded VIZIO Inc. in 2002 with $600,000 — since then, the flat-panel TV juggernaut has grown to more than $2 billion in sales.

To effectively manage a fast-growing company, not only must you build a strong, balanced team but you also need to properly utilize that team. Wang, who was featured in the June issue, says the only way to keep your company afloat — and your sanity intact — in the face of tremendous growth is to delegate as much as possible.

“I’d like to delegate everything,” he says. “That’s my goal; my goal is to make sure I’m irrelevant to the company. That always has to be my goal, and I’ve been working toward that.”

Letting go of so much responsibility can be difficult. But Wang says you have to remember that your employees need to feel responsibility, too, and, in some cases, they may have better insight on a matter than you do.

“If a certain person is really good at something, we should have faith in that person doing that certain task and vice versa,” he says. “If you’re not good at something, somebody else has to make up your weakness.”