When Nicolaas Vlok became CEO of Vision Solutions Inc. in 2000, he had a lot of learning to do; in addition to the new job, the native South African had to adjust to a new culture when he moved to the United States.
Vlok’s entrepreneurial career began at 14 selling computer hardware. By 1998, he was 25 and CEO of his own network integration company. Two years later, his company bought Vision Solutions.
“One of the big challenges was to get in touch with the ways and means of U.S. business and also gaining the credibility and respect of customers, partners and stakeholders,” he says.
Vlok has met the challenge. Revenue has grown steadily at Vision Solutions, a provider of information availability management solutions, rising from $31.1 million in 2004 to an expected $50 million in fiscal 2006, with about 230 employees.
Smart Business spoke with Vlok about how he gained credibility and his take on chasing an entrepreneurial dream.
Q: What are the keys to getting people to follow you?
Be the guy that is plotting the next three to five years. Marry that with the realism of what is happening in the business today and the resources you have.
Motivate people to follow that vision. But give them enough freedom to execute things their own way, and get out of the way and let them do a good job.
Be a fairly compassionate person. Have good people skills. To be able to articulate or understand people’s challenges and give them perspective sometimes gets you a lot of loyalty and commitment.
Believe in yourself. If you don’t, you’re going to have a hard time convincing people to follow you. Execute in what you believe is right. It’s rather better to have made a decision that you can go back and correct, and continue moving in the right direction, than to make no decision. Making no decision takes you nowhere, which is usually the worst position to be in.
Business is constantly moving and changing, and you need to be moving with it.
Q: How do you motivate employees?
A CEO needs to be brutally honest. The tone you set at the highest office in the company is the tone that people subscribe to and will permeate through the rest of the organization. You, as a CEO, should set the tone in terms of ethics, honesty and integrity. From a leadership style, you should be very visible, especially if you are leading your company through change. It’s more important to do that when you are going through change or challenging times than easier times.
People need to see that you are out there, you’re committed, you’re doing it and you’re leading it from the front. People that understand the strategy typically follow you.
Be in touch and understand what’s happening in terms of the morale and concerns of an employee population.
Q: How do you stay in touch with and communicate with employees?
Share good news with me when you have time, but you share bad news with me as soon as you can. When you get to deal with some challenges, the sooner you get around some facts, the better you can deal with it.
Regular communication helps you prioritize what you need to focus on. Having a good working relationship takes time to build, where people get to know your style and you get to know their style, and they know which things can sometimes wait.
You can shape the morale of a team or an individual by giving regular feedback as to expectations being met. It’s a very useful tool for communicating with employees.
Q: How do you get the best from your employees?
When you hire good people and you give them direction and you all agree on an overall framework, you have to be involved in making sure that you’re all moving at the same pace. But you should not micromanage. When you leave it up to good people to be creative and manage, they surprise you with the end result and typically exceed your expectations.
I start by looking at what someone can put into our culture. Is it someone that I can work with for the long term? I typically spend a fair amount of time asking people more about things they like and things they have accomplished.
We need to have similar values. We need to get excited over the same things in business.
I’ll leave a position open instead of hiring someone that we’re not fully comfortable with. You need to have your criteria of what you’re looking for. If you kind of run out of ideas, you expand the network and you do find good skills come to you. As a CEO, you really need to work those relationships.
HOW TO REACH: Vision Solutions Inc., (949) 253-6500 or www.visionsolutions.com