Jim Riesenbach Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

Jim Riesenbach doesn’t mind a little conflict. In fact, he even encourages it now and again. When managed in a controlled manner, conflict gives rise to the competing points of view and dialogue that can fuel performance, Riesenbach says. Before he came on as president and CEO of Autobytel Inc. in March 2006, the company was running on empty in this regard. The vehicle purchasing and ownership Web service was spread too thin, offering too many services without doing any one thing particularly well. The company posted 2006 revenue of $111.1 million, and although that was down from the previous two years, Riesenbach is turning that around by opening the lines of communications and channeling a uniformed focus among his 329 employees. Smart Business spoke with Riesenbach about how he makes decisions, the Socratic approach and how to share your vision over brown-bag lunches.

Create opportunities to communicate. You want to encourage an environment where people feel free and open to express their points of view.

I have twice-a-week, 8 a.m. operating meetings with my (leadership team), and we talk about all of the critical issues going on. We put the key decisions that need to be made, put time frames around those to be sure that we’re staying on course and not slipping.

Every six weeks, myself and the leadership team spend one day off-site and take a look more broadly at the one-year-and-beyond horizon. Knowing the end in mind in where we want to be, are we making the right decisions and executing to get us there?

Two times a quarter, we have company-wide meetings — an opportunity to communicate with everybody and have very open question-and-answer opportunities.

It’s also important for me to get out and talk to people. We have a little over 300 employees here, and what I’ve done is start something I call brown-bag lunches.

I get about 15 people around the room and have a very open and frank dialogue about what’s on their minds. What’s working? What’s not working? When they listen to my vision and the strategy for the company, where are they seeing that we are doing well, and where are they seeing disconnects?

Even for the people that are not participating in those kinds of meetings, the word gets out that we have that kind of open environment and that I’m actually seeking that kind of feedback.

Take a Socratic approach. Have an environment where people respect the various points of view.

I’ve never been the type of manager that tries to avoid conflict. I actually think that managed conflict is a positive thing. The nature of running a company means that you’re going to have people that have varying points of view.

What you need to do is make sure you’re encouraging that conflict in a very managed way, where people can present competing points of view and have that open dialogue.

You need to do it based on the facts. It’s important that the Socratic approach is accompanied by the data and the facts that help you to make that intelligent decision.

When someone has an opinion, show me the facts that support that opinion. That’s always part of any dialogue that we have. Show me the history, show me where we are today, and show me how we believe that plays into the decisions we’re making for the future.

There are some individuals that come into places with a very authoritative style. Almost inevitably, they get caught in some bad decisions that they probably wouldn’t have made if they had taken the time to look at the overall marketplace and get that broader feedback.

It’s absolutely impossible for any individual to be aware of and in touch with everything that’s going on, no matter how astute they are and how much they try. There’s just too much information.

At the end of the day, somebody needs to make a decision. As they say, the buck stops here. But at the same time, I want everyone to feel that their point of view was heard before I finally make that decision.

Don’t delay decisions. You need to maintain a sense of urgency and quick ability to make decisions.

I’ve had to get comfortable over my career with having imperfect or incomplete data.

It’s basically more driven by the time frame that decisions need to be made. The way I’ve approached it is to say, ‘I’ll make that decision in the time frame I need to with the best information that’s available to me.’

Decisions need to be made in a very, very quick time frame. There’s no room for delaying a month a decision that could be made today.

Show how the pieces fit in the puzzle. Every employee, from top to the bottom of the organization, has to have an understanding of how what they do fits in to the total vision.

Have a set of clear and cascading goals that start from the corporate goals. Then be able to demonstrate how those goals cascade to my next line of leaders’ goals and straight on through the entire organization.

[It] allows each individual to be in the position to say, ‘OK, here are the things that I do that will impact my supervisor’s or manager’s goals, which impacts my division’s goals, which impacts the company’s goals.’

Repeat the vision. It’s also important to continue to stress the vision and where we are. Look at it in the broader context.

Every employee meeting, I open up with a reiteration of our vision and a reiteration of our broad, longer-term trajectory. We’ve laid this out in terms of a three-year trajectory to get the company on a path to long-term profitability and sustained growth.

So I basically make sure that people understand the context of where we are, so that if we hit a bump along the way, which every company inevitably will do at some point, people don’t lose the forest for the trees.

HOW TO REACH: Autobytel Inc., www.autobytel.com or (949) 225-4500