Altering course Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

Heath Clarke is meeting the challenge of a faltering economy by soliciting employee input on how his company should adjust.

Clarke, chairman and CEO of Local.com Corp., is connecting with employees on the subject of change, gathering their ideas on how the local search engine company — which generated $38 million in 2008 revenue — can meet the faltering economy head on.

“The biggest challenge we’ve had is managing our people through change,” Clarke says. “At a technology company in particular, you have to be very agile.”

Smart Business spoke with Clarke about how to use communication to keep your company adaptable in an uncertain business climate.

Q. How do you use communication to keep your employees adaptable?

You can have both structured and nonstructured communication. There needs to be structure because the opportunity to have stakeholders in the room for decisions is very important.

But when things come up, you can’t wait for the next scheduled meeting, and you don’t want to always call a meeting since everyone’s calendars are pretty full. So it’s OK to stop someone in the hallway and tell them something, if you’re having a problem with something and maybe you get a subcommittee formed. Not on a formal basis, but maybe you get a couple of your people into a room to talk and come to a decision on something, which you then report on in the next formal meeting.

Our meetings are a way to ensure that everybody who should be involved in an idea is involved. What we have are round-table meetings — we have quite a few people in our meetings talk about the status of the organization and things that we’re working on. But it’s really an opportunity for us to ask questions.

We meet weekly, sometimes twice a week, on projects that we have. This communication comes from the top down, but also the bottom up. That’s part of how we get input and make sure that everybody at every level understands what we’re trying to do. It’s constant communication.

Q. What advice would you give other business leaders about managing people through change?

Basically, communicate frequently and clearly.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made was to presume that when you first communicate an idea that everybody got the idea, understood it and processed it. You have to continue to sell and effect the difference that you are doing and why you are doing it.

The core things stay constant. In our case, we’ve been focused on three key areas for the last four years, and that’s not going to change. But how we execute in those key areas might change depending on the market conditions.

So we set forth the key things we want to do in the coming months. We spend time as a business trying to see what the next 12 months will look like, to make sure our people have that kind of visibility. That’s about communicating where we’re headed.

You need to communicate that frequently and freely, and have an open dialogue about it. People need to fully understand it and understand what they’re doing on a daily basis.

People become reserved about the things they tend not to understand. What we try to do is communicate regularly to everybody in the company about what we’re doing. You have to go in and remind people what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Q. How do you develop adaptable employees?

Some people are built to adapt to change quickly and with few problems. Other people just aren’t that way. Some people can be trained that way to be more accepting of change.

But I think that if you look back, it’s helpful to try during the interview process to paint the worst possible picture of the job. That way, when someone walks in, they don’t have some notion of the job, of what it is going to be or not going to be.

It can be that you were working on something this week and you have to change direction the following week. Another priority may come up, and you might be asked to work on something else. We paint that in the worst possible light.

You’re going to be pulled in 10 different directions, you’re going to have to work autonomously and be held accountable at the end of the quarter for the results. We make it sound awful, and the ones that are game for that are the ones we hire.

The ones who aren’t, they’re typically not going to want to work for us. That’s good for us, because I’d rather figure that out during the interview process than 90 days later when they’re unhappy and not performing.

HOW TO REACH: Local.com Corp., (949) 784-0800 or corporate.local.com