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Fostering creativity Featured

5:31am EDT December 22, 2004
Joanne Harmelin got her business education in a convent. Today, she's the founder and CEO of Harmelin Media, the largest independent media firm in Pennsylvania and the sixth largest in the nation.

But before the 59-year-old became an entrepreneur, she was a nun.

Harmelin sees no contradiction between the two vocations. In fact, she says, the fundamental precepts that govern cloistered life are the same ones that have guided her as a businesswoman.

In a religious community, there is no place for egotism or self-importance. Putting others before oneself is standard operating procedure, and service is the highest achievement. As a philosophy for running a company, this has proven remarkably effective for Harmelin.

In 1982, when she started her business, Harmelin had one client and she worked alone from her home. Now the company, with billings of $192 million in 2003, provides strategic media planning, negotiating and buying services for more than 175 clients.

Based outside Philadelphia in Bala Cynwyd, her 97-person staff creates media strategies, makes media buys and provides ongoing stewardship and analysis of media campaigns for large national corporations, banks, hospitals and health care groups, educational and cultural institutions, and public service organizations.

For her efforts, Harmelin has been honored as Pennsylvania's Small Business Person of the Year (1996) and Philadelphia Woman Business Owner of the Year (1997). In 2001, Harmelin Media was ranked among the top 500 women-owned businesses in the United States by Working Woman Magazine.

Smart Business spoke with Harmelin about the secret of her success and her tips for running a thriving media firm.

What's the most important thing you've learned about being a leader?

The lesson of my experience in the convent was to be other-directed, to think not about myself first but about other people. I have brought that idea to the running of this company.

I focus on my clients, who I define as my external customers, and on my employees, who are my internal customers. I want to treat both groups well and with respect.

Over the years, as this company has grown, my job description has changed. But time has only confirmed my belief that being egocentric is exactly the wrong way to go about leading. If I have one piece of advice to give CEOs, I'd say, 'It's not about you.'

In my eyes, the receptionist at the front desk, my president and the president of our biggest corporate client are all equals. Their needs are what should concern me. I started out with that as my mantra, and it continues to be the basis for how I do things today.

As CEO, I set the tone for the company. Others follow my lead, so this attitude trickles down through the hierarchy at Harmelin.

How do you get employees to buy into your vision?

It may be my company, with my name on the door, but Harmelin Media's success depends on its employees. I'm not going anywhere without them, and I make sure they know that.

Whenever we win an award, and we've won many, I accept on behalf of the company and all our employees. I emphasize their accomplishments, not mine.

I also believe that helping people realize their potential is the key to building a great company. We pay, for example, for our employees to take a Dale Carnegie class. It's an investment we make in our future and theirs.

After all, we're in the communication business, (and) being able to interact effectively is essential. By giving them tools to help shape their own destiny, we get a staff of skilled and committed communicators.

What qualities do you look for in a good manager?

A good manager understands that all benefit when any one of us excels. I give my VPs a book to read called "The Nibble Theory and the Kernel of Power" (by Kaleel Jamison). It's small, lighthearted and deceptively simple.

It's about how we behave in relation to others. The author compares people to circles. The basic idea is that permitting someone else's circle to get bigger doesn't diminish your own. Real leaders bring co-workers up rather than see them as competition, inspiring them to also become leaders and managers. When everyone within an organization is trying to help one another, it sets up a reciprocal network.

Our policy is to promote from within, so even when I'm interviewing for a start-up position, I consider a person's potential to be a capable manager. That means he or she has to be a good listener and a patient teacher, willing to make time to explain things. Managers need to be the type that take the initiative and encourage other people to do the same.

What else do you look for in the people you hire?

I want people who show a real interest and enthusiasm for this field. They have to understand the importance of customer service. In terms of personal qualities, I'm looking for individuals with pleasant personalities -- clients obviously prefer to deal with those kinds of people, and it certainly contributes to the atmosphere of the workplace.

The men and women I hire need to be listeners and learners. I believe that the better the people you employ, the better the company. So I want the best --people that are better than me.

I've also hired three mentally challenged individuals. They perform real and important jobs for us, like handling the mail, which has freed others up to do different work. Our employees have learned to feel comfortable with these differently abled people.

It's an opportunity for us to make a contribution to our community and model good corporate citizenship to our clients and vendors. I think of it as one of our biggest hiring success stories.

You've said that staying power in business demands consistency, and that your employees are vital to achieving it. How do you build loyalty in your organization?

When you start out with the idea of respect for everyone in your organization, value their contributions and make a commitment to express that, it creates a very positive kind of environment, a place where people want to work. The way we treat people here is often a revelation for those who've come to us from other companies.

Here's how we do it. When a female employee returns from maternity leave, she gets a dozen red roses. It's a welcoming gesture that tells her that even though we're busy, we're not too busy to remember what a big day it is for her. My three children are grown now, but I was a working mother.

I remember how hard it was to leave them and go back to work after each was born. The flowers are a way of saying we're glad she's here.

Everyone likes to be recognized for their efforts. At Harmelin, the whole company participates in that, and we do it in many different ways. Some might call this a nurturing approach, and one that's often associated with women. That may be true, but I'd also say it's a very healthy philosophy, and I see more companies operating as we do here because it works. Twenty years ago, the business world was mostly male, and companies were organized in a somewhat military manner.

The rule was, 'Just do what you're told.' Things have changed. Ideas about how to run a business have evolved. A new generation sees a value in paying attention to others and being sensitive to their needs.

You promise your clients a high level of start-to-finish service. How do you ensure that everyone who works for you delivers on that promise?

We work in teams here, and teams help each other. I cross-pollinate regularly, moving people from one team to another. Not only does this create continuity, especially if someone is out temporarily or leaves, but it fosters camaraderie and discourages the kind of back-stabbing inter-office politics that are common elsewhere.

When I hear from a client that a staff member has done an excellent job, instead of just complimenting that person, I write a memo that's e-mailed to every employee, and suggest they thank their co-worker because his or her good job makes us all look good.

I also g ive that person $25. It's not a lot of money, but it's another way of showing appreciation. I was once a secretary. I know how meaningful recognition can be.

It was brought to my attention that people on our staff who didn't interact directly with clients did not have the same opportunity to earn praise for outstanding customer service. So now, when employees are especially helpful in serving other employees, they, too, get a check and the same kind of e-mail memo circulates about them.

The result is that we're all doing the same job, which is working together to do the best we can for all our customers.

How has your company adapted to an increasingly complex media world?

It's a very exciting time to be in the media business. The possibilities are unlimited. But one result is that it's getting harder and harder to reach audiences, especially younger ones. We have to use guerrilla tactics and go outside traditional methods to deliver our clients' messages.

My people need be constantly looking for new ways to reach target markets. I encourage them to read extensively -- about our business, as well as the trade journals that represent our clients' businesses, and to learn all they can about what's happening in culture and media.

How do you foster creativity within the firm and nurture an atmosphere that breeds new ideas?

We don't have a fixed creative staff, per se. Instead, we do what we call creative think tanks, and the participants are always changing. We gather eight to 10 people from different departments to address specific clients' needs and issues.

It's amazing how many great ideas are generated when you bring people together to brainstorm. The atmosphere is one in which everyone has a chance to be heard and feels they can speak freely.

I view everyone on my staff as idea people. I'm convinced that it makes each of them more creative because I truly believe that we become what we think we are.

How to reach: Harmelin Media, (610) 668-7900, www.harmelin.com.