Tearing down walls Featured

8:00pm EDT August 29, 2006
 Many business leaders talk about removing walls figuratively. Rick Connors oversees a company that does it literally.

The Chester offices of AdminServer, of which Connors has been CEO since last year, are free of interior walls, and executives, managers and employees share the same common space.

It’s a concept that has taken some getting used to, Connors says, but it is an important tool in keeping lines of communication open among the company’s ranks. Superiors and subordinates interact with each other face-to-face, sharing concerns and ideas that help the company grow, he says.

The open-office concept has certainly not hurt AdminServer’s growth. After finishing last year with fewer than 100 employees, the privately-held software solutions company today employs about 125.

Smart Business spoke with Connors about why open communication, both internally and externally, is important for a growing company.

How did you open the lines of communication with your employees and clients upon becoming CEO?
I sat down and interviewed all the key players in the company for about two or three hours each. I learned their challenges and frustrations, their visions for the future. I asked them, ‘If you could change anything about the company, what would it be?’ I also went out and talked to our clients and got their perception of the company.

The end result was we put in more quality controls, more quality assurance areas and began holding more meetings with clients, getting their expectations established up front. On the issue of resource management, it has helped us in making sure our people are trained appropriately for a given project.

In what other ways do you foster communication with employees?
One of things we have is a unique culture. Our founders have created a very participative environment, which has created an excitement and energy that is totally unique to anything I’ve seen.

We have a number of social gatherings and get-togethers. We serve lunch to our employees during the week, and we go on an annual trip. We took everybody in the company down to Key West a couple of months ago and just had a terrific meeting down there.

Day to day, I like to walk around and talk to everybody. I like to do lot of little huddles, pull people in to the conference room for quick meetings. I meet with the project managers on a weekly basis, as I do with the owners and founders.

It’s nothing magical. It’s having discussions and communication and doing it regularly.

How do you communicate your growth strategy to your employees?
People ask me the question of how growth is going to benefit them, and my questions back to them is, ‘What do you want to do? What are the things you enjoy most doing? What are the things you’d like to do that you’re not currently doing?’

Growth affects people on an individual basis, not a group basis. Typically, when you ask those questions, there are opportunities that are popping up, particularly as you grow and move from one set of opportunities to a larger set of opportunities, such as the opportunity to manage other people or the opportunity to experiment in fields like R&D.

Growth is exciting. Growth is fun. When a company is growing, it provides intellectual challenges for people. It creates opportunity to experience different aspects of the business, to work on multiple clients and gain different perspectives on the business.

But it’s individual. Some people want an opportunity to move into other areas, but some are very happy doing one thing, and they do it very, very well.

What advice would you give to other CEOs about communicating with customers/clients?
One of key things is stay really close to customers as you grow. You are going to encounter some form of change in your job every three to six months because of the demands on the organization.

It’s really important to make sure that changes don’t allow you to get disconnected from your existing client base. Especially in our business, those are long term relationships. Those aren’t transactional relationships.

The second key is to make sure you are managing your resources, that you aren’t overextending yourself, basically having a really good understanding of your resources and what you are going to be able to do over a certain time frame.

Third, make sure you have the fundamentals in place. That’s the core of all successful communication.

Your fundamentals are things like understanding your value proposition, what differentiates you in the marketplace. You have to know what clients are purchasing from you, what their expectations are from you.

You need to know what financial models are appropriate, what will allow you to survive in your market. You need to understand what your competitors are doing. You need to make sure your employees know what their responsibilities are and that they are enabled to carry them out.

It’s a whole list of basic blocking-and-tackling kinds of things.

HOW TO REACH: AdminServer, www.adminserver.com