Trusting power Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

Ed Cloues is a former mergers and acquisitions lawyer surrounded by engineers, and he knows something about giving employees a say on things they’re well versed in.

“My goal would be to be surrounded by several people that are more capable than I am because the stronger the group is that you have around you — that I have around me, and the stronger the group my managers have around them — the more successful they’re going to be,” says Cloues, chairman and CEO of K-Tron International Inc., a provider of bulk solids material handling equipment and systems.

Cloues attributes his company’s revenue growth — from $71.8 million in 2001 to $243 million in 2008 — to the differing views of his employees and their ability to run with delegated responsibilities.

To empower employees, you have to set expectations by telling them you trust them, showing you trust their decisions and keeping an eye on their performance while steering clear of micromanaging.

Smart Business spoke with Cloues about how to empower employees to harness their abilities to grow your company.

Tell employees that you trust them. Once you get the right people in the right positions, then empower them to go do their jobs and basically stay out of their way. Hope that they’re right more than they’re wrong and that they make more good decisions than bad decisions.

But recognize that if you were doing that job — if I had these different jobs — I’d be less qualified for many of them than the people I have in them and would have no reason to think that I would do a better job on those tasks than they do.

We keep score on how people are doing, but we tell them, ‘This is your job. This is yours to do; somebody else isn’t going to be doing it for you. We’re putting you in a position because we think you’re a good fit for this job, we trust you to do it right. You’ll make mistakes; we understand that. That’s how you learn.’

Lead by example to communicate expectations. You can tell people things, but that doesn’t mean that they believe it. Over time, it’s by example.

They can see that, in the company, people aren’t going to get punished because they do five things right and two things wrong. Now, if you do everything wrong, we may have made a mistake on the person that we picked. It doesn’t mean that you have free rein to keep making mistakes.

What we strive for — what we have in the senior management group and what we strive for at other levels of the company — is to have people have enough trust in the people that they work with that they’re not afraid of saying things. They’re not afraid of feeling foolish because they throw out some idea that, once you start thinking about it, may not turn out to be such a good idea.

You have to set the example yourself. If your feeling is your employees don’t trust you as the CEO, then you’ve got to think about how you present yourself to employees. Do you solve all of their problems? Are you quick to criticize if they don’t do things the way that you would do them? Do you let them know that you wouldn’t do it that way, which makes them reluctant to do it their way?

There are often several different ways to get to the same end, any one of which is better than having a confused way to get there. And my way may be no better or worse than the next person’s way. It may be different, but it may be no better or worse.

So if people always think that you’re going to make the decision anyway, or if they don’t do it the way they think you would do it and they’re always worried about that, then you’re not going to be able to develop this kind of atmosphere of trust, cooperative management, good communication because people are always going to be looking to do it the way you think you’d do it or would please you.

If you’re having trouble with your group doing this, I think you have to look pretty hard at how you are conducting yourself, how you are seen by your employee group, and work on that. Convey to them that you are one of a number of people, [that] there is only so much you can do, that most of the work is going to be done by them and that the company is only going to be as successful as they are successful.

Keep tabs on your employees without interjecting your own ideas. We keep score, but we don’t try to substitute in, day to day, our judgment for their judgment. We sit down and talk to them periodically, and it may just be a matter of going out to lunch, seeing how things are going.

I would rather do it in a more informal way than a formal way, where somebody may not even realize that we’re having a conversation about how they’re doing.

I encourage other people, don’t wait until a review process; take any opportunity that you have if there’s a message you want to convey to somebody that you’re working with. Is there anything you want to talk about? Take them out to lunch, sit down with them and talk about it in a nonthreatening way.

Don’t wait six months and say, ‘Oh yeah, I think your approach to this was wrong.’ Sit down and understand why it is they have the approach they have.

How to reach: K-Tron International Inc., (856) 589-0500 or www.ktroninternational.com