James T. Horn Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007

James T. Horn has been able to command influence at The Tri-M Group LLC not just because he’s the boss but because he knows what makes his people tick. He has earned the respect of his 366 employees by seeing firsthand the challenges they face. That knowledge of the company’s operations not only improves his workers’ view of him, it helps him make more informed decisions, leading the company to 2006 revenue of $54 million and a projection of more than $65 million in 2007. Smart Business spoke with Horn, president and CEO of The Tri-M Group, about the importance of getting in the game and earning the respect of your employees.

Get involved. The CEO or president should clearly understand from a 10,000-foot view what’s going on inside the business, but not to the point where it seems that he or she is micro-managing. That could be more damaging than anything else. It gives the appearance that you don’t have trust in others. But clearly you should know what’s going on in your business.

Two, you need to get actively involved in the game. Don’t watch from the sidelines.

Lead by example. Get out there where the action is, that’s what a lot of people want to see. When I go out to the field and talk to our employees, they like that I’m out there and I see what they’re doing and can see what they’re accomplishing, and [they can] ask me questions. It’s important.

Three, a CEO should be involved enough to know what’s on the mind of employees. If we sit back too much, barriers start to go up. A lot of employees won’t tell you what those barriers are.

But if you’re involved in the operation and you’re out there, they’re not afraid to talk to you, they’ll let you know what those barriers are, and it’s our job as leaders to remove those barriers so they can do the best job they possibly can.

As CEO, you should be involved to a point where people see you are ap-proachable and accessible. If you sat up in a walnut office on Mahogany Row and never got out to see the people, you tend to distance yourself from the people who make it happen. You’ve got to create an environment that fosters motivation and excitement, starting at the top. That stimulates a high level of productivity and effective decision-making. When people are working in that environment, they become creative.

Don’t expect respect just because you’re the boss. You earn respect by giving respect. Just because I have a title of Jim Horn, president and CEO, it doesn’t mean I have ‘respect me’ written across my forehead.

You earn that by having respect for others and by showing that you care about people and you care about the direction you’re going. You also have to show that you’re passionate about where you’re going. People will develop that respect for you, but it takes time.

That’s the one thing that worries me about bringing outsiders into this company. Bringing outsiders into leadership positions is very difficult.

Get buy-in on your vision. You’ve got to set a vision in the minds of all employees of who we are and where we’re going. About four years ago, we set a vision in front of everybody at our strategic planning conference.

I said where we should be in 10 years, and I walked out and let an outside facilitator take it from there and talk to senior management. When he was done talking with them, there was buy-in. We get buy-in from everybody on plans. Those plans are the road maps that show where we want to go.

We continually fine-tune our internal process. As you grow, you have to make sure the processes you set up will grow with you. A process set up for a $2 million company will not work for a $10 million company. One set up for a $10 million company will not work for a $50 million company.

You’ve got to continually fine-tune and stay on top of your forecasting and cash flow. Cash flow is what strangles a lot of companies. They grew too fast and ran out of cash. That’s one of your top priorities to make sure that never happens.

Manage growth by preparing new leaders. With growth, it means people have to grow, too. We need new leaders and new managers, so we offer continuing education to all employees.

We bolster our hiring and recruitment process. We have a strong commitment to leadership development. The courses we send these individuals through, they do not teach them how to be a leader. It makes them aware of what a leader really is, and if they don’t get it, they don’t get it.

This year we had 20 people that have gone through this course, and one of them came back and didn’t get anything out of it. If you go in with a closed mind, you come out with nothing. I think everybody else has learned something from this course.

There have been a few years where we grew faster than we should have, but that’s hard to control. We’re at a point in our growth cycle where we’ve got to pause a bit. We’re going to achieve $65 to $70 million in revenue in 2007. We’ve got to pause to regroup and get our processes in place to take us to the next level. If you can’t manage that, it’ll spiral out of control.

Keep growing and your employees will grow with you. Our commitment to growth allows employees a vehicle to grow. If you remained a $10 million company for 40 years — unless somebody left, died or got terminated — you wouldn’t get promoted.

We try to provide that opportunity for people and the only way to provide that opportunity is to grow. We’ve had many people come here who have left smaller companies because they didn’t have the opportunity to grow. People want that opportunity to grow.

HOW TO REACH: The Tri-M Group, LLC, (610) 444-1000 or www.tri-mgroup.com