If you work for Joe Schumacher, introductions are the appetizer at lunch.
When Schumacher gathers his employees together for a lunch meeting at Goddard Systems Inc., he makes sure that accountants sit with operations people, his legal staffers sit with marketers, and so on. It’s one of the most effective ways he encourages communication and prevents silos at the franchisor of The Goddard School for Early Childhood Development, where Schumacher serves as CEO.
“We want people from different departments at the same table,” he says. “One of the great pieces of feedback we’ve gotten is that everyone seems to like that. They had an opportunity to talk to other people that they normally wouldn’t have talked to.”
Schumacher oversees 115 direct employees and must set uniform standards for 368 franchised schools around the country, employing between 20 and 25 people each. Therefore, this means that promoting good communication and reinforcing the organizational direction of Goddard Systems are daily tasks for Schumacher.
He follows through on these tasks by facilitating an ongoing dialogue between levels and locations within the organization. Whether it’s corporate leadership speaking with a franchisee or different franchisees in different states speaking with each other, Schumacher wants the exchange of words and ideas to become an everyday occurrence underneath the Goddard umbrella.
“It’s really the biggest challenge for any franchise company, aligning the franchisees and the corporation as to the direction you’re heading,” Schumacher says. “The economy has certainly made everybody focus more on the core issues facing the company and the values of the company. The way to answer the challenge is to ensure that everyone has a voice in the approach that the company is taking. That includes franchisees and employees and making sure that everyone has a chance to be heard.”
Reach out to your people
From the time they sign the contract to run a Goddard School, franchisees are taught that communication is a major priority within the organization. When possible, Schumacher meets with each new franchisee personally and emphasizes the need for an open dialogue among all areas and levels of the Goddard system.
Schumacher and his staff also employ liaisons to help franchisees with their transition into the system, offering new additions a resource on how the organization does business as well as a sounding board for any issues the new franchisee might encounter.
“We do a lot to ensure that both our franchisees and our employees have methods for communication and understand that we have an overarching philosophy that encourages communication,” Schumacher says. “When a brand-new franchisee comes into our training class, I tell them that we are focused on communicating back and forth. We might not always agree on every issue, but I promise your voice will be heard.
“As part of that, we have a pre-opening process manager, and that person’s job is just to deal with people from the time they sign as franchisees. Then we have a franchisee liaison to act as an independent sounding board, someone who is not related to any department, who reports directly to me and can talk to franchisees about any issue the franchisee feels is important.”
Once new franchisees receive their initial training, they are encouraged to maintain contact with corporate management whenever they have an idea or issue to address.
“Franchisees are encouraged to call or e-mail anyone internal in the organization, up to and including me, on any issue,” Schumacher says. “We don’t want you to have to go through seven layers of management to reach us. So franchisees will regularly call me about both good things that are happening and things they might have some concerns about. Our policy is that calls and e-mails are answered within 24 hours, even if we might not have an exact response. I might not always have the answer of a more complicated problem, but I will connect with you and tell you on the matter.”
Turning a communication strategy into reality takes good execution from the upper levels of management. You need to be able to set the example from the top. But before you get to the blocking and tackling of rolling out a strategy, putting the priority in front of your people with words and messages can go a long way toward setting the ground rules of communication.
“The most important thing is making sure all of the constituencies understand that this is a priority for the company,” Schumacher says. “I regularly tell both franchisees and employees that I need to hear from you. This is my job as CEO, and this communication is the most important part of my job. Overall, whoever your constituencies are, you need to be making sure they understand that communication is important to the company, whatever they say won’t be taken personally by management, and they’ll be able to identify issues without fearing retaliation.”
From there, you need to have people in place who can help maintain your strategy’s momentum. That is the role of Schumacher’s franchisee liaisons. At your company, it might be your human resources department or corporate communications specialist. But someone in your organizational hierarchy needs to be trained on greasing the cogs of communication on a daily basis.
“Those two liaisons give people a specific point of contact,” he says. “If they don’t know who to talk to, they can go to those people and be directed to the right person.”
Make a lateral pass
Corporate management plays a vital role in communicating with your people in the field, ensuring that they stay focused on your organizational objectives and feel empowered to carry them out. But that is only a part of the communication equation.
Your dialogue needs to be lateral. Your salesperson in one part of the country needs to develop a working relationship with salespeople in other parts of the country, allowing them to share ideas and get a better grasp of what is and isn’t working among the company ranks.
At Goddard Systems, Schumacher has taken the step of formalizing peer communication among his franchisees. As part of a systemwide mentoring program, more experienced franchisees are given the opportunity to coach new franchisees on being a part of the Goddard organization.
“It’s somebody else they can call or e-mail to talk about issues,” Schumacher says. “We do the same things for our schools’ education directors, with a mentoring program in which more experienced directors get mentors, as well.”
Franchisees with high-performing Goddard locations are selected as mentors for the program. In recent years, more than 40 new franchisees have been mentored in the program. Schumacher estimates that about 20 franchisees received mentoring in 2010, due to a drop in the establishment of new franchises.
If you operate a business with multiple people in the same market, it is often advantageous if you can connect those people and allow them to find common goals. Even if you have locations or salespeople who might be competing with each other in a given market, if they are finding common areas of motivation, it will serve to strengthen your company overall.
Schumacher has encouraged Goddard franchisees in individual markets to find common ground in the marketing of the Goddard concept to the surrounding community. Some local schools have unified on creative marketing concepts.
“Our Denver market decided they wanted to sponsor the children’s play area at the Colorado Rockies baseball stadium, so they unified on that initiative,” Schumacher says. “They’d have things like ice cream socials and open houses to attract enrollment in their areas, so they tried to do that as a unified force, as well. There are 13 schools in the Denver area, so they tried to do the open house and socials on the same week.”
Schumacher wants his franchisees to take any opportunity to get together and talk shop, whether it be a formalized meeting or a less formal interaction.
“We put on an excellent business and social program, but even if they were just OK, the best part about any meeting is when you have franchisees coming together and talking with other franchisees about common issues,” he says.”
Know your role
As the person in the top spot of your company, your job is one of support and motivation when it comes to your team.
You can speak about having an open-door policy, about the standards you want for your company, how you want your employees to represent the company and the resources you’re willing to provide for them, but as you’ve been taught since grade school, actions speak far louder than words. Which means it is imperative that your actions follow your statements and employees don’t get the sense that you’ll say one thing and do another.
“A lot of your job is to set the tone,” Schumacher says. “It is important that the entire company, whether employees or franchisees, know that communication and adhering to the mission of the organization is key. That’s why living what you say is important. If I bloviate about the importance of communication but don’t tell people things or tell them to come back later, it becomes apparent that what I’m saying is just words, that I don’t take it very seriously.”
You need to realize the difference between leadership and management. You have elements of both in your role. You are a supervisor who manages others and a leader who seeks out new opportunities and charts a course to reach them. But you can’t let your supervisory role cast a shadow over your role as leader. If you try to control too much from a process standpoint, you run the risk of micromanaging, which can be detrimental to the trust factor in an organization.
If an employee has an idea and wants to run with it, accept it or decline it. If you decline it, explain why. If you accept it, give the employee resources and benchmarks, but let him or her take the creative lead.
“It’s often a criticism of upper-management types that they’ll sort of steal people’s ideas,” Schumacher says. “I try to make sure that if somebody gives me or the company an idea about something, they get recognized for it. Whether it’s in a meeting or communication or wherever, I try to make sure our managers understand it’s a better sign if a manager celebrates people and allows them to be recognized for the contributions, as opposed to the manager taking the credit.”
Recognition is one last vital part of the communication process. It stimulates ideas and encourages employees to come forward with new ideas in the future. It helps reinforce a unified, goal-focused company. And there is a difference between putting a bonus plan in place and actively recognizing someone. Both forms have their place, but neither is a catchall.
“Everybody, if not needs, then certainly wants recognition,” Schumacher says. “It’s easy in any company to feel like you’re laboring in the dark and that nobody really knows what you’re doing or how important it is to the company.
“That’s why monetary and nonmonetary recognition serves different roles. I think a simple recognition, intermittent and unexpected, often goes a lot further than money. But the two have to work together. You’re not going to have people happy about a gift card or a pat on the back if they’re not getting paid well enough or they’re not able to make bonus. That’s why it’s probably better if the money stuff is basic and expected, while the nonmonetary stuff is more unexpected and intermittent.”
How to reach: Goddard Systems Inc., (610) 265-8510 or www.goddardschool.com
The Schumacher file
The Goddard School for Early Childhood Development
Born: Queens, New York City
Education: Psychology degree from St. Francis University, Loretto, Pa.; law degree from Widener University School of Law
First job: I was a janitor at some kind of warehouse. I don’t even remember what it was. I think I was about 14 at the time.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
Transparency is the best business lesson I’ve learned. Be straight with people, and when news isn’t good, just deal with it. If you hide or avoid things, it just makes them more difficult to deal with.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
Commitment and dedication. People need to understand that you are committed to the enterprise and committed to what it takes to make it work. You also need to be sensitive to people’s thoughts and ideas.
What is your definition of success?
Setting appropriate goals and then achieving them. It’s also important to have some fun along the way. We aren’t running an amusement park, but overall, your work should be something you enjoy. And, of course, profitability is an important element of success, as well.