Hitting the trifecta Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

It’s impossible to find all the answers to leading a business in a magazine article — even if it’s in the Harvard Business Review. But you might find a good question once in a while.

That’s exactly what happened to Michael Rubin a couple of years ago.

The chairman, president and CEO of GSI Commerce Inc. was thumbing through an issue of the well-known management publication when he happened upon a couple of key questions that every company leader should ask their employees. One of the questions was culture-related, and it immediately stuck out to Rubin: Could you go around to every key employee in your company and ask them what your vision, mission and core values are?

“At that point, I knew my answer would be ‘no,’” Rubin says.

GSI is a growing e-commerce solutions company with a list of clients that includes Dell, Estée Lauder and the National Football League. From the outside, GSI looks the part of a company that generated $967 million in 2008 net revenue — healthy and in peak condition. But on the inside, GSI had a case of ambiguity.

The long-term vision, mission and values of the company hadn’t been explicitly defined by management. The guiding principles of the company might have been on paper somewhere, but the communication of those principles was so lacking that many of GSI’s 4,500 full-time employees would have had trouble defining them.

To Rubin, the answer was clear: GSI needed to better define and communicate the vision, mission and values that drive his company.

“We undertook a critical process, driven by our employee base and other key constituencies, to really define our vision, mission and core values,” Rubin says. “Once we implemented that, it has really helped to shape the company.”

Define your values

To focus your company on a vision, mission and set of core values, first you need to define what those values are. That was the first step in Rubin’s process.

“Our vision is to be a worldwide leader in e-commerce, growing from what was a U.S.-based platform,” Rubin says. “Our mission is to be e-commerce experts that really help our clients grow their e-commerce. Our core values support the vision and mission — for instance, the idea that a promise made is a promise kept. We’re in the business of delivering clients products that are important to their businesses, and we need to hold to that commitment.”

From there, Rubin and his leadership team performed a large-scale rollout of the vision, mission and values to the entire company. It was a task simple to state but complex to carry out.

Rubin uses the term “overcommunicate” to describe the level of persistence he and his managers used to focus their thousands of employees on the company’s guiding principles. In the world of business, “overcommunicate” is something of a cliché, but to Rubin it has a definite meaning: to never allow yourself or your senior managers to become satisfied with their current level of communication. Rubin says you should always strive to go above and beyond your current level of communication.

“We had a big rollout that we did to all the constituencies in the company,” he says. “We had a lot of different materials implemented and featured in all areas of the business. At our last employee meeting, we did, for the first time, a question-and-answer session, realizing the amount of stress and pressure on employees’ minds. That was really well received because people like it when you’re honest and answer things truthfully. It shows why communication is fundamental to the success of any business.”

Part of the hard work of communication is making it sound easy. When communicating wide-ranging concepts throughout your company, you need to state them in a straightforward manner and, as much as possible, tailor the message to your audience.

“In all the communications I have with people, I’m constantly explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing, why we’re investing in the areas in which we’re investing,” Rubin says. “When we went from a U.S. e-commerce platform to an international platform with fully integrated marketing services, that was confusing to people. We had to define to everyone why we are doing this, why it’s good for our clients, employees and shareholders, and constantly communicating the benefits to people. That is what we’ve done to help employees understand the evolution of our business.

“However, with that communication, I’m trying to reach 4,500 people, and within those 4,500 people, you have all different types of employees. When you’re communicating to numbers that large, you need to be sure that everything you’re communicating is appropriate for your audience.

“It doesn’t all get communicated in the same way. You might have a more wide-ranging message for your higher level employees and a more specific version of the message for the employees who are more involved in a specific aspect of your business. The way we communicate something to our overall business might differ than how we communicate, for example, to our marketing services business. We might take another level of detail to communicating with that business than we would to the overall organization.”

Develop communicators

In order to effectively move information throughout your organization, you need help. That help has to come in the form of other managers who are practiced communicators.

At GSI, Rubin develops managers on the inside and hires managers from the outside. The managers help keep the vision, mission and values in front of GSI’s employees in their daily interactions.

“Any talent search in a high-growth company is going to be a combination of people that you’ve developed internally and people you have brought in from external sources,” Rubin says. “I believe that when you look for leadership in an employee, it’s not just what you learn in the interviewing process, it’s also the back-door references you find, where you can really find out about the person’s history, track record and management style.”

Once Rubin and his staff have made a management-level hire, they send the new manager to training, during which they are taught what will be expected of them as communicators.

“We have a leadership program at GSI, during which we work on things that are important to any manager’s success,” Rubin says. “We take them off-site and work on training them as top managers, as people who are going to continue to grow the company.”

Once the training sequence is finished, the learning doesn’t end. But the teacher might change. Rubin says that he and all of his experienced leaders are teachers on a daily basis, as is the case for anyone in a high-profile position. New managers will look to you for their cue. The behavior you exhibit is the behavior they’ll emulate, so if you want them to help set and reinforce the vision, mission and values for the rest of the company, that is the tone you need to set.

“First, you must lead by example,” Rubin says. “That means the example you’re setting is something you must fundamentally believe in. It has to be honest and real, and it has to continuously stay in line with your mission, vision and core values. If you set those principles, but then do things that are out of line and inconsistent with them, people are going to notice and call you out very quickly.”

Open a dialogue

Engaging your managers is a great first step, but only if the engagement continues throughout the organizational ranks. And one of the most effective ways to do that is to give employees feedback channels. Personal contact is always best, but electronic methods such as e-mail are useful, as well.

By showing employees a concrete way that their ideas and input can help better the company, you’re showing them that they can help steer the organization, which will increase their level of buy-in with regard to the vision, mission and values.

“Great ideas come from all of [your] constituencies,” Rubin says. “If you don’t foster a culture that creates great ideas, then you’re not going to be successful. If we only solicit ideas from select people within the company, we’re going to miss out on a lot of opportunities.”

But with open feedback channels comes the need to review the feedback you get. Rubin and his management team integrate the feedback and idea review process into their strategic planning meetings. It gives them an opportunity to see if a new idea might fit with the company’s overall direction.

“You have to have the right strategy and the right financial plan and align those with your organizational goals to get everyone working together on new ideas,” Rubin says. “Each year we have a formalized strategic planning process, and out of that comes a financial planning process, which is used to get everyone in line with what we’re trying to do as a company. That gets cascaded down to individual departments and through to our individual department goals, and that’s how we get everyone focused and working together.”

As necessary as the vertical communication between management and the lower rungs of your organization is, lateral communication between departments is another key component in building a culture, reinforcing the vision, mission and values, and sharing ideas.

Rubin says that many departmental managers are more experienced in a hierarchical setting, where they’re overseeing subordinates and answering to superiors. Finding department heads who excel at taking a cross-functional approach to leadership can become a bit more challenging.

“It goes back to hiring the right people, then you have to get them into situations where they interact, and you can focus them on growing their departments by interacting with each other and sharing their expertise,” he says. “Since people tend to manage better up and down within an organization than they do horizontally, one of the qualities you have to look for during the recruiting and interviewing process is people who have a history of doing well in a cross-functional environment.

“Once you have the right people, you need the right level of alignment in order to create a cross-functional environment. Alignment happens through the goal-setting and goal-connecting process. If you can do those two things, the rest falls into place, and you will be able to get people on the departmental level who work together and make each other better.

“That is probably our biggest opportunity and, in a lot of ways, our most challenging. It’s what we talk about in our (leadership training) program — get connected, align the different goals and objectives, and make sure all those goals are connected. If you can’t do that, you have no shot of being successful as an organization.”

How to reach: GSI Commerce Inc., (610) 491-7000 or www.gsicommerce.com