Super User

Sunday, 26 August 2007 20:00

Selling enthusiasm

Marcie Brogan still wants to be a copywriter. Years removed from her first copywriting job in the advertising business, the CEO of Brogan & Partners Convergence Marketing still loves the daily grind of deadlines and fresh ideas. So Brogan takes that excitement to work with her every day at the $72 million public relations and marketing agency and tries to get that same spark out of her 60 employees.

And as the agency has expanded to include nine partners, Brogan thinks she might be able to make some time to get back to the copy desk — even if that end of her work has to be pro bono.

“I think you shouldn’t be leading a business if you don’t have that passion,” Brogan says. “You should just retire or find another business or demote yourself.”

Smart Business spoke with Brogan about how to build passion among your employees and why diversity has made her business better.

Q: How do you build passion with your employees?

One important thing is to show confidence that we are doing well, and we are able to beat out anybody and anything and any competition with smarts and savvy. A lot of times, we work long hours, and if we can’t get a client to go our way, it’s frustrating — so I have to show that passion for what we do.

We have lots of pressures, but advertising is not like being cardiologists or sending rockets to the moon, so we are permitted to have fun. And I believe in leading that fun, which leads to high morale.

That is the distinguishing and attractive characteristic of our agency — that we always say, ‘We don’t take ourselves very seriously, but we do take our work very seriously.’

Q: What is your philosophy on hiring?

After I figured out that I could never run a business as long as I thought that I was the smartest person in the room and the only one capable of doing every task, I decided I should be a leader rather than a doer.

I look for people that I’m positive are smarter and more talented than I am and who bring new skills to the business.

Q: How does diversity play into your staffing ideas?

I’ve spent many years trying to break down the white-bread-male feeling to this business. Not as a social adventure but because I think that advertising and marketing have to reflect the environment in which we live. It’s not a white-bread world, so we have to be able to understand the customers of our clients, and sometimes, it’s easier to understand them if the membership of your agency reflects those customers.

It’s not always ethnic diversity; it can be age, gender, religion, everything. We’re in a high-tech market in our North Carolina office, so we bring in younger, more technical people. I just think diversity is only a positive because it gives us better understanding and a head start on our clients and customers.

Q: What do you do to build teamwork?

One of the best ways of doing that is by sharing the profits of the agency in a way that makes people aware of how we make money and how their work causes us to make money or lose money.

We reward people on a monthly basis when we meet our income goals, and we reward them on an annual basis when we meet our annual profits. Sharing the money quickly creates teamwork. If their monthly extra money in their pocket and their annual compensation depends on it, then they’ll take better care of it.

Q: How do you deal with the staffing challenges that come in hard times?

Last year, we had to face downsizing, and in the Michigan economy, the ability to replace that instantly was hampered. So having to downsize was a very painful task for me and a leadership challenge in a way to do it humanely and a way to do it where we didn’t permanently hamper morale. The human aspect was my first concern, and then the business aspect of it came second.

One of the things we did, rather than letting a lot of people go, was we solved a lot of problems by asking people to take pay cuts. We did that for probably five months, then were able to restore not only the salary, but we were able to bring back three of the five people we let go.

One of the things about leadership is constant communication, so everybody was aware of what was going on because we do monthly updates on where we are, and people were aware of what the issue was. Also, I have nine partners, so they led the way by example, and I think that doing that makes others feel comfortable and confident that partners are willing to do this, are willing to take a risk, so they should be, too.

HOW TO REACH: Brogan & Partners Convergence Marketing, (313) 874-8555 or

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Sand castles

A few years back, a friend who runs a large hotel chain asked

Gordon “Butch” Stewart if he could help evaluate the problems

plaguing the franchise.

Stewart, founder and chairman of Sandals Resorts and Beaches

Resorts, took a tour of one of the hotels and sat in on some meetings. He immediately noticed a big gap in the little day-to-day

details that were slowing the hotel down, such as front-desk service, and the high-end conversation the executives were having.

“When we went, I saw what the problems were, and I didn’t really want to stick my nose in,” Stewart says. “But I was a little befuddled at how simple the problems were and how complex their discussion was. Eventually, I pulled my friend aside and said, ‘Why

not pull back and think about this in terms of simple fixes that cost

a lot less? What you’re trying to do is a lot cheaper than what you

think.’ I guess there’s merit in the saying, ‘Keep it simple.’”

Keeping strategy simple drives continued growth at Sandals and

Beaches, the all-inclusive Caribbean resort juggernauts, along with

their worldwide representative arm, Unique Vacations Inc., based

in Miami. With more and more vacation spots popping up, Stewart

doesn’t want to catch himself in the clouds overanalyzing problems. His success has been in the all-inclusive business, and it has

been based on a tireless focus on hospitality and improvement.

His driving force is to get that right, down to every little detail.

From his first hotel unit in 1981 to the 16 resorts and more than

8,500 employees he oversees today, Stewart focuses on getting the

basics right. He continues to move forward, with a concentration

on beating the competition by growing a company that’s well

ahead of the market. With that meticulous attention to the little

things shaping everything from how he makes improvements to

how he paces growth, Stewart has built a vacation empire.

Focus on the details

To Stewart, paying attention to often-overlooked daily details is

the easiest path to successful growth. You can have the best business plan in the world, but he knows that if you don’t keep a close

eye on the day-to-day operations, then there is room for fatal error.

Sometimes that means admitting to mistakes and starting over,

rather than trying to make something work just to grow.

“Compromise, I think, is the thing that hurts the most,” Stewart

says. “I’ve broken down concrete many times that turned out differently than we thought or planned it would be. I’ve sold beds as

soon as I can get replacements because they weren’t as good as we

wanted them to be. We’ve closed restaurants that are not performing. That list goes on forever. If something comes out wrong

or isn’t working, stripping it down to the carpet isn’t the worst


“If something is wrong, it’s wrong. You can go a lot further by fixing it early than not paying attention to it.”

While Stewart believes that growing in an industry is simple if

you really focus on the little details, he says there has to be a constant mindset to that attention to detail.

“If you’re going to be successful at any industry, then there has to

be a thought process where literally every moment of your life you

have to be thinking of things that you can improve upon,” says

Stewart. “It is true that people are going to recommend your product. To be happy enough to do that, you need to impress.”

That attention to detail can’t just be in projects, according to

Stewart. It has to be a company culture that runs from top to bottom. That enthusiasm for hospitality drives Sandals and Beaches,

and Stewart says that pushing that core philosophy is the key to

bringing in new people. If you don’t understand that hospitality is

job No. 1, then you don’t get in the door.

“We don’t announce the vision on a daily basis,” he says. “But we

know where we are going, and people around you know because

they see you living it. If you’re very strong with your fundamentals

and show that every day, then people know what’s happening and

see if they can fit in.”

And, in the same matter-of-fact manner that Stewart will rip

down a building and start over, he says that you have to be clear-cut with employees who don’t match the culture, instead of trying

to force a fit.

“Again, if it’s a mistake, level with the employee,” Stewart says.

“Tell them, ‘You’re in the wrong business. Now, you might be a

good scientist, but you don’t do a good job of making people


Your people, after all, are a big part of your brand. And, to

Stewart, paying close attention to that brand internally is essential.

“In the same way that you would protect your brand if somebody

is doing something to try to injure it, the biggest injury is likely to

come from your own internal, weak operation,” says Stewart. “If

you look at the whole spectrum, on one hand, you might have

some people out there that would like to do damage to your

brand. So you’re going to protect it, but really and truly, you can do

more harm to yourself than anyone else at the end of the day, so

you have to make sure you and your people are performing.”

Make it better

An eye for the daily details isn’t enough. Stewart says you have

to grow with that meticulous nature and drive to do better.

“We have never wanted to be No. 2, and we need to look over

our shoulder,” Stewart says. “We don’t spend our time copying or

imitating, we bring out product after product that, in three years

time, the rest of the gang catches up to in their own way.”

Sandals and Beaches continue to reinvent the brand, re-evaluating what the customer wants in luxury accommodations. Instead

of settling for something that hasn’t failed you, Stewart says you

have to be looking for something that will really catch the attention of the customer.

That push for innovation has led to a list of firsts in the resort

world. Sandals was the first Caribbean resort to use Jacuzzis, the

first to offer satellite TV and the first to use swim-up pool bars.

All of them have since become commonplace, so Stewart wants

to keep pushing the envelope to stay ahead of the curve.

“That’s a natural tendency,” Stewart says of making improvements. “You finish something and it’s better than the one you did

before, so there’s an excitement to do something better than that.”

Similarly, Stewart has no problem spending money to grow out

a resort that’s already successful.

In August 2005, for example, Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort &

Spa underwent a $100 million expansion to create the Italian

Seaside Village. The resort was doing well; however, the expansion

added not just 168 rooms but also included a water park and playground to improve on the family atmosphere.

“I think we have a formula, a way that we do things to ensure our

success,” Stewart says. “We have had so many situations that we

have rooms in a place or a product or buildings that really could grow into something more, and we are inclined to do that work to

update it and make it better for our customer.”

And that philosophy can be pushed to your staff. Sandals and

Beaches constantly update standards and use technology to measure performance. It’s not enough for Stewart to push a culture

where the little details are the focus, but he also wants to ensure

that it’s being done by looking at the measurables.

“We have put more accountability into standards in the last seven

or eight months than we’ve done in the last 10 years,” says Stewart.

“We use technology that generally rates the standards, and it breaks

down all the different standards of the hotels from the cleanliness to

restaurants. We measure every detail we can, from rooms to swimming pools, staff, it rates service, and it breaks that down in every

part of the hotel.”

Know your market

Stewart believes that there is no ceiling to a blossoming company’s growth potential, unless you are going in the wrong direction.

“Our limitations really are to the extent that we can replicate this

culture and keep our people excited and have guests satisfied with

our performance,” says Stewart. “If you find that you’re falling

down, then it’s time to haul back and take a pulse.”

That means you have to keep track of your core priorities when it

comes time to grow. Stewart is very clear on the fact that Sandals is

a luxury brand thriving in a niche market. To grow, he knows that he

can’t get too far from the path that made him successful.

“There are a lot of people building hotels right now. And we have

no intention of getting into the big 1,000-room hotels,” he says.

“That’s not where we are going. We are going with a unique and

diversified product. We are focused on our own independent standards and enormous luxury; we’re better at paying attention to

details like the matter in which a room is furnished.”

Keeping the market in mind, you can still take risks, but they

have to come in the proper context of what your company can do.

Sandals, the original brand, is a resort experience meant only for

couples. But Stewart realized that while the couples experience

was popular, there was a whole segment of the market that was

being shut out. That’s when Beaches was created for families, singles and couples. The attention to detail was not lost on the new

brand, but the focus of that attention shifted. Instead of focusing

on something like a romantic waterfall view for a room, Beaches

concentrated on the family element and built resorts with video-game areas for kids.

The move was a risk, but Stewart balanced it with knowledge

about his customer base. Sandals already had a solid return rate

for its guests, and there was feedback from happy customers that

there was room for more. The results of that effort have checked

in with success: Sandals and Beaches currently boast a customer

return rate of 40 percent.

“It started off in a manner where I have so much return in guests,

and a lot of them said to me, ‘Butch, I’ve been here 11 times. I have

a mother that is single, I’d like to be able to come back, but I’d like

to be able to bring her or bring the kids,”’ Stewart says.

That doesn’t mean that Beaches came into existence without taking some lumps, of course. But by keeping on a similar track and

incorporating feedback, Stewart grew out Beaches ahead of the

competition and with the same mentality he shared with that big

hotel chain, he wanted all the little details to be right every step of

the way — without compromise.

“We have our ups and downs trying to stretch out,” Stewart says.

“But what’s important is that you are willing to react to what people are telling you and admit when you make mistakes.”

HOW TO REACH: Sandals Resorts, (888) 726-3257 or; Beaches Resorts, (888) 232-2437 or

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Tom Hirons

Tom Hirons has learned a lot more teaching than he ever did as a student. Hirons, president, chief communications officer and CEO of Hirons & Co. Communications Inc., teaches a course at Indiana University and the main thing he’s noticed is that teaching material requires a certain mastery that you just don’t get when you’re studying it. Taking that philosophy to his advertising and public relations company, Hirons realized that he could improve his staff by placing experienced employees in a teaching role for the younger work force. The process has been a boon to both sets of employees and a big part of Hirons & Co.’s success with its 72 employees. Smart Business spoke with Hirons about the advantages of a transparent company and why it’s important to mix experience levels.

Mix and match experience. We are at our best when we have diversity in our work force, in particular, a diversity of experience. So we pair individuals well into their careers as mentors with new hires who are starting their careers. We see two things happen: good progress for those starting their careers and cost-efficiency with the performance of the blended group.

It helps in a couple of ways for the senior. One is, as a teacher, you develop a mastery of the subject matter in a way that you never could or would as a student. The demands to be prepared to lead and to teach are really an extraordinary professional development opportunity, so we’re seeing a level of mastery in subject matter among our senior people because their expectations of those they are mentoring is so high.

The junior person is getting a good chance to see where they can go in their career. The difference between the two may only be five years, but they develop so quickly in their careers that they are seeing a peer with intense experience and savvy, and for someone just coming out of college, that can be both inspiring and very humbling.

Let employees know what’s going on. We run a totally transparent company and give a monthly report to all staff on all of our metrics — financial and performance. On a quarterly basis, we lay those metrics against our five-year plan to show progress.

That allows individuals to self-manage their performance against company goals. It’s really been interesting to watch because senior employees with experience at other companies have blossomed under this open management system, where before they were shut out as to the company goals. It’s been extraordinarily empowering.

For our new people, who’ve never worked anywhere else, it’s helping them understand what’s going on and progress much faster in their careers. It’s worked differently depending on where you are with your career, but it’s all been very positive. For all the years we held on to that information dearly, I regret it.

Know whom you want to hire. From a hiring perspective, if there is one thing that we look out for, it’s a know-it-all, because there is so much to know. We are quick to identify know-it-alls and dismiss them. We are committed to lifelong learning, and if you are not curious and inquisitive and dissatisfied with your own knowledge, you can never keep up.

We’re very honest and hope that individuals self-select. We tell people, both on our Web site and in interviews, that there are much easier places to work and this is not a fit for everyone. We communicate the expectations. By being honest about our culture and the level of performance that’s expected, it really does allow individuals to figure out if that’s a fit for them. They’re going to know themselves better than we ever will.

So our recruiting is toxic. What we find is that the individuals who are attracted to that are extraordinary performers.

Give employees a chance to push each other. We have individuals maintain portfolios, and those are critiqued by their peers, and then peers are involved in the assignment of projects and the formation of teams. This forces individuals to be entrepreneurial within the organization, and it makes their internal performance really matter because if those slip, they’re quickly without work to do.

Now, our role as managers is to help those individuals develop their talents and market them internally and match them with others who are going to be in high-performing teams. I don’t want to suggest that the culture is brutal or negative, it truly makes for a culture of success.

We work with very motivated and very bright people, and if they have had a negative critique, generally we find they are way ahead of us in finding out why that happened and what they need to do about it. As management, typically our most successful tactic is to let them verbalize that and see that they work through an action plan to fix it.

Just letting them know that we care about their success, and we take the time to support them, is more effective than trying to solve it for them. Then we make sure they get right back on the horse by making a team assignment.

It’s critically important for the individual, but it’s also a demand of the business. We cannot carry individuals who are not valued by clients or peers.

Listen to your employees; they have the answer. Part of communication is the ability and willingness to listen. It’s not just empowering to the individuals, it’s also empowering to the organization. If you’re not willing to listen to your own staff, communication becomes one-sided with nothing but pronouncements from management.

There’s an issue of empowerment there, but, more importantly, you’re dealing with the presumption that management knows what’s going on. The individuals who are on the front line have a very different perspective and, frankly, much more of the critical knowledge about production and customer relationships, and they are willing to share that if we just ask.

And asking not only informs management, but in the spirit of a Socratic method of teaching, it forces engagement with the staff. By asking the right questions, we do more to see that the staff is focused on the right issues than we ever would by telling them to focus on those issues. Individuals are extraordinarily responsive to you taking time to understand their needs and their objectives professionally, and then they will want to achieve your objectives professionally.

HOW TO REACH: Hirons & Co. Communications Inc., (317) 977-2206 or

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Test potential employees

You can learn plenty about a job candidate’s potential from an interview, but you can’t learn everything. With studies showing that a bad hire can cost a company 150 percent of the terminated employee’s annual salary, psychological testing to ensure that a potential employee truly is a good fit is becoming a common human resources tactic.

One company, PsyMax Solutions LLC, administers the Work Style Assessment test, an online assessment tool that can be used to help fuel the employee selection and development processes.

PsyMax CEO Wayne Nemeroff, who has a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology, says that these tests can make the hiring process roughly 25 percent more efficient by working in tandem with interviews to ensure you’re not buying a bill of goods.

“The interviewing process tends not to be as accurate as more objective assessment testing, and what the assessment enables you to do is add a layer of objectivity and quantitative assessment,” Nemeroff says. “Instead of saying, ‘I think this person looks like the right person,’ you would be able to measure if the person has particular competencies or qualities or characteristics that are important for that job.”

Psychological testing can also help define traits in existing staff members to develop improvement strategies to employees and outline coaching strategies for managers.

“Putting a mirror in front of somebody and letting them take a snapshot of themselves and their assets and liabilities is being used more and more,” Nemeroff says of the employee development processes that PsyMax uses. “Even very good managers and leaders don’t always know how to articulate specific actions. They can say, ‘You’re not a good listener, but they can’t specifically say, ‘Here are some things you can do to improve your listening skills.’ One of the main reasons that people leave jobs is they don’t believe that the company believes in their development. By using this assessment, you get the maximum by using information for development, and then coaching accordingly.”

HOW TO REACH: PsyMax Solutions LLC, (866) 774-2273 or

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Mike Barth III

Mike Barth III has made a life out of listening and observing. Whether it was following in the footsteps of the two Mike Barths that preceded him in the family’s electric business or listening to his 300 employees as president and COO of Barth Electric Co. Inc., he’s always open to everyone’s side of the story. To Barth, that’s the only way you can really be sure that you have all the information to move forward. That ability has been kind to him on more than one front as Barth Electric has pushed past $48 million in revenue, and, according to Barth, he’s one of the few guys on the planet who has a wife who admits he’s a good listener.

Smart Business spoke with Barth about keeping his ears open and coaching his staff.

Let your staff do the work while you coach.

I like the word coaching. It’s very rare that I actually head a project.

I think that with them having the freedom of heading the projects, there is a lot more self-satisfaction for them. A little bit of personal pride equals a better job. Every one of our projects has a final scorecard after it’s done, from the biggest job we do down to the smaller stuff, and I try to put notes on those to share some thoughts with people.

That certainly helps with their pride and self-satisfaction. Those are probably more important than the compensation. It’s not a quantifiable bonus, but it’s huge. If they feel good about what they do, they work harder at it, and they do better at it. And they’ll carry your message to the people around them.

I like the flexibility and the freedom to let people do their job, instead of telling them how to do their job.

Listen to all three sides of the story. I listen, and I pay very close attention to my surroundings. And, from that, it’s like the old joke about the three-sided story. I let all three people tell me their side of the story, and I’ll listen to it and decide which one, or one-and-a-half, reasons sound like the thing to do, and that’s what we run with. But I make sure everyone is in on it, and I hear what they’re saying.

Then I try to follow up. If it’s something they need to do their job — a new computer program or a new tool — I listen to it, and if it makes sense, we’ll happily do it. If it doesn’t make sense, I make it a point, after I look at the situation, to go tell them why.

Keep track of your employees for the future.

Positions don’t really come around every day, so it takes some patience on their part because we can only move people up as we have a need for them.

Along with that, I’m painfully quiet about not making promises to anybody. People know they can come in here and talk, and they can tell me their aspirations and I’ll listen, but I won’t make a promise if I don’t know when or how I can come through on that. Most people see that the opportunity is here, and if they do the job, I will try to give them a chance.

A lot of our people start off as electricians, and they do a very good job, and they work their way up, and as they learn, they will come and put a bug in my ear about how they might be interested in a higher position when one comes up. I keep a file of names of people who have come to me and some notes on those matters. Whether it happens in six weeks or three years, I do know their aspirations.

And if he’s an existing employee, I probably already know him pretty well — or at least somebody on my key staff does. So I kind of already have a preconceived notion, but I still listen and talk to them.

Don’t wait on the tough decision. The hardest thing about being a leader is making tough decisions about people — especially when it’s not working out. But I pace a little bit and just decide that I have to do it, so I do it. When I get done with it, I know it’s the best decision for the company and the other employees here.

I’m generally pretty swift about the actions. I put out a memo within the department with a slight delay and then let it go out through the rest of the company from there.

It’s just easier on my mind that way. For the company, it’s going to be disruptive one way or another, but if you give somebody two weeks notice or something, it would be pretty hard for that person to care to do their job. And it’s even more destructive to give that person time to talk to others; that can be detrimental.

Believe in your gut, but double-check. I joke that I grab my posterior and let my gut lead the way on big decisions — it’s usually out in front of me anyway. The way the whole thing feels is very important to me. But we also go through the pros and cons list of why we want to pursue a venture.

Once a potential project comes in the door, we’ll decide which team is going to do it, and we’ll get that team leader, our head of estimating and even our financial guy, and we’ll gather them together and ask why do we want to pursue this job. And then we’ll knock around the pros and cons, and we’ll go from there.

I can sit here and decide that we want to go pursue that new factory, but if I get the team in there, it makes them feel better, and they will do a better job if they’re in on the final decision.

HOW TO REACH: Barth Electric Co. Inc., (317) 924-6226 or

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

Donna E. Shalala

Excuse Donna E. Shalala if she isn’t overwhelmed by her $2 billion budget as president of the University of Miami. It’s not that Shalala doesn’t appreciate the weight of her leadership role at an educational institution, but after working under two different U.S. presidents, including eight years as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of health and human services, Shalala has overseen budgets of more than $600 billion. With that kind of experience comes the ability to see that making extensive changes requires a certain patience and the daily enthusiasm to start with smaller changes. Shalala uses that as her driving force as she pushes her 10,000 employees forward.

Smart Business spoke with Shalala about building momentum and keeping that presidential focus.

Push small changes to build momentum. I have always believed you should have two strategies when you’re looking toward the future — you should have the long-term strategy, which requires a lot of discipline, but in the short term, you have to give everyone the sense that there are changes going on right now.

And while the short-term strategy may not fit as well into the long-term strategy — it’s not on your list of what you would want to do first if you’re implementing your long-term strategy — the short-term strategy, the things that you do early on, creates the momentum and the patience needed for the long-term strategy.

So in the case of the university, you might do what I did when I arrived, and that is build patios with lots of places for students to sit. Or work to improve the communication between the students and the faculty.

You want to do things that people notice; you may extend library hours, for example. Now, that would not be first on anyone’s list of important goals, but we did some things at the beginning that created some momentum and good feelings and affected large numbers of people.

The most important thing is to be more responsive to the people you are trying to reach, and that’s a short-term strategy.

Stick with a core value. Working with [former U.S. presidents] Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton was a lesson in working with two very different types of leaders. Jimmy Carter was highly disciplined, trained as an engineer and always very deliberate.

President Clinton was more intuitive, more instinctive in his leadership. But he also loved facts and loved good analysis. They were very different personalities, but from each I learned that enthusiasm and focus makes the biggest difference in leadership.

I know that I have to keep that daily. You have things that make you feel accomplished, like graduation day when you see the students walk across the stage, but you never know if you’re really successful, so you have to stay focused and keep working every day.

Balance different personalities. You have to be a juggler; you can’t be a compulsive personality with a single vision. That means you have to keep impatience in check and work on many things.

You have to understand that there are multiple cultures in this work atmosphere. At our university, for example, law schools are different than business schools; arts and science faculty is different than medical faculty.

And you have to not be a person that has to always have everything neat and clean because of that. You have to be willing to manage conflict that comes up because of all these different groups — everybody is not always going to agree with you or with each other.

My strategy is always to keep the idea in mind of trying to constantly move the institution forward. I like to think of myself as a tugboat captain. The challenge is always to handle 12 things at once, and to do that, I have to listen very carefully to see what the different groups’ agendas are and try to work with multiple agendas at the same time to fold that into the university’s plan.

The university agenda is pretty straightforward; we want to get better. So I have to hear what they’re saying to see if their agenda is something that can be part of that plan.

Find people who can work together. I feel very strongly that you create teams. So while someone may be absolutely brilliant at what they do, if they are not a team player, I’m not much interested. How the senior people get along with each other is what I’m interested in, and that’s extremely important to me.

I normally look for people with excellent interpersonal skills, as well as being very good at what they do. I’m not very interested in the brilliant loner; that doesn’t work when you’re running large, complex institutions that require different groups to work together. So I always ask a lot of questions about how they work with others and what skills they add to a team.

I look for people that are open, that will listen and that are ready to be a part of a team. If I see that they can work in a group atmosphere, then I look at their skill experience and see if they have moved around enough to acquire enough skills in the positions where they’ve been.

Use your team to keep things moving. Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t lose your sense of humor; have patience and don’t try to solve every problem all at once. I delegate a lot after I make sure people have strategies. I try to keep it light and keep the institutions that I lead moving. Part of that is to have a lot of trust in the senior people that I work with.

You can build a consensus by listening to them and by making sure you’re creating the strategy with lots of consultation by talking it over with the leaders and the governing board of the institution. That becomes an important measure and then you take that and provide the opportunities and support systems so that everyone knows that we’re in this together.

HOW TO REACH: University of Miami, (305) 284-2211 or

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

Talent showcase

Claudine George has no problem assigning employees a job they wouldn’t normally do during the day.

It’s not that George, owner of professional consulting firm ICONMA, wants to throw them off, she just likes to give them a chance to showcase their special skills. By spotting unique talents in her employees, George is able to assign them tasks to keep them engaged and upbeat. The strategy has kept employees motivated, as ICONMA has grown quickly since its opening in 1999, expanding to six branch offices on its way to more than $21 million in 2006 revenue.

Smart Business spoke with George about how she finds the right people and keeps them motivated.

Q: How do you motivate your staff?

My job as a leader is to understand everyone’s strengths and what they bring to the company and make sure those strengths are utilized in the best possible way. I believe that everyone wants to feel like they did a good job and that they actually contributed something and made a difference for the company.

I target the unique skills an employee has, and I can remind them I appreciate that by assigning jobs to their unique skill set. Now, it’s not possible to do that every day, but once in awhile, it helps if people really feel like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’m good at, that’s what makes me different than the guy in the next office.’

Let’s say our bookkeeper, she does the usual routine of her job, but I know she’s also good at research, so every once in awhile I can do something where I say, ‘I’m not really sure our current bank has the best security, can you go online and research that and see what our bank is doing and see what others are doing?’ That takes her out of that routine, and she’s putting some of her other skills to work. That reinforces her confidence.

Q: What’s the key ingredient to communicating with your staff?

I have a background in psychology and that has helped me listen to people — not just listening to our customers and what they want, but listening to what people need to do their jobs effectively.

One of the things I do when I’m dealing with customers or employees that have a problem is, I validate what they’re thinking. It immediately placates any situation, and only from there can you work on a resolution.

If you automatically try to come up with a resolution and say, ‘Problem solved, here you go,’ they’ll be put on the defensive because you haven’t really heard what the problem is.

You have to make sure that they know you understand exactly what it is that’s going on that’s not working. You have to let people complain and then, once they get it off their chest, come back and say, ‘OK, so you’re saying blah, blah,’ and try to relay back what it is you think they’re going through and express some empathy.

Q: How do you find the right people?

A proven track record of stability is always apparent on their resumes. The first thing you look at is whether they’ve been jumping around different places.

But I also look for their drive and their motivation. A lot of times you can hear it in their voice how hungry they are. They have to be driven and motivated to be successful. It’s not enough to just have them say they’re OK with what we do; they have to show something to us that lets us know they are willing to go the extra mile, work more hours, do what it takes to get the work done.

They have to say something to you that really lets you know they’re going to try hard. We also have extensive, extensive checks that we go through, and many of the things we do even require tests. We also check all their references — they have to have at least three good ones that check out — and we check their driver’s license and do drug testing.

Q: How can you be sure employees have that drive?

Sometimes you have to dig in, and not get too personal, but you have to ask very open-ended questions and really get them talking, almost rambling on, so you can get more information.

You can’t ask yes or no questions. You have to really give them a chance to expand and come across in a way that builds a rapport and lets them feel like they’re talking to a friend, because that’s the only way you’ll get information out of them.

Q: How do you make sure you’re getting the most from your employees?

You have to have measures that show their productivity. We’ve got everything from spyware on computers to see if they’re working to systems set up to show how many resumes get submitted and which ones are just junk and which ones work.

We have measures of quality. We tell them, ‘Your computer is for work use only.’ And if people don’t know, they find out because we let them know.

HOW TO REACH: ICONMA LLC, or (888) 451-2519

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