Walt Turner engages employees at Koppers Inc Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

Growing up on a farm, Walt Turner learned all about teamwork.

“One person can’t do everything,” says Turner, president and CEO of Koppers Inc. “One person does not have all the right answers. It does take teamwork. Absolutely, the foundations I saw happening were if someone needed help, you pitched in and did it. Or, you scheduled, ‘We’re going to do this job tomorrow. You come help me, and then the next day I’ll come help you.’”

In many ways, working on a farm mirrors what it takes for a company to succeed in today’s business world. Everyone works together with a common direction to get the job done.

That’s the attitude that has helped Koppers, a global integrated producer of carbon compounds and treated wood products, to 2008 net sales of $1.3 billion, an increase of $109.2 million or 8.7 percent over the prior year.

Turner enjoys visiting facilities and talking to employees at all levels of the company to encourage camaraderie and teamwork.

“I try to remember names from the last visit,” he says. “That’s what I enjoy the most. Hearing them talk about their work, talk about their job, their families, what’s going on, what they are doing during their casual time. That’s a part of my job I truly enjoy.”

Turner doesn’t view employees as people who work for him or below him. He approaches everyone as equals to create a team atmosphere.

“We are all equals,” he says. “They are out there performing a good job for the company just as I try to do for my job.

“It’s one common direction and making sure we are all doing what it takes to make the company successful.”

Here’s how Turner creates a team environment by engaging employees through communication, knowing his role as CEO and holding employees accountable.


Turner wants his employees engaged, and achieves that through open communication throughout the organization. He doesn’t believe in simply providing that message as lip service, instead showing it through his actions.

Since Turner leads with the idea that the company should work as a team, communication is a top priority to him.

“We are a company that I feel has a very, very open line of communication and also has a clear commitment that everyone realizes that that’s the direction we are going and that’s where we are all headed, and making sure we all communicate that very openly throughout our organization, all the way down through the plant employees,” he says. “And we have this clear commitment that we’re going forward with.”

You need to have all of your managers on board with communicating openly. While it may sound like you are just going in a communication circle, you need to communicate that message to managers whenever possible.

Along with monthly meetings, Turner and the managers at Koppers take part in daylong, quarterly off-site meetings with any issues that may be happening. Managers can use these meetings as an opportunity to communicate what is on their mind in an open setting, which also gives Turner a chance for some face-to-face time with managers.

“Really through the monthly staff meetings and through these off-site meetings, I think that’s a great way to get them to open up and communicate even further with me,” he says. “In addition to that, constantly picking up the telephone or going into someone’s office. I really show myself a lot, whether it’s here in the Pittsburgh office or even at the plants — either in person or by telephone just calling a plant manager.”

By keeping the organization flat, you will be able to engage employees more and rub off on your managers.

“Obviously, some areas you need protocol or certain subjects require protocol,” he says. “But, basically, on a daily and weekly operation, I really feel that it’s a flat organization where I can call anyone I want just to get a question answered or, ‘What’s going on? What’s on your mind?’

“I really try to keep that communication not just with my direct reports but sort of keep tabs on the pulse of the company that way, as well.”

Some managers may get a little paranoid if you are communicating directly with their direct reports. That’s why you also have to communicate openly with the manager about the topics discussed. Don’t keep your managers in the dark because that will disengage them and will discredit your message of open communication.

“A lot of times, after a phone conversation or if it’s an e-mail, I always copy that person that would have that responsibility under me,” he says. “I’m not trying to hide anything. I do that very openly. I think over the years people do understand that I do that and that’s the way I manage.”

You have to balance between when you can talk directly to someone a few layers down and when you need to talk to that person’s direct reports.

“If you are talking about employee issues or you are talking about something that’s somewhat confidential or something that needs the right attention, that’s when you utilize the protocol,” he says.

“But if it’s a normal business question where you are trying to improve what you are doing or performing your job, there’s no one here at Koppers that would get offended by going directly to get your answer.”

Know your role

In an open environment where people are engaged and can come to you with problems, you may find yourself burdened with issues that you shouldn’t be handling.

“If there’s an issue, I’m not going to get involved in trying to find a solution,” he says. “That’s not my job. My job is to really make sure that the situation is resolved or the problem is resolved, and if I can be of help, obviously, I participate or offer to participate. But I don’t try to micromanage or get down into the details.”

You need to know what to delegate and what to do yourself to be an effective leader. Turner doesn’t delegate requests from his board of directors, and you can’t delegate tasks that affect the overall direction of the company.

“In some cases, some people don’t delegate enough, and in other cases, people delegate too much,” he says. “But for sure, you really have to make sure that you are delegating enough where you can, at times, spend more time at the 30,000-foot level versus being at the 1,000- or 3,000-foot level. You’ve got to manage what you do and don’t delegate.

“Everyone has responsibilities obviously. Based on those responsibilities and the level of those responsibilities, that sort of helps you decide how you delegate then what you delegate.”

Don’t try to mark in your schedule how much time you want to spend at the 30,000-foot level versus the 1,000-foot level. That’s something you will learn with time.

“If I see certain things that need my attention, obviously I grab on to those,” he says. “It’s not a 10 percent or a 50 percent. You can’t really come up with a number that you spend at that higher level.

“You have to live through it. You have to live through several things when you are at least at the CEO level and try to manage t

hat the best you can.”

The better you are at delegation and knowing what you want to be involved with, the better you can rank your priorities.

“I try to focus on customer satisfaction and making sure that we are performing our goals,” he says. “I sort of know the importance of the growth of existing customers that we are involved with.

“So, I try to balance customer satisfaction with our internal performance and really that leads me to many things. It’s just trying to balance the day-to-day operations where I should or should not be involved.”

Hold employees accountable

While having an open environment and delegating will help you foster employee engagement, employees have to know what is expected of them if you want them active in your organization.

Setting goals and holding employees accountable for their performance will keep your employees engaged in their own performance as well as the company as a whole.

Koppers has a minimum of three goals set for salaried employees each year, and those goals are reviewed periodically by their supervisor or manager.

“Everyone is always aware of what their responsibilities are and what they are accountable for through these performance goals, and each business unit has their performance goals,” he says.

As a manager, don’t develop goals for individual employees on your own. Instead, involve the individual employee in the process because developing goals is a two-way street.

“This business, through its strategic planning, will establish annual performance goals for that particular business,” he says. “Those goals are shared with the individual and between the individual or his or her supervisor or manager will develop the personal goals for those individuals.”

Don’t always view goal setting as a top-down process.

“My direct reports, we review what we expect to do as a company and some of this starts at the bottom and works up, and then the performance goals go back down through again,” he says.

“You can’t create an annual program without knowing what the market conditions are or what your plant capabilities are. So, it goes up and then it goes back through. Once we establish the financial parts of the performance goals, then you can start to drill down into individuals within that business group who should be doing these particular things to achieve that business unit goal.”

If an employee is having trouble reaching his or her individual goals, you need to look into why that is happening.

“If they’re not performing, there’s obviously a reason,” he says. “They may be valid reasons or they may be just a weak employee.

“If it’s a weak employee, a few things could happen. One, is the person really capable or does that person need a developmental plan that would require some mentoring or require an education course that may help that person be a better employee?”

Turner and his team are more proactive in taking action with those not living up to the company’s standards, but they first try to work with the employee.

“Probably over a six- to 12-month period, you’re going to know whether to make a change or not,” Turner says. “Once you see a person having issues, then the six to 12 months would kick in.”

In the end, by openly communicating, delegating and holding employees accountable, you will be able to engage employees and, in the process, form a more cohesive group.

“Whether it’s a general manager heading up a business unit or a product manager, you’ve got to win the engagement of those people,” he says. “But at the same time, they know that they’ve got to be held accountable and responsible for their performance. You’ve got to show them that you are a good leader and you’ve got to make sure that you win the engagement of those people and that they are going to follow you.”

How to reach: Koppers Inc., (412) 227-2001 or www.koppers.com