Mark Peterson Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007
At Tollgrade Communications Inc., leadership comes from virtually every corner of the company, and Mark Peterson is fine with that. Peterson, president and CEO of the $65 million company, says that if Tollgrade is to succeed, leadership can’t be his job alone. He challenges everyone in the organization to take the wheel, as he puts it, and to take risks to make sure Tollgrade offers its customers the best solutions for network testing and management that it can. Peterson spoke with Smart Business about the best way to handle employee recognition, how consensus leadership is different than democracy and why leadership isn’t just bossing people around.

Foster leadership at every level. I feel strongly about leadership because this is ultimately what drives the success of the organization, because everyone inside the company has a sense of leadership. It’s not just me as the CEO leading everybody else.

This is an organization where people report to me, and they have people report to them, and then you get to a level where people don’t report to anyone. But many of these principles should still apply in how they’re doing their job because leadership is not just bossing someone around, telling them what to do. We rolled this out to our people; this is what we decided on. We had input and feedback from the organization so it didn’t just look like we were dictating Mark Peterson’s view of leadership.

People in focus groups said, ‘Yes, that is the model we believe in, that is the credo we want to live by.’

Expect others to take the wheel. If we need to get something done, if somebody needs to go to Saudi Arabia to get something done, nobody wants to go to Saudi Arabia right now; it’s dangerous. But somebody says, ‘You know what, I’ll go. It needs to be done, and I’ll do it.’ That’s leadership.

Everybody turns and looks at that person and says, ‘They’re stepping up. Maybe next time something comes up, I’ll step up.’ They don’t have to be told what to do.

People that are leaders are not necessarily managers in an organization. They don’t need to be told what to do. They know what has to be done to get something right.

Collaborate in decision-making. My style is not dictatorial. I don’t go to my organization with a box of jacks and say, ‘Let’s assemble them by size or color. I go to my organization with a view of what needs to get done, but then it’s collaborative because I don’t know enough about each facet of the business that I have the precise answer.

I ultimately make the decision, but if I’ve gone through the consensus, I have more confidence in my decision because I know I’ve got the expert opinions of people who are going to be impacted by the decision; how they’re going to handle it. Again, you’re not going to get everyone to agree. Some people are going to be too risk-averse, and if your decision has any element of risk in it, they won’t agree with it.

So, you try to get that person comfortable with it, explain and rationalize why we’re doing it, explain the data points toward a go, rather than a no-go decision.

Don’t stifle the messenger. When somebody sees something that’s going wrong in this organization, I don’t want them to wait until it breaks. I want them to be able to come forward and say, ‘I think we’re going down the wrong path with this, and you probably don’t know about this’ to the person that they work for and say, ‘We need to get this fixed. I’ll take responsibility. I’ll deliver the difficult message.’

I’d rather have the difficult message delivered when we can do something about it than have someone say, ‘It’s not my job, I’m not going to worry about it. If something goes wrong, my area’s clean.’ That won’t work in a company this size. If our business stinks, everybody’s going to know it. There’s no place to hide.

Keep the financials in front of the organization. I want everyone in the organization to understand what we’re trying to achieve, not only from a strategic point of view but also from a financial point of view.

Everybody in our company knows that I’ve told our investors we’re going to do at least 50 cents this year. I should be able to walk down the hall and stop somebody and say, ‘What do you think we’re going to do this year?’ So, part of the way I do my job in terms of managing the financials of the company is making sure every individual understands what our financial goals are.

I start with my leadership team. We review those goals every week, and we review our status toward those goals, and if we’re not on track, why are we not on track, what problems do we have to solve? Then they work that out with their individual team members.

Let the organization decide who gets rewarded.

The way we would design employee awards is that the executives, sometimes one executive, would think about what he observed and say, ‘I want to give him an award. I like what he did.’

If you do that, then it’s your company, it’s not their company. So, the way we do it now is we have volunteers who come in on a quarterly basis, they take submissions from other employees in the company, people who have observed what their colleagues have done.

It’s a roundtable of 10 people, a different group every time. They go through all the submissions. So if I’m working with Bob and he did something great, I’m going to say, ‘Man, that’s good. Next quarter, I’m going to submit him for recognition.’ When I give the awards out that were nominated by our employee group, I don’t just say, ‘The award goes to Bill Johnson for great customer service.’ I go into detail what Bill did, what he did right, where he expressed our core values and the leadership, and say, ‘For those reasons, we want to recognize him because Bill stood up and did the right thing at the right time without being asked, and because of that, we were successful.’

HOW TO REACH: Tollgrade Communications Inc., www.tollgrade.com