Kathy Simmons

Saturday, 29 July 2006 11:22

Delegating success

Angelain Loggins attributes much of her success at TBL Professional Services to smart delegation.

“This is a relationship business,” says Loggins, the company’s owner. “Customers will remain loyal if they know you can solve their problems. Managers who are willing to concede control and get serious about developing their employees end up reaping great rewards.”

Her track record speaks for itself. After serving for several years as a Fortune 100 company manager, Loggins started her own contracting business for engineers and technicians in 1991. Since then, the company has morphed into a full-service staffing operation.

Loggins has never regretted her decision to become an entrepreneur, working long hours for herself instead of for someone else. At her previous job, “We typically worked seven days a week for 18 hours a day,” Loggins says. “Looking back, I think I was burned out, but when you are young and ambitious, you don’t always realize these things.”

Smart Business spoke with Loggins’ about how she keeps employees motivated and customers satisfied.

What traits are most important in a strong leader?
To run a strong and vibrant company, leaders need to focus on the following.

  • Survival. I take it seriously that my employees depend on me for their livelihood. One employee recently told me that when I go on vacation, he checks the schedule to make sure I am coming back.

Although he was joking, the message is one I take to heart — I cannot let my employees down.

  • Success. Enjoying success along the way keeps you going, brings money in the door and fortifies you during the times when things are not going so well. It is important to recognize and celebrate all successes.

  • Succession. I have to look at the future and grapple with difficult questions, such as who will take over operations of the company, and how will I groom the next line of leadership?

What lessons have you learned the hard way?
Bad employees can corrupt good ones. I had a strong management team with top-notch credentials. Everyone was getting along well until I hired a couple of people, and some negative dynamics began.

One person was after another’s job and began undermining the person to his manager. As a result, I not only had to get rid of the person doing the undermining but also lost a good employee who fell into his trap of manipulation.

What do I do differently now? I do not make the assumption that new hires will come in and automatically conform to our culture of respect and trust. They can disrupt it, and the damage can take many years to repair.

I have seen unbridled ambition destroy relationships and crumble the culture of companies, so my advice would be to be careful when hiring and astute to signs of trouble after new employees come on board.

How do you train employees?
It is foolish and short-sighted to cut costs in this area. Many managers make the mistake of thinking that as long as they personally have the knowledge, that is sufficient. They forget that employees get bored if they are not challenged and exposed to new learning experiences.

The other downside to neglecting training is that it prevents delegation of day-to-day items so that you can become more of a strategic leader. Managers who hoard knowledge end up limiting their own potential.

All employees are sent to outside training. That is why I am able to delegate and provide challenging jobs. I give them the tools they need and then trust them to use their knowledge appropriately.

How do you maintain communication with employees?
We hold weekly staff meetings. I let everyone know what projects we are currently working on, new ones coming up and those we are prospecting. Each person has the opportunity to speak up.

Most problems are addressed and solved during these meetings, so they are certainly worth the time and effort. We have initiated many changes that streamlined and strengthened our organization as a result of these communication sessions.

How do you keep employees motivated?
I believe the efforts that I make to delegate greatly impact the motivation levels of my employees. I make it a point to invite them to dinners, networking events and trade shows, where they can meet the clients and develop a relationship with them.

Employees will become resentful and will not accept delegated responsibility if they are not motivated. Customer contact makes them feel they are as important as I am to the customer.

How to reach: TBL Professional Services, (248) 647-1151 or www.tblservices.com

Wednesday, 28 June 2006 12:25

Creative courage

French artist Henri Matisse wisely observed that “creativity takes courage.” Debbie Simpson, CEO of Multi-Craft Litho Inc., agrees with that wholeheartedly.

Multi-Craft Litho was founded in 1955 by Simpson’s father, and Simpson, her brother, Tom Gibbs, and sister, Pam Gibbs, still bounce ideas off him. The company, which offers complete in-house printing, design and new media services, employs 54 and has 2005 revenue of $9 million, an increase of 45 percent over the previous year.

“We expanded and got out of our comfort zone, which took courage,” Simpson says. “We began offering Web and graphic design, mail and fulfillment, and large-format indoor signage to our portfolio of services. It was a wild year, but well worth the risk.”

When Simpson took over as president in 1990, she felt unqualified and unsure of herself.

“Here I was with only a high school degree, having the reins of a thriving company handed to me due to a family situation that left it without a leader,” she says.

Simpson became a voracious reader and networker, and attended many seminars.

“In hindsight, I had equal knowledge to someone with a formal education — I had simply obtained it in a different way,” Simpson says.

Smart Business spoke with Simpson about the qualities of a great leader, and how she keeps staff motivated and delights customers.

What are the most important qualities of a great leader?
First and foremost — communication. You must openly share your vision and mission and make sure employees know their role. You also need to celebrate successes in addition to the hard lessons learned along the way.

At the end of the day, your reputation is all you have, so leaders need to associate themselves with those demonstrating integrity and high standards.

In our business, like many others, I am basically selling my employees when I talk to customers. Sure, product and pricing matter, but without a team willing to do whatever it takes to not only please the customer, but to consistently delight them, you have an uphill battle when competing with others.

How do you keep your staff motivated and committed?
Many companies talk about having an open-door policy, but we truly put that into practice. I am realistic also. People are not always able to leave their personal problems at home.

Whether it’s sick children, marital problems or financial difficulties, these stressors do take their toll ,and it is important to be sensitive and respectful when they occur. This is a family-owned business, and as far as I am concerned, they are part of the family. The loyalty is invariably returned.

How do you delight your customers?
It’s the little things that set us apart. Simple acts of kindness and courtesy are noticed and appreciated and build the relationship.

We tuck candy into the bottom of envelopes containing proofs. We make a point of letting clients know when we have delivered printing products to their clients. Whenever we can bring solutions and peace of mind to our customers, we build our bond with them.

Our job is to help customers sell more of their products and services, so we are not shy about suggesting less expensive alternatives.

How do you maintain your personal motivation?
Motivation changes along with life circumstances. There have been times in my life when the paycheck was the main motivator because I needed to feed my children.

Sometimes new challenges are the motivators. And sometimes you honestly are just not motivated.

It’s smart to recognize these slumps for what they are — temporary transitions — and to work on building new opportunities. For example, I am very excited about a new service we are offering, which is basically a consultant role for small companies that do not have a person on staff who is responsible for marketing.

I have found these companies are typically so busy working that they neglect to work on the strategic part of their business. We help them perform marketing analysis and make recommendations on ideal ways to reach their target market.

It could be as simple as suggesting they update a stale Web site or undertake a strong direct-mailing campaign. The benefit, of course, when they take our advice, is that we have an opportunity to move forward with them in the production of their marketing pieces.

HOW TO REACH: Multi-Craft Litho Inc., (800) 733-3317 or www.multi-craft.com

Wednesday, 24 May 2006 05:41

Talking points

Kathy Banicki relies on great leadership skills to achieve success. And one of the most vital skills the president of Testing Engineers and Consultants cultivates at her company — a consulting, engineering and professional testing and inspection firm — is the ability to communicate with peers, employees and clients.

There are many obstacles to effective communication, such as the desire to avoid painful conversations or a tendency to speak without thinking. And overcoming those obstacles can be the key to understanding clients and meeting their needs.

“My job requires a constant balancing act of focus and flexibility,’ says Banicki. “This means setting goals but also being willing and able to change direction when a client contacts TEC with a pressing need. That is often easier said than done.”

This focus on communication has helped TEC prosper — the company has 120 employees and generates revenue of $8.5 million per year.

Smart Business spoke with Banicki about how she communicates with employees and how she cultivates the right culture for her company.

How do you effectively communicate with employees?
I firmly believe in the direct approach. Communication is a severe problem in many organizations, so I put tremendous effort into making sure it isn’t an issue. If I have a concern with someone, I do not talk about that person. I talk to that person.

To be a powerful leader, you must be truthful. This truthfulness starts with open communication that is respectful, but clear. There should be no confusion about the message. Sometimes these discussions are painful, which is why many leaders take a less direct approach. They end up creating more problems for themselves in the long run.

How do you communicate with customers?
We ask our clients how we are doing and then focus on ways we can raise our game. You can think you are doing a great job, but if the customer doesn’t, you must deal with that reality.

We routinely send out evaluations when we complete projects. Sure, I love to read the ones that are glowing, however I concentrate my energies on the ones that are not. They provide the real opportunity for growth and improvement.

Studies show that if a customer has a good experience, they tell one person. If they have a bad experience, they tell 10. We need to be the first to hear about what the customer perceives as a bad experience so that we can quickly remedy the situation.

What has been your greatest communication challenge?
I have a tendency to shoot from the hip and this is not always the best approach. I like to take action and be decisive; however, there is a lot to be said for thoughtful action.

I’ve managed this by disciplining myself to wait until the next day before making certain decisions. There is nothing wrong with telling someone you want to think about it and will get back to them tomorrow.

How do you address leadership challenges?
One of the challenges we have encountered is grooming future leaders. I believe succession planning begins with identifying those possessing the right qualities. But that is only the first step.

The next, which is equally important, is to determine whether the candidate truly hungers for more responsibility. The reality is that we have many potential leaders. However, the trend I have noticed with many workers is that balance and quality of life are valued more than moving up the career ladder.

What is the most common leadership mistake?
Not facing reality. Many leaders refuse to accept the truth, even when the facts are right in front of (them). The classic example is the automobile industry, which did not acknowledge indications that their cars were not what the customer wanted.

The same applies to our business. We can think a proposal is great — exactly what the client had in mind. However until we dig deeper by asking the right questions, then act upon the answers, we are just fooling ourselves and wasting valuable resources.

How to reach: Testing Engineers and Consultants, (248) 588-6200, or www.tectest.com

Tuesday, 25 April 2006 20:00

Formula for success

Every business leader must figure out how to infuse energy into his or her employees, and Cathy Langham has discovered an equation for keeping them motivated: Start with the right employees, keep them involved in decision-making and make sure that inspiration and motivation start at the top.

This formula has brought success to Langham, president and CEO of Langham, a full-service transportation, warehousing, fulfillment and freight-management solution provider With 81 employees, the company generates $20 million in annual revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Langham about the challenges of hiring, motivating and leading her work force.

What is the biggest leadership lesson you’ve learned?
It’s OK to fire a customer. Like most businesses, we have had experiences with clients looking for A+ service at a D- price.

Their pattern is to bid everything and focus on lowest price instead of quality. This is a waste of our time, disruptive to our operation and demoralizing to staff. There have been times when I explain to the customer that we are not a good fit. Leaders need to do this in order to protect their company and the esteem of their staff.

The other lesson I have learned is to choose attitude over expertise when hiring. Employees with a great attitude will learn the business. Those with negative attitudes are like a cancer to the organization. It does not matter what technical skills they bring to the table — this does not outweigh the damage they can do.

How do you find the right employees?
It starts with open and frank discussions. I tell potential employees the good, the bad and the ugly about the business. The last thing I want is for someone to join Langham and feel it is not what they signed up for. That is an expensive lesson for both parties.

Our process includes three steps, which go from a macro to micro level: an introduction to the company — our history, mission and goals; information about how they fit into the operation; and specific details about their job.

We assign mentors to our office staff to make sure they have the attention and information they need during those crucial first few weeks.

How do you keep employees involved and motivated?
(Collaboration) is the first thing that comes to mind. As a leader, you must make the final decision; however, listening to staff is imperative. We put a lot of energy into creating a safe-to-say environment where people can speak candidly without fear of saying the wrong thing.

We have staff meetings every Monday morning with 20 to 30 members of our team, in addition to quarterly town-hall company meetings. I want my employees to think like CEOs. They need to give input freely without concern about titles. We want to avoid groupthink.

We also conduct employee opinion surveys every year. The first year, we used an outside firm. Now, our human resource manager handles the surveys. We’ve found these to be extremely valuable sources of feedback.

How do you maintain your personal motivation and balance?
The motivation part is easy. I love what I do and see unlimited potential for this business. More and more companies are examining outsourcing solutions, so I feel the success we have experienced thus far is just the tip of the iceberg.

The other thought that keeps me motivated is knowing I have 81 families to feed. That might sound dramatic, but it sums up the personal responsibility I feel to my employees.

As for balance, I have a 6-year-old son and a husband who help me with that. They are my No. 1 priority. Before having children, it was no problem to work until 8 or 9 p.m. at night. But now I must balance my time and energies responsibly.

HOW TO REACH: Langham, (800) 727-3962, www.elangham.com (800) 727-3962

Friday, 27 January 2006 10:06

Secret of success

How does a self-taught computer programmer start a staffing business and build it into a $100 million dollar enterprise with 15 consecutive years of growth? Through discipline.

Cindy Pasky, president, CEO and founder of Strategic Staffing Solutions, worked her way up from programmer to project manager to director at another company before deciding to pursue her entrepreneurial instincts in 1990.

“In the 1980s, there was not a lot of definition around IT,” Pasky says. “I saw tremendous opportunities and started Strategic Staffing Solutions at an excellent time, ” with two employees in a small office in Detroit. Today, her company supplies IT professionals from 14 offices serving 33 states and two in Europe.

Discipline is a word that comes up frequently with Pasky.

“Although we are privately held, we run our business like a public company,” she says. “It has not been easy to remain focused. We specialize in serving clients in the finance, energy and public sectors. It takes discipline not to veer from what we do best, especially when opportunities arise.”

Smart Business spoke with Pasky about finding the best employees to grow her business and how she measures success.

Besides discipline, what other things are key to the success of Strategic Staffing Solutions?
I realized early on that to survive, we had to grow. It was either merge or sell. So in 1992, we formed a partnership with another staffing company to capitalize on our respective strengths.

In retrospect, this was an excellent move toward solidifying the organization. The company we merged with had a strong finance background, which we were weak in at that time. In turn, we brought skills to the table that they needed. It was a good marriage, which in fact led to marriage.

Two years after our businesses merged, the owner of the other company and I got married. He is currently the CFO of Strategic Staffing Solutions.

Every move we make is tied to servicing our existing customers. We focus on meeting their needs above all else. As they have expanded to new markets, we have expanded to serve them in those new markets. From there, we then expand to other customers in the new market.

How do you find top-quality employees?
We have two distinct groups of employees, each requiring different skills sets. Those hired to serve on projects include those manning help desks, programmers and field executives. They must be state-of-the-art knowledge workers adept at providing technological solutions.

For our internal team, which consists of office staff, sales and branch managers, we look for more intangible skills such as the ability to be flexible and a willing team-player.

How do you measure success?
I tell my employees that nothing else really matters if we are not profitable. The need to remain profitable drives everything else good and worthwhile in the business. Profitability allows us the ability to do the right thing.

For example, Hurricane Katrina forced us to evacuate our New Orleans office and resulted in 80 of our consultants being on the bench. We were able to keep them on payroll for two months.

Had we not been profitable, we would not have had the ability to do that. Today, we are back in our New Orleans office and we have a bigger staff and more business in New Orleans than we had before the hurricane. Employee satisfaction is higher when companies are strong and vibrant and demonstrate a loyalty to their employees. People want to work for a winning organization.

What is the hardest management lesson you’ve learned?
One of the hardest things I had to learn was the need to let go of nonperformers. Again, this takes discipline. The predicament is difficult because once you have hired someone, your ego has a personal stake in the outcome. It is hard to let someone go after the tedious process of interviewing, hiring and training him or her.

But the reality is that it is completely unfair to the organization, the employee and the rest of the staff to ignore or tolerate performance issues. You must part ways in a manner that preserves dignity but cuts your losses. Not allowing an unacceptable staffing situation to go unchecked is what strong leaders do.

How do you get the best results from your staff?
I have high expectations and am not afraid to put a winning employee on a challenging path. I move people up before they know they are ready. I make sure our people know where they stand with me.

And most important, I never expect my staff to work harder than I do. I believe in setting a personal example of discipline and determination.

How to reach: Strategic Staffing Solutions, (313) 965-1110 or www.strategicstaff.com

Tuesday, 29 November 2005 05:39

Advertising success

Former Procter & Gamble CEO Edwin Artzt wisely observed that “no company that markets products or services to the consumer can remain a leader in its field without a deep-seated commitment to advertising.”

Melissa Hickman of Hickman + Associates in Carmel agrees wholeheartedly.

Hickman arrived at Hickman + Associates as an eager college graduate 25 years ago after responding to a career placement ad. Shortly after she landed the position of account coordinator, owner Vaughn Hickman’s wife, Judy, was injured in a car accident and was in a coma for six months.

“Even though I was clueless about the advertising business at that time, I dove in feet first, taking on as much responsibility as possible,” says Melissa Hickman. “Thankfully, Hickman + Associates had great clients who were extremely loyal during this difficult time. They helped me learn the business.”

Several years later, Vaughn Hickman, then a widower, proposed to Melissa. Now married for 19 years, they are partners in life and business; Melissa serves as president of Hickman + Associates and Vaughn is CEO.

“When people ask me how I met my husband, I tell them I responded to a classified ad,” Hickman says.

Smart Business spoke with Hickman about running a successful family-owned business and how she finds and keep the right employees.

What sets Hickman + Associates apart from other advertising companies?
We’re a family-owned business that has operated in Indiana for 35 years. That’s unusual. Also, we run our business with high standards. Our commitment to integrity is evident in how we treat our staff, clients and vendors.

Also, we do really good work. For each campaign, we know our audience, what message needs to be delivered and the most profound and memorable way to do so. There’s a saying in advertising that you live and die by the success of your most recent project. We believe that, and it motivates us to put 100 percent into every venture.

How do you find and retain the staff to help you do that?
Vaughn and I both believe that, to a large degree, we are responsible for the quality of life of our staff members. I use a ‘tight, loose, tight’ management approach.

When we bring on a new employee, the expectations are explained to them in no uncertain terms. Then, the ‘loose’ phase begins, where we back off and let them go do it. To get the best out of creative employees, you must give them space.

After the project is completed, it’s back to the ‘tight’ phase, when we carefully examine how well it went and what could be done better next time.

How do you keep your employees engaged and motivated?
I engage my employees in every way possible. I want them to gain a broad perspective of the business. For example, the art director needs to know what the PR person does.

The account executive needs to understand how long something takes by working with the traffic manager so that unrealistic expectations are not set with clients. I strongly believe in the servant-leader philosophy of management. I never ask my employees to do something I have not done and would not do again.

How has the advertising business changed in recent years?
A few years ago, clients expected to be wined and dined. It was not unusual to take them on trips, treat them to elaborate lunches and buy them expensive holiday gifts. Our customers’ expectations have shifted. They are looking for us to do great work, be on time and within budget. It is consistent with what all business are seeing these days — more of a focus on expense control and taking care of the basics.

Another trend is that of technology. It has definitely impacted the advertising industry. We rely more on the Internet to get companies’ stories out. It involves lower cost than producing printed brochures. As an added bonus, we can get more creative on the Internet medium.

How do you balance work with the rest of your life?
This is a high-stress, fiercely competitive business with constant demands. We have to find new customers, strike the perfect creative chord in our advertising campaign and meet aggressive deadlines.

I love what I do, but I take mental breaks from work. I am engaged in many outside interests.

Also, when I go on vacation, I take a total break from work. Vaughn and I recently went to France for two weeks. We did not check in or fret about work. Of course, everything was fine when we returned.

How to reach: Hickman + Associates, (317-816-9760) or mhickman@hickmanassociates.com

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 19:00

Risk-taker

No one could ever accuse Rhonda Kanet Chambless of being overly cautious.

Chambless, a partner at The Idea House, contends that companies willing to take risks are the ones that will reap the rewards. But there is an art to choosing which risks.

“It is a natural tendency for companies to hunker down during lean times,” Chambless says. “We call this working on the expense side of the ledger. Budgets are cut, the atmosphere is full of worry, and decisions are overanalyzed and stalled. Growth is about making investments, and slow times are often the perfect time to do so.”

Smart Business spoke with Chambless about how she keeps the momentum going in her company.

Q: How do you make decisions?

I’ve never had a problem being decisive. However, my tendency is not to make decisions by committee. I listen, observe, think over all the facts and move on them.

I am not impulsive — but I don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing myself. It has been my experience that even a flawed decision is better than an overdue decision, where precious time is wasted and opportunity missed.

When you take action, at least you learn and find out what is going to work and what isn’t. Leaders who cannot make decisions efficiently and confidently tend to paralyze their companies. They do more harm than good in the long run.

Q: How do you balance the demands of the job with a personal life?

It is absolutely true that choosing to run and own a business is a lifestyle decision that requires the acceptance of much more hourly, mental commitment than working as an employee for someone else.

After 21 years, I can honestly say that on a day-to-day basis, weekends included, the majority of my mental hours are business-related. That’s just the way it is. As an entrepreneur, you have to accept that.

My way of balancing between the company and my personal life is to totally turn off the working mind when I am spending quality, set-aside time visiting my family or vacationing with my husband. Because those hours are so few compared to working hours, they must be completely void of work-related thoughts.

Carrying my cell phone or laptop everywhere during personal time does not work for me. I have learned that when I make a complete break, I am refreshed and ready to return to work when the time comes. If an owner says they just can’t remove themselves from work completely for periods of time, then they don’t have the level of staff in place required to run a successful business.

Even in a small company, no one should be completely indispensable for short periods. It’s just not good business.

Q: How do you recognize business opportunities?

I do what is called an environmental scan using the STEEP method. STEEP is an acronym for Social, Technical, Economical, Environmental and Political. During this process, we look at what is happening in each of these five sectors and how the current conditions affect our operation.

I also evaluate where each sector is moving to in the future so our strategic plan is married to the reality of the trends. Most companies do this sort of analysis intuitively by reading the paper and keeping up with current affairs. We try to take a more disciplined and focused approach than most, and I believe it has served us well.

It is my strong belief that business must continually take the time to look toward the future and anticipate threats and opportunities. It is so easy to be focused on the day-to-day tasks and not hear the footsteps coming. Everything is moving at light speed in our industry, and we cannot afford to become lethargic or complacent.

Q: How do you deal with fluctuations in your industry?

It’s simple: Build a staff consisting of people with the intellectual capital to adapt. Business clients will always need communication tools, but the mediums will continually change. We have to be able to turn on a dime and use different deliverables that will reach our target audience.

In the 1980s, television advertising on the major broadcast stations ruled the day. These soon took a backseat as cable television came into vogue, offering hundreds of viewing options, which ultimately segmented the general audience. In short, the goal is still the same. Deliver the advertiser’s message to the optimal target market for that product or service. What keeps changing is the best way to do that. So, you must adapt.

HOW TO REACH: The Idea House, (800) 243-0250 or www.theideahouse.biz

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Change agent

Deborah J. Martin has a healthy respect for change. In fact, the COO of PRA Destination Management says not being receptive to change is one of the most common mistakes leaders make.

“Do what you’ve always done, and you will get the same results,” Martin says. “You must remain fluid and change with the times in order to survive.”

Martin has spearheaded plenty of change during the 16 years she’s been at PRA, a franchiser of destination management companies with 18 locations nationwide. She oversees four of PRA’s Southern California offices, with 60 full-time and 200 to 250 part-time employees.

Smart Business spoke with Martin about why communication is key during times of change and why you must empower your employees to succeed.

How do you manage change?
Sharing how the change came to be and the desired result is basic. However, it is amazing how often this step is neglected. As a leader, you must break it down clearly and not assume employees understand the rationale for decisions. Communication is the key, and that includes outlining expectations.

During times of change, employees need a more directive approach. It is important to provide compelling reasons for change and involve others in plans and decisions instead of simply dictating them.

What is your leadership style?
I communicate clearly so there is little room for misinterpretation. I do my best to hold employees accountable. To be a successful change agent, you must empower your employees.

I work hard to balance being hands-off, yet accessible. Part of my job is to bring up the generation behind me. If I keep taking back the power from employees, they will never learn.

I was afforded the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them, and I give that same benefit to staff. Nobody should fear their livelihood will be in jeopardy if they make an honest mistake.

Although there are always some people who want lots of direction, most of our employees are independent, responsible and self-motivated. With this caliber of employee, a micro-management style would be disastrous.

How do you deal with trends in the industry?
First, you have to be aware of the changing tides. I stay immersed in the latest developments in the industry in a number of ways, including attending trade shows.

However, the most effective method I have found is to stay in close contact with our competition. I have built rapport and a collaborative spirit with many of our competitors over the years.

Three years ago, there was a local industry development which would directly impact the destination management business. I knew our voice would be heard louder if we worked in unison with other destination management companies.

The end result of working together was a healthy respect for one another and a unified approach to issues that affect all of us.

What has been your greatest business challenge?
I was born with a hearing problem, and for many years in my professional life, I did not admit it or ask for help. When the director of the company told me he had concerns about whether I could manage the job, it was a turning point for me.

I got a hearing aid, which was hard, since I saw this as a visible sign of weakness. Everyone has an area they need help in — one of mine happens to be physical. I had a talk with myself and concluded that I needed to get a grip and ask for help.

My advice to leaders is to admit these shortcomings rather than pretending they are not noticeable. It’s better to get help before your weakness overshadows your strengths.

What advice would you give new CEOs?
Pay your dues. I have noticed there seems to be more of an aversion to this lately from Gen Y hires.

You cannot perceive anything as too lowly or menial. Performing a wide variety of functions in the business gives you knowledge and empathy for staff when you become a CEO. You can’t be afraid to get into the weeds if you want a leadership role in the future.

HOW TO REACH: PRA Destination Management, (619) 234-9440 or www.pra-san.com

Friday, 24 November 2006 19:00

The art of multitasking

Henry Ford once said, “It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste time.” Mary Petrovich, CEO of AxleTech International, is living proof of that philosophy.

Petrovich traces her talent for multitasking to her childhood.

“My mother, a hairdresser, was a widow with eight children at the age of 30,” she says. “Learning to be efficient was essential — it was a matter of survival for me. There was no way I could meet my goals in life without being highly focused.”

AxleTech International is a global manufacturer and supplier of axles and related products for vehicles in various markets.

“Four years ago, we had a $150 million business that was losing money on most of its customer base,” Petrovich says. “Since then, we have driven profits up 10 times and sales up two times without an acquisition.”

Smart Business spoke with Petrovich about the art of multitasking and the challenges of leading change.

Q: How do you lead change?

Get out from behind your desk and ask as many questions as possible.

It is easy to recognize when your company is not operating to its potential. The difficult next step is to analyze where and how you are falling short. You need to identify the issues driving performance and determine the three to five things that need to be done.

Then, develop a systematic plan and stick to it. Much of this comes down to pure discipline. Listening to peers, customers and employees is essential. You have to figure out what it is you don’t know before you can move forward.

Q: What was your most memorable business mistake, and what did you learn from it?

Not moving fast enough on the people issues. If someone does not display results-oriented behaviors and a sense of urgency, it does not matter how much customer and product knowledge or experience they have ... or how nice they are.

You have to be willing to make the tough calls and not look back or question yourself. If your management staff cannot lead and get results, you must get them out of the way quickly. This is particularly true in a turnaround or an organization requiring dramatic improvement and cultural change.

Q: How do you get employees to buy in to your vision and help make it a reality?

First, you have to create a burning platform or reason to change. Then, you need to lead by example and get some wins that show your leadership style.

These successes will demonstrate that the results under your watch are going to be much different than in the past. The people begin to trust you — you have to earn that. Early success breeds confidence and buy-in.

The culture had to change in order for AxleTech to be a success story. There is no pride in losing money. We had to revamp our sales strategy early on.

As a smaller, more focused organization, we had to move quicker and lose the large corporation mindset, which can be sluggish.

Q: What advice would you give a new CEO?

Surround yourself with high performers. Recognize your weaknesses and make sure your team does not have the same ones. For example, if you tend to overanalyze before making decisions, employ a management staff that moves quickly and is not paralyzed by data. Strive for a culture of execution and accountability, with a high bias for action.

There is no magic formula for success. It’s a matter of common sense and mastering the fundamentals like blocking and tackling. However, the saying, ‘Common sense is not so common’ is very true.

Great leaders have undying persistence and handle setbacks by coming back twice as strong. They do not recoil or lose confidence when things don’t go as planned.

Direct and regular communication is essential. I host town hall meetings with a ‘State of the Business’ address along with time for Q&As. I do this at both the HQ and plant levels.

Q: How do you make decisions?

I manage by fact and make decisions quickly with the right small group of informed leadership team around me. We make decisions much faster than our competitors and move much more aggressively. It is a true competitive advantage for us.

We are responsive. We also keep things simple: An attractive business opportunity is one that enhances our core competency and carries with it the potential to make lots of money.

HOW TO REACH: AxleTech International, (877) 877-9717 or www.axletech.com

The Women in Business series is presented by Smart Business through the support of Comerica Bank.

Saturday, 29 July 2006 11:01

Compassionate caring

Peggy Miller never intended to get into the health care field.

The owner of PE Miller & Associates, an agency providing short-term home health care, had worked in real estate, and her career goal involved working in an office. Then a friend encouraged her to apply for a job at a long-term care facility.

“I entered this business initially as a personal challenge,” Miller says. “I decided to enter the field in order to discipline myself. I certainly did not have the background or genuine desire to get into this field — I had actually never set foot in a nursing home. In this process of getting out of my comfort zone, I discovered that I have a deep compassion and concern for those in need.”

Miller worked at the long-term care facility for five years, but had a nagging feeling that there had to be a better way. She had ideas about how to train employees more effectively and ways to overcome operational deficiencies resulting from chronic short staffing, and in1985 she left her job to start her own business.

Today, PE Miller & Associates has between 85 and 100 employees who generate annual revenue of between $5 million and $6 million.

Smart Business spoke with Miller about finding the right employees to work in a difficult business and the importance of delegating.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I am careful about delegating. I consider it my responsibility as a leader to handle the more difficult and demanding tasks such as complaints.

It is not fair to expect employees to wrestle with these sensitive issues. Many of our clients have used our services for years.

It is meaningful to them to know they can contact me directly. I do not believe in an ivory tower management style — you must be accessible and genuine with your employees.

The caring professions are extremely stressful, so we put a lot of effort into keeping stress at bay. We allow our employees space and autonomy.

However, we make it clear to our employees that their clients have their own problems. It is unacceptable to burden them further by sharing personal issues.

What qualities do you look for when hiring?
It takes a special person to work in this business, which is why the turnover typically is quite high. We look for a giving spirit and a positive attitude.

Negative employees are the kiss of death in this business, and most others. We remind our employees that our clients have minimal control over their lives. For many, their care is the only control they have. Therefore, they have a right to exercise that control by expecting quality care provided with respect.

How do you deal with fluctuations in your industry?
Sometimes there is very little you can do about them, so adapting is the key. We are regulated heavily by the government, and must contend with constant changes. This is a huge challenge at times, because we are expected to do more with the same number of people and less time.

My approach is to accept the things I cannot change and learn to juggle the challenges in a factual and nonreactive manner. If you truly enjoy what you are doing, the fluctuations and stressful challenges are less daunting.

How do you keep employees motivated?
We have employee of the month awards, year-end bonuses, a credit union, 401(k) and other benefits, and we pay the most we are able. Getting employees together periodically for communication sessions is important in building teamwork and maintaining a strong sense of purpose. However, it is a real challenge in this business.

We have employees working different hours, so we have to be creative and hold several meetings to accommodate schedules. We get the staff together for jam sessions where we treat them to pizza and kick around ideas on how to better service our clients.

I also believe in rewarding loyalty, so we provide incentives for employees who celebrate their five-year anniversary with us.

What is your greatest challenge?
Striving to stay at the level of service we want to provide while complying with government regulations is frustrating. We do not always feel the regulations are realistic or reasonable.

It would be easy to become bitter and angry about this. My approach is to remind myself that nobody is singling us out — there are many organizations in the same boat. The only way you learn is by dealing with and accepting change, so I keep my attitude in check when meeting these challenges.

I basically look at this as my personal dragon to slay in the pursuit of excellence. Nobody said it would be easy, but my love and concern for my clients and employees make it worthwhile.

HOW TO REACH: PE Miller & Associates, (614) 231-4743