Brian Horn

Sunday, 26 October 2008 20:00

Straight talk

When Sharon M. Daniels first started as asenior executive, she thought that all of heremployees would just walk in her officeand tell her what was going on, just as theyhad before she became the leader.

However, that wasn’t the case.

So, when she became president and CEOat AchieveGlobal Inc. in 2004, she set out toshow everyone she had integrity, and sheused her communication skills to guide hermore than 1,000 employees.

Daniels spent a lot of time getting feedback from customers, suppliers andemployees about the state of the company,an international provider of skills trainingand consulting services in customer service, sales performance and leadership.

“I spent a good, solid month just doingnothing but listening to people and talkingabout how we were,” she says. “I think thatwas the springboard, if you will, for how Istarted being a leader here and getting really engaged with all the elements of it. Ithink that helped me from a credibilitystandpoint because then, when I startedcommunicating or sending bigger messages, it was clear. I didn’t say, ‘I talked to50 customers or whatever,’ but I could say,‘I’m learning from customers that thesethings are happening,’ or, ‘Here are somethings that are really important to ourorganization.’”

Those communication skills have servedDaniels well in establishing an environment where employees and managers canspeak freely with her about ideas. Throughher actions, revenue increased 13 percentsince she became president and CEO, andthe company posted approximately $150million in 2007 revenue.

Here’s how Daniels uses integrity andcommunication as her foundation of leadership to take AchieveGlobal to new heights.

Do the right thing

Because of scandals like Enron, whereleaders were making self-serving choices,Daniels understands employees may comeinto the workplace with a certain level ofcynicism. That’s why she puts such anemphasis on leading with integrity. Youhave to be upfront and honest with peopleand follow through on what you say you’regoing to do.

That’s why integrity is at the top ofDaniels’ list of characteristics a leadershould possess. Not only do you need topossess it, but you also have to remember your integrity will be challenged. Youmay even question your own integrity atsome point.

Daniels ran into that exact situation whenshe first started managing the revenue sideof a business as a general manager in 1996.

“We had a salesperson who was a tremendous producer — had done a very good jobfor the organization — but was the mostabusive person to support staff in theorganization,” she says. “And it was socounter to everything that our organizationbelieved in. I struggled with my own personal integrity about how to do thatbecause I knew that we ran the risk, if I lether go, that we wouldn’t make our numbers that year. If I kept her, I was sending avery strong message about what was reallyimportant in our organization. So, I didquestion my own integrity. For the firsttime, I realized that I needed to think aboutmaking the decision not just for the longhaul but the short haul in terms of revenueand everything else.”

Putting the bottom line aside, Danielsused the same thought process then thatshe uses now.

She made commitments to the owners ofthe company that she would help theorganization make a certain revenue number, and firing the problem employee mighthave a negative effect on the bottom line.On the flip side, she knew that letting theemployee go sooner rather than laterwould benefit the business in the long haulbecause of the positive cultural impact theaction would have.

When faced with a decision like this one,it’s important to look at the situation andpretend that revenue isn’t an issue, whichDaniels did. She also factored revenue intothe equation, writing out the pros and consfor each situation, and then read them overagain like you would a tough e-mail youhave to send.

Finally, Daniels talked to people outsidethe company whom she trusted.

She took about three months thinking itthrough and collecting information beforeshe decided to fire the employee.

“Ironically, and I had no way of knowing it at the time, it ended up being thebest year we ever had, and we made itfine without her,” she says. “But, I wouldhave never known that going into it. Itwas a nice reinforcement because I hadto make other choices like that that didn’t always pay off that quickly as that onedid.”

It also helped Daniels come to a realization about leadership.

“As a leader, you make decisions,” shesays. “By not making a decision, you aremaking a decision. If I had not made a decision, it was basically saying that if you area top performer in the revenue side of ourbusiness, it’s OK to be abusive to other people in other parts of the organization. Thatcan’t be the case.”

Communicate clearly

It doesn’t do an organization any good ifa leader has a bunch of great ideas, but heor she is terrible at communicating thosethoughts to employees. Daniels avoidsthat problem by making sure her messagemakes it to the employees in a precise andorganized form.

She starts by thinking about what hergoals are for the communication, towhom she is communicating and whatkind of response she would like to seefrom individuals.

“I think it is important to be veryorganized and to think about the wordsthat you choose and how you’re going toshare them with others,” she says.“Then, of course, there are the otherday-to-day communications and theopportunities that you have to reinforcewhat the company is working on —what’s important, recognizing people forperformance above and beyond. I thinkyou have to prepare yourself to do that.You have to think about the time that ittakes, and it has to be much morethoughtful the more levels of communication you have to have happen fromyour perspective.”

Each year, the company’s senior teamgoes on a retreat where they spend a lot

of time thinking about the strategicdirection of the company and lining upwhere they need to go.

“When we come back from that, there isa very large communication that I putout,” she says. “It’s almost always in writing, usually followed up by a shortervoice-mail message. I spend a lot of timethinking about what are the key pointsthat need to be made. Who’s going to listen to this? What will they know or notknow (and) trying to determine the levelthat I need to write it at.”

To make sure you get the point across,you have to make sure managers andemployees understand the message. Thatliterally means making sure employeesunderstand the words being used. InDaniels’ case, her company deals with alot of technological changes. Therefore, ifshe is communicating a message abouttechnology, she has to think about thepeople who may not be as technologicallyliterate as others.

“That might include putting a glossaryof terms so people can feel comfortablereading it or hearing me talk about it,”she says.

Daniels also sends out companywidecommunications after her monthly seniorteam meeting. Before sending it out companywide, she sends it to the managersbelow the senior level to get their feedbackon it. You have to get feedback from managers and make sure they understand themessage because those managers will getquestions from their subordinates andhave to be able to give an informed explanation.

“I think the leaders in your organizationare critical linchpins to helping communicate to the organization,” she says. “It’s on ething to get a message from me, but all thehundreds and thousands of employeesaround the world are not going to pick upthe phone and ask me.”

Daniels says some employees will contact her directly, but most go to their directmanagers for answers.

“So, if I have a whole bunch of managersthat don’t understand what the message is,it’s a problem,” she says.

She spends about 45 minutes constructing the message and sends it to the approximately 60 managers first, asking them tochallenge her on it. She wants to knowwhat doesn’t make sense to them or whatcould be left out. Daniels gives managersabut 36 hours to respond but will give themmore time for longer messages. Normally,she hears from about 10 managers byphone or e-mail giving her feedback, whichis correct about 90 percent of the time.

“They are usually chiming in on a partthat they know better than even I wouldabout what it is or the way that it might beperceived,” she says. “There are timeswhen I go back and say, ‘Did you knowthis?’ or, ‘Let me clarify why I said it thatway.’ Sometimes, I pick up the phone, andsometimes (because of) time differencesor whatever, I’ll just do it by e-mail, andthen we’ll communicate back and forththat way.”

Once the message is set with all the managers, Daniels waits for employees to givetheir feedback. Previously, Daniels wouldgive the message to only the managers andleave it to them to tell the employees, butthat wasn’t working out.

“I feel like coming from me, because of allthe changes we have going on, it’s one consistent message to the whole organization,”she says.

If she hears back from an employee, shewill always copy the manager of the personon the response.

“Most of the time, they’ll go to their managers and have the conversations,” shesays “The reason I know that is, [the manager] will write me back and ask some clarifying questions or let me know that soand-so received the message well or hasconcerns about some action we’re taking.”

While it’s important to focus on what youare saying, it’s just as important to showthat you are hearing the feedback.

“You have to be able to share a messageand speak,” she says. “But, equally important, if not more so, is that you have to beable to listen because, particularly in this dayand age, no one person can own all the organizational intelligence or all the things thatare happening in the marketplace. So, theability to really listen to others is important.”

Overall, communicating effectively andleading with integrity helped create a trustingenvironment with an engaged work force.

“We have a very engaged work force —people that are willing to work very hardbecause they feel like they are appreciated,(and) that they have a chance to developand make a difference in the organization,”she says. “In this day and age, I thinkemployee engagement is a very importantpart of success.”

HOW TO REACH: AchieveGlobal Inc., (800) 566-0630

Sunday, 26 October 2008 20:00

Driving to the top

Colleen McDonald likes her employees to set goals, but she wants to make sure they are realistic goals, “because there is nothing worse than not having a chance to hit anything,” says the president of Holiday Automotive Group.

Yet, even if an employee hits a goal, McDonald doesn’t want to broadcast it to everyone because it could seem like bragging, which may lead to contention within the organization.

“Bragging sometimes gets the other people really mad,” she says. “It depends on the person. It could have just the opposite effect of doing well. They could get down and that kind of thing.”

However, sharing some good news may foster some friendly competition among the stores within the 170-employee organization, which posted 2007 revenue of about $148 million.

“If someone sees one store doing quite well, it’s good,” she says. “Because [they’ll say,] ‘Hey, what are they doing? How are they doing that?’”

Smart Business spoke with McDonald about how to keep employees informed, involve them in decisions and lead by example.

Keep everyone in the loop. In any organization, the key is communication to your employees. I started a quarterly newsletter a couple of years ago that seems to work out very well. When we get disgruntled employees, I think the reason they get disgruntled is because they don’t know things are happening and they don’t know certain things that are going on in the business.

I try to keep everyone up to date on what we’re doing ... how business is, whether we’re hiring people — I always give them the first shot of family, friends. So, I kind of make it more of a huge family atmosphere, for lack of a better term.

I do a lot of that through e-mail, constantly telling them where the deals are. My newsletter I send out via e-mail, and then those that don’t get it, the managers make copies. I also include their home if they want their home on there. No one likes being left out of the loop, especially where they are going to work every day. Most employees, when you are starting to dig holes somewhere or are putting up the building (they’ll say), ‘Wait, what’s that?’ They all just want to know what is going on, why it’s going on, why we’re doing this.

Make yourself clear. Everyone likes to communicate in different ways. With the way e-mails are now, I think we have a much easier time of communicating than we ever had because there is no way I’m going to be able to sit down and talk to 170 people during the course of a week. That’s impossible.

I rely on my management team at other stores.

It’s management by wandering around. They’re not stuck in an office. They’re talking to people, talking to customers, closing deals, talking to service, handling problems. So it’s just really that face to face.

Involve employees in decisions. Another thing I do that I think employees really like is, if it’s a really big decision that we make here, like our 401(k), I usually put together a panel with managers and employees — not just management but also just the regular employees. I ask them to volunteer.

We’ve done it successfully twice with our 401(k) and our medical insurance. We put a panel together, and we each do our little homework, then we vote on who we are going to bring in as a team, as opposed to me dictating what we are going to do.

I do a big e-mail blast, and I do it on a first-come, first-served basis, and I usually try and get two to three (volunteers) from each store. So, I don’t wait for the people I expect to do it. It’s whoever wants to do it first; they’re in.

If I’m full, they’re out. If somebody really, really wanted to be on it, I’d let them. But normally, I get two to three volunteers from each store.

The beauty of it is I kind of sit back and let them run the meeting. Then, they’ll come up to a determination amongst themselves that I can either veto it like any president or agree with it.

I usually go with what they want as long as it’s good. I let them kind of fight it out amongst themselves.

Lead by example. I never ask anyone to do something that I won’t do myself or can’t do myself, for the most part.

I’m more of a softer manager. But, yet, as long as people do things that I ask them to do, and I always follow up — I inspect what I expect — then we’re good. If you don’t keep doing what I ask you to do, then obviously we have problems.

I’m not a yeller or a screamer. I just ask people to get things done, follow up and make sure they get things done. People that are new, they learn that about me as they go.

People take people more seriously when you do things like that. Too many business owners think they can sit on this high pedestal and just start barking out orders to people. But, I think you earn respect [by not yelling], and I think if you earn your employees’ respect, they’ll work harder for you.

HOW TO REACH: Holiday Automotive Group, (248) 919-6940 or

Tuesday, 26 August 2008 20:00

Joint effort

When Carolyn LaHousse co-founded ReviewWorks in 1989,her idea of an open-door policy was far different than it is today.

The president and CEO of the company says that back then, she was involved in everything at the provider of medical cost containment solutions and disability management services. However, as the company grew to about 70 employees and more than $11 million in 2007 revenue, her definition of an open-door policy changed.

“(It’s) being open-minded and accepting input, criticism, suggestions, new ideas from everybody in the organization,” she says. “To legitimately consider that you are not the sole answer to every question the company faces.”

Smart Business spoke with LaHousse on how to create an open culture and how to find the right people to work in a team environment.

Q. How do you know if someone is going to be a good fit for the company?

Our rule here is to trust your gut. Usually, if you think you are unsure of a new hire and you are asking to have a second interview, you might as well just stop right there because something is telling you that this person isn’t exactly what you are looking for. Something is a little off there.

There could be other reasons to have a second interview. But if the reason is because you are unsure — a lot of times, second interviews are when you get into your benefit plan and you get into more specifics and you get into greater detail about the person.

Q. Once you hire people, what is the key to retaining them?

The key to retaining employees is opportunity, advancement, empowering them. I think it’s recognizing them. Giving them the tools that they need, giving them the resources they need and investing in them.

We invest in our employees over the years, when we’ve had changes in technology, when we’ve had changes in the way we do business because of technology.

Recently, we’ve gone to an imaging process, and rather than having paper forms, we are on a paperless system to a large degree. So we retrained our people in handling the documents and the different processes, and we’ve adapted the processes and promoted the people to handle that advancement in technology.

Q. What is a pitfall to avoid when creating a team-oriented culture?

You can’t micromanage a team. Everybody on the team has to know what their roles are. We do a lot of cross-training so people are aware of other people’s role and can step in.

If you have a situation where your people are functioning autonomously, and they are empowered to do their jobs, if you try to micro-manage, it’s going to end up like herding cats because they are doing what you want them to do, which is they are taking authority and making decisions.

It’s almost like you are more in a mentoring situation where you are working together you are collaborating on decisions.

Q. How do you handle employee mistakes?

Every employee is going to make a mistake — all the time. You just have to be ready for mistakes. Our customers make mistakes. Providers make mistakes.

It’s how you respond to those mistakes. I think that we look at those as opportunities. Every time we make a mistake, there is an opportunity to do a better job. How did this mistake happen? We need to dive into it.

We have smoke; did we have a fire? We need to solve that problem right now. Is it a big problem or a little problem?

What’s the scope of it?

So, when we had problems or employees make mistakes, we take them very seriously because we would rather solve it when it’s a small mistake rather than when it is a huge problem.

Q. How can you prepare for mistakes?

When you are encountering situations, you have to be prepared for a good result, and then you have to be prepared for a bad result. When you are getting a renewal of a customer — of course, you want to get the renewals — but you also have to have a plan if it doesn’t go through.

So, how do you prepare for failure? I think by anticipation, by meeting it head on, by handling it directly. The failures that are the most difficult are the ones you don’t anticipate — they hit you by surprise. When you have a situation like that, you have to look back and say, ‘What did I miss? What did our team miss? How could we have responded differently. When did things start to go wrong?’ It’s a learning opportunity.

You need to be aware of it. Your staff needs to be aware of it. Generally, when we have a difficult situation, that is a situation where you have to address it immediately.

Usually, we sit down with the staff, and we have a dialogue. I usually lead the dialogue, and we tell them what happened, why it happened, answer questions so they can have a forum for possibly being angry about why the situation happened or maybe suggestions for the future, and then we move forward. We keep the message positive.

HOW TO REACH: ReviewWorks, (248) 848-5100 or

Wednesday, 25 June 2008 20:00

Delegating with authority

Charles Young Jr. realizes that his 300 employees are at different stages in their lives with different priorities — for example, an employee who is right out of college may be more focused on career than an employee who is married with children.

Young says it’s important to realize when your employees’ values change and to ask yourself if your company — and the individual — can adjust.

You may also want to consider whether you want your employees working 14 or 15 hours a day, says the CEO of SDE Business Partnering LLC, a custom service integrator. If they’re working that many hours, you may need to question whether they have good organizational skills, whether they are structured and whether they know how to delegate, especially if they are in a leadership role, Young says.

Smart Business spoke with Young about how to delegate the right way and how to monitor an employee’s progress on a project.

Give employees authority when delegating. A lot of people want to delegate and give responsibility and no authority. If you are going to truly delegate, you have to give the authority to make it happen along with the responsibility.

That’s the key to delegation. If you are going to give a leader the responsibility to go do project X and bring it in on time, but every time he needs something done, (he’s) got to come check in with you, then everyone will look at the authority and who’s running the project because it’s not the leader or the person. They’ll look at you because, ‘Well, I’ve got to go check with my boss.’ Well, eventually you have no authority.

A lot of leaders think they are delegating, but they’re really not. Because they are afraid that, ‘OK, if I give this, it won’t be done quite the way I would do it.’ Well, that’s true. And guess what? That’s how you get innovation; you get new ideas. So you have to be open-minded that everything is not going to be actually the way you want it to be. It has to be some creativity and allow people to grow.

Will there be mistakes in that? Yes. How do people grow if they don’t make mistakes? But, you have to understand if there is a good, solid individual coming through and you are trying to mentor them and teach them. You have to delegate the right amount of authority and the right amount of responsibility. At some point (with) a new person, you may not delegate the authority, but you tell them why because they are not in a position that they can really make that decision?

When you give authority, you are giving a lot of responsibility, and, in our company, authority means you can spend dollars or you can affect other people’s lives. When you do that, that’s authority. You’ve given some kind of control over something, some assets.

Monitor progress. True delegation is you have some checkpoints, but you qualify those and say, ‘Here’s what I need done. Make sure you’ve got all the resources to make that happen. Get it done.’

It’s simple questions. Ask the question and listen. How they respond to the question will tell you, do they really know? Sometimes, they’ll go really deep into detail, and sometimes, they are very vague. If you say, ‘Are you on time?’ They say, ‘We are doing great.’ There is a confidence level people go into when they really think.

When you get that hesitation, say, ‘Tell me a little bit more.’ Now, you’re just digging. ‘Did you try this?’ You haven’t de-empowered them. They may have been afraid to come ask because they’re like, ‘Oh, if I ask, then he thinks I can’t do it.’

Have some control mechanisms around it. Report in however frequently you feel comfortable, but you put controls around it. But when they make the mistake, you have to stand behind that.

It doesn’t mean you perpetuate foolishness. It just says you know they made the mistake, accept the mistake and move on. They will make mistakes because you made them to get in your position.

I can guarantee you I made a lot of mistakes, and the difference between me and another person is maybe the way their boss responded to those mistakes.

Be honest. Everything you do, you stand behind it. It’s the little things that make a difference. If you compromise little things, people will see that and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, you say honesty and you say integrity, but he went over there and just lied to the customer or he did this or he lied to me.’

It’s the little things day in and day out that demonstrate that you have that honesty and integrity, and people see through it very quickly if you have a smoke screen on it. The way you know you have it is they come to you with some things that are sometimes considered personal, and they share with you and [are] willing to entrust you in their inner circle.

That means they have some confidence that you have that integrity and honesty, and you won’t backlash on them with it. But yet, you’ve got to be very open and candid, too. Sometimes, good leadership isn’t always you’re a good person. Sometimes, good leadership is just telling people you aren’t the right person for the job.

HOW TO REACH: SDE Business Partnering LLC, (313) 656-2200 or

Monday, 26 May 2008 20:00

Networking to the top

Tim Schriner does the reverse of micromanaging at DANTOM Systems Inc. Instead of having his hands on everything, he uses a collaborative leadership style as president and CEO of the print and mail company. He stresses the importance of hiring a solid senior team, then trusts those people to execute on the vision he sets at DANTOM, which posted 2007 revenue of approximately $100 million and employs more than 80 people.

To build a solid team, Schriner uses the network he has built over his 25-plus years in the business. Schriner says it’s OK to use resumes and head-hunters but having knowledge of people through reference before you even interview them is beneficial in building an organization. Your success rate in hiring people you don’t know is much smaller than hiring employees that you have some prior knowledge of, either directly or through someone in your network, he says.

Smart Business spoke with Schriner about how you can find the best employees through networking and why it’s a bad day when you don’t acknowledge employee ideas.

Stay in touch with your network.It’s a dedicated time every day, every week to be talking to your network and staying in touch. It’s easy to lose touch, and it’s to your disadvantage to do that.

If I’m looking for a good sales guy or a senior vice president of sales, I may be talking to my former senior vice presidents because they know how I work.

So it’s not necessarily that I know them but there is a reference ability of someone that I have trusted in my past. That’s what I mean by networking — having trusted people out there that you can call upon.

It’s a vast network, so I trust my network. Resumes are just so hard to evaluate because everybody says they do a great job. You’ve got to have some reference ability, and by and large, I would say I’m in the 80 to 85 percent hit range of hiring people that are referenced from my network as opposed to using headhunters. And the good ones, it’s still a 50-50 crap-shoot, if that high.

Build an environment where employees are comfortable coming to you. You’ve got to make sure ideas can flow up and even create constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is treated the same way as a good idea, so that people can feel comfortable in the organization coming to you, coming to anyone in the company and saying, ‘This is what I think we should be doing.’

We reward our individuals for ideas that are used to benefit the company. There is a financial/monetary reward. That’s one way we got the whole thing started here just to get the ball rolling.

Part of what we do is go through publicly and recognize people. Recognition is key. Bring up, ‘Here’s what Johnny did today, or Susie did it. Here’s the idea they were using, here’s how we’re going to do it,’ and have them stand up and get applause.

Incentive is great, but the recognition, I find, people want the most. Once they start feeling that their ideas are being recognized and used and they’re getting recognized for it, that’s what really starts the ball rolling. Once you start creating that kind of an environment, it’s just natural. It happens every day.

When I walk through the facility every day, people are saying, ‘Hey, did you know this?’ Ideas just start flowing, and people feel comfortable talking to anyone, whether it’s myself, anyone in management, as opposed to just doing what they do every day and just staying within themselves. You’ve really got to create an environment where people really see the benefit. Honestly, the best ideas come from the people that are closest to our customers and execution of our daily tasks.

I can’t tell you, in a year’s time, in our monthly meetings, the increased amount of ideas people are generating.

Acknowledge employee ideas, even if you don’t use them. In any job, you get ideas, and they’re good ideas, but they might not work, or they might not make sense.

It’s just making sure when you get ideas, you thank them and say, ‘You know what, that was a great idea, and this is what we are going to do.’ Or, just be frank with them and say, ‘Hey, I really liked your creativity and your thought process, but, in our world and the way we work with our customer in this scenario, this probably isn’t going to work for us. But, this has given us an idea to do something else.’

So, making sure that even if you don’t use their idea —because you’re not going to use them all — you have to make sure they understand why you didn’t and that you are going to utilize it, and it might have made you think about a different idea you hadn’t even thought of. It’s the ones when you dismiss and you don’t say anything about it — a lot of companies have idea boxes and those types of things. When you don’t acknowledge anything, then that’s when people stop because then they’re going, ‘They didn’t say anything about that, so obviously, they don’t think I have that great of an idea. So I’m not going to do that anymore.’ You can’t do that. That’s a bad day.

HOW TO REACH: DANTOM Systems Inc., (866) 536-2376 or

Friday, 25 April 2008 20:00

Taking action

As Alan Kalter met with his employees on a Sunday night in August 1996, his advertising agency’s building burned behind them. No one was hurt, but everyone’s hard work at W.B. Doner & Co. was going up in flames.

But Kalter, chairman and CEO, didn’t let that stop him or his company from moving ahead. At the meeting on the lawn, he told employees to call clients about the fire first thing Monday morning. Employees also told clients that they would not miss a deadline, and although they were out of the building for 22 months, they delivered on that promise.

Kalter says many competitors thought the company would go under, but instead, business grew and, in 2007, Doner posted revenue of $173.1 million.

Kalter said one key to the growth was giving people more responsibility and giving them the authority that goes along with responsibility to make decisions.

Smart Business spoke with Kalter about how to make decisions and develop a vision.

Make a decision. You have to be a good enough listener to share with others and then understand what they’re talking about before you make a decision. But, you also have to make the decision. Somebody’s got to make a decision. It’s part of the job of being a leader.

I just read a book that was the transcripts of the discussions that Kennedy had during the Cuban Missile Crisis. ... Basically, he kept saying, ‘Give me another opinion. What about this? Give me another opinion.’

He kept pushing everybody to give him points of view, sometimes based on information, sometimes based on intuition, and, in the end, he made a decision. He got it from experts, meaning the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or he got it from people he believed in and trusted, and he got it from people who had the pulse of the nation. But, in the end, he had to make a decision. Nobody else made the decision.

I think, in life, people like to give opinions, but they like leaders who make decisions and then move on. They’re not always going to be right, but, at least, you have a decision, and therefore, you have action.

No decision is a decision, and it’s not a very good one. You basically decide for inaction.

In the end, every organization is a living organism that has to accomplish something. At the top, somebody’s got to make decisions that allow people to do their jobs. If you don’t make those decisions, they can’t do their jobs.

It’s the one thing a leader should do is make decisions so people can do their work.

We make a decision, we don’t second-guess it, we don’t have regrets, we move forward. If we have to change that decision, OK, but we don’t do it with recrimination.

Develop a vision. That’s a lot of listening, a lot of analysis, looking at the competition, understanding where you might fit in to that.

Our company, being in the advertising business, you have to look at where you think advertising in general is going, where you think you’re going to fit in to that, what resources you need in order to fit in to that.

Then, obviously, you have to share that vision with a lot of people and get feedback, and that’s where the listening comes in.

You have to be honest about what your capabilities are. You can’t just create a vision, then decide, ‘I’m going to do that,’ but it doesn’t have any reality baked into it. I think there is the understanding of the opportunity, but then there is the pragmatic side of what is possible.

Know your strengths and weaknesses. It’s critical, and that shouldn’t be something that holds you back. That should help you understand where the real opportunities are for you to capitalize.

Why go chase something that some other company owns and is well ensconced in that territory? Now, you are going to have to try and dislodge them or find something that you can do better than anybody else, and make that a point of view and then build your resources around that single point of view. It’s like P&G basically saying, if you’re not No. 1 or 2 in the category, it’s a brand somebody else should own.

Embrace failure. Don’t hide from a mistake or hide from a failure. Embrace the failure. If you embrace it, you can learn from it. If you just have a failure and the failure becomes mentally debilitating, what good is that?

Every failure, there has to be something that can be learned from it because you didn’t know it — if you knew the reason the decision would result in failure, you wouldn’t have made the decision.

Learn from it so you don’t make that mistake again, and move on. I make decisions that sometimes result in failure, but that’s the way it goes. But, so do a lot of people here make decisions that result in failure. Then we learn from it. We don’t have recriminations about it because I think recriminations stifle inventiveness and innovation.

HOW TO REACH: W.B. Doner & Co., (248) 354-9700 or

Wednesday, 26 March 2008 20:00

Optimistic outlook

Sure, getting pumped up is normally associated with working out, but

Gene LoVasco uses getting pumped up to keep a positive attitude at the office. LoVasco, president of ALCOS Inc., says that having a positive attitude is key to being a good leader at his insurance agency, which employs about 100 people.

“Once you’re pumped up, I think then it’s your job as the leader to keep other people positive and have that attitude rub off on others,” he says.

That positive attitude was an asset when his company, which posted about $18 million in 2006 revenue, was acquired by Brown & Brown Inc., and employees were laid off.

Smart Business spoke with LoVasco about how having a positive attitude can make you a better leader and how it can help you get through rough times.

Q. How do you show employees you are positive?

Probably the flip-side criticism of that is I’ve been criticized, ‘You’re looking through the world with rose-colored glasses.’

But I think you do it by action, by what you say. Action is the most important, if you are leading the charge and you are positive. For me, it’s a sales organization — I’ve got to be out there selling. I’ve got be out there working hard; I’ve got to be showing by example. I don’t want to sound cliché, but you’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk.

Q. How do you make sure employees know you are genuine in your actions?

Most people, if you’re not phony, will take it as genuine interest. And then, if you match it with a real human care and concern like we do — I’ve got a clinical psychologist that comes in twice a month and just talks to people about family issues.

HR nowadays is inundated with all kinds of problems — marital problems, financial problems, drugs and alcohol, kids’ problems. I told our HR director, ‘Do you have a degree in clinical psychology?’ She said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Neither do I.’ I said, ‘We’re not an expert at this stuff; let’s hire someone who can come in so there is no stigma attached to it.’

Q. How does that positive attitude help you get through difficult times?

We were acquired by a publicly traded company recently. It’s been tough for me because we had a group of guys that grew this business, and I was one of them.

We grew it from $3 million of revenue to about $18 million in revenue over about a 12-year period.

When we were acquired, they said, ‘Look, you guys have done a great job, but your profitability is at X, and now we want to get it to Y. The only way we could do that is we had to lay people off.

It was really tough, but what I said to people is, ‘Look, this is part of the acquisition, and we have to deal with that.’ What we tried to do is give people severance packages and tried to give them time to make the transition.

But, how do I explain it to the other employees? I said ‘Look, our profitability was good. It was at X level, but now we’ve been acquired, and it has to be at Y level. Unfortunately, this is what we have to do.’

Q. What advice would give to a leader who has to lay off people?

The thing is for the people that stay, you’ve got to say, ‘Here’s why; here’s what the benefits are.’ Really, with the new company, we all can own stock in this company, so they’ve got a stock ownership program. They’ve got a stock ownership program for all the employees, and then they have an incentive stock plan for certain employees.

So, my whole thing was, ‘Hey guys, look, I know it’s tough, but this company has grown tremendously. This is why it’s grown because it takes its profit and buys other agencies.’ So that’s their whole strategy, this company we were acquired by, ... and that’s how they’ve grown. They’ve grown through mergers and acquisitions.

Q. How can a leader develop a more positive attitude?

I think mentally, you have to feed your mind with positive books. I truly believe that whatever you think you are you become. I’m big into that whole correlation between positive thoughts produce positive deeds.

The second thing, if you’re negative, are you taking care of yourself, are you exercising? If I don’t do those things, my energy is sucked and sapped, and you get down. I work out six times a week, and I feel great after I’m done.

I could have a big day, or I could have had a bad day the day before, but when I’m done with my workout, I feel great.

HOW TO REACH: ALCOS Inc. (586) 977-6300 or

Sunday, 24 February 2008 19:00

Setting the bar

Employees can’t excel without knowing what’s expected of them, says Thomas Gotshall.

And as the leader of your organization, it’s up to you to set challenging expectations for everyone and also set a clear way to measure progress toward each person’s goals.

“In turn, that helps every employee, whether they are a receptionist or a vice president of business development,” says Gotshall, co-founder, president and chief operating officer of Technical Solutions LLC, which provides specialized technology-enabled business solutions.

To set realistic expectations for employees at his company, which posted 2006 revenue of more than $26 million, Gotshall said he first had to understand them.

Smart Business spoke with Gotshall about how getting to know employees helps with setting expectations.

Q. How do you get to know your employees?

You need to do two things. You need to simply go out and have a cup of coffee with them or breakfast or break bread with them. When you get away from the office and you have breakfast with them, you can get to know them on a personal basis.

You can get to know what motivates them. Somebody might say, ‘You know what, I’ve got three kids, and I’m worried to death about paying for their college education, so I really need to start saving money.’

And then you might have another sales executive who’s not married, no kids, and they want to buy a new Porsche 911, and they want to buy that next week. The one person’s got more of a long-term focus, putting money away for college, and the other person wants to get a big hit tomorrow and go out and buy that Porsche.

So you get to know them personally, and then you do need to sit in a business environment with them and say, ‘OK, what are your expectations? What do you think you should strive for in terms of revenue target and new account target?’ and turn it into a business discussion.

Q. How do you know where to set the bar?

You have to push people. You have to know how much you can push them. You think of a football team. You’ve got an offensive line — they are wrapped very differently than the wide receivers.

Peyton Manning, as the quarterback and leader of the team, is wrapped completely differently from the offensive linemen and the wide receivers. So, [Tony] Dungy, who is the coach of the [Indianapolis] Colts, Dungy sets different expectations for those guys.

A good leader understands that a company is like a football or a basketball or a baseball team. They are all made up of moving parts, but all those moving parts do different things.

Q. How do you handle it when someone isn’t meeting expectations?

First, it’s probably a failure of management. That’s my first reaction to that. So, we haven’t done something right, assuming they are motivated.

Now, if we have hired someone who is not motivated, we hired the wrong person, and we need to figure that out. But, assuming they are motivated, we’ve probably either not given them the right tools to excel or given them the right direction to excel or haven’t set the right expectations.

So, my first go-around is to sit down with them and, say it’s a salesperson, have the VP of business operations sit down with them and say, ‘Why are things not going well for you here? What’s the disconnect? Do you not feel comfortable enough with the product? Do you not feel comfortable enough with our sales process? Do you not feel comfortable with people? Do you not feel comfortable closing? What’s missing?’

And if they are like most people, they are going to be honest and tell you what’s missing. And once you go through this discovery process and figure out, ‘Hey, this is what is missing,’ the rest is easy.

Q. How has setting expectations helped your company?

You have to set goals. You have to say, ‘Our revenue target this year is X. Our new account penetration is this number, our new account or new product development is this.’ It is incumbent upon a leader to set expectations and goals. Otherwise, everybody has probably a different idea what that ought to be.

Probably the single most important thing for the leader of an organization to do is set the expectation and the goals and the core values of the company. If a leader isn’t comfortable doing that or thinks that, ‘Gee whiz, all these people are here because they love to be here, and I’ll figure it out,’ I think those leaders, over the long haul, don’t last.

HOW TO REACH: Technical Solutions LLC, (248) 528-0150 or

Tuesday, 29 January 2008 19:00

Heading the same direction

Mario D. Apruzzese is a big fan of consistency. Yet, to him, being consistent doesn’t mean employees should use the same method for a certain task every time, just employ consistent values during the process of completing a task. The method has helped his company, employees only, a professional employer organization that posted 2006 revenue of $76 million, adapt as the business world has changed.

“Because, when you had the consistent values, it didn’t really matter if it was green or red or blue because whatever decision was made, in terms of how to do it, it always had the same solid foundation,” says the company’s head visionary and CEO. “So, we became less process-driven and more value-driven as an organization.”

Smart Business spoke with Apruzzese about how to maintain consistency in your organization.

Q. What advice would you give to a leader who wants to be consistent?

If you are running an organization and you are the man or woman that is at the pinnacle, if you will, you have to find a way to have somebody measure you. I don’t know if that’s a life coach or a business coach ... whether it’s your board.

I dealt with this family-owned business, and it was two brothers-in-law, and all they did was fight, and I was in the middle of it as a CFO. We developed an advisory board. It wasn’t a board of directors. They didn’t dictate where they went. But, they helped us formalize the communication.

And so, when John says, ‘We are going to do X,’ and Sally says, ‘We are going to do X,’ (the board members) were free to, one, challenge the objective both from a ‘Can it happen? Are you going to be accountable?’ and what have you.

So, you have to have a way to sort of measure yourself because it is like looking at a compass. You’re in a boat, and you’re out at open sea, and you’re fighting waves, and you’re fighting wind, and you’re fighting a lot of different factors on your boat. Well, how do you know you are being consistent? You can hold the wheel of your ship still, but that does-n’t mean you’re heading stays true.

So, [you need] that external compass, if you want to call it that. You’ve got to have something that you’re sort of measuring yourself against so that you can always make sure your headings are appropriate because business will move you one way, economics will move you, your personal life will move you, and all of those things need to be balanced, obviously. But, at the same time, you’ve got to understand your heading. Not necessarily your goal, but your heading.

And finding that true north — you can’t do without some external reference point.

Q. How has consistency benefited your company?

The concept behind that is you put a system in place that’s repeatable. I think it’s really been a couple of advantages. No.1, it’s very easy as you grow your company to bring new team members to the forefront of what you do because everyone is marching to the same beat ... and nobody can fool you into those core values — they have them or they don’t.

If you get someone who is unproductive, not because they are slow but because they have got negativity or some other baggage, you don’t have to wait for management to figure it out. The people on the team go, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you doing? That’s not how we do it here.’ And so, it really takes a lot of pressure off of management to worry about everybody.

And it really gives people that are on your team the ability to sort of represent themselves. They don’t have to go to their support, a manager, whatever it is to say, ‘Oh, Johnny is not doing his job, or Sally’s not doing her job, or this isn’t the right person.’ They really feel compelled to say, ‘What are you doing? We are all about X, Y and Z here,’ and they can talk about it, and they can repeat it because that consistency is the underlying factor.

One of the other ones is, as management then acts in a consistent manner, you know what’s going to happen if A, B, C occurs. And again, it’s very liberating for people because they go, ‘I really don’t like that result, so I’m not going to do A, B, C.’

So, you really avoid a lot of what I might call the normal unpleasantries of being in the employer-employee relationship or in the co-worker relationship.

Everyone is, in a sense, speaking. It’s not like I tell them to go drink the Kool-Aid, and they go do it. They challenge authority. They challenge the policy because they are challenging it, not, ‘I don’t want to do it.’

HOW TO REACH: employees only, (248) 276-0950 or

Wednesday, 26 December 2007 19:00

Day by day

William V. Day describes his time at St. Barnabas HealthSystem as the man who came to dinner and has been there eversince.

Back in the late 1960s, Day, who was working as a consultantat the time, came to St. Barnabas after being contacted by theorganization’s board of trustees to determine whether the troubled facility should close.

“I got here and found a place that had a wonderful mission,”says Day, now the president and CEO. “I think that’s part of thereason it had been able to continue for 67 years but needed justabout everything you could imagine in order to go forward.”

Day and his team did a study and advised the place should notbe closed, and they devised a plan that could help the organization survive.

After putting the plan together, Day was set to leave whenthe board asked the group to stay and implement the plan.

Day stayed a lot longer and has helped the company growinto a $100 million organization.

He says his three biggest challenges back then are the sameobstacles he faces now — finding enough money, finding andretaining good employees, and then getting those employeesto buy in to his plan.

“It’s the kind of thing I face today, as a matter of fact,” hesays. “They’re just bigger problems.”

Finding funds

Of course it’s important to find enough money to pay thebills, but Day says he also has to find money to be able togrow and invest in people.

“We try to invest in ourselves,” he says. “We’ve tried to,rather than be in debt, we’ve tried to be debt-free and saveand use that money.”

Day says that’s as easy as simply not spending money youdon’t have, but it also comes down to balancing mission withmargin. The organization gives away just short of $6 million infree care a year, and, while that takes communication to raisethe money and sell people on the company, it also comes downto finding a good balance of what you can and can’t do.

“If we don’t have the money, we don’t spend it,” he says.“It’s almost like a seesaw. If, at one end, you have missionand, at the other end, you have margin — at one end, youhave responsibility, and the other end, you have authority.

“If one or the other is out of balance, it doesn’t work. Inother words, if a manager has too much responsibility without a commensurate amount of authority, he or she won’t dowell. Here, if we wanted, the only way I could give away thatmuch in free care is to be able to have it at the other end ofthat seesaw. If I don’t have the money, I’m not going to do it.”

If you’re having trouble finding a way to obtain money orhow to spend it, Day says form a board, even if it is only foradvisory purposes.

“I think it’s important for a CEO, or anyone else trying to dothis, to surround himself or herself with the best people possible, and that’s both at the governance level, the board level,and in the executive level,” he says.

“We all need people to open doors for us because there area lot of people out there with some very good ideas, but theyhaven’t figured out how to sell the idea or to contact the people who can open the doors for them.”

Find and retain good people

When Day first took over as CEO, he tried to convince people he knew to join him at St. Barnabas, but a lot of themthought he was crazy.

These days, he doesn’t quite get that response, but it’s stilla challenge to get good people to join the organization. St.Barnabas is in the high-growth areas of Allegheny and Butlercounties where the competition for labor is ferocious.

Day says going to places where you can meet potentialemployees, hear their story and then communicate yours is away to find solid workers.

Over the years, he says he’s talked with people about theorganization, where it is going and how it’s going to get there,and describes the journey and how they and their familieswould enjoy it.

“As we say, ‘If you want to shoot a moose, go where themoose are,’” he says.

“It’s probably a poor expression, but I’ve used it over theyears. In other words, I’ve gone and obviously swiped peoplefrom other organizations, but I would go to meetings andseminars and luncheons and observe and listen and try tofind people that I thought would fit my team.”

Day says during a conversation, he is impressed with someone who wants to work hard. He also wants to be associatedwith winners, and, when it comes to resumes, he focuses onthe results.

“So many of them talk about process rather than results,”he says. “We hire people because they know how to do thingsand how to produce results.”

Day says when you are looking for help to not only go outand meet people, but to also try to find someone from a similar business.

“If you find someone who has been a winner in anotherorganization and has produced the results, you can save anawful lot of time and effort and money by recruiting someone from a similar field,” he says. “If not, be out there, keepthe antennae up and find someone who has done well insales or finance or who knows operations.”

The key is not waiting for the good employees to come toyou, he says.

“You have to be proactive,” Day says. “I say it here often.‘Get up off your seat, or whatever you want to call it, and goout and talk to somebody.’ If it means go to Pittsburgh andgo to Harrisburg, I encourage my folks to do that. Go whereyou have to go and find these people. Or, if you see someone at the chamber of commerce meeting, or whatever kindof business association — American ManagementAssociation, American Marketing Association, wheneveryou see somebody, kind of listen, keep your antennae up.I’ve found people that way — found some great people.”

While finding good people is vital to a company’s success,Day says retention is just as important.

“I find to retain good folks requires effort and requires a lot ofcommunication,” he says. “What I’ve tried to do over the years,which I think has worked, and I’d recommend it to anybody, isif someone has done well ... I say something to them. On theother hand, if they have not done well, I say lets sit and talk.So, I don’t save up. I don’t save up on either the positive side orthe negative side. And again, it goes back to listening. I think[the key is] listening and observing and not having so much egothat I can’t notice that someone else is unhappy about something. Try to find out about it right away.

“I think it’s one of the key factors in retaining someone. It’smore important than the money because eventually somebodycan make some more money someplace else. That’s an endlessladder, if you will.”

Getting buy-In

No matter what you are getting buy-in for, Day says it isimportant to try and use words that help people see what youare communicating.

“I’ve tried to say around here, ‘There will be no improvementwithout change,’” he says. “By in large, people don’t like tochange.”

Day says he believes average people work in average facilities, good people work in good facilities and great people workin great facilities. Improving a good facility into a great facilitymeans the employees need to feel a part of the organization.

“We’ve tried to enable people to picture themselves workingin places where they are treated fai rly, where they’ve got allkinds of opportunity,” he says. “Nothing means opportunityanymore than bringing people up through the ranks. Let peopleknow the organization will grow and do good things. If theycan see themselves in that, then I think they will indeed buyin.”

Day says a major way to get employees to see themselvesas a big part of a growing organization is through recognition.

“Recognition is hugely important,” Day says. “We all walkaround with, you can’t see it, but I’m sure I got it on my shirt.It says, ‘I am important.’ And, I got 600 people, and they allhave that same thing on their shirts. It’s amazing.”

At St. Barnabas, employees who have served 10 or moreyears are welcomed into the 10-year club, where recognitionincludes being taken out to dinner. Day says employers canalso reward employees with shirts or jackets as well as puttingsome teeth into the employee of the month award and recognizing perfect attendance.

“There are all kinds of ways to recognize them,” he says. “Ifit’s in the weekly newsletter, the list is endless if people willonly think about the employee, rather than thinking aboutthemselves or their own egos. We need to sublimate our ownegos and exemplify and amplify the employees. There usedto be a saying in the newspaper business that names makenews. Well, they still do.”

Day says it costs hardly anything to recognize an employee,or even one of their kids for doing well, and the return is wellworth it.

“It’s the kind of thing that keeps people loyal and workinghard,” he says. “They buy in to the mission again.”

If recognition isn’t getting the job done, then making yourselfavailable to talk with employees can do the trick.

“There’s been this thing about management by walkingaround and all that,” he says. “I’m not sure that is a good ideabecause I think employees see through that. I’m not puttingit down. I walk around, but I don’t do as some of the textbooks have talked over the years about walking aroundevery day. Eventually, if an employee sees you every day inone of the buildings, they wonder ‘Why aren’t you working?’So, I don’t do that. But, showing a personal interest in eachemployee, and that’s hard to do, is important — showingappreciation for what they do and how hard they work andthe fact that it’s produced results. It still comes back toresults. We all want to be part of a winner.”

Recognizing employees not only gets employees to buy-in butalso creates a better environment.

“If I point at you and say, ‘Thank you so much for doing that,’”he says. “You’re going to come back either directly or indirectly with the three more fingers saying, ‘He is a pretty good guy,and this is a great place to work.’”

HOW TO REACH: St. Barnabas Health System, (724) 443-0700