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Pointing the way Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

The death of Maritz Inc. Chairman Bill Maritz in 2001 meant the loss of 40 years of experience at the very top of the company’s hierarchy. The tumult that followed as the 113-year-old family business struggled to deal with the loss of its patriarch, combined with the economic fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, presented plenty of challenges for Steve Maritz, the new chairman and CEO.

“During his tenure here, the company had grown substantially into what it is,” Maritz says of his father’s legacy. “It is not unusual in families, much less businesses, that the death of the patriarch often triggers some consternation and squabbling amongst the next generation.”

With $1.45 billion in revenue in fiscal 2007 and more than 4,100 employees, Maritz Inc. is the largest source of integrated performance improvement, travel and market research services in the world.

Founded in 1894 by Edward Maritz as a fine jewelry manufacturing company, Maritz Inc. has evolved over the past century to a business that helps its clients find ways to understand, develop and motivate their employees. The company is now composed of seven divisions under the Maritz brand: Incentives, Interactions, Learning, Loyalty Marketing, Research, Rewards and Travel.

Steve Maritz took on the role of CEO in 1998, but his father continued to work actively as the company’s chairman until his death.

The challenge for Maritz was to ensure that as the company moved forward under his leadership, and hopefully continued to grow, that both its vision and culture would remain aligned.

“Vision is a funny thing,” Maritz says. “People tend to think that visions are arrived at mystically. I’m not sure that’s really true. ... I think it starts with a lot of listening. Listening to employees, listening to customers and listening to outsiders so that you can understand the history and why you are where you are. You can understand what your strengths are but also what your weaknesses are, so you can check out different hypotheses and potential approaches that might work.

“It’s something you have to pay consistent attention to. Just being aware of it and acting true to it. One of the keys to having a well-known strategy is that it allows you to say no to a good idea. There’s a ton of good ideas, but you really don’t want to do them all. Knowing what your strategy is helps you determine which of the good ideas you want to pursue.”

Seek engagement

As he looked at where his company needed to be to continue growing, Maritz says he sought the input of employees at all levels of the organization.

“I shared the problem and that got everyone engaged in helping with the solutions,” Maritz says. “I was quite honest with all our folks about the challenges we faced. I was quite open to thoughts or ideas about how to fix them. You get a lot of thoughts and ideas that are in different directions. But as you work those through with people and you explore them, you start coming around to best approaches and best ideas, and you go after them aggressively.”

One of the key elements of any ongoing dialogue about change is to create a sense of common purpose among the groups with which you are talking. Taking this step helps ensure that the company’s vision is aligned with its culture and that everyone buys in to the plan and is working toward its fulfillment.

Maritz says he uses many forums to disseminate information and to gather input. Sometimes it’s as simple as a brown-bag lunch meeting. Other times, a town-hall meeting is more effective or maybe an online chat. Communication also takes place through the publication of an internal company magazine and a variety of small- and large-group meetings.

“I try to eat lunch in the cafeteria and talk to people and listen to people and see what they are up to,” Maritz says. “I try to spend a lot of time with customers and talk to them. Hopefully, through all that, we get on the same page.”

The company makes use of employee and customer surveys to gain feedback from both groups in an attempt to align the company around their needs, challenges and objectives.

When the feedback is returned with concerns about the direction that the company wants to go, it is important that they be heard and addressed.

“You can’t shoot the messenger,” Maritz says. “Nobody likes to hear bad news. But I like to hear the real news and the truth, whether it’s good or bad. There is nothing worse than bad news that festers into terrible news. The sooner you deal with those problems, the better able you are to deal with them effectively. The sooner they are dealt with, the smaller they are.

“You don’t want to be the emperor with no clothes. Every CEO needs haberdashers around who are willing to tell them when they are naked and help clothe them. You need a CEO who is willing to listen so when you tell them they are naked, they don’t say, ‘No, I’m not.’”

Maritz says he is also aware that while he is the CEO, his voice is not always the one that commands the most attention from employees.

“While people like to hear from the CEO, the most powerful communication to employees comes from the immediate supervisor,” Maritz says. “Their immediate supervisor, whoever that might be, is the one who they are in the most contact with, perhaps the one who has the most influence over their day-to-day life. What that immediate supervisor is or is not saying about the vision, the strategy, what’s required to get it done, what the plans are, is likely to carry the most weight with the people.”

Show you believe

The vision carries even more weight when the leaders who are conveying it demonstrate confidence in the plan.

“You’ve got to believe it,” Maritz says. “A lot of vision statements are so general and/or vacuous that they are meaningless. If that’s the truth of what the vision is, the first thing you have to do is work on the substance of it rather than the communication of it. If you’re comfortable with the substance of it, that it really is right and believable and the right thing to do, then communicating it should show up every day in your words and your actions.”

“(You need) a sense of common purpose and a sense of perspective about what the vision is or what the job to be done is,” Maritz says.

This means creating alignment between the vision and the organization’s communication and reward systems to get employees focused on a measurable form of performance and then rewarding them for achieving their goals.

“You line all those things up with your communication strategies and your overall objectives, and you try to tighten up the line of sight so that employees are working on things and being recognized for things over which they feel they have some control,” Maritz says. “Then people can get really engaged in your mission. Part of what we do for our customers and for ourselves is to translate business objectives into individual objectives, and then align reward systems and communication systems around that. So that when people are doing the right things right, the business wins and the people win.

“The negative cultures tend to be characterized by a lot of selfish behavior and parochialism. Oftentimes, it is people who think they are doing the right thing or they are doing the right thing for themselves or their own group, but they are sub-optimizing for the whole. It’s the same thing you see on a sports team: selfish players. Business is a team sport. Certainly, you need talent. But you need that sense of common purpose, and you need teamwork — not blaming the other guy but helping the other guy.”

When incentives are introduced into the culture to encourage employees to follow the vision, a focus on the task at hand is often achieved that improves both employee performance and the performance of the company overall.

“Reward systems are very, very powerful motivators,” Maritz says. “It’s what capitalism is built upon.

“We use recognition to recognize a job well done or a series of jobs well done for an individual. An incentive or a reward is something that is promised. It’s, ‘Do this; get that. If we achieve X, we will get Y.’ And Y can be anything from a celebration to points or a big-screen TV or a trip to Hawaii, depending on who the person is and what the situation is. We use that mix of recognition for recognizing everyone from top performers to simply saying thank you for a job well done.”

The effort that Maritz Inc. put into its own vision and cultural alignment is something that it looks to do for its clients as well as through the division, Maritz Incentives. Company leaders who do not see the value of incentives should ask themselves if they are getting the highest level of performance out of their workers.

“I’ll bet most of those managers who say that have some form of incentive compensation themselves,” Maritz says. “I always find it remarkable that they think it’s good for them, but it’s not good for anyone else. If you’re getting all the performance you think you should get with that style of management, great. If you think you’re leaving some on the table, maybe you ought to try something different.”

Have fun along the way

When Maritz looks at his company today, he sees an organization that is more honest with itself.

“We’re more together,” Maritz says. “From a purely business standpoint, we’ve repositioned ourselves in some ways. We bought some businesses and sold some businesses to better position our portfolio for future growth.”

While it may not seem very technical, Maritz says the best companies almost always have one common attribute in their vision for success: They have fun in their work.

“Fun is an important part of our overall mix,” Maritz says. “In our vision of where we want to be, it’s to be the best in the business at everything we do. It’s to become our client’s most valuable ally and it’s to be fun to work with. The fun to work with, in my opinion, is very strong. It’s something I believe in. Fun to work with at its core is about performance. ... We should be able to enjoy each other’s company with a sense of good cheer and camaraderie and work like hell to get the job done and satisfy our customers. That is going to make work more fun for everybody.”

HOW TO REACH: Maritz Inc., (877) 462-7489 or www.maritz.com