Planning ahead Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

You won’t ever see Michael Zambrana flying by the seat of his pants.

For the founder, president and CEO of Pangea Inc., an environmental remediation and construction company that does business as Pangea Group, effective leadership always starts with a plan.

“Obviously, developing a plan gets people focused,” he says. “Then, communicating that plan, getting buy-in and checking progress is the key.”

Zambrana’s strategy has worked, as Pangea grew from revenue of $3 million in 1999 to revenue of $35.8 million in 2004 before intentionally leveling out its growth to remain in that revenue range.

Smart Business spoke with Zambrana about how to sort through all the input you receive from your employees to form a plan and how to break into new markets.

Q. How do you get employees to buy in to your plan?

Basically, if they’re part of creating it, that significantly enhances buy-in. So make sure they are part of the process.

If they weren’t part of the creation, then allowing them time to absorb the plan and comment to the plan and accept the plan after review is the other way to get buy-in. That works whether you’re planning a company plan or a project plan. It has to be clear enough that somebody from the outside would be able to make sense of the details.

Q. How do you decide whether to get employee input before or after the plan has been conceptualized?

When you’re going through the process, you observe people and their ability to contribute to the process. Soon, there are innovative ideas that come out of certain people, and when you get that kind of contribution, they are invited back. Some people are not.

Performance speaks very loud. Someone who can turn in a plan and perform that plan quietly, obviously gets greater consideration than someone who has a fabulous plan but it’s probably unachievable.

It has to fit within the capabilities of the company. We have to have the resources to execute it, and the market has to be there for it.

Q. How do you evaluate the proposed plans?

We do that in one of these ‘two or three times a year’ meetings we have. We get together as a group and we put the plan up and talk about it. We say, ‘This section of the plan, we said we weren’t going to pursue that.’ Or, ‘We have a niche in the power market, and you’re not addressing that niche.’

So we all take turns looking at each other’s plan up on the board and commenting to it. You find out at that point, people present their plans, and we all act as constructive critics to find out if it’s real, if it’s conservative and if it’s on point with our overall market goals.

People tend to trend to what’s familiar and easy, and what’s familiar and easy may not necessarily be what is strategically right.

We went through a strategic change a couple years ago. We used to do a lot of work for the federal government, then we redefined ourselves, identified our core competencies and found out which markets we should be pursuing in the private section in these regions we’ve committed to. Some of our people — all they knew was government business, and they felt very uncomfortable going outside of that cocoon.

Some people were able to make the transition, and some were not. Some left voluntarily because they were uncomfortable with that, and we had to hire people who would take us to those new markets.

Q. How did you handle that transition?

We had to look at ourselves through the view of our competitors and firms we would like to emulate. If we have these competencies and this firm in the marketplace has those competencies, we actually look at their marketing brochures and analyze how they’re doing business. Then, we take portions of that, that match our core competencies and see how to apply those.

Once we identify them, you find that you have to improve some of your offerings. You have to know what you don’t know now. That’s one of the things that we didn’t realize.

For example, we went into health care. We thought that our internal programs and procedures were first-rate. Well, they are first-rate, but they’re not first-rate for the health care industry.

We didn’t know that there are other issues regarding life safety and infection control that were not a part of our current procedures. So we had to learn what we didn’t know.

Q. How do you learn those things in a new market?

First, go out and talk to the customers. Of course, there is a large amount of health care infrastructure being built, so we went out and talked to a few clients about what their needs were. They were very happy to tell us what we would have to do to play in their world.

They guided us toward associations; we joined those associations and attended their meetings and updated. And finally, we did enough of that where a specific client committed to us and gave us a contract.

HOW TO REACH: Pangea Inc., (314) 333-0600 or