It’s all in the approach Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008
Some say that Jane Saale has too much of a heart.

The co-owner, president and CEO of Cope Plastics Inc. says that this reputation probably started because she treats her 390 employees with compassion. But after four years as leader of the plastic fabricating and distribution company, she has learned that it’s important to balance compassion with empowering employees and holding them accountable for their actions.

“I’ve been caught on both sides, and it’s not fun,” she says. “If people think you’re too soft, they’re going to take advantage of you. And if you’re too hard, they’re going to think, ‘What’s up with that?’ You have to constantly watch and make sure you don’t go overboard on one side.”

Saale’s $93 million company has corporate offices in Godfrey, Ill., and 16 branch locations.

Smart Business spoke with Saale about her surefire way to manage employees and turn them into leaders.

Learn to manage any issue. This is my famous line when it comes to dealing with anyone: It’s all in the approach. It could be the ugliest thing you ever had to do — maybe you had to reprimand somebody or you had to tell somebody that they’re not going to get something.

Whatever it is, do it in a way that they understand why, and do it professionally and compassionately instead of coming down hard on them. If you can do it in a way that you’re holding them accountable and they’re making the choice, you get tenfold better results. Approach it in a way that makes sense and is not threatening.

Maybe they don’t agree with it, but you’re phrasing it in a way that they understand the ‘whys’ behind whatever it is. In anything you do, it’s the approach that matters — how you handle a situation. I’ve never been a hard-core ‘do it my way or the highway’ kind of leader.

It’s always been my approach to say, ‘We have a problem here, and we need to fix it. Do you think you could have done it better? What did we learn from this?’

There are so many different little things you could say to not make them feel bad, but they will also understand, ‘I need to change this. I need to improve.’

Don’t be a dictator. The alternative is to lead autocratically. I just don’t see how you could ever sustain an approach that’s any different from the way that I do it. If you threatened people, they might listen to you and do what they’re told, but it’s not sustainable. You’re never going to have a thriving, secure business by leading in a way of fear or intimidation.

You’re not going to get buy-in. You’re going to get silos built, and you’re going to get people not wanting to come to work and people not caring about what they do. And that’s not good overall.

The approach is just so vital. In anything that we do here, employees need to understand how we approach things, how we get people involved and why we get them involved. They need to know the ‘whys’ behind some of the decisions and the direction that we’re taking so they can get on board.

There’s a difference between coaching and micromanaging. You don’t need people in your business every single day telling employees what to do and what not to do. If you give people expectations and the right type of support and direction, they should be able to handle themselves and be held accountable for it.

Develop leaders internally. We’ve been in a leadership training development program for the last year now, and it has really helped people understand their role here — the expectations, the accountability and the teamwork aspect of it.

Right now, we have upper management — about 40 to 50 people — in it, and the hope is that we’ll have training all the way down to the guy on the floor running the machine. We talk about situational leadership — how to react to different things, how to communicate and how to problem solve. Leadership training has got to be effective. It can’t be just fly-by-night, flavor-of-the-month type of training. You’ve got to live it, breathe it, lead by example and understand it. You’ve got to give people opportunities to change and succeed, and you’ve got to empower them to do their job. It goes from the top down.

If this leadership program keeps progressing the way it is now, and we’re happy with it, there’s no reason why we wouldn’t train all the way down. If you don’t do it, you’re never going to know how much better you could be.

Establish a corporate definition of success. Success is intrinsic satisfaction of what you do. If you don’t love what you do, and you’re not happy with it, change it because you’re not going to be as successful.

I don’t know that you can hard-data measure it, but you can definitely measure it by the way people are, their aura and their behavior.

Are they happy? Do they mope around? You can tell when people feel good about what they’re doing. They’ve got to have a sense of pride and success in their mind. I can’t see somebody being unhappy and thinking that they’re successful.

Success is about winning. It’s about understanding what you do and knowing that you contribute to a bigger piece.

HOW TO REACH: Cope Plastics Inc., (800) 851-5510 or