Give and take Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

Constant improvement is the key to success, says Andrew Armstrong.

The president of AB Mauri North America says that leaders must maintain a laser focus on continuous improvement while growing their companies and enriching the lives of their personnel.

“If you can accept that you, personally, are never the finished article, and you can always improve on both your own performance and your team’s collective performance, it provides a solid platform for ongoing development of the business,” says the head of the yeast and bakery ingredient products company.

AB Mauri North America — whose subsidiaries are Fleischmann’s Yeast and Innovative Cereal Systems — posted 2007 revenue of $180 million with 300 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Armstrong about how to continuously improve your company by communicating the corporate vision and welcoming feedback from your employees.

Provide the strategy as well as the motivation. A successful leader is able to engage in strategic thinking and provide direction for the business as well as display an overall skill for the different disciplines within the business.

In leading people, you’ve got to be able to motivate. People want to be able to see evidence of the fact that there is some passion and energy there and, at the same time, there’s sound judgment and some integrity.

Establish a corporate vision and direction. The challenge for all businesses is to build on what they’ve got, whether it is processes and procedures or the value proposition one offers to customers in terms of products and services.

We do three-year plans, updated every year, and as part of that, you tend to look at the business environment one operates in, both internally and externally. With that, one evaluates the markets that one trades in and the markets that you might be dealing in going forward.

As part of that planning process, you look to determine where you’re trying to get to through a combination of organic and acquisitive growth. You also evaluate what you need to do about people in terms of getting the right skills and capabilities in the business. We tend to do that as an ongoing process.

Share ideas with your staff. On an annual basis, the vice president of human resources, the vice president of operations and I will do business road shows around the factories as well as here at center.

It’s a review of the past year’s financial performance in a formal presentation to the employees at those particular locations, and it’s followed by question-and-answer sessions. We try and give them a feeling of confidence that there is a commitment by all to grow.

People are generally interested to know not only how the business has been performing but what plans we have to grow in the future. We’ve seen a more engaged and motivated work force. We’ve demonstrated a willingness to talk about these issues and demonstrated our respect for the work force.

We’re prepared to go into this level of detail, and we’re happy to answer questions within reason and take something back from that feedback as to how we might improve on our plans.

Be an active listener. A lot depends on how you choose to get feedback and what you do with it. Are you demonstrating that you’re listening and acting, or are you doing the opposite?

You have to listen and learn. That’s something I’m trying to get better at and something I have to work on. At the end of the day, if you’re going to capture the best ideas and consider the best options before making a decision, then you’ve got to be prepared to listen.

Distill feedback into an action plan. We try to increase the different ways of communicating with the work force beyond the road shows, not only through feedback on the Internet where people are free to express their opinions but also we’re in the process of doing an employee survey.

In this survey, people’s identities can remain anonymous, and a third party will assimilate that data. We’ll highlight what the findings were and what action we plan to take about that feedback.

It’s quite important that you need engaged employees if you’re going to have a successful business. That means treating them with respect. You’re actually willing to ask for help in these areas, and it demonstrates that our employees do matter and that we’re listening to them.

High up on the list of the leadership team’s priorities is corporate culture, and you’re only going to grow that if you stay in touch with what’s happening on the ground so you can get feedback and respond accordingly.

Leadership isn’t just the responsibility of one individual; it’s a collective responsibility of all employees throughout the business. From that standpoint, we try to ensure that these feedback items stay on the leadership team’s agenda and are acted upon.

In the factories, the employees came back to us and said, ‘Look, we greatly appreciate that you come around and do the road shows, but we’d also like to see you a few times a year outside of that to go through some of these issues and concerns.’ I am consciously making an effort to get around to the factories more regularly so that not only do we have meetings with the management there but also with selected employees from time to time.

HOW TO REACH: AB Mauri North America, (314) 392-0800 or