32 best management ideas Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2008

We’ve all had days where we would rather not open the newspaper, turn on the TV or pick up the phone for the fear of learning about more bad news.

Unfortunately, there have been a lot more of those days for all of us lately.

The stock market is going through extreme ups and downs, capital has dried up, and key customers are cutting back. You start to wonder where the sales are going to come from to enable you to make this quarter’s budget. If things don’t turn around soon, you’ll have to consider drastic cutbacks yourself.

In times like these, what’s a CEO to do? The answer: Get back to basics. Focus on the things you do best and do them as efficiently as you can. Use your strengths to exploit your competitors’ weaknesses and outhustle them.

It’s often the simple things that made you a success in the first place, and it will be the simple things that keep you afloat during the economic storm.

With that in mind, we’ve assembled the best pieces of advice garnered from St. Louis’ top leaders from throughout the year. We think you’ll find some great ideas to help you improve your business within these pages, and we encourage you to keep this issue as an ongoing reference to help you find your way through the trying times that lie ahead.

Encourage feedback

Mike Bolen, chairman and CEO, McCarthy Building Cos. Inc.

It’s natural for a leader to want to express his or her opinion as quickly as possible, says Mike Bolen, chairman and CEO at McCarthy Building Cos. Inc. Employees often come into a meeting expecting to hear their leader making a lot of proclamations about what they need to do.

“It can be a little frustrating for your direct reports, but I try to make sure I understand their opinion before I give mine,” Bolen says. “Pay attention to the notion that the first thing you’re doing is you’re soliciting and listening actively to the opinion of those around you and then you weigh in later. That makes some folks uncomfortable. But once they get used to it, they find it very effective.”

It’s all about getting your people to feel comfortable taking a chance and expressing what they really feel.

“Once they realize it’s not only OK, but that it’s encouraged and the way it’s designed to work, you get a much more free, open and honest flow of opinion,” he says.

It can take a little while to get to this point if your people aren’t used to it or if you have new employees who are trying too hard to impress you with their loyalty.

“Their goal is to mine or try to figure out what I think as quickly as possible and then adapt their position to that,” Bolen says. “When they are not able to do that, that can be a little frustrating. Once they understand how that works, it becomes a much more comfortable exchange.”

To get to that comfort level, your employees need to feel like they can approach you and give their opinion without fear of retribution. You need to make yourself accessible.

“Try to end up in situations as often as possible that are just like normal life,” Bolen says. “Do that frequently and at every level of the organization. Make sure you’re just as accessible down at the absolute entry level with the newest, youngest and most impressionable folks as you are in the boardroom. Be able and willing to navigate that and put in the time to do that. That’s how you’re going to set the culture.”

Don’t lose sight

Tom Fleming, founder and CEO, Supplies Network

Each morning when Tom Fleming arrives at work, he makes sure to notice the cars that are parked outside the office at Supplies Network.

“I have 185 employees, and of those, probably 130 or 150 are here,” says Fleming, the company’s founder and CEO and subject of our July cover story. “There’s 130 cars out there that need payments. You realize everybody does something with their paycheck. They send their kids to school. They buy clothes for their kids. They make a mortgage payment and a car payment. You see all those automobiles staring you in the face, and it’s scary. That’s a huge sense of responsibility.”

It’s also a quick and easy way for Fleming to remember that he’s not the only one that makes his company go. As a CEO, you need to remember this, and you need to make sure your employees know it, as well, if you expect them to keep following you.

“I have to make sure the people see me, that I’m a full-time employee,” Fleming says. “I walk around the building; I stop in their offices once in awhile and ask how they are doing. They have to see me at meetings. They have to know that their leader is here with them and engaged in the business and understands the challenges of the business.”

One of the challenges to remaining in touch with your employees is growth. Fleming says it’s OK to let various groups or divisions in your company have their own experiences once in awhile.

“They can go to a manager’s house for a barbecue,” Fleming says. “I like that stuff. A lot of companies don’t like that. They don’t want the manager inviting their department over for dinner or a barbecue at the house because they are concerned about what they are doing. Are they creating a microculture within the organization? If you trust your managers, that’s not going to happen. If you don’t trust your managers, then get rid of them.”

Be a good listener

Steve Maritz, chairman and CEO, Maritz Inc.

Steve Maritz says vision can be a funny thing to figure out sometimes.

“People tend to think that visions are arrived at mystically,” says Maritz, chairman and CEO at Maritz Inc. “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.”

Maritz, the cover subject of our February issue, says you have to consistently pay attention to your vision.

“Just being aware of it and acting true to it,” Maritz says. “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.”

Make it simple

Maxine Clark, CEO, Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc.

Culture is about more than how employees relate to and communicate with their leader. Maxine Clark says it needs to create an energy that employees feel when they come into work each day that will drive them to reach for success.

“You buy comfortable chairs for people and they realize that they are valuable, and they take good care of them,” says Clark, founder, chairman and CEO at Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc. “They are not just jumping up and down in their chair, and then their chair breaks and you have to go out and order a new chair.”

Clark, who was on our cover in March, says simple things, such as having a recycling program to show the company cares about the Earth or hosting a Thanksgiving dinner where the company pays for the main part of the meal, help drive home the company’s culture.

One of the best opportunities to show employees they are more than just a number on the ledger is to be there when they have a problem in their life outside the workplace. Clark uses the example of an employee who is coming to work late each day.

“Well, Susie is coming in late every day,” Clark says. “What you might have found out is she has to take the bus now because her car broke down and she can’t afford to get her car fixed. You look at it and say, ‘Gee, what’s behind this and what can we do to help?’ Maybe we change the hours because we don’t want her to be late. Now she comes in at 8:15 instead of 8, but she stays until 5:15. Work out things for people so that they can see that you do value their life and who they are as a person.”

Have a release valve

Jim Weddle, managing partner, Edward Jones

In order to be truly open, Jim Weddle is a firm believer that your culture needs to provide a forum for lower-level employees who do not always get the chance for a direct conversation with the boss.

The managing partner at Edward Jones has found the firm’s electronic suggestion box particularly useful. It has the advantage of being accessible to people at all levels of the organization and is completely anonymous, providing the opportunity for some very frank communication.

“They can send a suggestion, and that can be a good idea or it can be a cheap shot,” Weddle says. “Or it can be just a creative thought. If they choose to sign their name, that’s fine. If they want to remain anonymous, they can.”

The box was the brainchild of retired managing partner John Bachmann, who thought employees needed a means to express themselves.

“He said, ‘You know what, you’ve got to have a way for people to speak up. If they don’t feel comfortable speaking up one on one, and that can be kind of intimidating, I appreciate that. So let’s create a way for them to do so,’” Weddle says.

“It’s a release valve. If somebody gets angry, they send in a message and kind of pop off. Don’t sign it. ... Don’t get angry at a client. Send me a ‘sugg box’ and blow off a little steam, and then feel better and go back to work.”