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Setting the tone Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

Tom Fleming is proud of his roots and the traditional upbringing that he received from his parents.

Growing up on the not very mean, but also not very wealthy, streets of St. Louis, he was taught that those things in life that are worth having are also worth your own blood, sweat and tears. Fleming paid his own way to attend a private high school and also bought his own baseball glove.

“I had my first job delivering newspapers,” Fleming says. “It was safe for an eight-year-old to be walking around delivering the local newspaper on a Saturday night. You develop that understanding that if you want something, you work for it. That’s built into me.”

It’s also built into the way he runs Supplies Network, a private wholesaler of information technology consumables like ink, toner and CDs, which generated $345 million in revenue in 2007. But he has learned that being a good leader means accepting that not everyone is wired exactly the same way that you are.

“I’m a traditionalist at 63,” says Fleming, the company’s founder and CEO. “I have a tendency to say, ‘This is the way it is, this is the way it was for me, and I have a work ethic, and this is how I dress, and this is how I think.’”

The trick for a CEO is to take your people of differing backgrounds and build a cohesive group that will enthusiastically follow your lead. And you need not look any further than what parents do for their children to learn how to do so.

“The best example of leadership in this country is good parents,” Fleming says. “Not only do they have unconditional love, but they have an unconditional sense of responsibility.”

In other words, a good leader is constantly focused on taking steps to make his or her employees better rather than basking in the glow of being the CEO.

“You can sit down with the child and say, ‘Look, this is the way it is, and this is what smoking will do to you,’” Fleming says. “‘I don’t care whether you like me or not because I love you and you’re going to get the best I can give you as far as my advice.’ We can do it as parents, and we need to do it as managers and leaders.”

The best way Fleming knows to serve his 185 employees is to show up each and every day, work hard and set a solid example for them. So when he recently decided to step back a bit from his responsibilities by taking Fridays off, he took a 20 percent pay cut to support his reduced workload and to show he wasn’t above his employees.

“You have to have a single standard of behavior,” Fleming says. “I can’t expect my leadership team to behave any differently than I behave. If I don’t demonstrate strong leadership skills, not only will they not follow me, but someone will probably try to take over as alpha.”

Here’s how Fleming has grown Supplies Network by earning the respect of his employees by both respecting their differences and engaging them in his contagious work ethic.

Show them that you care

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

“I have 185 employees, and of those, probably 130 or 150 are here,” Fleming says. “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.”

Fleming and his executive team meet quarterly with employees to discuss the state of the company, whether it’s good news or bad news.

“We share where we are with the goals and objectives in the company,” Fleming says. “The basis of all that sounds kind of corny, but you really have to have a mission statement and employees need to know what the mission statement is. It basically says this is the business we are in and this is how we’re going to accomplish success in this business. ... If they don’t know, how are they going to help you?”

One of the challenges to remaining in touch with your employees is growth. Supplies Network now comprises an operations group, a product management and marketing group, and a sales group.

Fleming says it’s OK to let each group or division have its own experiences once in awhile to help its members bond in their own way.

“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.”

To keep everyone attuned to the broader company they all work for, schedule some functions for the entire group of employees once in awhile.

“Give them an opportunity to get to know people in other departments,” Fleming says. “You can still keep some sense that we are one corporation, but we have satellite groups within that corporation.”

Set parameters

When Fleming delivered papers when he was younger, he felt the responsibility of getting each of his customers what they had paid for. That sense of accountability to the task at hand is something he has tried to instill in his employees at Supplies Network.

“You have to write good job descriptions,” Fleming says. “They need to understand what their job description is. ‘This is what I want you to do. Can you commit to this? Do you have the ability to do this? Do you have the personality and the characteristics to do this? Do you understand what I want you to do?’”

To drive home the importance Fleming places on accountability, senior managers at Supplies Network are each tasked with drawing up a company dashboard under the watchful eye of Fleming and his chief operating officer.

The dashboard is a one-page document filed every month in

which senior managers report on everything that is going on in their department.

“It’s the report on their responsibilities and the result of their responsibilities and those become part of our executive conversation,” Fleming says.

The act of composing the monthly report puts the onus on the senior managers to get their work done.

“They will realize themselves before you even have to talk to them that they didn’t accomplish something that month they were supposed to accomplish,” Fleming says.

These accountability failures will be fewer in number if you offer support and encouragement that they will bounce back.

“You establish rules and goals and then you have to allow them to make mistakes,” Fleming says. “If they are afraid you are going to jump down their throat every time they make a mistake, they’re never going to grow. You allow them to make mistakes and then you measure their execution.”

Peer pressure can also play a role in reducing mistakes. By sharing the reports at executive committee meetings and laying out everyone’s goals and objectives in an open manner, the burden of accountability becomes even more keenly felt.

“If the development side of I.S. is behind on programming and because of that, we’re having a difficult time in one of our distribution centers, the director of logistics is going to bitch about it,” Fleming says. “They hold each other accountable.”

Stay relevant

As your business is meeting its goals and experiencing success, you can’t ever take anything for granted.

“The question I always ask ourselves, and I tell my dealers to ask themselves is, ‘Are they important to their customer? Are they important to their supplier? If they went out of business tomorrow, would anybody care?’” Fleming says.

“We live in such a prolific society that there is always an alternative. If McDonald’s is shut down, we can go to Burger King. There’s always an alternative. How do we as business owners, whatever business we are in, how do we remain relevant, fresh and important?”

The answer is to constantly be ready to reinvent what you do and be able to communicate the changes that you make.

“That’s the hardest time when things are going really well,” Fleming says. “You have a tendency to fall asleep at the wheel. You sit back and you say, ‘We’re good. Our business model is really cranking, and people really love us.’ I’ve developed the ability to get more scared when things are going good than when they are going bad.”

When times are tough, people fear for their jobs and arrive for work early and leave late. Everyone is asking what the major problem is and what needs to be fixed.

“Everybody is working their ass off when things are going bad,” Fleming says.

Conversely, when sales are up and profits are on the rise, there is a natural tendency to relax.

“You have a lot of selling days,” Fleming says. “If we had a bad day today, we’ll make it up tomorrow. You can never make up yesterday.”

You need to always be trying to improve. And when things are going well, you need to study why it is that your business is succeeding.

“Many times, things are going good for a corporation because of an exterior influence,” Fleming says. “It has nothing to do with us. There’s a lot of companies right now that sell to the federal government that are having wonderful years. War is good for some businesses. It has nothing to do with them.

“It’s a supply and demand situation. When things are going good, I’m always more scared because I realize the wind has our sail and the wind is going to stop, and when it stops, you better start rowing.”

By being open with your employees and regularly setting goals and tracking your progress toward those goals, you can help ensure you are ready when the wind stops blowing.

“If you want to be an island, be an island,” Fleming says. “Go back to being a proprietor and you are your own employee and you can live by whatever rules you want. The minute you incorporate the help of other people, you have to be very understanding of who those people are. We’re all different.”

HOW TO REACH: Supplies Network, (636) 300-4001 or www.suppliesnetwork.com