It’s not that Greg Twardowski yearns for the time when Whelan Security was a small security patrol company along the Mississippi River.
But as his company continues to stretch out from the heart of St. Louis, it’s very important to him that the company retains as much of the spirit and character from those early days as possible.
“We no longer have the ability to personally touch the larger employee population,” says the company’s president. “It’s still very important to us that everyone understands and feels like they are still working for a small, family-run entity. We want them to know that the efforts they put forth individually are meaningful.
“As a leader, you have to constantly engage in dialogue and debate with your employees. You have to be attentive to their needs, concerns and recommendations. You have to be responsive and available. Your door has to be open, and you have to answer your phone.”
It’s that kind of attentiveness that makes employees feel like they’re part of the team. It’s also quite a challenge for Twardowski, who has watched his company grow from 950 employees in 2000 to more than 3,600 employees today while posting 2007 revenue of $98.8 million.
By staying in touch with his people and the pace of his company’s growth, Twardowski has Whelan Security poised to continue its success.
One of the hardest parts of leading a company that has grown beyond its roots is the challenge of keeping in touch with a larger group of people working in multiple locations. The bigger a company gets, the harder it can be to communicate with everyone.
Whelan has taken steps like printing a card with the company’s mission and values on it that every employee is expected to carry. It’s one way of making sure everyone is clear on those things and that they understand they play a part in the company’s future.
But Twardowski needed more than just cards. He needed leaders who could develop the close bonds with employees that he no longer could because of the company’s growth.
“Leadership is not character traits,” Twardowski says. “It’s a set of behaviors that influence the behavior of others, hopefully in a way that makes those employees more likely to achieve organizational goals.”
When you are building a team, avoid making rash decisions. “You don’t build effective teams by filling holes with the wrong people,” Twardowski says. “The cards are irrelevant, your actions are irrelevant, communication is irrelevant and the service is going to be poor.”
Experience in the industry is important in making a good hiring decision. But Twardowski puts much more weight on a person’s character and work ethic.
In order to get that kind of insight on a person, you have to look beyond the resume and spend time with the candidates and get to know them. Learn about who they are and how they match up with your leadership philosophies. Perhaps just as important, don’t compromise your organization’s values.
“Our values are very traditional and conservative,” Twardowski says. “They are not values that are learned or lived by once you join our organization. They are values you should already have when you join the organization.”
It’s impossible to expect 100 percent of your hiring decisions to turn out just as you expect. But Whelan has found success using testing, psychological profiling and third-party analysis.
It all comes back to being patient. “It’s a very tedious process with a lot of personal interaction,” Twardowski says. “We do make mistakes. We just have to try to minimize the mistakes.”
Focus on feedback
Twardowski asks each of his employees to respond to an opinion survey at least once every year. He says that the effort to get employees to respond and respond honestly is a challenge, but the time-consuming process is essential to building a culture of trust.
“Without a level of trust, you get two responders,” Twardowski says. “You get a responder who is extremely happy and that’s all they write and everything is positive. Or you get an employee responding who is extremely irritated. ... If and when you create that culture of trust, you find the middle territory and that’s where you truly find your great suggestions, recommendations and opinions being expressed by employees.”
Like anyone, Twardowski says he loves to hear about all the things he and the company are doing well. But it’s the honest, well-reasoned opinions and suggestions that he finds to be most valuable.
“That’s where I spend most of my time,” Twardowski says. “There’s some disconnect with the values or the business principles, and they need to be addressed. If an employee is responding to an opinion survey that way, you know there have to be others. That’s where my letter writing and telephone calls and personal visits go, in response to that middle and lower half.”
Twardowski says his goal is always to encourage flow of communication from the lowest level of employee right to the president’s office, and the survey is one way of doing that.
“When we invert the organizational chart, our lowest level employee is at the top and then it filters down all the way to me,” Twardowski says. “If I’m properly supporting my senior team, they are supporting the regional team, the regional team is supporting the branch team and the branch team is supporting the top line, which is our population of security officers.”
And by focusing on the negative or lukewarm responses to his employee surveys, Twardowski reinforces the idea that he is not afraid of conflict.
“What you see in society is an awful lot of people who are afraid of conflict,” Twardowski says. “That’s OK to be afraid of conflict outside of an organization. Inside an organization, if you are afraid of conflict and you have employees who are afraid of conflict because it’s not a trusting environment, it’s problematic and can stifle an organization.”
Check your pace
Growth is a good thing, but like all good things, it needs to be done in moderation. Twardowski says you can have a great deal of control over the pace at which your company grows.
“I think I can control the growth on an annual basis,” Twardowski says. “That doesn’t mean that I’m controlling every opportunity. It means that I have built the team who understands my expectations.”
The key is to have a clear idea about what pace you want your company to grow at and to communicate that plan to your employees. Determining pace comes down to asking yourself a few questions.
“Does your organization have the proper infrastructure in place to absorb the growth, and does it have the infrastructure in place without having to put the cart in front of the horse,” Twardowski says. “Are you going to have to invest significantly in the infrastructure to support the future growth? Are you going to be able to sustain your culture and values systems with the added revenue and employee base?”
To answer those questions, you need to create a system where company data is being tracked on a regular basis. Whelan uses a scorecard system that keeps track of various items month by month.
“We are constantly feeling the pulse of the growth and the pulse of change within the organization,” Twardowski says.
By maintaining a read on your company’s key metrics, you can provide clearer direction to employees and, in the process, ease the fear of the unknown with employees.
“People struggle with change,” Twardowski says. “I’m leading an organization that is growing at a fairly significant pace. With change comes growing pains. It’s managing the change and then it’s managing those growing pains while simultaneously trying to keep your culture and value system, which really shouldn’t change, intact.”
Part of the process to keep that system intact is making good decisions about when to hire and how many people to hire during times of growth.
“If you are going to build for growth in the future, you can’t maintain unsupported overhead or you end up with an organization and an infrastructure that becomes complacent,” Twardowski says. “You have to be constantly trying to stretch the organization. If you are constantly overstaffed, you eventually have an organization built on complacency and it does not expect to have to work as hard.”
When a company loses control of its growth, the results can be very damaging.
“The foundation upon which the company was built and the trust you established with your consumer or your customer is very quickly eroded over a 12-to 18-month period if you can’t catch up to provide the proper infrastructure to support the growth,” Twardowski says.
Whelan grew about 31 percent last year and hopes to grow by about 24 percent this year. Twardowski says that most business analysts consider 20 to 30 percent growth manageable.
“I certainly could be growing faster,” Twardowski says. “But the foundation of the company wouldn’t be as strong. All business isn’t good business. All growth isn’t good growth. My belief, and it’s a belief that is published often, is that growth over 50 percent or growth in the range of 50 percent to 100 percent, which is termed hyper growth, can actually choke out an organization and choke out future growth.”
Like a good house, Twardowski says it all comes down to the foundation.
“If your company does not start with a solid foundation built around a culture and a solid foundation of business values and core values, regardless of instructions given to employees at any level, it’s hard for them to understand how they are expected to act and/or perform on a daily basis,” he says. “It’s just the foundation upon which the rest of the service delivery model is delivered.”
HOW TO REACH: Whelan Security, (888) 4-WHELAN or www.whelansecurity.com