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Savvy leadership Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

Philip Koen knew employees at SAVVIS Inc. were going through a tough time after losing their leader in a controversial departure just a few months earlier. Now Koen was being asked to step in and turn things around.

But it wasn’t doubt he saw in the eyes of his employees as he prepared to speak to them for the first time.

“What just shot at me was this was a group of individuals who wanted this company to succeed,” Koen says. “They wanted to be part of a winning organization. They had all the tools and capability. But fundamentally, the trust element had been ruptured.”

Koen was appointed CEO of the IT service provider in March 2006 following an investigation into a claim brought by American Express against SAVVIS. It concerned disputed charges made more than two years earlier on an American Express card issued to former CEO Robert A. McCormick.

“We had gone through a pretty tough time as everyone knows, and it was very visible,” Koen says. “What I’ve always tried to do is be realistic. You never want to insult the intelligence of your team. They know the facts. To stand up in front of a group and say everything is rosy, I can’t think of a better way to foster distrust and fracture an organization.”

Koen scrapped the rah-rah speech. He stood at the doorway to the meeting hall and greeted each employee with a welcoming handshake as he or she entered the room.

“I told them I was new, and I was interested in hearing from them,” Koen says. “I think that took a lot of people aback. That was a small symbolic thing I tried to do to set the tone.”

Koen talked about aspects of his personal life in that initial meeting with employees, and he addressed the challenges that employees had concerns about in an open and honest manner. He acknowledged the past and laid out his plan for the future of the 2,200-employee company. It centered around three elements: rebuilding trust, encouraging constructive debate on how to help the company succeed, and engaging the passion and commitment of everyone in the organization to make it all happen.

“All a company really is is a group of individuals that have come together for a collective purpose,” Koen says. “If you’re in that position of leadership or trying to help that group pave the way, the first thing you really need to make certain that people understand is, ‘What’s the thing you’re trying to accomplish?’

“There is nothing more powerful than getting a group of individuals that opt into a particular thought or movement or goal. It’s that process of getting people to opt in to that common view that’s the glue factor upon which everything else is built.”

Here’s how Koen applied the glue and got his employees to believe in the company again.

Help your people trust you

Trust is the most fundamental aspect of leadership, bar none, and it’s the first thing that needed to be rebuilt at SAVVIS.

“If you are lacking trust, there is really nothing more to talk about,” Koen says. “Think of a world where suddenly you bring together 100 different people from different ethnic and economic backgrounds, but they are all united around a common vision or goal and have developed a very strong sense of mutual trust — how powerful that could be.”

Building that trust is a lot easier said than done.

“I wish there was a trust pill you could take and suddenly things happen, but life doesn’t work that way,” Koen says. “The way it works is that it’s the cumulative effect over a long haul of how you handle interpersonal relations. Do you live by your commitments, and do you make your commitments clear? Do you treat people fairly, openly and honestly?

“It’s not a difficult concept. If you ask any person on the street, ‘How do you build trust?’ it really boils down to I want to be treated as you would treat me. You do that consistently over a period of time and it’s remarkable what happens.”

But it’s not just what you say. Listening and observing is just as important in your efforts to build employee trust.

“It’s just being observant and listening and asking good questions to spark people to open up to you,” Koen says. “You can figure out pretty quickly the situational analysis that you find yourself in. When I think about the problem solving around leadership, I don’t think figuring out the situation is the hard thing. It’s figuring out what you’re going to do about it that is the tough part.”

You may need to adapt your style to your people to build trust and show them that you’re working toward the same goal. If they don’t feel like you care about the things they bring to the table, employees aren’t likely to care much about what you have to say.

“Leadership style has to change according to the situational parameters that you find yourself in,” Koen says.

He references Pete Carroll, the football coach at the University of Southern California who struggled in his stints coaching in the National Football League.

“He goes to USC, and the program was OK, and he’s built it into a powerhouse,” Koen says. “Going into that situation, his leadership style had to fit. His shareholders, what they call alumni, they are not going to be real patient. He had to mold himself to be effective in that situation, and he figured it out.”

Koen also wanted to get employees involved in giving input on how SAVVIS could maximize its potential.

“What I wanted to do was make certain that I was tapping into the broader organization at all levels, really listening to the concerns and the great ideas and making certain I could have a clear view as to what it was that was causing people to opt in, to be here and to make this a better organization,” Koen says.

“People underestimate how much time and effort goes into teasing out of the organization the great ideas and making absolutely certain you synthesize that into the ones you want to pursue and continue to communicate that in a consistent message.”

Encourage debate

Employees need to believe that it’s OK to disagree and express countering opinions if your company is going to advance.

“This is a natural outgrowth of the fact that everyone is going to have a different thought,” Koen says. “Guess what, big headline: My thoughts might not be the same as yours. So how do you create an environment where disagreement and conflict is in a positive and constructive manner and doesn’t get channeled into destructive behavior?”

You need to foster an environment that encourages healthy debate.

“Let the organization know it’s OK to discuss various ways and approaches and solutions,” Koen says. “I’ve tried to say over and over again that I want to create an environment where the best idea can surface, regardless of where it came from.”

Employees need to trust that if they are open and honest with their ideas, they will be received positively, even if their idea is counter to what others think.

“It’s giving permission to individuals to come forth with their best thinking,” Koen says. “You have to come around and reward that. You have to walk the talk. You celebrate those great ideas that become successes.”

SAVVIS hosts quarterly all-hands meetings in which employees from around the world are brought together electronically. Koen schedules a time in which employees are allowed to ask any questions on their mind.

The value from this practice does not come by simply creating the opportunity. For it to work, you need employees to take advantage of it and offer their honest opinions.

“You don’t just do it once,” Koen says. “You have to keep coming back and doing it again. What happens is the word-of-mouth in the organization either works for you or against you, depending on how effective you are. Over time, it’s that consistency that you are constantly reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, give me your thoughts.’ You develop that sense of trust.”

If you just aren’t having any luck getting your employees to speak up, perhaps it’s because they don’t understand where the company is headed.

“Maybe it’s because people aren’t clear with what you’re trying to achieve,” Koen says. “You have to start doing the prescriptive analysis around that to figure out how to change that and get the company in a new trajectory.”

By asking over and over again for input and feedback, Koen says at least one employee is likely to offer an opinion.

“There is going to be someone, that one brave soul, who might raise their hand and say, ‘I’m really concerned about this,’” Koen says. “Then what happens is you get the pile-on effect. It’s kind of like the dam has been burst.”

Help people find their strengths

Koen says most people show up at work every day with a desire to contribute and make their organization better. Do whatever you can to encourage and strengthen that desire.

“Our obligation to team members is to give them the tools, the capability and direction to be successful,” Koen says.

At SAVVIS, team leaders are encouraged to speak with employees in their group about performance. But they also use the conversations as a means to ensuring the company is using its people to their full capacity. The intent is to prevent usable skills that employees might have from going unnoticed.

Team leaders meet every 90 days and review what they have learned in those dialogues as well as how the company is performing overall in meeting its objectives.

“You have an obligation to figure out how to get the most out of your team,” Koen says. “It’s a very effective way to identify interest and give honest feedback as far as how people are performing.”

Much like the process to gain trust, when employees are asked for their input and feel like it is being listened to, their commitment to the organization should grow stronger and their insights will be that much more useful.

“Commitment comes from having people see that they can be successful,” Koen says. “It’s pretty tough to get committed to goals that are going to fail. ... Are you giving them the tools to be successful? Are you giving them an environment where they can be creative? All of those things will simultaneously build to a much stronger level of commitment.”

Start this process of gathering feedback by asking your direct reports for their input and encouraging them to do the same with their people.

“That message gets translated down through the organization,” Koen says. “It’s reinforced through our HR practices. It’s reinforced in the way we promote people, reward people and pay people. You have to have a complete loop here to ensure you are addressing this holistically.”

SAVVIS has seen its revenue grow from $616.8 million in 2004, the year before Koen arrived, to $793.8 million in 2007. The company continues to add new data centers in the United States and expand its working capacity.

“Think of this as a triangle,” Koen says. “At the center of it is this opting-in capability and reinforcing messages that allow you to develop an interdependent and trusting environment, coupled with a sense of, ‘How do I deal with conflicting thoughts in a constructive way?’ Lastly, there is reinforcing it in such a way that people are constantly committing themselves to that cause. You have a powerful formula for leading any organization.”

HOW TO REACH: SAVVIS Inc., (314) 628-7000 or www.savvis.net