Carolyn LaWell

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Going global

Too often, companies fail when they try to expand internationally because they don’t fully understand the market, says Edward de Valle II.

Oftentimes, companies go global without first researching sustainability or their operations don’t cater to market needs, says de Valle, founder, president and CEO of AMG Worldwide.

Since the marketing company’s inception in 2002, de Valle’s knowledge of the global economy and his approach to expansion has strengthened the company as it’s grown, posting 2007 revenue of $62 million. AMG Worldwide has nearly two dozen offices and alliances across the world.

You can’t overlook putting in the time and research to do it right, de Valle says.

“I look at the general business climate — who is doing what, who has done well and, most of all, who has failed,” he says. “It is also important to look out for trending reports, where foreigners have done well or poorly in business in that country.”

Smart Business spoke with de Valle about where to begin when expanding your company into other countries.

Do the research to understand the feasibility of expansion. One of the things that I would recommend — and it worked in my case — is that I don’t just go to India and say, ‘I’m going to open an office in Bangalore, India.’

I research companies that are like mine, set up appointments, open a dialogue with those individuals. From that dialogue, I find out other opportunities that exist in that market.

You need on-the-ground intelligence. It is crucial. The CEO is not going to get the information from the paper.

A core example of what companies do wrong is, they all say, ‘Well, Brazil is doing really well, and so is Russia, and so is China and so is India.’ But they don’t follow the trends. They only look at the bright side.

They don’t look at the fact that when there is an economic recession, especially when it’s globally, the first countries to be affected are the emerging markets.

Now you might have a CEO who, because he only looked at the bright side, has invested $100 million in a new venture in Brazil without ever, ever, ever having studied, spoken to, been on the ground, worked with the local government to understand the economy and the fluctuations that it has.

The other part of it is speaking to other business leaders in those countries and taking the time to really do your due diligence. As the CEO of a company coming into a new market they might not be familiar with, I think it would be important to be able to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis.

I would like each individual that I come in contact with to explain to me what the strengths of their market are. I would like each of those individuals to express to me what the weaknesses are, what are the threats.

And then, I’d look at other individuals to give me the brighter side, which is the opportunities. Those four things are crucial.

I would not only rely on the sources I go to, I would also rely on government resources. You can even go into a U.S. embassy in Russia, for example, and ask them, ‘What experiences have other Americans had doing business in this country?’

Most people don’t take the time to do that. I would say it’s anywhere (from) six to 12 months before spending a dollar in a real infrastructure to do business.

Think locally to better serve clients. Other companies say they’re global, but in order for them to really be global, they need to invest money. They need to invest dollars and they need to invest time overseas with the people that are actually going to be operating their business.

Not only that, but it’s very important that they have a very good (business-to-business) kind of dialogue with other CEOs across different parts of the world for them to be able to have that information.

We have very quickly understood the importance of the global economy and how we’ve been able to expand with our partners and our alliances into those countries to be able to offer on-demand intelligence on a regional basis.

What happens is, you have a lot of global companies in America that say, ‘Oh, I have an office in the U.K., and they’re going to service Russia,’ for example. But they’re such different markets, so they really aren’t giving people the full-scale intelligence of what that particular regional market might be.

What we’ve done is open alliance networks … offices in strategic global locations, where they act as a hub for maybe five or six countries around them. That also helps the alliance gain a lot of competitive advantage.

Find the right employees. Above all, recruit talented people you can trust to oversee an operation when you’re gone.

To do this, you learn from those people who gave you the instinct that you want to do business there. Ask questions, get to know who their confidants are and hire them.

Once you’re set up, move quickly. Don’t think too much. Get set up with legal and confidants, and get to the sales floor.

In a new business, you have little time to play in the first years. Sales mean everything. Leave all the (other) stuff to those you put in place to do it and get out on the sales floor.

How to reach: AMG Worldwide, (305) 572-9883 or

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Interviewing 101

You’re not getting off the hook easily if you’re interviewing with Hany Girgis.

The founder and CEO of SGIS wants only A players sitting at his company’s desks, which means each potential employee receives a grilling.

Those lucky enough to land an interview must answer questions that cover a range of topics. And while the interviewee talks, the multiple SGIS employees asking the questions write down the answers to create a report for discussion after the interview.

“I don’t think interviewing is obvious,” says Girgis, whose 750-employee company provides IT, engineering and intelligence services for government agencies. “I think many people don’t know how to interview, and so that’s why we’ve created this process.”

Having a process in place that involves multiple employees is critical to attracting and hiring the type of employees you want, says Girgis, whose company posted 2008 revenue of $87 million.

Smart Business spoke with Girgis about how to make sure you’re hiring the right people.

Recruit employees. We have internal corporate recruiters who are responsible for going out and identifying potential candidates for our open positions. They’re doing a lot of scouring, so they’re actually calling into our competitors and trying to sell them at an opportunity here.

It’s pretty proactive. It’s not, ‘Put a posting and see what kind of resumes come in.’ We go out and try to find opportunities. The best employees out there aren’t necessarily always the ones who are looking, so being proactive is really part of their job.

I really encourage my people to talk to our competitors and find out what they’re doing, what they’re doing well, what they’re not doing so well. As part of that process, you interact with a lot of your competitors out in the field at networking events, and that’s really a great opportunity to recruit. If one of my people comes back and says, ‘Hey, I met this guy at so-and-so company and I think he would be really great for our company,’ that’s a really good recruiting opportunity.

Take the time to do a thorough interview. We have a long interview process. It’s basically a two- to three-hour interview with each person, and there’s usually at least two members of the team.

There’s a preset list of questions, and they’re really questions that are meant to dig out … some of these qualities [we’re looking for]. The key is to not have a short 30-minute personality-type interview but really ask questions that dig.

We go in and talk about their college experience and their extracurricular activities in college. What they thought of their prior managers, what their managers would say about them in prior jobs.

Ask in-depth questions to identify characteristics you’re looking for. One of the questions is, ‘Give us a feel for what kind of school you went to. Was it large, small, rural or urban? Generally, what your college years were like. What kind of school activities did you take part in? What people or events during college might have had an influence on your career? Were there any class offices or honors or special achievements during your college years? What were the high points during your college years?’ And then, we also ask for low points.

For some of the work history questions, we ask, ‘What would you say some of the mistakes or failures you experienced in your jobs were? What is your best guess as to what your supervisor honestly felt were or are your strengths, weak points and overall performance?

I think for some of the questions about extracurricular activities, obviously, if they were a fraternity president or they took on some sort of office or they were the leader of their math club or the yearbook team, it shows some sort of leadership there. If they have a 4.0 [GPA], that shows that they’re smart and have a good work ethic.

Maybe they didn’t enjoy school, but they went through the motions and they worked hard and they studied every night in the library to 12 o’clock at night to get good grades. That says something about their work ethic, their desire.

The jobs that they’ve been at, what were the reasons they left, what were the reasons they stayed there, what did they like about those jobs?

Are they willing to admit to some of their mistakes they made at their last positions, and if they are, how did they resolve them? That shows their problem-solving abilities.

Include multiple employees during the interview process. When we hire somebody, we want it to be unanimous. If two people are iffy and two people are gung ho, we want to know why those people are iffy, and maybe that is an opportunity to go to somebody else.

It just improves your chances of getting the best person in the seat, that A player. There’s a stronger likelihood that a 100 percent unanimous decision will work out better than a 50-50 decision if you have four people interviewing them.

When there’s multiple people in the room asking these questions and firing off these questions, No. 1, it’s less time for the interviewee. Rather than going to these three-hour interviews with five different people, you can do the three-hour interview with a set of people in one room, and then you can also see how they handle pressure and how they react to the questions as a group because some people ask questions differently.

How to reach: SGIS, (858) 551-9322 or

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

On their own

If you need constant direction, you can’t be on James Lawrence’s executive staff.

The president and CEO of Oriana House Inc. immediately throws new employees into the fire to fend for themselves. He says that by giving people space to make their own decisions, you instill a sense of trust in them that is empowering, Lawrence says.

“You provide them the environments to become better employees, better managers and better leaders,” he says.

Empowering employees starts with outlining your expectations for them and making it clear that you trust their abilities. Secondly, you have to keep them in the know about what’s going on at the company to help them to make informed decisions. Find ways to allow your employees to make their own choices and work with them if their decisions backfire.

Giving employees the opportunity to grow and, in return, provide better service has allowed Oriana House — a nonprofit organization that treats chemical dependency and offers community corrections services — grow from a three-day-a-week program to a 24-7 treatment center with revenue of $32 million.

Smart Business spoke with Lawrence about how to step back and empower employees to act on their own.

Set expectations. You bring the people in because they’re experienced, and you tell them that you brought them in because they have the experience that you’re looking for and that you trust them to do the job.

Set the expectations of what the job is. Then, give them a larger box to operate in, knowing they can always come back to you for advice and planning. But expect them to do that less and less and make their own decisions.

Give employees information to help them make good decisions. I have seen over the years that sharing the information you have lets people know that you trust them.

What we have to do to empower them is to continue to meet with employees at all levels.

I meet with my executive staff and program staff for regular meetings, but I’m talking about the entire operation.

You have to provide your employees with information about the organization and what’s going on with the organization, outside influences on the organization and the impact on the organization.

What I often tell people is, ‘We don’t have any secrets.’ You want to let your employees know what’s going on in the organization and outside the organization because that helps them to better do their job as well as meet their expectations. And I’m talking about good things and bad things.

I meet with them and tell them what’s going on, and I encourage them. That way, you encourage input from them; you’re meeting with them. You want to listen to what they have to say in these meetings as well as let them know.

For example, last year, we did raises because I have a feeling we won’t do raises for at least this year and possibly next year. It’s better that they hear it from me saying, ‘Right now, our position is there wouldn’t be raises this year. That may change depending on what happens with our revenue and contracts and services.’

Empower employees to act on their own. If you talk to my employees, you’ll probably find out that some of them, especially on the higher levels of management, I don’t tell them a lot [about what to do]. I set them out there and see what they do. They can always come and check with me but empower them to make decisions but also to make mistakes.

Employees, managers, leaders — they all have to develop their own style on how to run various aspects of our organization, and my style doesn’t work for other people, necessarily, so I think they have to find their own.

Part of it is to allow them to make the decisions that are sometimes wrong. As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s good for me not to be around because I don’t want to stop them from making decisions.

As long as it doesn’t ruin the company, for example, I consciously let people do things that are wrong just because you learn a lot from that.

Let people do it their way. You have to do it by example. I don’t know how else you would do it. It’s almost like if you were always working in the same room with the boss, they do things a certain way and that’s how they would do it, and they almost can’t help themselves.

So if I was hanging around with you all day and you were working with me, I would almost feel like I’d have to jump in.

It’s hard sometimes, depending on your personality … to be able to step away and let them operate, even though you would do it differently.

That’s why sometimes it’s best not to be there. Sometimes, I’ll send people to meetings that, in the past, I might have gone to. I consciously don’t go there so they can’t look to me for the answers; they have to make the decisions and know that I trust them to go forward.

Otherwise, they tend to go back to me, what I would do. If I’m not there, they can’t ask that question.

You have to do it by example.

Work with employees when they make mistakes. If they do something that doesn’t work out, then we sit down and talk about that and redo it.

Go over it and restudy it, just so you can learn something from it.

How to reach: Oriana House Inc., (330) 535-8116 or

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Interviewing in depth

Tim French takes his time when filling an open position, because hiring quickly can have disastrous results.

When the CEO of The French Co. needs to fill a spot on his roster of more than 100 employees, it takes him months to assure a good fit. And to make sure he gets it right, those he hires have usually survived several interviews and undergone tests analyzing critical thinking, skills and personality.

“Someone who is a great worker, with great skill sets, can be very disruptive if they don’t fit with your culture,” says French, who co-founded the retail maintenance service company with his wife, Donna.

Smart Business spoke with French about how to choose the right employee to fit your business.

Q. How do you determine whether a candidate is a good fit?

You can look at their resume and ask very specific questions to figure out whether or not they are misleading you in the resume.

If they’ve alluded to a grade point average from college, I’ll ask for verification of that. Most employers don’t do that, but I figure that’s a great place to start to see whether or not they’re misleading.

The other thing that we look at is, history repeats itself. If the applicant has done a great job in the past and it can be proved through results, then they’re most likely to continue that with your company. If that isn’t the case and you can’t prove what they’ve done in the past, it is likely they won’t deliver results.

Q. How do you verify a job candidate’s past performance?

It can be exhaustive. It goes down to in-depth interviews with past supervisors, and we’ll go as far as we can, interviewing customers and vendors they have interacted with. We start with the resume to try to qualify what’s on the resume, as well as what they’ve told us in the interview.

Generally, what we find is if there are some exaggerations or misinformation in one area, we’re going to find that in all areas. If there is total trustworthiness, it generally will play out through all of the research that we do.

It can take several months to hire a new staff member. They’ll go through as many as four or five interviews with senior management and the hiring manager, and we put them through a series of tests, including critical thinking tests and skills tests.

What our employees who have joined us have told us is it’s the most exhaustive interview hiring process they’ve ever seen, but they’re really glad we do it because it produces really good hires.

Q. How does testing help in the interview process?

The critical thinking test is a test of whether the applicant can think deeply, can think strategically and can problem solve. It’s a series of questions that results in answers that they give and produces a report back to us — it’s a third-party test that we use.

We also do skills testing. For example, we’ll test for grammar, we’ll test for proper letter writing, we’ll test for Excel and PowerPoint skills, depending on the position they apply for. We want to make sure we don’t have to spend significant time training in these basic areas.

We’ve had some wonderful people apply who can’t write a business letter, and unfortunately, that speaks to who we are as a company. A poor business letter reflects very poorly on the company.

Many of these are computer-based, so we sit them down at a computer and let them go through and either take the test online, or we’ve got some internal things that we’ve done.

The DISC [dominance, influencing, steadiness and conscientiousness] analysis is really a personality profile that helps us understand how this person will operate within a specific environment. For example, there is a different profile test for management than there is for sales. It gives you really a full view of who this person is.

The way we use it for applicants is to figure out if there are some glaring problems here that we can’t get over. It also helps to support theories that we may have come up with during the interview process. Then, once hired, it helps us support them in areas they may be weak in.

Q. What questions have been successful for you in understanding the candidate?

One of the questions that I like to ask is why have they specifically selected our company, and how does it fit with their life goals? I can quickly determine whether they’ve spent time researching the business and have some reason that they want to work for us versus those that are just sending out resumes for a job.

An applicant, whether it’s higher level management or a staff employee, they are delivering their very best performance in an interview, and they should have done their very best prep work in advance. If they haven’t done that for their next career, then I’m not interested in hiring them, because if they don’t do it for their career, they’re certainly not going to do it for our employees here and for our customers.

How to reach: The French Co., (800) 321-8875 or

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Step by step

Before Kip Wright began outlining his vision, he needed a base of values to stand on.

“We spent a lot of time creating a set of, not only a vision, which clearly articulates what we want to be, what we are and what we are aiming to become, [but] we felt it was very important to pair with that a set of value statements,” Wright says. “What’s important to you from a value standpoint? What’s important to the company?”

Wright, president of TAPFIN Process Solutions, recently walked his staff of 200 at the human capital solutions provider through the process of creating a vision. He says that when molding your vision, understanding your values is one key ingredient. Another key is employee participation. But the vision isn’t complete until it’s clearly communicated to every employee.

Smart Business spoke with Wright about how to develop a vision and then communicate it to your employees.

Involve employees in the process. First of all, it can’t be done in isolation. If you really want a vision that sticks, you’ve got to enlist your employees into part of that process.

When we went through the process of renaming ourselves, for example, we actually opened that up to our employees. We didn’t go out and formally engage in a marketing firm to come back and say, ‘Here’s the three names you ought to look at.’

We let our employees provide suggestions. Then we let them vote on the top 10, and we went through a dialogue of discussing the pros and cons of each of those. It’s important to do that.

When we got down to a set of names, and there were several hundred that we went through, we started to bring that down to a group of senior leadership.

At some point, it becomes inefficient to continue to involve everyone, so you have to start to get some representation for the employee base. That was what we felt our leadership was.

The naming process is probably less relevant than the fact that we do tend to look at our leaders and our directors and that management group and above as representatives for our employee population and ask them to make sure that they’re keeping both our customers’ and our employees’ best interests in mind when we make decisions that affect the company.

Create a list of values. Secondly, it’s important to understand those values.

A lot of that depends on, No. 1, the leader, the senior management of the organization. What do they want to stand for? What do they want to build?

Obviously, your shareholders are a big piece of that because they’re providing you their views in terms of what they want the company to be, what they want to stand for.

It really starts with the core belief in terms of senior leadership. Ours were, in many respects, pulled from a lot of beliefs we had always talked about in groups and in meetings. What do we think that’s really different about us? Why do you think it’s so great to work for TAPFIN? Why do you think our customers love us?

You start to ask those questions, and you start to realize there are themes that start to emerge.

All of those things are important inputs in creating your vision, because if you don’t have those as your foundation, your vision statement can’t reflect that.

Pull the pieces together. Then, you lastly look at, OK, now with these two things, participation and a core set of values, what is our business?

What are we trying to achieve? What is our product, and how does our product drive value to our customers? How does our product drive value back to our shareholders? How does our product benefit the employees?

If you take all of those things into mind when you create that, your ending product becomes something that works, that lives, that breathes, that means something. It’s not just arbitrary words that were pulled out at random.

Take the vision to your employees. The way we’ve done that in terms of communicating it is, one, consistently and continuously. We look for ways to constantly reinforce that.

We have these little 3-by-5 folded laminate cards that we have given out to our employees and asked them to carry it in their wallets. On one side of it has the vision statement, and on the other, it has the values.

When I’m out there with our employees, I ask them, ‘Let me see your card.’ When I’m in front of customers, I pull it out and show it to them and let them know that that’s important to us.

Make sure employees absorb your communication about vision. You can’t be an effective manager sitting behind a desk on a phone, sending out e-mails.

I get out there. I’ll hit an office. I’ll hit a series of cities and try to make sure I’m getting in front of the customer, trying to make sure I’m spending some time with my team members.

Then you ask them, ‘What do you think? How are things going for you? Do you get the vision? Does it make sense to you? Does it resonate?’ Those are the ways that you make sure it’s happening.

We’re not perfect in any or all of these things; this is an evolutionary process. The biggest challenge of leadership is developing and growing yourself, standing and living for what you preach, and it’s a constant focus.

How to reach: TAPFIN Process Solutions, (713) 386-1400 or

Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

Quality control

When Jim Cable was appointed president and CEO of Peregrine Semiconductor Corp., the right culture and ideas were in place for the company to succeed.

But the responsibility for maintaining the culture can be just as big as the challenge of defining it, he says of the 80-employee, $70 million company.

“One of the things that you find as a company grows is [the challenge of] communicating that culture and indicating behaviors that you would like your employees to have and pushing activeness and decision-making down inside the organization,” Cable says. “We got to a point where we felt that there wasn’t enough of that going on. So we launched a thrust to restimulate that type of behavior we were describing.”

That thrust is called Team ME, an initiative focused on continual company improvement through opening the lines of communication and evaluating behavior.

Smart Business spoke with Cable about how to communicate and maintain a culture.

Openly communicate. One of the things that you keep learning as a CEO is that you really can never communicate too much. Your employees crave information. As much as you think you provide, as much as you think people know what’s going on, I really find that they always want more.

One of the things we do is we try to have quite regular communication with employees.

It’s not all good news as you’re growing a company. There’s bad news. There’s a tendency sometimes not to project all the bad news. Certainly, I think we’ve been guilty of that at times.

But, on the other hand, I think we try to do a very balanced job of, ‘Here’s what’s going on, here’s what’s going right, here’s what’s going wrong.’

We have monthly all-hands meetings. Basically, everybody in the company can attend by person or by phone. Generally, I give a 45-minute update on the business (then have) an open Q&A.

There is an attempt to maintain communication, and that is an important part of the culture — that your employees believe that they know what’s going on; they hear the truth.

It’s something you have to struggle with. Sometimes I look at the effort I put in to preparing a 45-minute pitch to the employees, and I do it, and I sometimes think I didn’t learn anything from this and it was a lot of effort.

You can easily look at it and say it’s not high on your priority list. But you shouldn’t view it that way because the benefits are really quite significant. People feel like, after an all-hands meeting, they know what’s going on. The feedback I get is that it’s well worth the time, energy and sweat to go through the process.

Talk with people face to face. I’m not big on sending out once-a-week e-mails to employees to talk about what happened that week. I think having the face-to-face communication is really what’s important. It’s walking around. It’s making yourself available.

I do not go down and ask an employee three levels down to reprioritize what he’s working on to do some pet project for me because that’s anti-chain-of-command. What I tend to do is, if I hear a little tidbit in the hallways about something that’s going good or something that’s going bad, I ask a question. I primarily use it as a way to get people to talk.

Most employees want nothing more than to have the CEO walk into their cubicle or their office and ask a question. Get them to talk about what they’re doing. It makes them feel important, it makes them feel valued.

You have to draw the fine line of having that conversation and making them think that you’ve told them to do something different. It’s more to express interest in what’s happening, so that people know what they’re doing, and it’s important to the company.

Evaluate your actions. You maintain it by continuing to act in a manner, behave in a manner that is consistent with the culture.

New employees learn what is considered acceptable behavior, what are considered the corporate values, by observing what they’re seeing as they learn the company. It gets observed, and it gets assimilated.

You have to walk the talk. One of the things we challenge ourselves on, on a regular basis is, ‘OK, we say this is a value. Did we really behave that way?’ If the answer is no, then there’s something wrong.

One of the things we’ve always taken pride in is that we feel very strongly that we should have a quality product. We had some quality excursions. That was part of this Team ME. If we have this culture of quality … what was the reason we had some quality issues come up? Were they individual issues? Were they process issues? Were they culture issues? How do we get back to, not only do we say it’s important, but it is important?

Sometimes it means you have to make some investments. You say something’s important and you put a team responsible to fix it and they come back and say, ‘We know how to fix it, we have a plan to fix it, but it’s going to require some expenditure of resources.’

If you say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’ that’s very demoralizing to that team. If the answer comes back that it’s a modest thing to do, you have to back it.
How to reach: Peregrine Semiconductor Corp., (858) 731-9400 or

Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

Building confidence

The ability to inspire confidence in employees is critical, especially in rough economic times, says Michelle Abreu.

“It really pushes people to go far beyond what they thought they could do,” says Oxford’s president and chairwoman. “Also, as a whole, when you have everybody with that kind of mindset, it really pushes your organization to new heights.”

That mentality has helped Abreu — who co-founded the firm in 1998 —grow Oxford to 2007 revenue of $18 million.

Smart Business spoke with Abreu about how to inspire your employees to achieve their goals.

Q. How do you inspire your employees?

By remaining focused on what your goals are and not waning from that. Not doing things that you wouldn’t otherwise do.

We’ve had certainly a lot more team meetings just to make sure people are calm, that we do have the right fundamentals and our business is solid. That really inspires confidence that they know and trust that we have been doing the right things and we continue to do the right things for the benefit of the company.

There are always ups and downs. You have to expect, as an organization, that you will have down years. Bring people in and brainstorm creative ideas.

A good example of that is, at the end of the year, we had a team meeting to talk about cost-cutting opportunities. We brought everybody together and said, ‘OK let’s have a contest. Who can come up with the best ideas for the company?’

That really inspires people to give their best, knowing that they’re directly impacting the bottom line and can have a real impact beyond just the work that they have to do every day.

I think it’s important for leaders to be inspiring, really displaying confidence in everything that you do. Certainly, especially in today’s economic environment, it puts a lot of stress on managers and leaders within the organization, but your employees can see that and your customers can see that. That’s not something you want to outwardly display.

Q. How do you display confidence?

Always putting things into perspective is a key piece to that — recognizing that if you display nervousness or a knee-jerk reaction or concern, that will emanate within your organization.

When I look at our organization, I don’t just consider that I have a family that I provide for. I am helping and our organization is helping to provide for all of their families, as well. So they’re trusting, as the leaders they’ve chosen to work for, that we are doing everything in their best interest. And frankly, I don’t think that coming to work and acting and behaving stressed out and whatnot really helps anybody, it certainly doesn’t help them be more productive.

Putting things in perspective is the big piece of that. Make sure that you have the necessary cash reserve and that you’re still making sound business judgment. Never appearing to be concerned or afraid of failure and go into everything knowing you’re going to be successful and really emanating that throughout the organization. Leading by example and making the impossible seem possible.

Q. How do you make the impossible seem possible for your employees?

By giving them examples of ways that can be achieved. Allowing them to see that if it’s just me that has the vision or goal for the company, I can’t do it by myself.

Through our strategic planning process, we bring everybody together to understand what our three-year process is going to look like. Then, we have pretty detailed plans on how we plan to achieve that, and we share that with everybody.

By showing them a road map, it then becomes reality, and that’s something people can believe they can do. It only makes them feel much more enthusiastic about what they bring to the table and how they’re going to help get to that goal that you’re trying to get to.

The way that we do that is, as a leadership team, we develop the strategic plan every year. It’s a rolling strategic plan, a three-year plan. Once it’s finalized and our leadership has agreed to it, we then gather all of our employees together.

As a final draft, we ask for input from them. If they have ideas or they think there are some areas where we’re lacking or it’s not what they expected, we then take that feedback from them and we finalize the plan. Once we have the plan finalized, then we come up at a department level or a major function level with an action plan. The leader of that area will then work within their organization over the course of a month and a half to develop strategic actions, and we assign owners.

If you are very inclusive with your employees, you ask them for their help, you ask them their opinion, you ask them to be very involved in the development of the strategic plan, people are inspired by that.

How to reach: Oxford Consulting Group Inc., (614) 310-2700 or

Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

Building relationships

If you don’t have satisfied customers, you don’t have a business, says John Krajewski.

At the heart of any company’s growth is its ability to meet the needs of its customers. But it’s more than just answering your clients’ phone calls; it’s also knowing your clients and their business operations, says Krajewski, managing partner of the 35-employee law firm Stark & Knoll Co. LPA.

“Get to know them better as people and get to know the issues they’re dealing with,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Krajewski about how to develop client relationships to guarantee customer satisfaction.

Q. What are the keys to developing trusting relationships with clients?

With our customers, we provide legal services, and in providing those services, our clients are buying our knowledge and expertise. But in reality, they can’t fully evaluate if we draft a good estate plan or write a good legal action.

What they are making their decisions on is the little things like phone calls being returned. Are they feeling valued — that their opinions and their business is valued?

Be responsive to their needs. If we don’t know the answer immediately, we’ll research it. If we can’t get to it that day, we will tell them we need to get back to them, and we will be prompt in getting back.

The most important thing is to be straightforward and honest with them. They simply don’t call us to generally chat. They call for our legal opinion and advice on how to get something done, and we try to give a clear path on how to achieve their goals.

Be clear with them. Lay the groundwork ahead of time for what they’re looking for. Sometimes they’re looking for a quick answer and they don’t want a treatise or a big paper written. They want just a short, simple answer. You have to know your client; you have to learn their business.

Q. How do you learn your clients’ business?

Some of it comes with just experience of working with them. Simply do your homework. Research — read their company handbook, read the materials that they provide for their customers.

Other aspects of knowing their business are walking through their facility, learning exactly what they do and how they do it. If it’s a manufacturing facility, to see how the operation works, find out who the key people are at the business and their various roles.

And to work as a team. We are attorneys and provide legal advice, but we try to do that in a team spirit. We do it in conjunction with the accountants, in conjunction with the bankers and in conjunction with the owners of the business.

Sit down and meet with them. We try to periodically sit down with them and at least annually, if not more often, take a review of where they are, where they want to be.

You not only talk to people when times are tough and you’re looking for business, but you talk to them when times are good and [find out] what their plans are. Some businesses, their plans are to expand into different market areas, different parts of the country or world. Others want to diversify and not be dependent on a product. It’s important to understand what your customers’ goals are.

By having the involvement … you learn what they do, and you can be on the lookout for issues or cases that you see come up that can affect them or decision or laws you see that can affect them, and you advise them of those things.

This is what we do. We’re a business law firm, and we are a small business. We understand the importance of not nickel-and-diming them on things, being responsive on the phone, and if they have a question, picking up the phone and answering the question. If it takes a little bit more work, then we do additional research. So we try to work with them as a team to try to grow their business.

Q. How do you maintain strong client relationships?

You call them up. Make sure everything is all right. We’re in this together to grow their business, to grow our business.

Personal contact — you need to stay in touch with your customers and your clients. It may be a regular monthly meeting with them or a quarterly meeting, but keeping in touch and not forgetting who your customers are.

I think the best advice is to talk to your clients, either at breakfast, lunch or visit their business. Sit down with them in periodic reviews and establish goals and objects of what they need and see if you can help them.

If you can’t be straightforward with that, get them the best help they can have no matter what the issue is. If it’s a legal area that we may not handle, we have to get them the best advice. They may be a great manufacturer, but just like they don’t know everything, we don’t know everything.

How to reach: Stark & Knoll Co. LPA, (330) 376-3300 or

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Growing your own

To Marion Albanese, there is nothing quite like empowering employees.

In fact, helping employees recognize their talents and then giving them the support to grow has been the most rewarding aspect of being managing partner of Ernst & Young’s Tampa office.

“There are people who are natural, who you’re going to go to because they’re simply powerful,” Albanese says. “But sometimes there are other individuals who, with a little prodding and empowerment and support, can become great leaders. You need more than just that one go-to person. Build that leverage and empower across broader resources.”

The lesson of believing in someone and advancing them is one Albanese learned from one of her own mentors and one she uses as she oversees her 240 employees.

She says that finding great leaders begins with identifying their strengths and then providing opportunities for them to foster that talent.

Smart Business spoke with Albanese about how to identify and develop leaders within your organization.

Identify the strengths needed to be a leader.
I’m a big believer in playing to strengths and not focusing on weaknesses. So you identify people that are very talented and not try to necessarily fit them into a mold but allow them to grow into their own strengths.

When I look at somebody, I think about, ‘Can they build a team?’ Obvious goals are, are they a self-starter, are they goal-oriented, do they have the technical skills? But leadership, I believe, is the ability to build a team, to understand people, to motivate them, what motivates them, how to get the best out of everybody, and that’s very different depending upon the individual. It’s the ability to really sense and bring out the best in someone.

You might think that includes somebody who cares about people, is compassionate or who has empathy or can see through to somebody.

I look at how people react to them. How they treat people. You can see the ones who build the teams the best and those that sometimes just don’t know how to put others into an environment where everybody learns and grows.

Look around and watch someone’s performance. Try to get away from the noise. Watch an individual. See how they interact. See how they build teams. Then give them that shot.

Train employees to be leaders.
You lead them. You give them experiences to watch others lead, which would include giving them different types of leaders so they can see what works and what doesn’t work sometimes.

You watch them, you coach them, you give them those experiences, and then, most importantly, you give them the chance to lead. Put them into opportunities that they may not think they’re completely ready for or comfortable [with], but generally know that they are and that they might stumble a bit, but they are absolutely capable of doing it.

Empower and support employees.
It can make all the difference in the world.

You’ve got those people that are natural-born leaders, and they’re going to sometimes take power. But even then, sometimes, to rise to the next level, I think empowerment is a vital thing that happens.

It’s really basic. It’s telling somebody they can do it. It’s like teaching your child to ride a bicycle. When you let go of that bicycle and that kid takes off, they know they can do it. It’s that basic reassurance and confidence and building block. You’ll get a result that you might never have gotten without it.

Empower them, and then support them. Be extremely candid with them on how they’re doing — what they’re doing right, maybe what they could alter, giving them input, giving examples of times when I’ve faltered or stumbled or other great leaders, not only in our firm but in great organizations.

When an individual comes into the firm, we would provide them with a peer adviser. We provide them with a counselor that helps them with their performance and goal setting.

Part of what I believe [is that] solid leaders are always providing that mentoring. I would suggest our leadership here looks at mentoring and counseling as simply part of life and what we do.

It gives you somebody who has seen how an organization works, has seen how the community works, our clients work. So it gives you knowledge. It gives you different perspectives. It can help with providing you visibility. It can help with work-life balance issues.

Find new leaders.
It’s easy to go to those that are the natural-born leaders, but if you only go to those people, you’re not going to leverage your leadership. You’re not going to be able to truly grow as much as you might otherwise by thinking about other people who might not be as apparent leaders.

If I have 300 people in a location and 10 people in leadership roles, if I don’t expand that leadership group, I’m never going to get to 600 people. I’m never going to grow the business.

If we think about our world, globalization, exclusivity, think about gender, think about diversity, think about [Generation] X, [Generation] Y, baby boomers, if I always go to the same person, I’m never going to be able to develop the depth and the different types of leadership that is a requirement in today’s world.

HOW TO REACH: Ernst & Young LLP, (813) 225-4800 or

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Looking ahead

When Greg Rogers traded in his days of drywalling and fieldwork for heading his own business, he knew little about running a company.

As founder and CEO of contracting company Pacific Building Group, the last 25 years have been a learning experience based on trial and error — and a lot of drive. That experience has led to his understanding of what a CEO must do to survive and also how to lead a successful company.

The keys lie in awareness, flexibility and diversification, Rogers says.

“I think you have to be very aware of your environment, and probably as much as anything else, especially in these times, flexibility — the ability to quickly identify and adjust to industry and economic changes,” says Rogers, whose company posted 2007 revenue of $70 million and anticipates about $100 million for 2008.

Smart Business spoke with Rogers about how to tap in to ways that will allow you and your company to grow in any environment.

Study your environment to gauge the future.
You have to look at your industry and industry trends and what’s going on around you. As you see the economy slide, there are some things you just know are going to happen.

You have to relate all of the things in your environment; I’m talking both your economic environment as well as your business environment. Looking around, following up with trade journals, following up by keeping yourself informed, whether it be through economic forecasts and forums as to what’s going on in your own industry, to think out ahead of how that’s going to affect you and how it’s going to affect your business.

As far as being aware of your environment, again, it’s how is your environment going to impact your business as you continue to grow. If, for instance, building new buildings is going to slow down, one of the things I have to look at is, if it’s going to slow down, how are we going to meet that challenge? Are we going to look for other kinds of products to do? Are we going to look for other kinds of services to provide?

We have to be very proactive about it. If we wait till it happens, it’s kind of too late.

Remain flexible.
Don’t get locked into a box. It goes to people that only provide one service and do things one way.

The problem becomes, in many cases, you create obsolescence. Or when markets change and your environment changes, if you’re rigid and you’re not willing to look for new opportunities or new ways to do things, you get left in the dust.

When I talk about flexibility, I mean that in a number of senses. You need to be flexible and open to new ideas that are brought to you by people that work for you. These may be people in any position in your company, from your top management people to your lowest people. You have to be flexible enough to be able to accept suggestions that may have merit.

On the other hand, you have to be flexible enough to understand that your company may change and the products and services that you provide may have to change to fit the environment you’re in.

For instance, if you’re a wheel-maker and all you make is wheels and people quit buying cars, you probably need to be flexible enough to find a different use for wheels if the only people you’re selling it to are carmakers.

If you don’t have that type of flexibility, you set yourself up for failure.

You strive as a business manager and an owner always to grow and to expand and to do things bigger and better. Sometimes based on the environment you’re around, you have to be flexible enough to always understand that’s not always possible.

Find ways to diversify.
You grow a company by trying to diversify your market, so when one market is not performing as you hope, other markets might be. That helps you maintain and grow your market share.

One way we’ve found is through underserved niche markets. We try to look for areas that other people aren’t doing or they’re not doing it well. That may be emerging trends, things that haven’t been done before or things as they start to come up.

If you look at what the world is doing, it helps you to identify business opportunities that are going to grow and are going to continue to be there for a period of time that may not even exist at a great rate right now, but you know they’re going to happen. We look at technology trends; we look at economic trends and what’s going on in our region.

We don’t always know if it’s right for our company. There is risk involved.

Once we can see what an opportunity is going to be, we try to analyze that opportunity. We have to ask ourselves, is this an area that we have the expertise for, we can hire the expertise for or we can develop the expertise for?

By going through an analysis of those items and try to decide whether it’s an area we should pursue or shouldn’t pursue.

HOW TO REACH: Pacific Building Group, (858) 552-0600 or