The effective organization has a leader at the helm who guides a strong business that is doing well. To reach that level, a leader has to combine his or her skills and mental toughness with lessons learned through experience — and lessons learned from other leaders and respected sources.
Nearly every successful executive can cite some advice he or she received that is an inspiration or a best practices tip. Being in charge sometimes can be exhilarating and sometimes terrifying, but by having a touchstone of advice and guidance from many sources, you can find an even keel to guide your vessel.
Here are tips from some Greater Chicago executives on leadership advice that has guided their careers.
President and CEO
Guaranteed Rate Inc.
Victor Ciardelli says he believes it’s inefficient to simply collect talent and find a place for it later, as some entrepreneurs try to do.
“I just don’t have time to do that,” says Ciardelli, the president and CEO of Guaranteed Rate Inc.
You can invest many hours searching for potential candidates, engage them in a series of interviews to learn about them, see who you like and eliminate some before selecting finalists.
But when you’re a fast-growing business, do you really have the time to do that? It’s Ciardelli’s belief that you probably don’t, and more importantly, you don’t even need all that time to decide.
“Most good CEOs and department heads can identify a strong candidate within minutes of an interview versus hours of talking to somebody,” Ciardelli says.
It’s an ability that you should be able to find in others on your management team as well so you don’t even have to conduct those interviews. It’s your responsibility to make sure people are clear on what you want.
Use the same detailed approach to provide information to job candidates. Those who are worthy of being hired will take heed and be ready to present themselves in a brief and concise manner.
“They are coming in ready to go and ready to deliver whatever they want to say within the interview,” Ciardelli says.
Eric Belcher, president and CEO of InnerWorkings Inc., believes the future is wide open, but there still need to be goals and objectives to keep everyone on the same page. It’s the ability to toe that line and promote independent thought that still fits in with a common goal that is his challenge.
“It would be easier for me to micromanage and be more autocratic than it is to step back and have the trust that is required for people to flourish,” Belcher says. “There’s a way to stand back and allow autonomy, but yet still have a firm understanding of what’s going on in the business. That’s the challenge.”
Belcher and 10 other members of his leadership team have put on paper a few priorities that they each plan to pursue for the next year.
“It’s not a broad, ‘I’m going to do a good job this year,’” Belcher says. “It’s very specific. That group meets once a week and we pull that document out monthly, and we make sure that, within the macro, we all understand what everybody else is focused on and expects to accomplish throughout the course of the year.”
With that foundation in place, leaders are free to work within a set of parameters to find their own creative ways to deal with issues and challenges that arise each day.
Silos are a pitfall for managers. Leaders who feel insecure about their place in the organization often create them.
“People artificially create silos in a way to build their own inner security system or to build a moat around their work,” says Bruce Leon, president of Tandem HR. “I think it has to do with egos and peoples’ inability to be open, transparent and willing to share. It’s the perception people feel that if they are the only ones who can do something, they will have job security.”
But a bigger problem is created when a leader resigns or is unavailable to deal with an issue.
“Everybody has to imagine what their job would be like if tomorrow they were hit by a car and someone else had to step in,” Leon says.
This is not just a mind exercise for Leon, however. He wants a real action plan in place in case such an unfortunate scenario happens.
One of the ways to prevent silos from forming is to occasionally move people around to different areas of the business.
“We switch around a lot of the administrative people in different departments so nobody gets locked into one unit,” Leon says. “It forces people to be cross-trained and it prevents that natural us-vs.-them attitude in the company.”
If you’re hired at Jay Dettling’s Acquity Group, your relationship with the recruiting team does not end after your first day.
“The team is comprised of our recruiting team and our professional staff management, basically our practice leaders,” says Dettling, the group’s president. “They oversee the on-boarding of our employees and their overall career path. It’s a full life cycle for our employees. If we know this person’s strengths and weaknesses, we know how to effectively put them in the best position to be successful and to deliver value for our clients.”
You need to make time to keep an eye on the future. Think about what your people are doing now and what you might need them to do going forward.
“We have a lot of folks who are mapping our project opportunities to the expertise we have among our staff,” Dettling says. “There’s a daily, if not hourly focus on what are the skills and experience that our clients are seeking. We are always looking for ways we can help our employees grow and expand and be challenged.”
Expectations need to be on the table during the interview phase and they need to be adhered to so your people understand their role in your organization. That doesn’t mean they can’t be changed, but you at least need a baseline from which to work.
Once he had the blessing of senior management to undertake a rebranding of Associated, president and CEO Michael Romano began to think about the possibility of providing some great warehouse solutions to customers — and his imagination began to run wild.
“Initially we thought it was going to be more of ‘blow it out of the cannon, everybody is going to love it, we’ll run from there and it will happen,’” Romano says. “But we realized there was a lot to accomplish.
“We had to break it down into discreet steps and create a path over time to get to where we wanted to get. Even before we introduced it, there was basic education about what is a brand. We brought all our employees together and asked, ‘What is a brand? When we say we want to change our brand, what does that mean?’”
It became clear to Romano that like anything in life, you have to put time and effort into a plan of change if you want it to endure.
“Anything that results in something good — usually there is some hard work, some time and some effort involved,” Romano says.
The preliminary work and effort that goes into crafting your message and thinking about how you will convey it to your employees is critical to achieving success and earning support.
Cleverbridge, an e-commerce provider, was doubling its office space every two years and broadening its reach to additional clients — and Craig Vodnik, vice president of operations and co-founder, recognized the need to become even more proactive about preparing employees for a steep growth curve.
“We created a structured training program within the organization so that anybody in the company — and this applies from customer service up to any senior manager — has the ability to take these classes,” Vodnik says.
“It’s a great way to develop internal talent so that we don’t have to compete with the market.”
Vodnik began talking about the training opportunity a few months before the classes actually began. It was done in a repetitive fashion and the goal was to find the people who were really interested in learning and weed out the ones who didn’t have their hearts in it.
“We’ve sold it to people as something that is really going to benefit you,” Vodnik says. “This is something you would have to pay for if you went outside the company, and we’re offering it to you during the day while you’re already here.”
The people you choose to do the training will also go a long way toward determining its effectiveness.
“You want somebody who has some patience and can clearly explain things and do a lot of the pre-work of organizing materials in a very clear manner,” Vodnik says.
When Andrew Berlin got his first taste of leadership at the company that would soon become Berlin Packaging Co. LLC, he had two things working against him.
“I was young and I was a lawyer,” says Berlin, chairman and CEO. “It was very difficult, but the company was sinking, and we had to make dramatic changes. But I learned how to be a good recruiter. I focused on creating a sense of Camelot where you could finally do and be and behave and accomplish the things and engage in your dreams in a way you never could before.”
The key component of Berlin’s turnaround plan was the psychological contract he made between the company and its employees. It would later become the subject of a case study in a book.
Here are the five things Berlin promised his employees:
■ Outstanding compensation.
■ Strong leadership.
■ A helping hand.
■ Skill development.
In return for these promises, Berlin laid out his own expectations for his team.
“I expect you to help us increase our profit,” Berlin says. “You either have to help this company sell more, reduce our operating expenses or improve our productivity. Those are the only three ways to be more profitable.”
But like anything in life, the contract hasn’t been perfect, and it has required significant effort.
“In order to pull this off, you need good leaders to believe it, teach it, intellectualize it, communicate it and hold people accountable to it,” Berlin says. ●