Who's on the bus? To management guru and best-selling author Jim Collins, this is the most important question business owners need to ask themselves. The bus is your company, and getting the right people is crucial to success—more important, even, than your strategy.
So how would you answer? And what do you do if you've got the wrong people on the bus? Or the right people doing the wrong things? Kevin Rees, president of New York-based translation company LanguageWorks, had a great team on his bus—until he didn't. Rees started LanguageWorks in 1993 by hiring friends and acquaintances. "I was looking for anyone I could entice to stick with me," he says. "I was a first-time entrepreneur, had little in the way of credentials, and I was undercapitalized." But as LanguageWorks was growing into a $10 million, 45-person company, Rees worried his staff didn't have the management abilities he was looking for. Between 2001 and 2006, six people from the company's early days were let go or left. Those departures ended a few friendships. Says Rees: "It was incredibly traumatic."
There are a host of reasons a once-solid—or even star—employee may no longer be right for your company. A topflight salesperson who gets promoted to be head of sales might be a lousy manager. A jack-of-all-trades could get restless if asked to focus on one area. And employees who thrive in a startup environment may chafe when asked to follow the rules and procedures of a larger company.
However much you may dread doing so, these issues need to be tackled head on. Cornell University associate professor Christopher Collins, in a study with Bradenton (Fla.)-based human resources firm Gevity, found that managing employees is one of the top three things that keep business owners awake at night. And he says that while many entrepreneurs are visionaries or innovators, they can feel challenged managing talent.
Where Rees ended up—without a big chunk of his startup team—isn't always the best answer. You owe it to your company and your staff to try to find out exactly why a certain employee may not be up to par. Then you've got to decide how much you really want to keep the person and see if his performance problems can be fixed. You may be surprised by how willing employees are to work with you, and how open they'll be about which tasks suit them and which do not. Here are five strategies to get the right people into the right jobs.
TALK IT OUT
When Vickie Pullins and Jackie Frazier founded their Hurricane (W. Va.)-based speech pathology company, LinguaCare Associates, in 1990, they were confident they could work well together. They'd been friends since meeting in college almost 20 years earlier. But as the company grew, they started to feel overwhelmed. It wasn't until 2006 that they brought in S.K. Miller, a coach with Margate (N.J.)-based Collaborative Strategies, for some outside perspective.
Miller asked the partners four questions: What are you good at? What are you not good at? What do you love about your job? What do you really dislike about it? Soon Pullins and Frazier had hired an administrative assistant to pick up the paperwork that was weighing them down. Pullins now focuses on long-term strategy, while Frazier handles the bulk of the personnel and management issues. The two became so much more productive that they decided to extend the analysis to all the employees at their $1.3 million company. With a shortage of speech pathologists nationwide, particularly in West Virginia, Pullins says LinguaCare can ill afford to let a qualified person leave or to allow anyone in the company to be underemployed.
The results of those four simple questions were just as eye-opening the second time around. Kristy Stowers, who was working for LinguaCare in a rehabilitation center, had been consistently unable to hit her target of five hours of patient work a day. After the evaluation, Pullins and Frazier discovered that Stowers was up against some internal problems at that particular rehab center, including too few patients.
Yet Stowers thought she had strong organizational skills and an ability to manage big projects.
So when Stowers moved on to the next contract, with a large medical center, Pullins and Frazier had her manage two other workers. Stowers has thrived, even initiating some new screening protocols. "She has become somewhat of a visionary leader," Pullins says. "We are so surprised." Stowers is pleased, too. "This facility is more fast-paced," she says. "I'm always busy and I feel more productive." Pullins says the company now plans to reevaluate the 18-person staff on a regular basis: "We need to ask every couple of years whether we are tapping into our people's gifts and interests."
BRING IN A PRO
Pullins and Frazier did fine by chatting with their employees themselves. But sometimes it takes a third party to lead these conversations, especially if you suspect workers will be reluctant to discuss their own or others' shortcomings with the boss.
Dan Kopman knew he needed help. Kopman is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Saint Louis Brewery in Missouri, which runs two breweries and two restaurants with 90 full-time and 60 part-time workers. Saint Louis' revenues have more than doubled since 2003, to about $8.5 million. But it has also had some growing pains. For about a year, the six workers at the main brewing operation had been complaining about frequent last-minute schedule changes, and some clients were confused about how much lead time was needed for orders. Things were running "fine when we were producing 10,000 barrels a year," says Kopman. But as the company hit the 20,000-barrel mark, "we needed to be more organized."
Part of the problem was that the head of brewery operations, Jim "Otto" Ottolini, had too much to do. "Otto has a degree in French literature, so he's the natural person to be head of engineering," jokes Kopman. But after joining the company in 1992, Ottolini learned quickly, overseeing the construction of the new brewing facility from 2001 to 2003, managing it once it came online and taking a course at the University of Wisconsin at Madison to improve his technical knowledge of beermaking. Kopman had been trying to get Ottolini to delegate more effectively for two years, but it hadn't happened. And Kopman didn't want to install another layer of management.
Last fall, Kopman asked Marvis Meyers, vice-president of training at the nonprofit AAIM Management Assn., of which Kopman is a member, for help. Meyers spent a few days interviewing the brewery employees, including Ottolini. "She allowed people to speak their minds and they felt comfortable talking to her in part because she was from the outside," says Kopman. During those conversations, everyone agreed that Ottolini needed to delegate more, and, unlike Kopman, none of the brewery staff had a problem with establishing another layer of management. They said they wouldn't mind if some from their ranks were promoted to assist Ottolini. Says Ottolini: "Dan involved me in this process. I was a partner in figuring out [what had to change]. I didn't feel like I was being scrutinized, but that our process was being scrutinized."
So Kopman created two new positions, both reporting to Ottolini. One person oversees production planning; the other manages packaging. The brewery team was unanimous in choosing who should be promoted to those jobs. "We didn't want to break up the cohesiveness of the group by creating some rigid structure," Kopman says. "But we found the change didn't bother the group the way we thought it would." And while there are still issues that need to be worked out, Kopman says, "We are producing and shipping more beer with fewer mistakes. I see light at the end of the tunnel."
TAKE A TEST
When an employee issue stems from a clash in work styles, personality tests can help bridge the gap. Rees of LanguageWorks realized early in 2007 that while his right-hand manager, vice-president Christine Muller, was extremely talented, her work performance wasn't all that he wanted. Rees arranged for the two to take an assessment called the Predictive Index.
He and Muller spent about 15 minutes taking the test online. They each went through a long list of adjectives—descriptors such as "dynamic," "demanding," and "persevering"—and checked off those that applied to them. A consultant then helped interpret the results. The test showed that Rees often makes decisions even with incomplete information, and that he's perfectly comfortable doing so. Muller, on the other hand, wants clear and concrete directions before acting. That knowledge makes Rees a better manager and Muller a better co-worker. Rees says he gives Muller clearer direction, and that her work is much better and her morale higher as a result. For her part, Muller says, "The way we work together is much more natural. I can read him much better now."
BE A MENTOR
Sometimes it's not the company that changes—it's the industry. Such was the case when Leon "Chip" Marrano III took over the $50 million, 27-person Marson Contracting in Bronx, N.Y., from his father.
Marrano says general contractors such as his used to control all aspects of a job, including the hiring of subcontractors. Now many developers prefer to pay construction firms a straight management fee, then collaborate on everything from design to subcontractor selection. Financial information, once closely guarded by the construction company, is now shared openly with developers. But Marson's chief estimator, Anthony Bochichio, had been with the company since 1960 and was well-schooled in the old ways of doing things, including keeping financial information confidential.
Marrano took advantage of the good relationship he'd built with Bochichio. He let him know that everyone had to change how they operated, and he made it clear he valued Bochichio's experience and wanted him to stay with the company. Then Marrano began bringing Bochichio to preconstruction meetings with architects and developers to familiarize him with the new rules of the game. Together, Marrano and Bochichio would contribute their suggestions for bringing costs down without sacrificing quality. It's worked: Marrano says Bochichio has been "great at adapting." Bochichio says he always had a good relationship with Marrano, but that "things are even better now and more open between us." And Marson found that clients really appreciated Bochichio's expertise, so Bochichio is now a regular participant in preconstruction planning.
MAKE A TOUGH CALL
Coaching isn't always as successful as it was for Marson. In such cases, business owners face some tough decisions.
Kenny Sayes, owner of Sayes Office Supplies, based in Alexandria, La., didn't realize he had issues with any of his employees until clients started to complain. Some of his customers were putting in requests for photocopier repairs but were not getting responses. When Sayes looked more closely at his copier operation, he saw weak cash flow. He soon found that some bills weren't being put through, which was Daniel Littleton's responsibility.
In 2007, after sales at Sayes' 34-person, $7 million company jumped 25%, Sayes had promoted Littleton. Littleton had been hired to link customers' copiers to their computer equipment; now he would also be dispatching other technicians and handling invoicing. When clients began to complain, Sayes asked Littleton to keep a notebook recording exactly what he had to do each day, what he got done, and what was still outstanding.
Sayes checked the notebook every few days and sat down with Littleton and other employees when there were problems. Within a month it became clear Littleton was not following through on some required tasks. "It was like baby-sitting," Sayes recalls of the fact-finding. "But I had to do it."
Sayes says he worked closely with Littleton to improve his performance and made it clear the bills needed to be up to date in two weeks. Littleton says he told Sayes repeatedly that he was overworked. And he says some of his time was still taken up going out on service calls. Littleton says: "There were not enough hours in the day for a single person to do what he wanted." Sayes says Littleton was going out on just a few calls and that the workload was not excessive.
A month went by, and the backlog remained. Eventually Sayes demoted Littleton back to his original position. Littleton quit shortly thereafter and says his replacement doesn't have as many job responsibilities as he did, a claim Sayes disputes. But things are now running smoothly. "She knows the job better than I do," Littleton says of the new hire. A sure sign that he matched the right person to the right job.
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