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The grand finale of Winning Workplaces’ 2007 Top Small Workplaces Conference & Celebration in October 2007 was a rapid-fire question and answer session, “60 Ideas in 60 Minutes,” moderated by Andrew Field, Founder and CEO of PrintingForLess.com. The session was a melting pot of small business leadership ideas, and attendees left the room, and the conference as a whole, brimming with practical notes on how to address a range of workplace issues.

The 60 Ideas panel included panelists from earlier sessions, such as Headsets.com President & CEO Mike Faith; Aloft Group, Inc. President & CEO Matt Bowen; and Pinnacle Services, Inc. President & CEO Nicolas Thomley. It was rounded out by FruitGuys Founder and CEO Chris MittelstaedtBerner International Corp. President and CEO Georgia Berner, Wall Street Journal Business Reporter Simona Covel and Winning Workplaces Chairman Ken Lehman.

Field established the rapid-fire nature of the session – to ensure that as many ideas could be tossed out and discussed in the time allotted – by turning to questions that conference attendees had written before it started, and limiting responses to only a few minutes.

In keeping with this format, here is a list of some of the more stimulating questions, panel responses and audience follow-ups:

How do you handle a star individual contributor who does not work well with the team? (When do technical skills trump a cultural fit?)
Lehman: Keep them in a place where their technical competence can be an asset and they can largely work alone.

What’s best: An organizational culture that trickles down from a gifted leader, or a culture that bubbles up from employees?
Covel: Choice “C”: An environment where people believe their voices are heard, but not where they’re going to take over the workplace.

Follow-up: Whether your culture is top-down or bottom-up, what are the biggest obstacles to keeping it operating in the same way as the company grows?
Berner: In my area (Pennsylvania) and industry (manufacturing), our recruiting pool is a lot of middle managers, and a lot of them that we’ve hired have a traditional top-down, authoritarian mindset. It takes about six months to retrain them, after we’ve made the conscious decision when hiring those that we think they are retrainable.

Mittelstaedt: Time and distance are the biggest obstacles we’ve seen. We’ve dealt with this using the five rules of our business, no matter who we’re dealing with and where they’re located:

  • Have we been respectful of people?
  • Have we been realistic with people about what we can or can’t do?
  • Have we been responsive to our customers’ needs?
  • Have we taken personal responsibility for the outcome of the situation?
  • Will we be remembered positively when we walk away from our customers?

What do you do when a long-time employee outgrows his or her position?
Faith: There’s an ego-driven idea that the only way to succeed is to start managing people and getting a big pyramid under you, so we spend a lot of time trying to get them to understand that their position wasn’t the right route for them, but that there are still plenty of opportunities in our company for them to use their skills.

Lehman: This is a common problem in today’s organizations, and if what Mike said doesn’t work then you need to counsel those people out of the organization and give them a soft landing.

How do you handle “workplace energy vampires”?
Bowen: Corrective measures need to happen very quickly because these people tend to find other like-minded people to “infect.” But due to state regulations you need to be very well documented in how you do this. However, I’ve found that when you sit down with employees and point things out, sometimes it’s more a personality trait and they don’t even realize they’re doing that. Also, it can be more powerful when it comes from their colleagues.

Leadership development: buy or build?
Mittelstaedt: I run a 10-year-old company and we have a lot of employees who have been with us for nine-and-a-half years, so almost all of our employees start with us and don’t leave. The key for us has been that we don’t buy it, we build it. So we look at how we help people evolve as their job changes. We take a trial and error approach, try to set goals along the way and are willing to take risks.

Thomley: We build 60 percent of our workforce and buy 40 percent.

What’s more important: skills or knowledge?
Thomley: Skills. We can train people in our organization to develop the knowledge, but it’s the skills they bring that we really need.

Lehman: With certain exceptions, you need people with attitudes, and then you can teach skills and impart knowledge.

Faith: We place attitude and personality over skills nearly all the time. We can train skills, but changing personality is a pretty tough job.

How do you determine if those who interview well will really work in your company?
Berner: Put them with someone who they might perceive to be a peon and see how they react to and respect that person.

Bowen: A lunch environment is actually a great one to interview somebody because you can watch how that individual interacts with the wait staff. It’s a great judgment of their character. So with senior-level managers, I often try to schedule it as a lunch meeting.