What do successful leaders of small organizations do to attract, retain and motivate employees? What are the best practices for leading a small organization facing a crisis? These were two of the topics tackled by small and midsize business leaders from around the country at Winning Workplaces’ third annual Best Bosses Conference & Celebration on September 27, 2006. The leaders, many of whom were prior recipients of our Best Bosses Award, shared insights, mistakes and the lessons they learned along the way. In the next few months we will feature highlights from all of the Conference workshops. Following is a “fly-on-the-wall” summary of two of the morning sessions.

Attracting, Retaining and Engaging Your Most Valuable Asset – Employees

“Our biggest challenge isn’t capital or customers – it’s people and being able to attract, retain and acculturate them and then grow them into leaders who are engaged and interested in growth.” – Andrew Field, President of PrintingForLess.com

“The great thing about being the CEO is that you can be the chief culture officer. Culture is a combination of who you are, what you want to be, what really matters to you, what is fair and what you need to do to get ahead as a business.” – Diane Hessan, President and CEO of Communispace Corporation
dianehessanHessan and Field, both named Best Bosses in 2005, shared their perspectives on key elements that have contributed to the growth of their companies. Both of them see recruiting, selecting, developing and motivating employees as central to their roles as leaders.

At PrintingForLess.com, they have developed a team-based interviewing process to identify candidates that meet their key criteria of being “smart, hungry and nice.” The lengthy screening is complemented by equally hands-on employee development. “I think it’s my job to spend time with managers, particularly my younger ones coming up, working through problems with them instead of just telling them, ‘That’s your area, go run with it,'” Field said. “I tell them ‘I’m here to consult with you. Come tell me about the problems you’re having with your people; tell me about the opportunities that you see. Let’s brainstorm. Then you can go handle it, but let’s work on it together.'”

The leaders also shared key insights on employee motivation. Hessan sees going above and beyond as a reciprocal arrangement. “If you try to go above and beyond for your employees, they’ll do it in return,” she said. One highly valued aspect of working at Communispace is flexible scheduling. While employees work an average of 62 hours a week at this young company, they can do it on their own schedules, and many will choose to work three to four long days a week rather than meet a standard Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 schedule. While Hessan acknowledges that this is difficult to manage, she knows that employees really appreciate the ability to manage their own time.

Back from the Brink: Sustaining Your Organization Through Innovation

Pay Plus Benefits, a professional employment organization in Kennewick, WA, is very different from Go2Call.com, a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telecommunications firm in Evanston, IL, but the two organizations have two things in common: Their leaders have been honored as Best Bosses, and both organizations have faced business challenges that would have overwhelmed lesser ventures.

John Heaton, president of Pay Plus Benefits, shared lessons he gleaned from turning his organization around from a devastating situation: losing their five largest, most profitable clients in one month through acquisition. To survive, the company has changed its business model, going from being purely a service provider of payroll, benefits and HR services to small organizations, to also providing web-based services that they had developed for internal use to their competitors.

That shift required reinvention. Along the way, Heaton learned a number of key lessons that he shared:

  • It is important that employees know that they have the right to fail. People need a comfort zone, or they won’t take chances.
  • They also need encouragement to stay the course when they do fail so that they will keep trying.
  • Money is the great inhibitor of innovation. No one innovates when they have the money to buy something.
  • The most innovative people are usually people that don’t perfectly follow directions; they’re people that take shortcuts.

For John Nix and Larry Spear, co-founders of Go2Call.com, the “brink” has appeared numerous times as they have worked to grow their high-tech firm. Sometimes as unpredictable as an earthquake in Algeria that cut the fiber optic cables to the Middle East, a key market for the firm, the crises have resulted in Go2Call.com being a “tight-knit team that is rowing together.”

In the firm’s high-tech environment, keeping up with changes in technology is essential to being competitive. “We use consensus-based management, especially when making critical decisions,” Nix said. “This is hugely beneficial because not only have you reached the right decision, you have also built a consensus by talking about it.”

Both organizations use open book management and “sharing the wealth” incentives to help keep employees focused. According to Nix, information sharing has allowed them to keep a helpful balance of realism and optimism. “The realism is just laying out the facts: this is where we are; this is what we’re doing,” he said. “The optimism comes with the potential business that can result from the actions that we’re taking now. Over time this builds credibility with the team.”