The sessions that closed out Winning Workplaces’ 2008 Top Small Workplaces Conference were just as varied as the content from the previous day and a half. Read a summary of the final three concurrent sessions below.

Open Book Management: Not Just About Financial Transparency

This session featured as speakers Rich Armstrong, President of The Great Game of Business, a consultancy that grew out of Jack Stack’s book of the same name; and 2006 Best Bosses Finalist Michael Dougherty, President/CEO of Kindermusik International, a leading publisher of music and movement curricula and practitioner of

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open book management since 2002, when the company set up an ESOP.
Armstrong’s goal was to reveal how the front line drives the bottom line. He did this mainly by exploring in detail how the employee huddle should work in the third step of The Great Game’s four-step approach for applying open book. These four steps are:The duality between the leading advisory firm on open book and a successful company case study of the practice provided ample fodder for attendees of this session, many of whom have been using open book and were looking for tips on how to benefit further from it.

  1. Focus on the critical number – find a common goal
  2. Act on the right drivers – create a line-of-sight
  3. Follow the action and keep score – hold each other accountable
  4. Provide a stake in the outcome – reward and recognize

Armstrong stressed that the huddle is an important component of The Great Game and effective open book management because it promotes a forward-looking mentality. He also shared an example of a 90-day mini-game challenge that fits between steps two and four that keeps employees involved and motivated.

Dougherty followed up on Armstrong’s explanation of the “rules of the game” by providing real-world examples that underscore how important employee engagement is to making open book a mechanism for strong, sustained growth. One of these was an actual agenda list from a 2008 quarterly team meeting.

Managing and Thriving in Lean Times

The three panelists shared practices their businesses have undertaken or refined to protect their people and their bottom line from economic harm. Moody said it was important to embrace his leadership role to ward off fear, which he used when speaking with his employees as a through-line to even better customer service. Field stressed the need to keep investing in your people to avoid the “vicious circle” of not being able to provide a differentiated product or service that can command a high enough price that the business generates revenue, which spurs additional people development. Berner said the fact that her people have invested for the last 50 years to be “energy conservation missionaries” has helped her business’ product (air curtains) continue to find and serve markets.This session, which featured a trio of Best Boss winners – Andrew Field, President of PrintingForLess.com; David Moody, President/CEO of C.D. Moody Construction Company; and Georgia Berner, CEO of Berner International – provided a smorgasbord of thoughts and best practices on this increasingly looked-to topic.

In shifting gears and talking about using lean times to assess whether fresh talent should be brought on board, Berner said she’s seen a mixed bag in her area near Pittsburgh, PA: on the one hand, there are many middle managers available for work, but on the other, few of them are right for Berner’s culture. Moody followed up by stating that his talent strategy is to find young employees and train them well. Field said he feels this is a good economy to experiment with job rotation.

Sharing Ownership Broadly with Employees: ESOPs and Other Approaches
The goal of this session was to provide attendees with thoughts and applications on getting employees to think and act like owners, and the three panelists were more than up to the task. They included Corey Rosen, Executive Director of the National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO); Pete Prodoehl, Senior Consultant of Principal Financial Group; and Bill Roark, CEO of Torch Technologies, a fast-growing tech firm that serves the aviation industry.

Prodoehl provided background on what an ESOP is, how it’s used in corporate transitions and also how it factors into employee ownership and engagement. Subject to the same ERISA rules as other qualified retirement plans, he explained how it is vastly different: investment is in company stock only and the fact that it can borrow money.

Rosen followed Prodoehl, expanding the discussion from ESOPs to other mechanisms whose ultimate goal is to create an “ownership culture.” An ownership culture, he said, is one in which everyone – not just the CEO – is thinking about a company’s mission, goals and profits.

Reviewing open book management, Rosen took time to address the fear that leadership often encounters and must get past in order to put this practice to good use. He also examined the ownership-sharing potential of stock options, synthetic equity and restricted stock.

Roark illustrated how his own background at companies that experienced some ups but probably more lows led him, at a particularly low point after 9/11 when his company at the time was nearly broke, to co-found Torch in 2002 on the idea that because employees control the firm’s destiny, they should be rewarded and empowered for their successful effort. He explained how the enterprise’s ownership culture led Torch from revenues of $3 million their first year to more than $20 million in 2007.