tsw_logoIn between the morning and afternoon keynote presentations at Winning Workplaces’ Top Small Workplaces Conference & Celebration on October 4, 2007, the attendees broke to attend concurrent panel discussions that rounded out the Conference programming for the morning.

“Creating the Innovative Organization” featured Andrew Field, the founder and president of Montana-based PrintingForLess.com and a 2005 Best Boss; and Michael Lacey, CEO/president of Minnesota-based Digineer, Inc., and Pete Snyder, founder and CEO of Virginia-based New Media Strategies. Both Lacey and Snyder were named Best Bosses by Winning Workplaces in 2006.

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Digineer CEO/President Michael Lacey responds to a question from the moderator.

Moderating the session was Judith Cone, vice president of emerging strategies for the Missouri-based Kauffman Foundation. Cone kicked off the session by asking the three panelists how they define innovation generally or globally, and then within the context of their respective organizations.

Field discussed how despite the advent of computers and desktop publishing, printing has largely not escaped its own “commodity trap” since the invention of the printing press nearly 600 years ago. He addresses this at PrintingForLess by “trying to free up our people from drudgery work” so that the human touch can be used as a value-add for their customers.

Snyder defined innovation as survival in Darwinian terms. He says his eight-year-old firm, which not only focuses on online intelligence and word-of-mouth marketing but pioneered many of the practices now used by competitors, needs to innovate daily in order to live up to its namesake in a fast-changing industry. And, echoing Field’s comments, Lacey of Digineer said that his industry, technology consulting, is becoming ever more commoditized, which makes innovation absolutely essential to achieving business outcomes. Lacey said he attempts to innovate by “turning over the entire employee experience to a team of people from all across the company who manage processes, procedures and financial decisions.”

Cone then dug deeper, asking the panelists to describe specific programs and practices designed to encourage employees to release their creative potential. Snyder pointed to a biannual anonymous survey of his workforce, run by volunteer employees, that measures such things as how they like their jobs versus how they like the company. Lacey talked about an interesting employee networking practice at Digineer called Lunch Around, in which randomly organized groups of employees meet for lunch, with the only stipulation being that there’s no agenda. The CEO estimated that this single practice, which fosters employee discussion, has resulted in an additional six figures in revenue from the generation and execution of new ideas.

The concurrent morning session was “Attracting and Retaining the Best Talent,” which featured Carl La Mell, president of Illinois-based Clearbrook; Timothy Keenan, president and founder of Virginia-based High Performance Technologies, Inc. (HPTi); and Susan Torroella, president and CEO of Maryland-based Columbia MedCom Group. Laura Lorber, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal‘s Small Business Link, moderated the discussion.

Lorber asked the panelists to describe what they look for in new hires. Keenan, whose company develops some of the fastest computing technology in the world for clients including federal agencies, said he looks for “creative, high-end individuals” and uses active college recruiting to find these people. Torroella, whose firm provides information on preventing, diagnosing and treating illnesses to health care providers, said she looks for a range of backgrounds from science and medical writing to project management.

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Columbia MedCom Group President and CEO Susan Torroella and Clearbrook President Carl La Mell get a banter going around retention.

La Mell’s focus was as varied as the other leaders. Lower-skilled, non-college-educated workers make up roughly half of his staff of 700 employees and are the most difficult group to attract. Because of this, he says he depends on employee referrals to fill 80 to 90 percent of positions. The referring employees are awarded bonuses if the people they’ve recommended and who are hired stay for at least six months.

The discussion then turned to retaining employees, especially strong employees. At HPTi, Keenan said that his best-performing employees – those most responsible for driving key initiatives forward – are assigned a senior-level mentor outside of their supervisory chain who guides them on career growth and serves as an executive coach of sorts. Keenan said these employees are then given extra incentive to consistently over-perform by being placed in a stock option-like bonus pool that assumes an ownership role in the company. The president said this pool of workers makes up 10 to 15 percent of the company.

La Mell said he tries to exemplify the core value of “work hard, play hard.” Three big staff parties per year in addition to a staff recognition evening, in which he encourages his workers to put on skits, place the focus on camaraderie in lieu of financial incentives, which are not an option based on his industry and its dependence on often insufficient state funding. Torroella said she is transparent with all staff, starting at the beginning of each year, about revenue and operating income goals, the attainment of which correspond to salaries and bonuses. She also said, mirroring the comments of Communispace Corporation President & CEO Diane Hessan at Winning Workplaces’ October 2007 webinar on workplace flexibility, that she sees her role as ambassador of the company’s culture, which she calls the glue that holds everything else together.

The morning sessions were evenly split in attendance, and both experienced lively question-and-answer sessions that allowed the small and midsize business leaders and other representatives in the audience to pick panelists’ brains on many subsets of the main issues. Feedback for these sessions addressed the practicality and dynamism of the speakers and discussions that focused on specific examples of the topic at hand.

Stay tuned as we cover in detail the two concurrent afternoon sessions of the 2007 Top Small Workplaces Conference in a future article.