An Executive Lesson: Remembering to Learn
It’s often said it’s lonely at the top. It’s also pretty busy there. The daunting demands of building service contracting’s senior executives often don’t allow many personal development opportunities. You end up sending your key people to training, seminars and industry-specific conferences, frequently investing in their growth while ignoring your own. It’s the high stakes, corporate way the shoemaker goes without new shoes.
But even if time is your company’s most precious resource, does your learning have to take a time-sensitive, second seat? Of course shareholders, stakeholders and banking relationships are important. Scrutinizing quarterly financials, ensuring performance expectations are met and identifying new growth potential also are critical. Yet, are you overseeing all those requirements at a personal development cost?
What many BSCs forget is that running a business and investing in personal growth aren’t mutually exclusive. There are a host of non-seminar based learning options available that couples a nominal time investment with potentially high quality returns.
When you send people to educational seminars or industry functions, identify your expectations for after those events. It could include the staff members briefing you, holding them accountable to demonstrate their new knowledge or skills when they return, or having them actually train others on what they’ve learned. Opting for them to brief or train you allows you to obtain the “abridged version” of their collective experience without the deep time investment.
A California-based company uses this “trickle up” theory of learning. Site managers are sent to industry events with the expectation that they share their wisdom with area managers and others when they return. They also require that managers who attend the Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI) national convention or the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) annual trade show offer their newfound knowledge upward after the trip. In a time-sensitive fashion, training, trade show or conference attendees can offer product-specific or business management development options for their company’s senior leaders.
The nitty gritty of networking
In addition to janitorial-specific learning, senior executives can learn much from other people in similar positions or who hold similar responsibilities. This can mean networking with people outside the industry as well as inside it.
Many large cities have executive forums where CEOs can dialogue about issues they are facing in their own companies and obtain insights not constrained by only looking at the janitorial business. Ronnie Baker, Chairman of the Board for Kansas City, Mo.-based BG Service Solutions, attends lunches or breakfasts quarterly with other Kansas City CEOs.
“I have gained a lot from these other CEOs, specifically in marketing and business development,” he says. “I seek out venues where I can learn from anyone.”
Baker also informally draws on his BSC senior colleagues for advice, which he feels is a uniquely satisfying part of the industry’s continuous professionalization. For instance, he speaks highly of Baxter Lee, a late colleague from Southeast Service Solutions.
“Baxter taught me more about management development and how and why to bring in new people to refresh your company than any book or professor. I now am very conscientious about his lessons,” Baker says.
You’re never to old to need a coach
More and more leaders are contracting with “executive coaches” for the purpose of helping them expand their capabilities with both daily issues and longer range quality of work/life concerns. Executive coaches typically work face-to-face for an hour every two weeks, or semiweekly by telephone for a half an hour. Their role is to assist executives with the “loneliness at the top” feeling and to offer a safe haven for their client “not having all the answers.” Executives typically bring messy personnel issues, difficult strategic choices and work/life balance concerns to their coach. They then work through the options and arrive at a course of action together.
Barney Gershen, CEO of Associated Business Services in Houston, has been using executive coaches for more than a decade. He uses coaches in two ways. In one manner, he uses them for on-going business assessment purposes. For example, he wants to ensure that he continually is developing his top people and their potential successors should a key person decide to leave. Gershen also uses his coaches for single, sticky situations, such as helping prepare difficult feedback for one of his staff during performance review time.
“I really think that some of our company’s tremendous growth in the past three to four years has been my coaches reminding me of a key business principle which I may have forgotten, or one that I never learned. Or giving me a needed piece of feedback that in my role as CEO, no one would have ever given me,” Gershen says.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Another learning option is the “360-degree leadership assessment,” which solicits written, formalized feedback from the boss, peer and direct report perspectives. The process is based on the unawareness theory, which states that people can’t change or overcome their “leadership blind spots” when they don’t know what they are.
The president of a large, multi-state, diversified, BSC company recently found himself in that circumstance. The company’s CEO was dissatisfied with the president’s delegating behavior with his area managers, as well as his inability to follow through on a previously agreed-upon plan and his sharpness when dealing with key colleagues. The CEO became frustrated when the President didn’t fully understand nor “own” his feedback which the CEO offered. Together they initiated a 360-degree questionnaire-based, leadership assessment to assist the president in obtaining feedback from his professional peers, area and regional managers, and from the CEO to help overcome his blind spots and moderate his behavior. An external consultant assisted the president in interpreting the assessment results, explored alternative ways of working with his staff and colleagues and prepared him to discuss the data with the groups who filled out the questionnaires. The president then had fully candid, face-to-face separate conversations with his peers, area and regional managers and his boss. He learned what he didn’t know, made the necessary changes, and is now a CEO himself.
Every bit helps
BSCs should remember that they don’t have to be the CEO of a $40 million company to have individual development needs. Nathan Parkinson, president of 30-employee Cleaning Specialists, Inc. in Salt Lake City, reads everything he can find as a way to help himself grow professionally.
“I stay current in the industry but that’s not where my greatest personal growth opportunities lie,” he says. “I have recently read, Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, books on time management and books on managing people. I also spend time each day refining my business dream and strategizing how to make it happen.”
On-going executive learning is a vital business aspect that too often is overlooked or rationalized away with imagined time commitments. With the many options available to BSC executives, no one has to feel they are in a position where they have to expand everything but their own skill sets. There should be something for everyone and for every kind of busy schedule.
Dr. Ron Cohn is the owner of Ralston Consulting Group, Salt Lake City. He can be reached at 801-328-1820.
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