Smart leaders; maintaining flexibility

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Courtesy of Verisk 3E

Three years ago, Robert Christie sat down with his top executives to outline a long-term plan for 3E Co.

But since then, a whole new set of environmental laws has been created, and things have changed — and the company needed to change, as well.

The president and CEO of 3E — a provider of environmental health and safety compliance services — says that flexibility is the key to handling the challenges of hypergrowth and of constantly changing compliance issues.

“One of the failure points that I see for companies is they set a goal and they don’t want to change it,” says Christie, whose company posted 2007 revenue of $47.6 million.

Christie sees flexibility as a crucial element for any company to be successful, and it’s a component he makes sure his management team, infrastructure and growth plans all contain.

Smart Business spoke with Christie about how to plan for the future and maintain flexibility to grow your company.

Prepare for something to go wrong. When companies go through growth, the thing that can bring them down is not being prepared for something to go wrong — and they will go wrong.

The best-run companies in America expect things to happen that are going to be mistakes or issues that they have to recover from. If you don’t have a disaster recovery plan, if you don’t know how to deal with a mistake, the best-laid plans are useless.

Most people think of a disaster recovery plan in the case of thinking about their computer facility. Or, ‘Oh my gosh, the telephone lines went down, nobody can call in or call out.’

Those are the easy ones because you can always have backup plans. It’s the things that you don’t think of. Good companies sit down with all their managers and ask, ‘What if?’

In the case of Southern California, how do we as a company recover from a fire that took place last year and devastated San Diego?

We happened to be in a fortunate position to have planned for people to work from home and to be able to dial in to our computers from home. Our employees that talk to our customers still had access to our network to talk to them.

Seize opportunities by knowing your clients. You need to figure out what the markets are that you do business in and how they might be changing.

Find a way that you can make sure you can have a competitive advantage.

It’s a lot of market research, and it’s a lot of spending time with your customers. Your customers every day are struggling with issues. The closer you are with your customers, the better the opportunity is for you to be successful.

Assemble a staff of flexible people. Make sure you have a management team that can be flexible and adapt to changes.

Lots of people can do very well at managing a business of a certain size, but when it doubles or triples, it sometimes requires that they be able to have a different set of skills.

You need to be flexible. You need to be in touch with your clients constantly. You need to be able to adapt to having multiple opinions. You have to have a very open mind and be willing to change your direction.

We look for people that can motivate people, that can manage them, that can inspire them.

If you’re going to go to a specific place with your business, everyone has to agree that they’re going to that place. You have to have a management team that agrees on the vision and the direction that you’ve set forth. Then they have to have the ability to execute on that vision.

Train employees to know the company and its vision inside and out. It’s important you set up a training program within your divisions that makes your employees experts in the area of where they work. But I also think it’s critical that you set up training that allows people to understand everything you do.

It’s training you do in a day, training you do in workshops and in seminars, and it’s training that takes place over a period of a year or two.

As the CEO of this company, coming in here, I didn’t understand everything we did for probably up to two years. Until you see your products in use with your customers, until you talk to your clients and understand where they’re going, it’s impossible to understand everything you do.

It’s important to make sure they get a very broad understanding of your product and how that relates to the vision and direction.

If they understand what you do and they understand where you’re going, then they can buy off and be more motivated and excited, not only about what you do but other opportunities for them to grow and expand within the company.

Stay connected with employees. I think the most successful thing you can do with your employees is speak to them face to face.

Let them have a chance to ask questions. Assume in many cases they’re intimidated to ask questions, so you have to have a pulse from your managers as to what you think they’re worried about. You have to literally answer those questions before they raise them.

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