It was 3:30 p.m. on Friday. Jim Leonard was sitting in his cube working on a project. He was tired and anxious. He began reflecting on his career and the big challenge that awaited him.
Jim had been a trainer for almost 15 years. He started as an instructional designer. A few years later, he was designing leadership development courses for high-potential middle managers. He facilitated several of the classes himself and gained the respect and trust of people who were on their way to becoming the future leaders of the company. In time, he became a Training manager, with several trainers and instructional designers reporting to him.
Jim spent many hours learning about leadership, management, change, and organizational culture. He went back to college and earned a Master of Arts degree in Human Resources Development. Now, he was about to be promoted to VP of Training for a Fortune 500 company and was to meet with the CEO on Monday.
On his way home, Jim thought about telling his wife about his selection. Mary was an HR manager with a bank. She had helped him prepare for the many interviews he had and helped him better understand people—especially women—at work. It was Mary who suggested Jim get a Master’s degree.
Monday morning, Jim awoke early, anxious about his meeting with the CEO. “Don’t worry,” Mary said. “You’ll do fine.”
Jim smiled and nodded. He knew she was right, but he was still a bit nervous. He had met the CEO and knew her from afar. Now, he was going to be one level below her.
Jim went into the CEO’s office at 10 a.m. sharp. He smiled broadly as she extended her hand and congratulated him. They sat on the sofas in her office chatting casually. Then the CEO asked Jim a question he hadn’t expected: “Jim, knowing what you know and with your experience, what would you do if you were CEO?”
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
This happened to me about 15 years ago. I won’t tell you what I said, but I will tell you what I did. You see, after 25-plus years as a training professional and organizational development (OD) consultant, I am now CEO of FirstStep Communications, LLC, a business process outsourcing company located in Islamabad, Pakistan. Here’s what my training and OD background taught me and what I did as CEO.
The first thing I did was make sure I had the best available talent in key positions. An organization is only as good as the people who are in it. We researched competitors’ compensation programs and initiated a recruiting campaign to appeal to prospective employees with experience. We had a handful of employees and needed to build quickly. I created some interview guides and taught two people how to do behavioral interviews.
As a startup, we didn’t have a lot of credibility. Companies in Islamabad quickly come and go in our industry. We wanted to build a positive brand. Without a lot of funds to create an impressive office, we had to impress with our professionalism. Onboarding and training became keys to attracting experienced and quality personnel. When we could afford it, we hired a talented HR person who did our orientations (which I created) and a great trainer who designed a two-week introductory course for our customer service team.
In the early days, we spent a lot of time figuring out and refining our processes and systems. “We” is Ouj E Zahoor, the COO/director of Operations, and me. He is the expert in the daily operations of the company and oversees operations in Pakistan. I provide the vision, direction, and business/organizational acumen. Together, we work out how things should be done. We see things differently. He’s concerned about finances and production. I’m concerned about finances and people. We argue. We eventually agree.
Performance metrics were critical issues from the beginning. We had to know how well we were doing as a company and how well each individual in production was doing. I thought it was vitally important that each person on the production team knew how his or her individual efforts contributed to the overall success of the organization. Creating understandable metrics was a challenge. Making them visible to our supervisors and team members was a bigger challenge, requiring that we quickly build our IT systems and real-time reporting capabilities. Today, all employees can see how well they are doing, how well their teammates are doing, and how those results influence our overall productivity for each of our clients.
Turnover is a big issue in our industry. Retaining our best employees was a challenge from the getgo. Our compensation programs are competitive and in the upper half of our market. We provide several perks our competitors don’t. We listen to our employees and do our best to respond to their requests and comments. As a former employee who was once at the bottom of organizations, I know that how we treat everyone will affect retention and our brand. We are constantly doing what we can to make us an employer of choice.
Once we were OK operationally, I knew it was time to build the management skills of the leadership team. The good news was that the team was small and I could work with each of them individually. I used materials from PDI’s “Successful Manager’s Handbook” to introduce basic management skills to the team. I used “The Leadership Challenge” and “Situational Leadership” to work with the senior leadership team. Obviously, cultural differences require adjustment to the principles taught, but being a good person and a good leader usually transcends culture. Even so, I am learning as much about the Pakistani way of leading as my team is learning about Western management and leadership practices. I have to be patient and understand things have to be different to work in Pakistan.
EYES ON THE FUTURE
FirstStep Communications is four years old. Growth has been exciting and a challenge. We grew from four customer service agents and two managers to approximately 40 agents and a full leadership team. At the end of last year, we moved into a new office space in a better location. We have new technology, a new work environment, and a much larger team. We will be adding a daycare center, a game room, and a relaxation room when we can afford it.
My next challenge is increasing the effectiveness of our supervisors and engaging our employees. Like most organizations, we have some top performers and some mediocre ones. I believe that if we can improve the horizontal and vertical relationships within our company, we will increase organizational citizenship behaviors and individual accountability. I want to improve our teambuilding skills and get our people more involved in how we do things. That will be my biggest challenge because employee empowerment (involvement in decision-making) is not currently within the cultural norms of Pakistani businesses.
A TRAINER’S EYES
I know the way I see the company and want it to grow is not how a financial professional or an operational pro sees it. I am concerned about finances. I keep track of how well we are doing. I am concerned about our systems and processes and track those, as well.
However, because of my training and OD background, I see things through a different lens. I believe the financial issues will work out OK if our people are motivated, engaged, and excited about working for the company. I am greatly concerned about customer satisfaction and delivering on our promises. One of the best things we did was establish and track key performance metrics. They are what keep us moving toward the same goals even if we see things differently.
We’ve had clients who have been with us from the start. We are as loyal to them as they are to us. Organizational culture, trusting relationships, skills, values, and vision are what are most important to me. I know our COO will resolve any operational issues. I know our Training manager will ensure our people have the skills necessary to perform at high levels. We discuss team performance regularly. The entire management team is concerned about the well-being and morale of our employees and customers.
The journey from trainer to CEO has been a great adventure. Fortunately, I learned about running and growing a business, finance, IT, and a bunch of other things from more than 20 years of working as a trainer inside of organizations and as an OD consultant. I knew what I wanted to do, and being at the top allowed me to do that. I think that’s what I like best—being able to make decisions that shape the company’s destiny.
I don’t know if I’m all that good a leader, but I do know that we were profitable after our first two months and we now are making 100 times what we made each month when we first started. Our team is 10 times bigger than when we started. Employee production is nearly 50 percent higher than when we started. Client satisfaction is at an alltime high. We’ve made mistakes and we’ve fixed them, thanks to the dedicated people who work for us. But most importantly, we are making the lives of our employees and their families better. All of these are important to me as a person and as a trainer who became a CEO.
Alan Landers is CEO of FirstStep Communications, LLC, and BPO with operations in Islamabad, Pakistan. He is an executivelevel organizational development (OD) consultant with more than 35 years of experience. He also serves as president of FirstStep OD & Training. Landers currently is implementing accountability systems to increase employee engagement and productivity.