Mary Corbitt Clark, Executive Director of Winning Workplaces, joined the show last week. Winning Workplaces is a not-for-profit organization founded by one of the families who owned auto parts manufacturer Fel-Pro, Inc., which was nationally recognized for its innovative people practices and outstanding financial performance.
Mary and I talked about Winning Workplaces, its purpose, its annual conference titled The ROI of Winning Workplaces, and how Winning Workplaces helps clients create the ultimate competitive advantage: A winning workplace.
Mary Corbitt Clark, how are you? I’m not encouraging stalkers, but where are you? What are you doing?
We’re in Evanston, IL. We annually host a conference in Chicago to honor the top small workplaces that will be named in the Wall Street Journal and to share best practices, inspiration, networking, with other small businesses that are interested in improving their business results by creating strong workplaces.
Is everybody at winning workplace having as much fun as you are?
I believe they are. Now, in this economy, it is tough, even for the best workplaces. But I do see that those that have effectively engaged employees are doing far better and coming out of the impact of the great recession more quickly than those who don’t have a strong culture or don’t have their employees fully focused on what it takes to be success.
I wish I had found you when I was CEO of a small company. We had some success creating a winning workplace through trial and error.
It takes some understanding to discover the drivers of your business. Most companies get there by trial and error. Most start up organizations with a handful of employees are more concerned with money, defining product or service, how to go to market, and how do we get out there and then how do we keep ourselves afloat with the financial resources they need to solidify and take off. Fairly often they get to a certain stage and they realize they need to focus on the organization, build some infrastructure and attend to those elements that have a very strong impact over time.
Occasionally, an insightful leader with start an organization and define it by being the kind of place they always wanted to work. These types of companies establish the kind of culture they need because they know what they need to do to accomplish their goals and business.
Your background is in maximizing performance in individuals and organizations and you have worked at big consulting firms. I assume that meant working with larger corporate clients. Winning Workplaces generally is more about small to medium size businesses – what about that appealed to you?
I had already migrated –having spent 13 years with large companies. I had already seen that creating change with them was more difficult with an embedded culture. Its hard to move an ocean liner. I could see smaller organizations are more nimble, more adept at creating a strong organization is easier in a small company. I could see the opportunity to create change. I could see the opportunity to have an impact that I couldn’t have at larger workplaces. I could pursue my mission with Winning Workplaces in a broader sense with the brand of a manufactruing entity that had a strong reputation for progressive workplaces.
Winning Workplaces has been around for eight years. Can you share with us more about the history and founders?
Fel-Pro was owned by a family for 80 yrs and 4 generations of family business. It started out as an offshoot of a business that created brake pads for horse buggies. As the automotive industry grew, Fel-Pro grew as well. It focused on creating gaskets for the aftermarket...they just blossomed. They had 2000 employees. In the late 90’s, as the automotive market changed, it become clear that Fel-Pro must change as well. The family knew they couldn’t run the business they way they wanted too. They ended up selling the biz.
They learned that by treating their employees with respect and creating an environment which open communication was highly valued and by celebrating the fact that they could have a successful business together. It was indeed very generous.
They never had to pay to recruit employees. Their tenure was quite long. They brought in their families and friends. They created a community that till to this day talk with great pride for working with Fel-Pro.
Our annual recognition project which began in 2003, we worked with Fortune Small Business magazine to identify The Best Bosses from across the country and that morphed into The Best Small Workplaces. Since 2003 we have been seeking out outstanding small businesses that have created highly engaging workplaces and have been successful businesses as a result. We see leading edge practices, get to know commited and inspiration leaders. I see the small business sector as the most innovative and progressive part of our economy.
What are some of the practices that they brought from their company into the new organization, Winning Workplaces, a winning workplace?
Many of the elements we see in smaller workplaces are elements we try to live to here. The challenge of talking about excellence is that you always aspire to something that is just beyond your reach. Let me talk about aspirations. We do have a good workplace. We have a strong sense of team. It is difficult to speak about ourselves, but what we create in our culture is what we want to see in others.
The top 3 things, the most important things, for a winning workplace are:
1. Organizations with strong vision and shared values - people who come together because they are committed to what the business is about. Virtually all of our organizations can clearly communicate what they are trying to do and the values with which they operate. This is very important foundation. It draw people to the organization.
2. Open and honest communication. This is so fundamental but such a hard thing for an organization to accomplish. Those organizations in which transparency is really how they operate are more innovative, and their members understand what are the drivers and how they can improve efficiencies and how that shows up on the bottomline.
3. They invest in the workforce in lots of different ways. They invest in employee learning, very careful about how they hire, understand the kinds of people that will be successful in their organization, and committed to providing the benefits employees need. More and more are investing in company wellness centers, whether it’s a fitness center membership or a flu-shot. It’s an important piece or companion to providing health insurance.
Let’s talk about this event next week. It’s great. It’s titled: The ROI of winning workplaces. When is it, where is it?
The ROI of Winning Workplaces has been going on 6 years now. It's held in Chicago here. It is held each fall and held in conjunction with the announcement of Winning Workplaces. It is also a great learning event, a tool to help other small businesses towards success. We talk about current issues and topics effecting companies today. The winners not only create winning workplaces but they can sustain growth by creating a winning workplace.
How do they measure their growth?
How do you get to that balance where you allow your busines to thrive but it doesn’t overwhelm you.
The organizations that fall into our network are sustainable organizations. What we have seen is that good workplaces may have been hit by the recession, but they are coming back quickly. There are also a fair number of them that haven’t been hit as hard. Some have been able to sustain themselves because of their strong workplace practices.
What I noticed and enjoyed about your event is your list of speakers. As you mentioned, they are all previous winners of the awards. They are companies describing their winning workplaces and how they created them.
One of the things we have learned from small business leaders is that they want to hear from others who have been in the trenches and discovered successful methods and cultures. And they want those who have been recognized by 3rd parties. Winning Workplace doesn’t pick these winners.
What results from the conference is that people come and get a lot of new ideas. What I hear at each show is that people think they are alone and here they find other business that think like they do. There’s a lot of camaraderie and companionship with their peers who share the same values. They realize that they are not alone.
My friend and author Erika Andersen coined a term I really like. It’s reasonable aspirations or hoped-for goal. What was your reasonable aspiration or hoped-for goal with this event?
We wanted to get the message out, as broadly as possible. We believe that a big piece of our purpose is to draw attention to unsung heroes and to make it within reach, a reasonable aspiration, for small business leaders across the country to create winning workplaces or to improve their workplace to improve their business...to strengthen their business.
So much of the emphasis in business writing is about growing your market niche, how you come up with an innovative product. So little focuses on how do you build an organization that can support you to do whatever your business is about. We believe that it is a critical element in the economy, a pivotal leverage point that is under utilized.
That is our message and we want to get it out to the world. Our aspiration for the conference was to make the information more available and create a network of small business leaders who could support one another to do so.
There has to be research that shows that companies who build a winning workplace have better cash flow, happy customers and employees, better growth rates and so forth.
We have created a benchmarking report for the last two years to compare the top winning workplaces to the rest of the pool of other companies who think they have a great workplace. One of the challenges with small businesses is that they are privately held; therefore their financial information is not made public. What we get is their revenue and whether or not they are profitable. We clearly have good data on employee turnover, retention, employee learning. But to get more detailed information you need access to a public company.
Who should attend this event?
Anyone interested in building a strong workplace. It is most valuable for small businesses, but people in larger businesses who want to build a strong team will certainly benefit. It’s an opportunity to get your arms around the soft stuff. It’s not just one program. It’s a combination of things. This conference offers a great opportunity to get a nice dive into and learn more about what I can do about strengthening my company and its workplace.
What are top three reasons people should attend Winning Workplaces? Or three take aways?
I’m going to go right to the promotional materials that capture this best:
1. Examples of inspirational leadership in chaotic times
2. Best practices from leading small business innovators
3. Networking with small business leaders and the leading edge thinkers about small business
Not only leading edge thinkers, but leading edge doers.
Your speakers are speaking about the current economy and events. How have you seen this economy impact attitude in business towards creating a winning workplace?
I think many small business people have “panicked” and are trying to cope to get through. I can contrast that with one of our business leaders who will be speaking next week, Larry O’Toole, from Gentle Giant Movers, founded in 1980 and now has 17 operations around the country. The business has always been about building very strong customer relations in the moving business and developing employees within the business so that they don’t just hire day movers, they hire and train people how to do the job properly and make the bet of a stressful experience for people who are making a transition.
This economy hit residential moving very hard. They looked at the fourth quarter of 2008 and knew they had to make some serious financial refinements. Most companies cut the staff. They found ways to become more efficient with no layoffs. They focused on taking out the expense, eliminating costs they had developed.
One of the things that allowed them to grow was the development of employees and to do it right. There was a fair amount of investment and hard work, then, customer relationships then to be a lead on a team, and finally the next step is to open a facility within the network. They are able to hire people with aspirations, who want to learn. They aren’t just people who need a job today. There is a long term goal. 80% of their business comes from referrals or return business!
How does Winning Workplaces work with small to medium sized businesses to create their own winning workplace?
In 2002, we created a website full of information – there is so much there to help with best practices, case studies to read and many tips as well. We do monthly webinars and consulting/training.
When and why do clients contact you for help?
There are 2 different times clients reach out:
1. They want to do better and improve. A lot of leaders who are trying to make a difference, wanting something different and they know there are ways to improve their organization
2. Of if an organization s has fallen on tough times – they see that they are not being as successful as they could be. They want to understand what they need to do differently
How long do you usually work with a client?
It depends, but fairly often we are brought in for a specific engagement. One of the most common is an employee opinion survey or focus group to understand what's going on in the organization and share that with the leadership to problem-solve the issue. We are not there for the long term – we are there to come in, educate and assist the company towards change and understanding.
The best organizations will periodically call us to help them listen, take a snapshot, help them to identify the issues, and help them to address them.
In the past year, have the client’s motivators changed at all in the past year?
Tough times put in relief the problems your company may have. Good times mask some of the issues. Tough times put organizations in a place where they may have limited resources. One of things we are seeing right now as the economy improves is that companies want to position themselves to move forward, in learning how to become stronger. The companies are investing in the stronger economy.
Winning Workplaces has survived two recessions-can you share with us a profile whose business has thrived through working with you?
There is an organization who has been working with us since 2004 who regularly gathers and measures feedback on its performance. It asks for feedback from all of their stakeholders, creating a scorecard for themselves. Employee feedback is so important. This organization is also weathering the recession very well and looking to expand its service base, work from its expertise and strengths, move into a new market niche and they do a particularly good job of retaining their customers and employees. They gather the data and are attentive to it.
What are three things can companies or people do today, with little or no cash to build a winning workplace?
1. Talk to employees. Find out what they are thinking. Ask them about business issues/ideas. They can help you strengthen your business. You want to build a trusting relationship.
2. Share information with employees. The more info they have about the business, the easier they can help you to improve and solve the problems.
3. The best ideas come from multiple minds around problem solving. Bring people together to solve problems. One of the things we see is that team-based work ends up with some of the very best solutions.
Thanks, Mary. Have a great conference!