Building on the strengths of your best employees
By: Richard “Chip” Howes, CEO, Chairman & Co-Founder, Steelbox Networks
The classic concept of an entrepreneur is someone who starts his own business. Yet an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur even when he is creating visionary products to serve emerging markets while working at a large corporation. It only takes a few years to reach that inevitable turning point where the entrepreneur on salary realizes that he has been starting new companies all along.
For the hard-wired entrepreneur, there’s little that will keep him from eventually going it on his own. Yet there are a number of things that will keep him from being successful. As a visionary who spent the better part of a successful career making employers rich and now am the founder and CEO of two highly successful companies, I have an insight which I would like to convey to budding entrepreneurs: recognize the talent and innovation of the people you have worked with, and engender the talents of those people to create a highly functioning, motivated and integrated team.
By identifying a few key individuals as a kind of DNA building block, a good entrepreneur-turned-CEO can develop the personality of an entire company. It’s not too unlike playing the role of the director/producer on a movie set. You need a good story (the product or service) and A-list talent. The most critical factors necessary for ennobling the strengths and talents of your team include the work environment, your personal work ethic, loyalty and vision.
In an industry where developing innovative, first-to-market products is the key to success, it’s essential to provide a work environment that encourages creative thinking, brainstorming and long hours of trial and error. There are a number of theories on how to create the kind of environment that promotes efficiency, innovation and success, but often what works best isn’t part of a model. Instead, the environment evolves from the people who work in the space, and it is the job of the entrepreneur CEO to fashion an office culture which enables his team to work best.
Nowadays, most companies allow casual work attire and some provide on-the- house-refreshments. This is a good thing at the end of the day when an employee might decide not to stay a few extra hours because they’re hungry. Keeping employee enthusiasm and commitment high is worth a refrigerator stocked with cold sodas and Friday afternoon beers. When surprise visitors walk through the doors at Steelbox Networks and Pharsalia Technologies they might catch men and women in jeans and baseball hats placing bets on an intense game of putt-putt golf.
As a leader, it is invigorating to see the kind of bond that is created among co-workers when the self-motivated long hours and brain crunching are interspersed with games of ping pong, dart competitions and putting golf balls in the hallways. Not only does a relaxed yet positively charged environment provide the kind of atmosphere that fosters the creative development of ideas and products that can revolutionize industries, it also offers the means of forming a tight team of co-workers that are wholly invested in the company and their job.
Here’s a little story that tells it best. In the late nineties, I led a well-bonded team of engineers on a software development project to build the world’s first web server load balancer known as the Cisco Local Director. The product was already in full swing and had garnered much support from corporate. But there came one of those things that go askew when a scheduled flight to a very important customer was cancelled and we couldn’t get on any other commercial flight. With only the thought of doing what had to be done, we made a pre-dawn phone call to charter a private plane which could get us to our meeting on time. We satisfied the customer but I feared Cisco brass would be angry that we had laid the cost of a chartered plane on the company. Instead, the VP of our group presented us with a WITy (what ever it takes) award.
Directly translated, work ethic means not giving up, not making excuses and not blaming the stuff that goes askew (which always does) on someone else. It actually means being able to shift course quickly, solve problems creatively, and allow each member of the team to do their job the best way they know how. As a leader, it is important to recognize your employees’ talents and push them to develop and use their skills to their best abilities.
Loyalty and Integrity
Success in business is measured in terms of profitability. How it’s reached can vary between driving the company with only the finish line in mind, or by focusing on the journey – that is building honest, solid relationships with customers, partners, and employees. When a company grows as a cohesive and supportive unit, it embodies strong loyalties and a sense of community. These internal virtues soon extend to relationships with customers and partners. Fundamentally, when there is a level of trust and respect between people, a great deal more can be accomplished than if a relationship is laid with reservation and doubt. It is especially necessary to develop this tie within an entrepreneurial company. The trick though is to get it to work in both directions and to keep the loyalty as part of a reward for those serving as members of the team.
New endeavors are always more fun and rewarding than doing the same thing year after year or as the guy in the next building. Entrepreneurial companies are the explorers of the modern age. When discoveries were once made by crossing seas, now they happen by way of technological innovation. There’s an excitement and energy that comes with navigating new waters. It makes the mind active, the senses acute, and the adrenaline flow. It is the job of the entrepreneur CEO to create and keep a clear vision and navigate the territory with that vision in mind.
Putting it all together
Two ends emerge from this type of company. The first is a team that is so bonded and obtains such great success should reward the people in it so that they continue to stick together like glue. The engineers comprising Pharsalia Technologies and Steelbox Networks came from twenty years of working in different companies. Once an employee understands the personality of one of these new companies, a very strong loyalty begins to emerge and he doesn’t want to leave. In fact, the dynamics of the hiring process stimulates members of the team to call in others who they see as a “perfect” addition to the group. As such, everyone contributes to the building of the personnel and thus takes responsibility for the dynamics and morale of the group.
A second outcome is that the new company becomes an incubator for other entrepreneurs to go out on their own. This is not something to fear but to consider as a feather in your cap. While there are few people who will have the intelligence, creativity and personality to fit into the creation phase at the outset, and be an integral part of the early years, there are even fewer who are able to lead a venture on their own. It may be expected that as a company leaves its entrepreneurial stage and focuses more on day-to-day operations, some will split off to renew the excitement of creating a new product or business. This is actually quite desirable and has been recognized by leading corporations who have built in procedures for allowing entrepreneurial businesses to split off from the mother company, yet remain connected through financial or other support like manufacturing, marketing or distribution.
The bottom line is to always be aware of the skills and talents of the people around you. It may not always be as clear as searching for a bright engineer from a recognized university. One of the smartest and most creative problem solvers that I know in computer engineering has a degree in genetics. I started with a degree in music and psychology. Another member of our team came up through the ranks of racing sports cars, and there’s always that top notch product developer who took his masters in history. To be a successful entrepreneur/CEO, good business sense and creativity is important, but building an A-list team is what will keep your company ahead of the rest.
About the Author
Richard “Chip” Howes
CEO, Chairman and Co-Founder
Richard “Chip” Howes knows a good thing when he sees it. That’s why he built Steelbox Network’s management team from proven talent that he has worked with for over fifteen years. This group has launched products, established business lines and built companies at organizations such as AT&T Communications, Digital Transmission Systems, Scientific-Atlanta, Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks. He has served as the CEO and co-founder of Pharsalia Technologies, Inc., which was acquired by Alteon Web Systems in 2000, which was in turn purchased by Nortel Networks six months later.
This data networking experience provided the initial idea to bring the advantages of IP-based networks to video networking and surveillance. It is a simple concept – use the network to drive the system, not analog cameras and monitors. That focus on simplicity and performance manifests itself in Steelbox’s ease of use, superior performance and excellent customer relations.
Chip is a proven innovator and entrepreneur who believes in dedication, excellence and innovation. He has over 25 years of software development and management experience in the digital video, telecommunications and Internet industries. He also holds 30 Internet and networking patents. He believes in energy and teamwork, and has created a company in which both abound, to the benefit of employees and customers alike.