Heads up, employers. The economy is improving, and that means your good workers could be moving on if they don’t feel appreciated. If you’re looking for some smart strategies to boost morale and keep your company productive and innovative, read the advice from our 2012 Best Bosses. These employers have cultivated methods and interpersonal skills that have helped them become inspiring leaders.
The competition was intense. More than 130 employees wrote moving tributes about their bosses; winnowing them down to our six winners took time, determination and more than a few heated discussions. Congratulations to our Best Bosses, who are powerful role models for anyone who leads a team. And thanks to all of you who nominated and to our judges, 2011 Best Boss Doug Wagner, director of adult and technical education at the Manatee County School District; 2009 Best Boss Alex Miller, CEO of Mercedes Medical; and Pat Mathews, co-owner of Workplace Solutions Pros, a human resources management firm.
PINES OF SARASOTA
For Pines of Sarasota president and CEO John W. Overton, making daily rounds of the long-term care campus’s eight buildings is crucial. “You can’t see what’s going on if you aren’t out greeting employees on their turf,” he says. “The only effective answers come from within the organization with the folks who are doing the work.”
Overton, 65, has presided over the not-for-profit Pines of Sarasota, whose annual revenues exceed $21 million, since 2001. He manages 370 employees in the Pines’ assisted living, skilled nursing and secure Alzheimer’s units.
Fair pay, good benefits and a culture that rewards success are key, he adds. So is communication, including a performance evaluation system aimed at helping everyone understand his or her strengths at all levels, and regular staff meetings so “we make sure we are on the same page,” he says.
Employees praise Overton’s passion and his constant interaction with staff, family, residents, board members and the community. “He is very quick in giving workers credit and applauding them,” says one admiring employee. Communicating with hundreds of employees is exhausting, Overton admits, but vital—and quantifiable: More than half of his staff have worked at the Pines for five-plus years, and about 15 percent have worked there more than 20 years.
CANADA MED SERVICES/DISCOUNT PRESCRIPTION SERVICES
Dulcy Kushmore, 67, who owns the discount prescription company Canada Med Services, invests in improving her employees’ skills even if it means they are offered jobs elsewhere. “I want my staff to be happy,” says Kushmore, who sends her five employees to training courses. “If they get better at doing things, they may be eligible for a more important job. I tell them it’s OK.”
Canada Med Services has grown to 8,000 clients since Kushmore started it in 2003, and it has saved its customers more than $5 million by arranging for pharmacies in Canada, New Zealand and the United States to fill their prescriptions at discount prices, Kushmore says. “I try to make our office fun,” she says. “We celebrate everyone’s birthday, and I offer special rewards for special efforts. One time, when I was trying to reach a particular goal, I told the girls that if you can hit this number, you get a three-day cruise. You can bet they hit that number.”
Employees praise Kushmore for believing in them, helping them advance and supporting community causes. “She has become like a mother to me, and I know she always has my back,” said one employee.
Kushmore also makes the extra effort with customers. “Sometimes someone will come in crying because his wife is dying of cancer and he can’t afford the medicine,” she says. “In a case like that, I take the person into my office and we call the company to see if there is any way to get the medicine. Sometimes I just sell the drug at cost. We try to help when we can, but we are in business to make money, and we do.”
GREG AND SHERIL BURKHART
KEY GLASS LLC
Sheril and Greg Burkhart of Key Glass never miss a chance to tell their 49 employees how much they are appreciated. “The work they do, installing custom glass and door systems, is hot and dirty, and the glass is heavy,” says Sheril, 52. “We know because when Greg and I started 20 years ago, there were just the two of us working out of our garage and on the job site. We understand what a hard business we are in.”
Their Bradenton-based company today has annual revenues of about $6 million and a reputation for being on the leading edge of technology and innovation. The Burkharts believe in empowering employees to express ideas and make suggestions. “We have a family atmosphere here,” says Greg, 56. “We try to give our employees good working conditions, good tools and equipment. We don’t send them out with minimal information. We provide training, especially safety training. We offer health insurance and 401K plans.” Employees also get birthdays off with pay. Raves one worker: “They even have a barbecue in the summer where Greg and Sheril cook for the employees.”
Key Glass has avoided layoffs despite the bad economy. “We have worked hard to find work to keep our employees busy,” says Greg. “That is what a good boss does. He is working hard to keep the doors open and revenue flowing. Running a business and hiring employees are extremely difficult. But without employees, a business is nothing.”
As president of ShelterBox USA, an international disaster relief organization, Emily Sperling, 37, has a handful of employees and a ton of work. Good chemistry among team workers is priceless in that environment. “Not having to deal with personality conflicts and not having people behave badly make the rest of the job easy,” she says.
ShelterBox responded to 25 disasters last year, sending boxes packed with tents, water purification systems, blankets, cook stoves and other survival items to help victims of floods in Thailand, earthquakes in Japan and famine in Africa. ShelterBox does this with the help of 320 volunteers across the U.S. and in cooperation with other aid groups. Its U.S. headquarters is in Lakewood Ranch, where Sperling works with eight employees in an office suite of only 1,100 square feet.
“It’s almost like a bullpen,” she says, but she adds that the close quarters have brought them together. “We all share the same passion. We work long, stressful hours, but we also laugh a lot,” she says. “We know each other’s families. We go hiking and camping together. It is the chemistry that makes it happen. That is why it is so important to pick good people and then foster goodwill.”
ShelterBox employees say Sperling’s ability to foster that goodwill helped them respond to the March 2011 crisis in Japan, when the country was struck first by an earthquake and then a tsunami. “There were 12-hour days and seven-day work weeks,” one employee said. “Emily kept morale up by bringing in breakfasts, listening, trusting and creating a work-hard, play-hard environment.”
The indoor basketball hoop and fully stocked kitchen at MethodFactory’s brick-walled offices in the historic Sarasota Waterworks building foster a company culture of camaraderie. But the real key to being a good boss is transparency, says James Williamson, 44, founding partner of the 11-year-old software development company. “I want everybody to know what is expected of them, and I want them to know how their contributions affect the company,” says Williamson, who employs 40 people. “When a new hire comes in, we illustrate a day in the life of that position and help them understand what it takes to succeed and grow.”
Monthly staff meetings include pizza and 45-minute open conversations with Williamson and his partners, Steve Walter and Scott Auer. “We cover what happened last month, sales possibilities on the horizon and everyone’s internal projects so that everybody is informed,” he says.
Williamson says it is always surprising to him that in a company as small as his that people in development don’t always know what people in sales are doing. “So the monthly update and transparency are very important,” he emphasizes.
Employees applaud Williamson for supporting their personal and professional goals and creating team spirit with events like an annual company trip to a Rays game, complete with box seats and spending money. Williamson is proud that employee turnover is low and continues to improve.