January 18, 2012 | By Dr. John Foltz, Jim Miller & Dr. Christine Wilson
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How to Manage Multiple Locations

Tips for addressing common multi-site management challenges

The “new norm” in the feed and grain industry is for managers to have multiple locations. Fifty years ago, it was not uncommon for each country elevator to be a separate business with a manager, grain buyer, accounting staff, warehousemen, etc. But just as the farmers being served have consolidated, so have the elevators and feed mills. Through mergers and acquisitions, many managers now oversee the daily operations of multiple locations at once. This has made businesses more efficient and (hopefully) more profitable, but along with these changes come a number of additional challenges.  Our column will provide you with some thoughts on how to overcome these challenges.

Team culture

When managing multiple locations, it is important to develop and maintain a team culture. You don’t want these locations to suffer from “Out-of-Sight, Out-of-Mind” syndrome. Each location will have a culture of its own. As the manager you will need to develop your team.

One way to develop your team is to include off-site employees in activities such as lunches, birthday parties, etc. Make sure they are invited and have the means to get there (time off, etc.). Another good way to pull people together (not just physically, but psychologically too) is to have meetings at other locations periodically so the world doesn’t revolve around the “main office.” In addition, rotate your staff around to various locations so they get to know the facilities, customers and challenges of each of your branches. This will help in emergencies (so you have more staff trained to run the other locations) as well as change the perspective of the other employees (this process really is challenging, no wonder there is so much emphasis put on it.)

Structure

Make sure you have a specific chain of command with your offsite (and on-site for that matter) employees. You need to know who your main contact is and your other employees need to know who to go to for information.  A chain of command (organizational chart) is good for everybody. It reduces ambiguity. An idea here is to maintain a binder with your organizational chart and job descriptions for all of you employees (see below). Having multiple grain elevators or feed mills increases the need for people to understand the hierarchy of your company.

Make sure each employee has a job description that clearly defines not only their role but also who they report to. We have discussed job descriptions in previous Manager Notebook columns — suffice it to say that having job descriptions forces you to think about what your employees do, who they report to and gives you great information for performing evaluations.

Communication

Communication needs to be deliberate and planned. Because your employees are offsite there is a dramatic decrease in “spontaneous” communication. You don’t pass most of your employees “in the hall on the way to the water cooler,” — or more realistically — as you pass each other going about your work in the mill or elevator — so you can’t say “oh, by the way….” You need to specifically seek out communication opportunities with your offsite employees — you need to be proactive! Don’t be hesitant to pick up the phone to check in. It is also easy to set up a simple email distribution list, so that every location can get important notices. Another relatively inexpensive technology to employ is to have a fax machine installed at each of your branches. An additional idea  is to have a monthly or weekly email that comes from you as manager. Make sure it has value in it; don’t just send one to be sending it; if people do not find the information in your email valuable, they will not pay attention to these weekly/monthly updates and will then miss when there truly is something important in one of them.

Technology

Eric Bloom, president of Manager Mechanics, a management-training firm based in Ashland, Massachusetts and quoted recently in INC. Magazine, feels that technology has become an integral part of the backbone for any organization with multiple locations. He states that with the advent of the Internet, there has been a prolific surge in the number of collaborative tools that have spawned from it.

While many organizations rely on custom-built software platforms and intranets as collaborative platforms, some of the most commonly-used tools are either free, cheap or available as a software-as-a-service, which means you can access these tools over the web for a monthly fee. Some of the best and cost-effective options include:

Dropbox: An internet based file system that allows you to upload and share documents easily with others.

Google Documents: Gmail and Calendar for internal training and communication.

Basecamp: A popular web-based project management and collaboration tool.

Facebook: The now ubiquitous social networking tool is just as useful for business as it is for personal applications.

Skype: The surge in VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) technology and software means that you can communicate with remote employees cheaply and effectively. All you need is a good internet connection and a relatively inexpensive webcam. Small group meetings can be held easily and quickly, you can see and talk to your team and it certainly saves time and money. Many Smart Phones have an app for Skype also.

Delegate

Many managers of multiple locations have been promoted because they are “Super Stuff Doers.” Early in your careers supervisors relied on you to get things done. You bagged more feed, bought more grain, loaded more rail cars, or did more of whatever tasks were assigned!  This made you stand out and you were promoted, so then you ended up selling even more feed, supervised several warehousemen, etc. Finally you were promoted to a position where you now oversee multiple locations.  This presents an interesting challenge — you have to learn to delegate, which for many of you - is against your natural instinct (ie., you like to do things yourself).

What should you delegate?  The short answer – EVERYTHING!  The day-to-day specifics of your feed or grain business will determine the exact answer, but the more you can have others help you accomplish, the more successful you will be.  Managing isn’t about doing things, but motivating others to do things.  A great definition of management is “the process of getting things done through other people.”

How do you successfully delegate?  Delegate in blocks of tasks, not one line item at a time.  Communicate about the task or project in advance…mid-afternoon the day before instead of the morning of.  Delegate with a specific time in mind and don’t tell your employees “ASAP” unless it truly is an emergency.

The five steps to delegation are:

1) Tell: “This is the project we will be doing.”

2) Sell: “This is why we are doing it and how it relates to the big picture needs of the company/team/our customers.”

3) Consult: Ask what the employee’s thoughts are.

4) Participate: Talk about what will work and what won’t. Remember, many innovations come from the bottom up in companies. A good example here is the story of the Post-It Note from 3M, a product that was invented a bit by accident, but also definitely came from the bottom up.

5) Delegate: Send them on their way.

This isn’t a static list of how to delegate, but like most things, is dynamic. The complexity and importance of the task will determine where in the list you start and how much time you spend on each step.

Set goals

Setting clear goals becomes more important when working with multiple locations.  Everyone needs to know what you expect and how they are moving forward in your vision of the business.  When setting goals, set SMART goals:

Specific: The goal should be able to be told in 30 seconds or less, or be able to be written on the back of a business card.

Measurable: If the goal can’t be measured you don’t know when it is reached. Sell 500 tons of feed this month, decrease processing time by 10%, etc. are measureable goals. “Improve” isn’t measurable.

Agreed upon: All the stakeholders in the project have agreed to the goal. Here is where one sided, dictatorial leadership doesn’t work.

Realistic: The goal needs to be in the realm of possibility.

Time-frame: A timeline or deadline needs to be set.

By setting SMART goals your employees will be more successful.

Meetings

Face-to-face meetings are critical for your dispersed team. Bring your key employees together on a regular basis. Schedule a “Department Head” meeting where supervisors from various locations come together to discuss challenges, opportunities, etc. Do a lot of listening at these meetings, and always ask the question “What do you need from me?”  Make sure the meetings are productive and concise. Don’t have a meeting just for a meeting’s sake, but make it productive. Meetings are expensive so they should produce value for you and the team.

Visit

Nothing beats an on-site visit. With several branches, you should schedule regular site visits. It may seem that a surprise visit would be advantageous, but in our experience, this just serves to make everyone nervous and can sometimes create an adversarial relationship. If you visit so often that you are seen as a “fixture” this may not be a problem.

No matter what your paperwork may say or what people tell you, there is no substitute for seeing, hearing and smelling for yourself. Walk through the facility and take a few minutes to speak with each employee. This can help to smooth the barrier created by off-site management. A consistent schedule for site visits works best. Employees can come to count on leadership to be present. Managers need to put their name on the schedule and show up ready to work. Managers working the front line, helping with clients, taking phone calls or dumping a truck can make a big impression on your employees. Your willingness to participate in the daily activities helps to foster the team atmosphere you are striving to create. Be ready to learn from your employees.You can learn as much from them as from any formal continuing education program. This will have a positive effect on many aspects of the business as well as your professional growth.

Deal with problems quickly

When working with off-site locations, the temptation is to wait if there are problems that need attention. It is easy to put off something until the next time you are there. But when the manager is off-site, a little problem can blow up into a major issue right quickly. Be willing to jump in your pickup and drive to the location if necessary, and address any issues immediately.

Multiple locations, multiple challenges

As we mentioned in the introduction to this column — multiple locations for feed and grain firms have become commonplace. These branches may be dispersed regionally rather than nationally or internationally, but many of the same challenges apply — regardless of the distance separating these locations.  As manager, a big part of your job is to build and manage your team — and with multiple locations you still have to have everyone on the same team even if they are not sitting in the same “locker room” on a daily basis. We trust that this column has given you some ideas and techniques which will help you manage your “far-flung empire!”

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