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What if you could do something that would help your business increase profitability, help you better market your services, increase clarity, and help employees see and care about how their effort directly relates to the big picture?

At our latest Small Giants Executive Breakfast, we had the opportunity to hear from Tony Schroeder, CEO of Choice One Engineering, who did just that through open book management and by making his employees owners in the company.

Choice One Engineering is a civil engineering firm based in Sidney, Ohio which Tony has led for more than 24 years. (He is also now a Business Advisor and Certified Coach at Aileron.)

Choice One’s healthy company culture has contributed to the firm’s success throughout the years, so it was great to hear first-hand from Tony about how he’s consciously taken the steps to foster that environment. The firm has even been named the “Best Firm to Work For” in the nation in civil engineering for two years in a row, as well as a three-time Dayton Business Journal “Best Place to Work” in the Dayton, Ohio region.

On stage at the breakfast, Barbara E. Hogan (co-owner and vice president of Afidence and owner and founder of TIMBELO, INC.) interviewed Tony to learn more about his intentional approach—including what he describes as some of the most pivotal moments in Choice One’s history.

Although there were many other insights from the Q&A, here are 6 of my top takeaways from the conversation with Tony.

1. Open book management can be transformative

Tony said that the adoption of open book management principles was a pivotal moment that helped take his business to the next level: “It was amazing the difference that open-book management made for us,” he said. Giving team members the knowledge about what financial statements mean helps to increase clarity and focus in the company, not to mention ownership, results, growth, and responsibility.

He said he recognizes how some business owners may be held back by fears they have about going open-book, but that for Choice One and for him, none of those fears were realized.

He said the key to being transparent about your numbers: ongoing education.
“The key is…education, education, education,” he said. That education is an investment, but it’s an investment that pays off.

“Our surveyors and our clerical people know more about financial statements than most [company] Presidents do. And it’s just educating around it—and [teaching] what’s important, what’s not important,” he said.

2. Keep seeking to find clarity in your business

A common theme throughout the Q&A session was the importance of clarity. Clarity is what, at the end of the day, helps to advance your company.

Put simply: Clarity is what helps your people focus on what matters most so they can do their best work.

“Have a vision? Provide clarity for it. Have a value? How can you get more clarity around it. Want a good culture? Define it [and align on it],” explained Tony. “The more clarity, the more chance you have for alignment.”

Tony explained that ambiguity is actually an opportunity—an opportunity to bring clarity to your vision, your values, your mission, and your culture. “Want certain behavior? Get clear on what that behavior is,” he said.

3. If you want people to think and act like owners, make them owners

One of the best pieces of advice Tony gave? Many of us talk about getting team members to think and make decisions as if they were business owners…Tony said it plain and simple: if you want your people to think and act like owners, make them owners!

“We had a philosophy as a company to think and act like owners…and we did that by making them owners,” he told us.

After making team members owners in the company, Tony said he saw so many benefits. The company brought in more business, they maximized profitability, and they enhanced the culture.

4. Employee feedback should be ongoing and in-the-moment

Choice One has regular “enjoyment check-ups” with their people to get feedback about how they are feeling and how they are developing as leaders throughout their life. These meetings can cover everything from future interests, culture fit, production, their day-to-day roles, and other factors related to their individual development plan.

The questions brought up in these check-ups change, but they can include things such as:

  • Where do you want to be in one to three years?
  • Where do you want to be in three to seven years?
  • Where are you living out your core values and where are you not living those out?
  • What do you like about the culture?

Sometimes the two-way conversations also include open-ended questions regarding that team member’s role and what they are doing. Those might look similar to:

  • What percentage of your time are you doing this activity? And what percentage are you doing this [activity]?
  • What would be your ideal break-out percentage be in terms of how you are spending your time?
  • Why or how do you think that’s going to fit in with what we’re doing?

“We try to get as much information as possible on it to make them think even deeper that what they were thinking with the reflection [that they did prior to the meeting],” said Tony. Having these kind of ongoing, informal sessions has been critical in developing leaders throughout their entire lives, said Tony.

choice one has a healthy culture

5. Transparency will help you when planning for the future

Most of us know that transparency helps in our business to see and value our vision, but this was also made evident to Tony when it came to talking about his own succession plan.

During one of his regular “enjoyment check-ups” with Matt Hoying, a project manager in the company, the two were looking ahead to the future.

It was no secret to team members across that company that Tony’s last day in the company was planned to be January 1, 2021.

During this meeting, Matt shared how he was looking forward to taking on the role of President, which was a part of that succession plan.

Suddenly, Tony wondered if the timeline for that transition could shift. After all, Matt had been training for the transition for years. “I said, ‘So what would you think if I made you President next year when you come back from Cincinnati?’” said Tony.

Matt’s eyes lit up and he said he would welcome the opportunity to take on a role earlier than they had originally planned.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do…follow you around for three more years?” Matt said to Tony at the time.

Because of that open , healthy, candid discussion, Tony ended up transitioning out of his role at Choice One about 4 months after that discussion. That was around 5 years earlier than he originally scheduled. The takeaway: having a transparent culture that embraces sharing and vulnerability—even with things like succession planning—can benefit the company in many ways.

6. An advisory board can bring you wisdom and experience

Another pivotal point for Choice One was when they created an outside board. The board provided him with objective advice, a wealth of experience, and added accountability.

“The advantage of having a board [is] they take the emotion out. Because we, as owners, have a tendency to make emotional decisions, and they say, ‘Why do you have these people there?’ And it’s hard to answer,” said Tony, who added that the accountability can help in many challenging decisions.

“They bring in [advice and recommendations so that you] don’t have to make the mistakes they’ve already made,” explained Tony.

Join Us At Our Next Small Giants Executive Breakfast   

Want to hear more thought-provoking, authentic stories from values-driven small business owners like you? The Entrepreneur’s Organization of Cincinnati presents the Small Giants Executive Breakfast Series, where we feature business leaders that adhere to the Small Giants values that allow companies to grow with purpose. ​

Learn how you can improve your company, your career, and even your life: our next event on June 15, 2018 features Peter Zulia co-founder of Oxford Physical Therapy. Sign up today for early bird pricing.

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Kim Sykes is a marketer at Edoc Service, Inc.