Work in Progress

Hawaii Business lifts the kimono of its parent company

April, 2007

You have seen the list and supporting data explaining how Hawaii’s Best Places to Work earned their recognition. So, to provide a different perspective into just how hard it is to be the best, we thought it would be instructive to turn the tables, and analyze a company that is still tinkering with its plan for success: our own.

PacificBasin Communications — the parent company of Hawaii Business and five other publications — is “lifting up the kimono” and letting the public see what is lacking in its work culture and what is being done to improve it. The company is still relatively new, in its 10th year of existence, and, according to company president John Alves, some of the growing pains have been a direct result of a recent rapid expansion, which increased the number of employees nearly 300 percent.

“It was distressing to realize that our company had grown so fast in the last five years, from 22 employees to 60 employees,” he says. “We found that we were not communicating effectively with our employees. The good news is we’ve got a great opportunity … to get back on track with creating a positive work atmosphere.”

The process of examining PacificBasin’s shortcomings involves first assessing where the company stands according to survey. Second, informing employees about what the data means and creating a strategic approach so changes can be made in a reasonable time frame — and without biting off too much to chew at once. This strategy includes gathering input from employees at a company-wide forum where roundtable discussions are facilitated by an outside, objective party. Finally, action needs to be taken and the plan needs to be put in motion.

The survey results show that PacificBasin boasts strong relationships among employees and a sense of collegiality within its various work groups. But, there is an obvious disconnect between the managerial level and the majority of employees. According to Richard Boyer, managing partner of ModernThink LLC, which surveys applicants for the Best Places to Work (BPTW), this is an issue that stems from poor communication and lack of sufficient recognition of employee efforts and contributions. Those in managerial roles need to be better prepared to fulfill their roles as leaders. As shown in the companies that have ascended the BPTW list, once employees are kept in the loop about pertinent matters within the organization and where they stand in the grand scheme, their level of satisfaction increases.

Communication Is Key

One of the issues about which PacificBasin employees expressed a great deal of frustration was the lack of effective communication within the organization as a whole. One would assume a company that thrives on communicating to its readers would do the same internally. But effective communication is more than just information sharing and distribution; it is also about sending a clear message that is interpreted correctly.

“This is an organization of people, and it’s ironic that we’re PacificBasin Communications, and we found that we were not communicating effectively with our employees,” Alves says.

For companies that made the cut for Hawaii’s Best Places to Work, it is clear that there is no resting when it comes to finding different or more effective channels for relaying messages throughout the company.

“Communication in any industry is very important, we actually call it transparency,” says Doreen Griffith, managing partner of Grant Thornton’s Honolulu office, the best small- to medium-sized company on the list. “Every office, every firm struggles with it. You can’t overcommunicate.”

Tony Group president Stan Masamitsu agrees, and knows that even though his company’s employees are, for the most part, satisfied with the way things operate, there is always room for advancement.

“There are so many things that we could do [to improve], but, basically [we need to] have as many avenues as possible open to have good communication with our people,” he says. “It starts with us having the desire and putting in the effort. And, it’s a matter of being consistent and repetitive, while also varying in the methods in which we communicate. We’re not perfect at it, but we’re trying to get better.”

Recognize the Importance of Recognition

Alves says he thought PacificBasin was doing a good job of recognizing employees’ valuable contributions. But the survey told him otherwise.

“The surprising thing is that you think you’re doing that all the time; I’m constantly going down and patting somebody on the back and saying ‘good job,’” Alves says. “But, communication is what the other person receives, not what I give. So I and the other management people need to find ways to make sure that employees know that their work is acknowledged and appreciated.

“We have a fantastic staff of creative people who are constantly looking for the next good idea and we need to find ways to help encourage that. Our magazines are not just ink on paper; they’re the soul of the editorial staff and creative department. We can’t take it for granted that those who create our publications recognize how appreciated their work is.”

Many companies on the BPTW list have some kind of tangible recognition program, such as an Employee of the Month award where some kind of cash bonuses or other attractive amenities are given to deserving employees.

“The single most important issue for most folks is recognition,” says Mark Richards, No. 1 big company Maryl Group’s CEO. “We work hard to recognize those who contribute on a continuous basis. One of the ways is through our annual bonus and employee stock-option program. But certainly, just having someone appreciate and notice you, and really mean it; you can’t fake that. If you don’t like what you’re doing, if you’re not appreciated, sometimes all the money in the world doesn’t make a difference.”

Grant Thornton initiated a “You’ve Been Spotted” program that catches employees in the act of doing something right, and recognizes that with a small award.

Employees also need to be notified if they are not living up to the company’s expectations. As the No. 8 big company, Na Hoku has shown it is not just positive performance that needs to be recognized.

“You have to realize and have the attitude that people have the right to know where they stand,” president and CEO Ed Sultan says. “Management owes it to their direct reports to let them know where they stand. I think it’s more of an attitude than a technique or practice. It’s not just positive; it works both ways. People want to know when they’re not achieving what’s expected of them so they can make the appropriate changes. All in all people want to be successful in what they do and we want to provide an atmosphere where they can achieve that success and feel good about themselves.”

Rebuilding Upon an Existing Foundation

While there is room for improvement of the overall work culture, PacificBasin scored well on the survey in the area of employees’ pride in the products they help produce, and showed a strong sense of collegiality. The majority of those involved with the various publications said that they would recommend their products and services to family and friends, so there is a clear sense of pride and accomplishment associated with the results of their efforts.

“Each and every month I walk in my office and see a copy of a new issue of one of our six publications, and there’s never a time when I’m not just amazed at how our staff of 60 passionately puts this together, never looking at a time clock, and does it out of their own pride in producing a good product,” Alves says. “It’s gratifying to feel the excitement and creative tension among our staff.”

One of the unique benefits offered by PacificBasin is a Personal Development (PD) leave. The program was started to allow employees the chance to receive some form of instruction and overcome a challenge with the goal of broadening their knowledge and creativity. After working at the organization for one year, employees can apply for five consecutive days off to be used for PD. The only stipulations are that the time not be used as vacation days, and that the instruction be approved by management.

“We provide an environment where people can become the best that they can be, and we take an interest in our staff and employees,” Alves says.

As is true with most companies that participate in the BPTW program, PacificBasin is committed to making necessary changes with the hopes of one day being near the top of the list (although, as a matter of policy, Hawaii Business will not include its own company in the published rankings). Only time will tell if input from employees will resonate enough to result in changes that will elevate PacificBasin — and any other company faced with similar challenges — to the upper echelons of Hawaii’s best work environments.


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