Focus, Economic Development, and Small Business & Startups

What makes Southwest Michigan First the Best of the Best?

The whole organization makes a commitment to every employee, and every employee to the others.

May 10, 2013
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Southwest Michigan First was honored this year as the Best of the Best overall winner for its cutting edge human resources practices by the Michigan Business and Professional Association during its annual Best and Brightest Companies to Work For program. It also was recognized as Best of the Best National Elite Small Business.

“For us it’s about talent,” said Ron Kitchens, CEO. “Eight years ago we adopted the belief that what we sell every day is the capacity of the talent of the people on our team, so we had better invest in our team first because we can only serve our clients if we have great people who clearly understand what success looks like in the client’s marketplace.

“We have to hire the most talented people that are available in the country. We really try to look like the best consulting firms in the country, but doing so with a social mission — which makes us very different.”

Southwest Michigan First is a private, regionally focused economic development corporation based in Kalamazoo that believes the greatest force for change is a well-paying job.

The organization works to grow the economic vitality of the eight-county region it serves by helping existing companies expand and attracting new business to the area.

“It is very difficult to join our team,” Kitchens said. He described the staff at Southwest Michigan First as “phenomenal people, first round draft choices.”

Finding the most talented people means looking beyond the resume to proven experience and hardwired psychology.

“To join the team you have to have a measure of education and a measure of experience. But you take somebody with 10 years of experience; if they’ve had 10 years of progressive experience with more progressive responsibilities, that is one thing,” he said. “If you have somebody who did the same thing for 10 years so they really have one year of experience 10 times over, that is a different strategy. We care less about what your resume says and more about how you are hardwired.

“We use very good, scientifically based measurement tools where we are measuring who the most talented people are for the given job we are looking for. We focus on attracting those people. We focus a lot on diversity … we want people who are different, but hardwired the same to be successful.”

Kitchens said the hiring process involves a candidate meeting with every member of the team, but people might be surprised to learn what the purpose of those interviews is.

“Our team members are not looking at anything except fit,” Kitchens said. “Do I want to spend a third of my life with this person and do I think they will be really successful?”

Each team member then makes a personal commitment to the new hire’s success.

“‘I will be personally responsible for their success and supporting them in being a successful member of our team.’ So when you join our team you already have 20 mentors who’ve made a personal commitment that they are going to support you to succeed.”

Kitchens credits that commitment and team culture as one of the driving forces of why people are successful at their jobs and why the company experiences strong worker loyalty.

In addition to the team culture and supportive environment, Kitchens regularly meets with each team member — once every 40 days — to discuss goals and engagement. The company also conducts twice-yearly engagement surveys.

“Twice a year we have a third party that administers an anonymous engagement study,” he said. “Every employee is asked for their feedback, 50 or 60 questions, and they are measuring things about their personal engagement in the organization, how fully committed are they to the success of the organization.

“If you look at Gallup’s data, Gallup has been measuring engagement for 40 or 50 years. Gallup would tell you that about a third of the employees are actively engaged, about a third are actively disengaged, which means they get up every day going to work looking to screw something up, and then you’ve got a third that could go either way.”

At Southwest Michigan First the engagement surveys regularly show that 90 percent of the team members are fully engaged.

Kitchens points to several policies that help the organization reach that level of employee engagement.

“We fully believe and communicate to people that they are the CEOs of their own responsibilities. Everyone on the team clearly knows what they are responsible for and how that fits into the overall picture and success of the organization.”

That autonomy also extends to everyone’s ability to manage his or her own work schedule.

“They aren’t going to do a great job if they are unhappy because they are missing their kid’s awards banquet,” Kitchens said. “They aren’t going to do a great job if they are worried because their middle school-aged kid is home sick and their boss won’t let them off work to take care of their kid. That is silly.

“At the end of the year we’ve committed the amount of work that is going to get done and the resources it takes so people are going to do the work, they just might do it at 10:30 at night so they can be at their daughter’s tennis match at 4.”

Family comes first at Southwest Michigan First, according to Kitchens. Another way the company shows its support of family is by engaging employee family members.

“If you are on our team and your child has a birthday, they are going to get a birthday card signed by everybody on the team. They are going to get a cookie bouquet from their parent’s co-workers.

“You are regularly going to get a note from me that says, ‘Hey, your mom or dad did something really amazing today and I wish you’d have been able to see what they did today. Because of them, 12 people are going to have jobs in this community.’”

Besides making sure employees know that family comes first, Southwest Michigan First also wants employees to know that their goals are important.

“We want them to constantly be working at being the best in whatever their industry sector is, and we also fully believe that it is my job to help people get the job of their dreams,” he said. “Now those jobs I hope are with me. I hope we can build our organization up so that when people feel that they want more opportunity and more challenges, they will go build a new division, build a new operation. We will give them more responsibilities. But, sometimes people have a clear goal that they want to go be the CEO of another organization.”

Kitchens said an employee recently left the company to do just that and rather than seeing the move as a loss, he believes it provides a new opportunity for a meaningful partnership.

“We haven’t lost a team member, we’ve gained somebody that we can collaborate with on a more dramatic level who understands our language and culture.”

Kitchens said that though many of the company’s human resources initiatives require a lot of extra effort and time, the payoff is worth it.

“It absolutely creates more productivity and more capacity for an organization to succeed,” he said.

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