The Best Advice a CEO Ever Gave You: How to Keep Your Best People On Board

These seasoned CEOs discuss the ins and outs of what it takes to recognize, reward and retain talent

“You do not lead by hitting people over the head —that’s assault, not leadership,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said.So with today’s business climate, which can feel like an assault in and of itself, what is the mark of a good leader? And how does a business foster the development of the leaders of tomorrow?

For a company to be successful, “CEOs need to surround themselves with great people,” said Lane Rees, president of Human Resource Solutions in Santa Rosa Beach. To do that requires getting “the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus.”

To get a sense of how that’s done, 850 Magazine recently interviewed five CEOs of award-winning companies in Northwest Florida. They all spoke of the need for providing good training, rewarding employees who show leadership, having internal evaluation systems, and looking for workers who are outcome-oriented problem solvers.

For continuity, they suggest developing future leaders from within. “You have to encourage and bring people up through the ranks if you want to grow,” said Robert Kamm, president and CEO of Sandcastle Resorts and Hotels, headquartered in Destin.

And, most agree, when you find a good leader in your company’s ranks, provide him or her with rewards and appreciation to make sure the person stays.

“People have to feel like they are contributing, being challenged, learning new things and appreciated,” said Rick Kearney, president and CEO of Mainline Information Systems in Tallahassee. “We really focus on that last one. We make sure our people know and feel they are appreciated.”

The five CEOs provided additional insights on what it means to lead well and how to foster leaders within a company.

Meet the Sage CEOs Who Know How to Culivate Talent

Robert Kamm, Sandcastle Resorts and Hotels Sandcastle Resorts and Hotels has the distinction of operating and managing the largest and most profitable independently owned Hilton hotel in the world, Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa.

Working from the company’s Destin headquarters, president and CEO Robert Kamm began with the company 28 years ago as controller and worked his way up through the ranks.

Quint Studer, Studer Group A health-care consulting group based in Gulf Breeze, Studer Group employs approximately 140 people, half of whom are “virtual” employees. Founded in 1998 by Quint Studer, the company’s mission is to make health care a better industry to work in for all of its professionals.

Starting with just two employees, who are still with the company, Studer Group has become a recognized leader and award-winning company, and has been cited by some national organizations as one of the best small businesses to work for.

An author of several books on creating excellence, Studer has been recognized as one of the 100 most powerful people in the field of health care.

Lorraine Strickland, Fringe Benefits Management Company Strickland has been working in the employee benefits industry since 1981, the last 13 years as president and CEO of Fringe Benefits Management Company in Tallahassee.

A frequent speaker and published author in the benefits and insurance industry, she oversees a team of 320 employees that services clients from kearneyAlaska to Vermont.

Clients range from large state governments, like California and New York, to school districts to community banks and hospitals. FBMC services more than 300,000 customers plus their dependents, annually fielding about 600,000 customer service inquiries on benefits that include health and retiree programs.

Mort O’Sullivan, O’Sullivan Creel, LLP Pensacola-based accounting firm O’Sullivan Creel has earned a reputation as one of the best places to work in the region. With approximately 170 employees (or team members, as the firm prefers to call them) and offices in Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach and Destin in Northwest Florida and two locations in Alabama, O’Sullivan Creel strives to be “the employer of choice.”

Managing partner Mort O’Sullivan III began his career as a CPA in Florida in 1975.

Rick Kearney, Mainline Information Systems Headquartered in Tallahassee, Mainline provides clients, from hospitals to government agencies, with information technology systems, including mainframes, hardware, software and support.

Founded in 1989, Mainline has approximately 550 employees spread out in offices as far off as Canada, Puerto osullivanRico and Brazil. Even in the company’s early days, president and CEO Rick Kearney and his team were recognized for their approach. Mainline was named one of Inc. magazine’s 500 fastest-growing private companies.


What components do you think help create a good corporate team?

ROBERT KAMM: I think the most important thing for people to do is they have to understand your mission, or what the company is and where the company is going. If they don’t know where you are headed, they can’t form a good team.

QUINT STUDER: I think they’ve got to be willing to take feedback. As a corporate team, you don’t want to fall in love with yourselves. A key component of good leaders is to be hard on themselves. If they are not hard on themselves, usually no one else will be.

LORRAINE STRICKLAND: Diversity. I don’t necessarily mean racial, sex, religion. I mean the way in which people approach and solve problems. Different people approach problem solving and leadership differently. The best corporate teams are non-clones of the CEO. It would make it easier if everyone thought like me, but it wouldn’t necessarily be right.

MORT O’SULLIVAN: Trust, communication, bravery and compassion. Brave enough to tell people what they need to hear. Compassionate enough to understand how that message is being received by the party you are giving it to.

RICK KEARNEY: First and foremost, everyone, from the bottom up, has to understand the mission of the company. Leaders need to do a good job communicating that message and how we get that done. We have to communicate what makes us different. I know it sounds obvious, but some people get too myopic. Everyone has to have a full understanding of who we are, what we do and why we do it.

How do you identify leaders within your ranks?

ROBERT KAMM: We are a service company, and in the hospitality business we have to be there for our guests. They really tell us who are up-and-coming stars through guest comments. Another way is to go to the properties and watch people at work. Before we had this economic downturn, we would find someone who was up and coming and have the luxury of moving people around, and could put people in training programs. It hasn’t been that easy to do that in the last 18 months. When the economy is better, we’d like to take employees and give them more experience in all areas of our business.strickland

QUINT STUDER: When your evaluation system is outcome-based you take away what I call “promotion on personality,” and that creates an even playing field. We have very inclusive training. Everyone knows what everyone is supposed to be doing. We also put people in nonformal leadership roles, such as heading up a task force where they facilitate and lead people who don’t report to them.

LORRAINE STRICKLAND: We ask each manager and each officer to select somebody to mentor based on their own assessment of that person’s future potential. In addition, any manager or team leader that applies for promotion or transfer is required to have their replacement in place and trained. We’ve tried to instill in the management team the belief that your first obligation is to replace yourself. If you are sincere about career advancement — and knowing we try to hire from within — you’ll not only be looking where you want to go, but you’ll be figuring out who is coming up behind you.

MORT O’SULLIVAN: We have a program in our firm that helps identify people with high potential. Team members are assessed by their peers, coworkers and other leaders in the firm. Is it consistent? No. But through evaluations, we can see if someone is taking initiative, can communicate with others and understands the power of doing things through a team. We are consciously looking for leaders. We also have a program of evaluations that allows for 360-degree feedback. Sometimes, the evaluations from the people underneath someone provide the best indicator of a good leader.

RICK KEARNEY: Generally speaking, as people demonstrate an ability to solve problems and work autonomously, they are leadership material. If they have to be told what to do and when to do it, they probably are not leadership material. If someone can make decisions correctly and execute them, then obviously they are leadership material.

Why is it important to foster leadership in a company?

ROBERT KAMM: A good example is we lost one of our general managers. Because of our downsizing, we don’t have someone readily available, so westuder will have to find a general manager from the outside. When you need someone to step up, you need people available that have the training. You have to encourage and bring up people through the ranks if you want to grow. This is especially true in our industry, because we are all about people. That is who we service.

QUINT STUDER: It is all about people’s ownership in a company. Many companies treat employees like renters. You can foster leadership by making sure people have a say-so in the company. We are a private company, but we share our financials every month. Ownership is what really drives outcomes.

LORRAINE STRICKLAND: As much as you can foster leadership in your employees you are also fostering morale, spirit and engagement in the company. Leaders are engaged, passionate, able to influence the way other people think. You want people in your company influencing others, whether that is customers, clients or the community, in a positive way about your company.

MORT O’SULLIVAN: To create a place where you can retain talent, you have to have good leadership. Talent leaves an organization more often than not because of the relationship they have with their direct supervisor. It is critical you have people within the ranks to retain talent.

RICK KEARNEY: As the company grows, there is no way the original leaders can keep up with the growth. They burn out, can’t keep up or even just get too old. For most companies, that is a big problem. A company needs to grow horizontally and vertically in order for it to become better at what it does.

What qualities do you look for in employees that demonstrate leadership ability?

ROBERT KAMM: Obviously, you are looking for someone who is hard-working and who can respond quickly on their feet. Our people have to handle people. No matter how hard you try, you are going to have instances when things don’t go right. What seems minor can become a major problem if not handled correctly. The employee has to have an outgoing personality and know how to solve problems and anticipate the problems.

QUINT STUDER: An ability to take feedback. An ability to look at their job as outcome-orientated, not process-oriented. Your job is to get things off your desk, not on your desk. We look for someone who is willing to be challenged and question the status quo. I want doers.

LORRAINE STRICKLAND: Emotional intelligence. I don’t look for product knowledge or specialty knowledge. I look for the ability to influence others in different types of settings, whether verbal, written or in meetings where they are able to facilitate and lead a diverse group of people to some sort of consensus they all can live with. I generally don’t see people in leadership positions that don’t have a passion for life. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are outgoing or extroverted. It means they are balanced humans. They have outside interests, like family, church, community, and don’t put all their passion into just a business setting.

MORT O’SULLIVAN: Initiative, communication, and an ability to be bold enough to speak their mind and have empathy for others around them.

RICK KEARNEY: An employee who doesn’t mind when you keep giving them more problems to overcome, or opportunities. If you get a lot of pushback, that person is not a leader. A leader embraces challenges. They are into it.

Do you think formal leadership training is important?

ROBERT KAMM: I do. It’s very important to know the technical side of the hotel business. When you see an up-and-coming star, you should put them with someone and have a plan so they learn what they need to know to be successful in our business. It is very important to have training on how to be a leader. Leaders are usually natural, but how to handle other leaders and team members is important to teach.

QUINT STUDER: We don’t outsource training per se. Components of our training is outsourced, but we think the senior leaders have to be very clear on the objectives. We have a real hybrid approach. Sometimes when you outsource all training, it becomes too generic. It needs to be much more specific to your own company.

LORRAINE STRICKLAND: I want to say ‘no.’ I don’t think that leadership training is what’s important. I think identifying people who have that potential and those skills is important. I don’t necessarily think leadership can be taught. But once those people are identified, there is special training you can offer, like conflict resolution, consensus building and communicating effectively. Those are important.

MORT O’SULLIVAN: I do and we do. I would not rely totally on outside leadership training. If you outsource training too much, then employees are never going to get a flavor for your culture. We use a mix of formal outside training coupled with in-house programs. We have an Emerging Leaders Academy, a three-year program, which our folks can participate in after being with the company for about five years.

RICK KEARNEY: I think a little bit of formal leadership training does, in fact, go a long way. People do learn faster given training and coaching. I think, however, people can go overboard trying to mold leaders that are not ready to be leaders.

Once a company has good people in place, how does it hang on to them?

ROBERT KAMM: We have one employee who started with the company before we opened the doors who is still with us today. We train people with respect. We try to address everyone’s issues. If someone thinks there is an injustice to them, you have to address the issue. Most importantly, treat people with respect and appreciate the hard work they do. It is amazing the extra miles someone will go for an employer when they know they are appreciated. Good benefits and compensations are also important. We give annual bonuses to people who have worked for the company for 10 years and additional rewards for those who have been with us for more than 20 years. We do have quite a few people who fall into those categories, and we’ve only been around for 25 years. That is one benefit we decided we did not want to cut out with the hard economic times.

QUINT STUDER: First of all, you have to let people know your No. 1 commitment is their professional development. I find people really stay with a company if they feel the organization is investing in them. We are a big believer in transparency. Not only how we are doing, but why.

LORRAINE STRICKLAND: Make sure you are paying attention to them. For many of us, our time and attention is taken up with people who aren’t performing. The good people, because they’re good, may get recognition but they’re not getting your true time and true focus. You need to be asking them, ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to accomplish? Where do you want to be positioned for the future?’

Generally, people don’t leave because of pay. It’s because they don’t see their future, they don’t feel they’re being groomed and they don’t know they have an opportunity. Or they’re just bored.

MORT O’SULLIVAN: Reward them. Challenge them and communicate with them.

RICK KEARNEY: Money plays a part in this. They have to be paid competitively for the industry. But that is not actually the top reason. People have to feel like they are contributing, being challenged, learning new things and appreciated. We really focus on that last one. We really make sure our people know and feel they are appreciated.

What’s the best way to look for outside talent?

ROBERT KAMM: We use posting services through the hospitality industry. We also use national headhunters. It’s important; if you are a filling a position for Hilton you need Hilton experience, or for a Marriott the applicant needs Marriott experience. They both have different ways of operating, so we have to have people with those experiences.

QUINT STUDER: Company reputation. Last year, we had 2,100 people apply to work for us, and we only hire about eight a year. Build a good reputation, and word of mouth is what really drives it.

LORRAINE STRICKLAND: There is something we do in our company that happens to work for us. Not only do we not discourage family members from working in the company, we encourage it. We find people who are friends or related build their social networks in company more easily, more quickly, and they become more engaged. The only caveat we have is that family members cannot work directly for each other.

MORT O’SULLIVAN: We have had a decent result from folks searching us out. All our partners are out in the community talking to people. Our website has brought us good people. We have an internal reward system in which we pay people and reward them for having brought people to the firm.

What is your one piece of advice for other CEOs?

ROBERT KAMM: We all have to remember right now that we are going through some tough and interesting times. I know for us, our people are still our No. 1 asset, and we can’t forget that — no matter how difficult the times are. We still have to take care of our people, and that is how we will be successful and make it through this downturn.

QUINT STUDER: Keep it simple. I find what happens with companies is we start simple and, as we grow and expand, we make it complex. Our job as leaders is to drive through complexity to simplicity. It is also important to take the extra time to connect back to why we do things.

LORRAINE STRICKLAND: When you are out, even shopping or traveling, and find someone who is really good at what they do — not because of what they are doing but because they have talent, ability and potential — give them your card and have them send in a resume with your card. Try to hire them, recruit them.

MORT O’SULLIVAN: Never forget that you are a servant leader with responsibilities to the inside of that organization.

Advice for Every CEO

“CEOs should stay fresh,” said Lane Rees, president of Human Resource Solutions in Santa Rosa Beach, who has had more than 20 years of circle-of-ceosinternational human-resource experience. “To be creative, it is important for CEOs to take time to think by themselves about their company and the direction they want to go. It’s beneficial so they don’t get static.”

When questioned about the major mistakes he sees CEOs make, Rees said, “Some don’t put a complete appreciation into their people. Others have a lack of visibility within their organization. The CEO may focus on the external communications, but they also need to be visible within the company. By being visible, there is an increased trust and a more cohesive message.”

Most importantly, he added, CEOs must “communicate, communicate, communicate on an ongoing basis” and “be positive even in the down times.”