Tony DiBenedetto will never forget “the watercooler incident.”
“We were in our very first office building, and at that time everybody was bringing in their own bottled water,” says DiBenedetto, who is the co-founder, chairman and CEO of the national IT services provider. “We wound up having this meeting to talk about what we were going to do about the water.”
He and the other two principals sat down to deliberate the issue: Would they use bottled water or filtered? What about enlisting a water service? The meeting ended two hours later.
“At the end of that meeting, I looked at my two partners and said, ‘Guys — we’re never doing this again,” DiBenedetto says. “This is insane.’”
Seeing the inefficiency around decision-making, the partners agreed that something needed to change. With Tribridge still in its infancy, they understood that the way they handled decisions in the beginning years would set the precedent for the company’s future.
“What it led to was an acknowledgement that we all three did not need to be included in decisions,” DiBenedetto says. “In partnerships, a lot of times everybody feels the need to vote on every single issue and talk about every issue, and it doesn’t allow you to grow very fast.”
What the watercooler incident demonstrated is the age old problem of “too many cooks in the kitchen” combined with the mistake of bringing in the wrong cooks. When there are too many people involved in a decision, it’s hard for people to accomplish anything quickly or efficiently.
And if people are also participating in decisions that don’t concern them, they won’t have time to handle the issues that do.
What DiBenedetto and his partners realized early on was that most people at Tribridge, themselves included, didn’t really know what decisions were and weren’t their responsibility. They needed to divide the decision-making so that each person and department had clear areas of decision-making authority.
Today, each of the company’s partners has specific items that fall under his decision-making jurisdiction. For example, anything involving strategy lands within DiBenedetto’s arena, and sometimes, all three of the partners.
“I feel like my role here is to drive strategy, so if we’re going to stray from the strategy that is a decision I would want to be involved in,” DiBenedetto says.
Not all decisions in the company should be pushed down the ranks either. When it comes to large financial transactions, debt, M&A or strategy, you definitely want your top leaders to take the lead. As CEO, DiBenedetto still offers his input if there is a major decision that people want feedback on or when it’s a hire or fire decision where his expertise may help.
At the customer level, however, he’s rarely involved in decision-making. When the company opened its first office in Dallas, for example, DiBenedetto told Managing Director Bobby Priestley that he was charged with making all the decisions concerning Dallas — and not just some of them, but all of them.
“People closest to the decision make better decisions,” he says. “We have consultants in the field and 3,500 customers. They’re out there making decisions for a customer. They are in the best position to make the decision. They understand the customer’s needs. They understand what the firm can do.
“So to have them elevate that through a series of management layers is ridiculous.”
Rarely if ever has DiBenedetto seen a good decision that satisfied a customer but impacted the company negatively. That’s because the customer feedback loop can typically tell you whether or not employees are on the right track with their decision-making.
“We’ve got a nice built-in check and balance there — where if decisions are good for the customer, they’re good for Tribridge,” DiBenedetto says.
“In my 14 years at Tribridge, I’ve never felt like, ‘Oh my gosh, this person is such a rogue decision-maker, and I have to reel them in.’ I’ve never felt that at all — zero.”
Say what you need to say
When you have a lot of people making decisions every day, effective internal communication becomes much more critical. If communication breaks down, and decision-making becomes siloed, your company invites conflict within departments and across them.
“We probably have 100,000 decisions made a day, and the way our business works, we have 450 people making those decisions every day,” DiBenedetto says.
“A lot of times we make decisions but we don’t tell somebody either why we made it or even that we made a decision. So you might do something for a customer and not tell them, or you might do something internally and not tell somebody. Being able to communicate the decision is another lesson learned.”
One way to keep everyone apprised of important organizational changes or information while preserving decision-making autonomy is to have set meetings to share updates, talk strategy and discuss progress on goals.
At Tribridge, the company currently holds a monthly meeting for its national leadership team in Tampa as well as an all-company meeting each February, where more than 400 employees meet in-person at a chosen location. In addition, it conducts an all-employee phone call once a month.
Regular meetings are a great opportunity for people to bring topics to the table, submit questions and voice any issues or concerns that could require outside attention. But a two-hour meeting about bottled water? Absolutely not, DiBenedetto says.
In the case of the watercooler incident, it wasn’t the meeting itself that caused inefficiency. Rather, inefficiency occurred because the people in the meeting didn’t need to be there. So instead of vilifying meetings, which can contribute to productive, creative and helpful communication, the company does the opposite — it encourages them.
“One of the culture points for us is the very open communication process,” DiBenedetto says. “Most people here are very comfortable raising topics. So anybody can call a meeting. Titles are not involved. We don’t put titles on our business cards. It’s an open culture where people can call a meeting if they need to.”
However, another rule at Tribridge is that if anyone ever feels like they are in a meeting that they don’t need to be in, they are completely free to excuse themselves.
“They can say, ‘Hey listen, I’m not going to contribute to this meeting, so I don’t need to be here,’” DiBenedetto says. “It’s not looked upon as a bad thing. The culture of the company is not just to meet for meeting’s sake.”
The bottom line is that you don’t want to shackle people with endless meetings or ask them to check in constantly about their progress. This defeats the purpose of pushing out decisions in the first place. Once you give people power over decisions, you also need to give them the freedom to succeed or fail.
“I can’t come back later and constantly start micromanaging,” he says. “So part of it is a leadership point that you’ve got to allow the decision and the success or failure to happen. If it doesn’t happen, then nobody learns from it.”
So after any big decision is made at Tribridge, whatever group that is involved in that area of the business, whether it is a client, a region or the entire company, is also involved in a debriefing process. This step reinforces that every decision, good or bad, is a learning experience for your business and your employees and the key to continuous improvement.
If the decision was good, ask why was it good? How could an OK decision have been better? And what went wrong with the bad ones?
“You have to be able to keep learning from it,” DiBenedetto says. “It’s a skill set. So you get better at making decisions the more decisions you make. The fact that we have these hundreds of thousands decisions being made every day means our people are better decision-makers than if they worked somewhere else.”
Empower the right people
In the tech business, where you’ve got to be rapidly changing and adapting your business all the time, you can’t afford to have a culture that puts individuals on pedestals, DiBenedetto says. When you trust people to make important decisions that impact your customers, you need to feel confident they’re focused on helping the customers, not themselves.
That’s why DiBenedetto prioritizes a person’s cultural fit over his or her resume when he hires someone for a position of authority at Tribridge. Specifically, he looks for whether the person has the trait of “entrepreneurism.”
“The first thing we tell people who come to work here is that when we say ‘think like an entrepreneur,’ there are two elements of that,” DiBenedetto says. “One, keep improving Tribridge; two, really on an everyday basis when you’re working for a customer, pretend that you’re one of their shareholders. When you’re thinking like a shareholder for them, you’re making the best decision in their interest.”
Hiring for entrepreneurism doesn’t mean you only want people who plan to start their own companies or create new products. Instead, it defines a person’s willingness to take risks, make changes confidently, and guide the decisions based on how he or she thinks the customer’s business is going to go, DiBenedetto says.
“Culturally, it’s looking for people who have an entrepreneur’s mindset, who are comfortable making decisions in risky situations,” DiBenedetto says. “The easy decisions aren’t the ones that you are worried about. It’s the tough decisions where you want somebody who has more of an entrepreneur’s mindset making them.”
To get a feel for this trait when hiring, the company’s recruiters first ask job candidates to provide broad situational examples, such as a time when they used teamwork or faced a tough challenge. Then they use “critical behavioral interviewing” techniques to analyze the candidate’s behavior in those different situations. What they did when they made a mistake or when they had to give negative feedback?
“We’re looking at how they handled it, not the answer to the question,” DiBenedetto says.
“You’re not asking them about being honest. You’re asking them about teamwork or something else; and they start telling you the story. And you keep drilling down until you get to a situation where you have witnessed through their story what their behavior was. So it’s a crafty way of doing it.”
In behavioral interviewing, recruiters also look at the way people phrase statements and the subtleties of what they say. This can help you identify red flags in a person’s cultural fit. Big egos, for instance, don’t bode well when you’re making decisions for a team.
“Sometimes you’ll ask somebody, ‘Tell me what someone else on the team does,’ and they’ll answer the question by telling you what they did,” DiBenedetto says.
People who are new to an organization with decentralized decision-making may not feel confident making lots of big decisions right away. But by hiring people that fit well with the culture, demonstrate entrepreneurism, and are team players, DiBenedetto finds that most people can succeed in this kind of empowering environment.
“When you surround employees with people who help them all the time, that aren’t in it for themselves, that plan a team environment, and they are empowered to make decisions, they tend to like it,” he says.
“It translates into better decision-making, faster decision-making and therefore things happen quicker here. There’s a sense of urgency to get things done as a result of that, and that leads to growth.”
While DiBenedetto had some initial reservations about using a decentralized decision-making structure, today he can’t imagine doing things differently at Tribridge. From 2006 to 2009, the company grew its revenues 272 percent, generating $65 million in 2011.
“We’ve grown dramatically over a 10-year period,” DiBenedetto says. “We’ve had 9/11, multiple wars — we’ve had a tech bust, a real estate bust, a credit crunch. Yet our company continues to grow organically pretty quickly, and it’s because we have decentralized decision-making.”