“I think business owners sometimes think that if you have a codified corporate culture—in which employees know what’s expected of them and why they’re at the company—you can’t also have a spontaneous, creative environment in which problem solving and innovation are cherished and encouraged,” says Jeff Williams, President and Chief Executive Officer of School Innovations & Achievement (SI&A).
“To which I say: Bull,” he continues. “A company that expects to be around, and continuing to invent and re-invent, needs across-the-board buy-in from everyone who works there. People need to feel valued, no matter what level they’re working at or what task they’re working on. “How hard is that to figure out?”
Williams founded SI&A in 2003. Originally a back-office facilitator for California school districts and county offices of education—with the majority of them becoming clients—in recent years the company has become one of the leading creators of education software and service solutions. Its suite of products includes the industry leading Attention2Attendance, the foundation program of the Achievement Initiative, now being used in school districts throughout California, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas.
" I believe very much in a company having core values and an authentic mission statement "
“I believe very much in a company having core values and an authentic mission statement,” Williams says. “Those things never really should change, even if, as we did at SI&A, the company’s focus changes. Values, like character, are what you’re supposed to have even when nobody’s looking. Put another way, you can change your name and hairstyle all you want, but you’re still going to be the same person. I think a good, solidly managed business is, like a person, a living entity; at its foundation, it needs to be true to itself. Your employees will be the first to tell you—or to move on—if your business stops being ‘itself.’
Williams credits his longtime Chief Operating Officer, Susan Cook, who has a deep corporate background in operations, organizational effectiveness and leadership, with helping SI&A develop its “ Basics.” “Cook says that most companies adopt Operating Principles, Core Values & Beliefs, Mission Statements, and Wildly Important Goals because that’s what they’re supposed to do. As she says, ‘They take pretty words, put them in their employee handbook or on a wall somewhere and forget them.’ Well, that won’t work,” Williams continues. “If you write something down, you’d better mean it.”
Smart leaders, on the other hand, "Actually give these words and how they’re used a great deal of thought,” Cook says. “The reason for this isn’t just a ‘company climate’ issue—it’s also an economic one.”
He is quick to point out, however, that it’s futile to empower employees at lower levels if you don’t do it within “a very specific framework. If employees understand the company’s mission, purpose, and values, how you do business and what’s ‘wildly important,’ they probably won’t be wrong when they make a decision. Now, they might not make the same decision you would, but as long as their decision is consistent with what you and the company hold dear, things ought to be okay.”
Williams says that the other advantage to having decisions made at lower levels is that “you ll actually have decisions being made by the people who have the best understanding of your clients and their needs. They may surprise you—and eventually, their decisions will be better and much more ingenious than those made previously by management.
“Continuous improvement becomes a fact of life when employees are empowered. Once they understand the company framework, start making decisions and managers start listening, you’ll be moving toward high performance teams. The teams will set the goals, the processes and the standards. You’ll have improved your talent pool, made the business more efficient, given employees a sense of genuine satisfaction and provided managers with the opportunity to do new and innovative work—with and through their team and with other parts of the organization.” “In a nutshell,” he says, Companies get valued every so often, but the people in our company need to be valued every day.”
President & CEO
SI&A provides K-12 education software and service also Attention2Attendance, a software solution that decreases school absenteeism by as much as 25 percent.