aimClear’s Chief Executive Officer Laura Weintraub made partner at one of Northern Minnesota’s leading law firms, twice along the way being named to the prestigious Rising Star list by Minnesota Law & Politics. She taught masters-level business law at the University of St. Francis and spent nearly a decade as a featured lecturer on employment law for human resource personnel and business owners. Now, she quietly leads one of the fastest growing privately held companies in America.
Laura was integrally involved as an attorney during aimClear’s early years and joined the company full time as chief operating officer in 2011. She became CEO in 2012 after aimClear, which then had 16 employees, earned Inc. 500 honors.
The results since then speak for themselves:
- Revenue increased by 345 percent;
- The client roster has grown to include Intel, Siemens, Tektronix and other well-known global brands;
- Recognized three times by Inc. as one America’s fastest-growing companies;
- Two-time “Best Companies to Work For in Minnesota” award winner;
- aimClear’s workforce grew 50 percent, adding employees to its Duluth and St. Paul offices.
Managing a company with eye-popping revenue growth from a startup to an established business was no easy task. To build a foundation that will support aimClear’s continuing cultural growth, Laura led the adoption of open-book business principles associated with The Great Game of Business.
The Great Game of Business is a management philosophy pioneered by Jack Stack, founder, CEO and president of SRC Holdings Corporation. Faced with the challenge of running a business with a debt-to-equity ratio of 89-to-1, Stack and his team developed the game to “demystify business” and apply a competitive spirit to the goal of growing SCR into what now, 30 years later, is a nearly $600 million company. (For great insight into how the Game began, check out this series of interviews with Stack and Bo Burlingham at last year’s Inc. 500|5,000 Conference & Awards)
Starting out with MiniGames – short-term challenges that address a weakness – employees became familiar with the concept of setting and achieving precise objectives that grow the business by generating cash. When it came time to launch the big Game with the major goals that would drive growth across the entire company, management and employees were on the same page, working as one team to identify what would grow the business, set goals and develop the plan to achieve them.
We sat down with Laura to get her take on “The Game” and how it is making aimClear a better company.
aimClear (aC): Explain The Great Game of Business to people who aren’t familiar with it.
Laura Weintraub (LW): The Game believes that every employee in a company is capable of running the company if you show them how their job relates to the company’s overall success. To do that, you open your books to show them where every dollar comes from and where it goes. When they see the big picture, it becomes much easier for them to identify what drives our profitability or, as the case may be, what is holding us back.
We’re finding that what The Game’s authors say is true: Employees embrace their role in driving the business when you demystify what it means to run a business.
aC: How did you bring this to your employees and convince them to buy into it?
LW: We’ve always shared things with our staff, that’s something Marty [Weintraub, aimClear Founder & Evangelist] believed in from day one, so we started with strong credibility in place and there were no objections to taking this approach. Literally he had our first employees open the mail for the pleasure of receiving checks from our clients. We explained to our staff before we “launched” that open-books is a process, not an event, that adopting it would challenge the way we were used to working. Explaining that we want our team members to help us run the business and teach them how to run a business resonated and made it something to be excited about.
aC: How are you encouraging employees to look beyond their jobs to “see the big picture?”
LW: Everyone understands the portion of the business their work influences, so to show them the big picture, we are sharing information they aren’t exposed to every day. For example, we shared the impact on the bottom line when health insurance rates go up, or the impact of sending five people to a conference. People are now aware of how that impacts things like the number of client hours we need to maintain or the finances behind hiring decisions.
aC: To play The Game, a company needs its so-called critical number that elevates success over failure. How were you able to identify and define that in a company growing as fast as aimClear is?
LW: This occurred more naturally than you would think, but it still required a lot of effort. Over the last several months, we have spent a great deal of time measuring our business more deliberately. From that, we identified areas that needed more attention. And, we continue to develop better systems for measuring.
When it came time for us to actually set the number, we selected an amount of gross revenue that exhibited what we feel is healthy growth. We were deliberate to not err on the side of caution or optimism. We wanted it to be as rational as it could be because this is how we would define our success. I think we achieved that, and we’re still above the upper end of where we thought we would be for growth so I am extremely happy with our progress.
aC: How do you handle that knowing at some point it will be natural to experience a course correction?
LW: That gets back to not wanting to let such fast growth drive us into bad budgeting decisions that won’t hold up over the long term. It’s a constant balance trying to manage growth so you don’t overcompensate or move too slowly to manage the workflow.
One of the things the author Jack Stack talks about is how your job as a CEO is to employ people and if you manage the business in a way that leads to layoffs then you’ve failed at your top responsibility. I completely agree. If I let our growth cause me to make decisions that won’t survive the inevitable course correction, then I’ve failed.
aC: How do you even set goals when you grow by such crazy percentages every year?
LW: Part of the process is about picking goals that impact growth rather than specifically targeting growth. In other words, to grow you need to do more of the things that make you grow. We recently reorganized the company to gain more accountability and instituted more metrics because what is measured improves. Data is so critical. When I have data I can affect contracts, projections and manage growth. We aren’t stabbing in the dark anymore. Our decisions are much more informed – and we are only getting started.
aC: But where do you achieve a balance between setting goals and not being so heavy handed that they turn into dictating people’s jobs to them?
LW: This is hard. Our first “mini-game” effort ended up entirely differently than I expected because I sat down with staff and explained what I wanted to work on. The staff then fed back that I was moving too fast – and that they needed more data to get to the point I was at. So, the staff dove in to fashion our first ‘game’ to measure and track an important element of the business. That’s what’s supposed to happen! The more directed it is by staff the better, for that very reason.
Leading with an open book
aC: As CEO, what went through your mind when you first heard the concept of open book management?
LW: I wished more companies did it! Secrecy breeds such mistrust among staff. What are you hiding and why? Why don’t you trust me to know how I impact the business? It feels so natural to share this information. People reacted very positively.
aC: Has it ever created a conflict or forced you to reveal things you would rather not?
LW: The biggest value for me is that we share the stress and the success. I am not in this alone – or just with “management.” While we shared before, we are much more deliberate and more timely in sharing. I feel more responsible to share so there is a level playing field in decision-making.
aC: How do aimClear employees react to bad news? What do you as CEO go through between the time you learn about it and the time you tell them?
LW: I try to get the bad news out as quickly as the good news. That builds trust. I actually find it cathartic to write the memo to the company to let them know when things don’t go well. It helps me put things in perspective as well.
Ring the bell
aC: Explain ring the bell. Where did it come from? What does the agency get from it?
LW: When aimClear was just a couple people in a small office, Marty bought a bell – the kind you see at a business desk to call the receptionist. He would ring it anytime anything good happened. Now we’ve institutionalized the tradition.
One of the most important ways of making employees feel appreciated and part of the team is to be sure that everyone feels recognized for their good work. We have been decent at that in the past, but have made it now a regular weekly feature. We recognize and celebrate everything from buying a house to running a marathon to client successes. I’m finding Ring the Bell a great measure for our success as well – each week we have amazing successes, small and large, to celebrate.
aC: Does that help keep them motivated?
LW: It does. We center our culture around being a company that supports our employees reaching their goals and dreams. We hope we provide encouragement by recognizing and rewarding good work through ring the bell, bonuses, and providing a nurturing environment. To us, being supported, growing personal brands and empowering each other don’t work against success – they are what build it.
aC: How does the company define winning and how do you define it for yourself as CEO?
LW: Winning takes on many forms: If we help a team member achieve a personal or professional goal – like speaking at a conference or exercising more often, that’s a win. Having clients renew their agreements with us is a win. As people we interact with at a client move from job to job and they bring us with them, that’s a win.
For me, winning is about maintaining our culture as we grow. Ensuring we are taking care of our employees in as many ways possible and growing our revenue in a manageable way are all wins.
© Adrian Hillman – Fotolia