Published in Rhode Island Small Business Journal
Established in 1987, Atrion Networking Corporation operates at the cutting edge of IT and business. The company specializes in the fusion of business and technology. Through building relationships with and focusing on its clients’ business goals, Atrion accelerates business productivity and satisfaction with full-scale customized technology solutions, including consultation, project management, manufacturer-certified training, carrier services, telephony, software and application services, equipment procurement, local and wide area networks, managed services and digital, and interactive and mobile media design.
The personal and professional workshops given by the company, as well as the industry publications and published articles written by Atrion’s staff exemplify the passion and commitment of Atrion to its clients and the industry. As a result, Atrion has been growing steadily and was named the Best Place to Work by Providence Business News in 2010 and 2011, and a Fast 50 Company to Watch and Fastest Growing Private Company in 2009. We were curious how this company had achieved this.
HPO Diagnosis at Atrion
We had the opportunity to visit Atrion headquarters while conducting global research on High Performance Organizations (HPOs) for my new book “What Makes a High Performance Organization: Five Validated Factors of Competitive Advantage that Apply Worldwide” just published by Global Professional Publishing. An HPO is an organization that achieves financial and non-financial results that are exceedingly better than those of its peer group over five years or more, by focusing in a disciplined way on that which really matters to the organization.
Over a period of five years, we’ve conducted research into what makes an HPO. This has included a review of 292 studies into business high performance and excellence, a personal survey of close to 2500 organizations spanning the globe, and the collection of numerous in-depth case studies of high performing companies representing nearly every continent. Through this research, we’ve determined the HPO Framework— a conceptual, scientifically validated structure that practitioners can use for deciding how to improve organizational performance and make it sustainable.
For our review of Atrion, we collected data through our HPO questionnaire and interviews. We concentrated on two questions: What makes Atrion great? And, where could Atrion improve so it would not only remain an HPO but actually increase its HPO status?
Atrion’s greatness revealed itself in five areas. The first is Atrion’s service model, which strongly focuses on long-term partnering with clients. Tim Hebert, Atrion’s Chief Executive Officer, explains: “We believe that the term client implies that we have a responsibility to protect individuals that choose to do business with Atrion. When we talk about client focus and client relationship, it comes down to the core values of the company. Therefore we say: when debating a choice, your values are your compass; and you will always choose in the best interest of the client. If the client is successful, it follows that Atrion will be too.” This strong client focus delivers: many companies have been with Atrion since 1987.
The second area is Atrion’s strong people focus. The company makes a conscious effort to grow people from within. This starts from the hiring process in which people with ambition are hired. Then all people are trained to become well-rounded leaders. Hebert explained: “We have a rigorous hiring process that focuses extensively on the content of the character of the individual that we wish to employ.” Interestingly, everybody, whether in a managerial position or not, receives leadership training. Atrion also features substantial coaching-on-the-job and formal development programs, empowering their people to shape their own career.
Thirdly, Atrion has developed a strong culture based on a value set of empathy, honor, integrity, trust, and especially openness. According to Chief Operating Officer Michelle Pope, “You cannot have an open-door policy if the managers are not engaged, sitting bent down over their desks in their offices. Therefore Atrion does not have offices, even the office of our chief executive officer is an open space where everybody can walk in. You will never see managers walking down the hallway without saying “Hi”’ to the persons they pass.”
Fourthly, Atrion emphasizes the quality of the services it provides. As Melissa Delprete, Director of Marketing, says, “We focus on quality, not on cash.”
Managers and employees constantly communicate about how and where they could improve. This calls for a rigorous focus on strategic performance management in which Atrion’s critical success factors and performance indicators are charted and passed on to everyone in the organization. Furthermore, the organization recognizes and rewards performance with small bonuses, honorable mentions, and prizes such as a parking space right in front of the entrance for the month’s best employee (who is chosen by fellow employees).
Finally, Atrion strives to be recognized as a thought leader in the industry. The company does this by offering leadership courses free of charge to clients and suppliers – who welcome this with open arms – and by developing ‘thought leader’ concepts in order to get players in the sector thinking and improving so that everyone’s clients were given a better service.
What’s Next for Atrion?
Predictably, Atrion did not rest on the laurels of the HPO diagnosis.
Instead, Atrion took cues and ideas from the evaluation to improve. For instance, Atrion’s chief executive officer had a clear image of the future Atrion and how it could be achieved, but that vision was not yet being shared with and embraced by the other managers and employees.
Sometime later we caught up with Tim Hebert, who revealed that Atrion had fully committed to the idea, implementing a monthly full-day strategy session starting in April 2011 for all senior Atrion leaders. This meeting, called COMPASS, consists of three components: Strategic Education, Harvard Business Review Case Study work, and a Vision Strategy and Execution discussion. Not stopping there, “We also launched a monthly half-day strategy session for team leaders and leaders,” says Tim. “Simultaneously, we began a rigorous process of developing mid-level leaders as well as hiring some seasoned mid-level leaders. Upgrading leadership skills at this level gives our senior levels more time to be strategic. We are already seeing great results.”
A True HPO
One of the most difficult skills for any company, even an HPO, is the ability to commit to continuous improvement and renewal. But here we see that true HPOs, like Atrion, constantly seek feedback and ways to progress, and will take immediate and strong action to improve themselves.
André de Waal, PhD. is author of the new book What Makes a High Performance Organization: Five Validated Factors of Competitive Advantage that Apply Worldwide, just out from Global Professional Publishing. André is Academic Director of the HPO (High Performance Organization) Center in the Netherlands, and Associate Professor HPO of the Maastricht School of Management, the Netherlands.
Find out more and contact André at www.whatmakesahighperformanceorganization.com