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posted: 10/21/2013 5:25 AM

Front line employees may be key to the planning process

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We're three weeks into the fourth quarter, which means it's time to start thinking about 2014. Right, Tom Walter?

Better alert the CPA. Talk to the banker. Maybe call the lawyer. Check with marketing. Get the senior team together. Right, Tom?

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Well, no, Walter likely would say if he were part of the conversation. There are others who should be involved first.

The chief culture officer at Tasty Catering, Elk Grove Village -- bumped up two years ago from CEO by his slightly maverick but talented young staff because culture is important at Tasty Catering -- Walter believes "everyone in the company should be involved in planning and goal-setting.

"Front line employees know more about how a company operates than those who sit at the top (and too often) don't hear what employees have to say." Consequently, planning must "start at the ground roots and work its way to the top," Walter says.

The process is a basic SWOT (strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats) analysis that involves essentially every employee. "People who have the vision -- the ones who say, 'Why are we doing this?' -- should be heard," Walter says.

Walter's planning process isn't one most of us will copy, but perhaps we should think about his approach. Not only is Tasty Catering one of the food service industry's most successful companies, it is one of seven active companies where Walter is an entrepreneurial force. Go back far enough and you'll find about two dozen additional businesses where Walter has played a key entrepreneurial role.

"A leader has only one brain," Walter wrote earlier this month in his blog at www.thomasjwalter.com. "I'm a firm believer in multiple perspectives. Planning must include everyone in and around the organization (including) clients, vendors and advisers."

And especially employees. In part the result of insistence by younger management who, Walter recalls, "came to my desk on a cold November morning in 2005 and said they wanted an employee-generated culture," Tasty Catering empowers employees at every level.

"Maybe those who say we should change know better," Walter explains. "Do we have the type of knowledge 20-somethings have? If we get them involved, maybe we'll have fresh ideas."

Walter's 20-somethings, for example, "understand how to do technology better."

The idea of involving employees in company planning certainly isn't new, though Walter and Tasty Catering carry the concept further than most businesses. Walter's premise relies upon the fact that business leaders who ask employees for their input will find that employees suddenly believe "I matter. I am somebody at this company."

When that happens, Walter says, "Employees begin thinking about how they could help make the company better."

In addition to employee involvement, Tasty Catering talks with clients, generally in an informal setting that is more likely to elicit honest responses than a formal meeting where, Walter says, "People tend to say what they think you want to hear." Outside advisers are part of the process, too.

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at JKendall@121MarketingResources.com 2013 121 Marketing Resources Inc.

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