Driven to Leadership: Bosses ranked among the best by their employees emphasize communication, appreciation

Top Leaders


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Whether selling cars, running a bank or heading up an online school, the best bosses balance the needs of their customers and clients with the needs of employees who look to them for leadership and vision.

It's a tough juggling act, and not all CEOs do it well. A 2011 workplace engagement survey by BlessingWhite said employees trust their immediate managers more than they do company executives and that CEOs and other executives struggle to engage employees and create environments that promote loyalty to the company.

Three who do it well in the Pittsburgh area, according to their employees, are Charlotte Zuschlag of ESB Bank in Ellwood City, Nick Trombetta of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland and Jim Shorkey Jr. of Jim Shorkey Family Auto Group, based in Irwin.

Our Top Places to Work survey polled more than 27,400 employees at 155 companies in the Pittsburgh region, asking them, among other questions, if they have confidence in their company's leader and if so, why.



TOP EXECUTIVE:
LARGE COMPANY'

Nicholas Trombetta
  • Job: CEO of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and affiliated entities, headquartered in Midland
  • Offices/locations: 14
  • Employees: 694
  • Employees said: "Has sense of compassion for students and fellow workers. Understands that to make a company great, employees need to feel needed and appreciated ... inspires and motivates everyone around him ... has done a fabulous job in making a difference in the little town of Midland."

TOP EXECUTIVE:
MID-SIZE COMPANY'

Charlotte Zuschlag
  • Job: CEO of ESB Bank, based in Ellwood City
  • Offices/locations: 24
  • Employees: 278
  • Employees said: "The bank has outperformed many of its peers. Additionally, she does a good job of knowing each and every one of her employees and makes you feel welcome. ... In these tough economic times, our leader strives to keep ESB Bank financially sound by making good business decisions. I don't feel I have to worry about my job."

TOP EXECUTIVE:
SMALL COMPANY'

Jim Shorkey Jr.
  • Job: President of Jim Shorkey Family Auto Group, based in Irwin
  • Offices/locations: 3
  • Employees: 107
  • Employees said: "By performing as directed, I feel that I am genuinely and honestly serving/helping the customers of Jim Shorkey Family Auto Group [every day]. ... Everyone is great to work with, we all get along very well. We are not in a stressed environment; everyone is so friendly and easy to talk to."

Mr. Trombetta (large company), Ms. Zuschlag (mid-sized) and Mr. Shorkey (small company) polled best among their peers, credited for their involvement with employees, communication skills and foresight.

The businesses they watch over are as different as can be. ESB is a regional bank whose lineage, starting out as the Ellwood Federal Savings and Loan Association, dates to World War I. Shorkey Auto Group is a family car dealership. And the cyber school was invented from whole cloth a decade ago, when the Internet and computers made it possible to learn online, instead of in a classroom.

Yet they've all dealt with similar challenges in the last few years, most tied to navigating the recession.

Shorkey Auto avoided the worst of the car industry bust, mostly by selling brands (Kia, Suzuki) that weren't as bruised as the ones Detroit makes. ESB largely avoided the bad loans and risky mortgages that plagues other banks, setting revenue records and opening new branches. And PA Cyber found that the state budget cuts affected all schools, even those in the online realm.

The Post-Gazette chatted with all three leaders about their views on business leadership.

Q. Your employees seem to like and trust you, given the survey results. How do you build up trust capital with your employees?

Mr. Shorkey: "It starts with me and goes to my managers. The first [goal] is to love the customer. ... Without our customers, we don't have jobs. The second No. 1 goal is to love the team. Without our team, we have nobody."

Mr. Trombetta: "PA Cyber and its employees have grown up together. We've become the company and we've become the school together. ... Folks that work at charter schools are a tight-knit group because they've created the school together and are facing some folks who are not so thrilled with their existence. [So] when we get called to defend the school, I'm usually the one to get out front and do that for them."

Q: Employees want to feel in the loop. How do you communicate to your employees your understanding of where the business needs to be headed next? Your vision for the company, or even your daily plan? How do you keep employees involved?

Ms. Zuschlag: "We do something called the 'state of the bank' meeting. It's for employees only. And as we started to grow, my HR director heavily suggested we do something called 'Char's Chats,' where non-management people are invited to have breakfast with me. ... We open it for suggestions about the company -- whether it's benefits, suggestions for improvement."

Mr. Shorkey: "I talk to each service manager at least once a day. GMs, as much as 20 times a day. Then sales managers -- that's seven more people. ... [By trusting my subordinates], I'm not so much involved in the day-to-day, nitty-gritty of the business."

Q. Part of being boss is bearing bad news -- discipline, firings, pay cuts. How do you handle that?

Mr. Trombetta: "This has been a tough year. We were honest with them -- because of the [state education] funding cuts, they had to take a pay freeze this year. We told them what we had to do and the changes we had to make. And the staff rallied. ... When we have hard times, we're honest about it."

Q. Being a boss changes things, does it not? You can't go to the grocery store in sweatpants anymore.

Ms. Zuschlag: "Being CEO in general, you never can escape. I eat, breathe and live this company. ... I was pumping gas in blue jeans once [and ran into someone I know], and they were stunned. Absolutely stunned. ... And I am hard-pressed to tell you the last time I got on a plane and didn't know somebody on the flight."

Q. Employees want managers and the CEO to be accountable for performance in the same way that the employees are. How do you demonstrate that to your workers?

Mr. Shorkey: "My cell phone number is readily available [to customers]. If we're doing something wrong, I want to know ... and what that's really done has made [employees] more accountable, too. Because they know customers can call me directly if they do have a problem."

Mr. Trombetta: "There's no sense of entitlement here, that we have a right to these jobs. That includes the CEO. Performance is important. If we don't perform, our students can select 11 different cyber schools and 500 other school districts."

Ms. Zuschlag: "I set the bar pretty high in terms of expectations. But along the way, when I'm wrong about something, I'm not afraid to say I was wrong."

Q. Part of being the big boss is making your employees feel thanked and valued.

Ms. Zuschlag: "We do some old-fashioned things. We have employee appreciation days. ... We still give turkeys at Thanksgiving to employees. ... Back in the '60s, everybody could count on something like that. Everybody got a ham or turkey during the holidays."

Mr. Shorkey: "I pay them a lot of money. And I'm a very thankful guy."

Q. As the top boss, you have clients and customers who need as much attention as your employees do. How do you learn to balance the needs of your customers against the needs of your employees?

Ms. Zuschlag: "I don't know that I've learned it -- you just do whatever it takes. You need to have customers who are satisfied, you need to have employees that are satisfied and you need to have shareholders that are satisfied."

Q. Closing thoughts?

Mr. Shorkey: "The enemy of success is arrogance. As soon as we get arrogant, we start to forget about goals."

Mr. Trombetta: "The most important thing I can remind the [employees] is the mission of the school. Serve the students, serve the families, then serve each other. If we do that job, PA Cyber will be here for a long time."

Ms. Zuschlag: "Awards like this are a great barometer. I know we're not perfect. But if employees are responding this way, independent of management, it means we're doing more right than wrong."


Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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