Separating the Best From the Rest: The Innovators - TheStreet

In just a few short weeks, we can finally close the book on 2009. On the business and economic fronts, 2009 delivered staggering blows to the financial "bottom lines" of both U.S. citizens and corporate America.

In 2009, we witnessed the meltdown of financial firms and the collapse of corporate giants, all of which contributed to a drastic rise in joblessness and home foreclosures. Package that with the highly publicized fallout from corporate scandals such as those experienced by

Freddie Mac

(FRE)

,

Fannie Mae

(FNM)

, and

AIG

(AIG) - Get Report

and now you've got a nation of naysayers bearing the battle cry that big business is bad, corporate executives can't be trusted, and government intervention is necessary.

There's no doubt corporate America is in distress. Or is it? Times are tough, sure, but not bleak. If we look past the headlines of doom and gloom, we find companies that are getting it right.

Tough Times Differentiate the Best from the Rest

Each year,

Fortune

magazine publishes a list of the

100 Best Companies to Work For

. Looking specifically at the top 25, you notice one very powerful similarity -- each takes care of its people, even, or perhaps especially, during hard times. And while none of these "Best Companies" was immune to the economic slowdown of 2009, each maintains a corporate culture in which people matter and communication is top-notch. Interestingly enough, when you assess the reasons "why" these companies are among the best places to work, high pay is not typically a defining factor. In fact, of the top 25, only 40% also have the

best paid employees

.

So while pay is important, it is clearly not everything. The companies that most successfully weather the economic storms are the ones that not only remain focused on results but also value their work force as an integral part of their success. Through transparent leadership, open communication, and employee support, these companies differentiate themselves as the best.

Below are a few reasons why these companies have the distinction of being a best place to work.

Communication:

Communication is always a critical link in defining success, and it becomes even more so during a crisis. In the case of

Principal Financial

(PFG) - Get Report

, CEO Larry Zimpleman sent weekly e-mails to all employees during the "height of the financial upheaval to keep employees up-to-date and reassure them the company was healthy," according to

Fortune

. Good communication begins at the top and is free flowing -- both top to bottom and vice versa. When communication breaks down, commitment and accountability weaken, problems go unaddressed, and ultimately results fall short of the desired outcome.

When economies tighten and competition is fierce, the quality of your corporate communications can be the lifeline that maintains productivity and your competitive edge. One point I can't emphasize enough is that just when you think you've communicated enough, go back and communicate some more. After 25 years of working with some of the world's top corporations, I can tell you this: I've never heard employees complain about getting too much good information from management. Even when layoffs were necessary or perhaps imminent, those in the Top 25 received credit from their employees for the way in which bad news was communicated and handled.

Good examples are

Adobe Systems

(ADBE) - Get Report

and

Genentech

, which was acquired by Switzerland's

Roche

earlier this year.

Culture:

The "Best Companies to Work For" are also those that foster a healthy corporate culture in which employees feel vested in the success of the business. It grows from open and honest communication and hinges on a "we're in this together" management style. By eliminating the "us vs. them" mentality that can creep up between senior leadership and staff, your company becomes poised to excel.

Creating and maintaining the right corporate culture is any leader's greatest challenge. It demands acute, ongoing attention to morale, attitudes, fairness and exemplary employee performance. While it may look differently at different companies, it will always hinge on a management style on which trust and open communication is modeled, such as at

Johnson Financial

, decision-making is delegated,

Cisco Systems

(CSCO) - Get Report

, and pay is based on performance, like at

Shared Technologies

.

Perks:

Companies are wise to assess the quality of their benefits. One way to offset a lower salary scale is to offer an appealing benefits package. Benefit offerings run the gamut, too, with companies offering provisions for health care and telecommuting, as well as 401(k) support and company meals.

Most importantly, of those who made the Top 25 of the best companies to work for, all (with the exception of two) realized job growth. That's right -- they're hiring! Even in the midst of economic hardship, these companies continue to find success by being hard on performance and easy on people.

How Can You Be One of the Best? Actions to Take Now

Communication is key to improving accountability and culture. To help improve your communication abilities, consider the following:

  • How do you know important information reaches everyone in the organization in a timely and accurate manner? If you're not certain, conduct a short survey to find out.
  • How well does middle management communicate with its employees? If you're not certain, hold skip-level meetings to find out.
  • Do employees at different levels communicate directly with you about anything they think is important? If not, what can you do about it?
  • How often do you travel around your organization and speak with people you either don't know or don't usually see? If not enough, schedule time on your calendar and make it a priority.
  • Do employees consider you a straight shooter, or do they think you have a hidden agenda? One way to find out is to check Web message boards. If workers think you're hiding something, how can you change this perception?
  • Be candid and direct. When things are going well, let everyone know. When there are challenges, speak directly to them and ask for help.
  • What are the three most important ways you can help improve communication in your organization? Remember, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. The Top 25 provide many great examples and models.

I pledge to you that if you act on these directions you will achieve results you may never have thought possible.

At the beginning of the day, it's all about possibilities. At the end of the day, it's all about results.

-- Written by Bob Prosen in Dallas

Prosen is president and CEO of The Prosen Center for Business Advancement, where he shows current and future leaders how to rapidly increase performance, productivity and profit. The Prosen Center delivers the nation's only leadership and mangement training focused exclusively on business execution. that enable them to convert plans into results. Along with being a frequent guest on MSNBC and FOX News, Prosen is the bestselling author of Kiss Theory Good Bye, which gives leaders the tools and step-by-step directions to achieve extraordinary operating and financial results. Prosen earned his B.S. from Texas Tech University, an M.B.A. from Georgia State University and holds postgraduate certifications from MIT, Duke University and The Wharton School.