Take Five with Terry Siebert: Saying so long, not goodbye

Panel Ezine Terry Siebert

The southwest Wisconsin franchise of Dale Carnegie Training, which operates out of offices in Fitchburg, has been sold to Twin Cities-based Norman & Associates. For 25 years, the southwest Wisconsin franchise has been owned by Terry and Kathy Siebert, who will soon retire. Following the announcement, we spoke to Terry Siebert to get his parting advice for today’s business operators, to ask him about new franchise owner Matt Norman, and his plans for retirement.

You’re selling the business during a somewhat scary business environment. With the labor shortage, higher inflation, supply chain bottlenecks, and a pandemic that won’t take a hint and leave, what’s the best business operational advice you can offer now?

“A couple of things, initially. Flexibility is the major headline that you’d have to go with, and not staying ahead of the game but as much as you can, try to stay ahead of the game versus knee-jerk reactions. One of my examples is the restaurant Quivey’s Grove in Madison. When March 2020 hit, they went to 100% takeout. Then, when things started to loosen up just a bit, it was in person with a mask, but once you sat down at your table, you could take your mask off. And then, as the uprising of this omicron thing happened, they are now asking people to show evidence of a vaccination to walk in because 100% of their staff is vaccinated. So, it’s like rolling with the punches and doing whatever you have to do to stay ahead of the game. At other businesses, it’s going to be a little bit different.

“As we’ve seen in the headlines on burnout, it’s one of the reasons people have decided to take a walk, or whatever the case might be. At the company my son works for, he’s been under deadline pressure for three or four months. As soon as one thing was done, two more things got piled on. Out of the clear blue — and he’s been working from home and sometimes taking care of kids and all that — his boss sends him a $150 gift card to go out to dinner. So, part of that is not just being flexible but being sensitive to where your people are at. If you’re not, there are reasons for them to leave, and you’re aware of that as well. It’s just crazy out there.”

The labor situation is growing more acute, especially with a spate of retirements and people just plain quitting or contemplating quitting. Hopefully it’s not too late to make the kind of corporate culture adjustments that will stem the tide. What can employers who have resisted cultural change do in the interim to sufficiently improve their culture while they work toward long-term change?

“What I would say to that is, and this is going to be hard to believe, and it never ceases to amaze me … is the number of organizations that are still in that command-and-control mode. That’s not the kind of culture that people really thrive in, so even if there is just a remnant of command-and-control, get rid of it.

“Build your people and listen to your people. One of our clients just sent out, and they have been working probably 95% remotely since the beginning of pandemic, they just sent a survey to their people asking would you prefer to continue to work from home? Would you prefer a hybrid schedule? Or would you prefer to come back to the office? Seventy percent said we want to stay working at home. It remains to be seen whether they continue to honor that or not, but I got the feeling from talking to a few folks there that they are probably going to end up honoring it. If they did not, what would you be doing? You’d be saying, ‘Let’s see. We surveyed you. You said we wanted to do that, and we’re going to do this [instead].’ There would be something wrong with that picture.”

How, if at all, did your branch of Dale Carnegie change its approach to training during the pandemic?

“Well, needless to say, about 10% of our business was done online and 90% was in person, and this was internationally. I would say from March until May, by the time May 2020 hit, it was 90–10 in the other direction. There is no question it had to be done. In some cases, there was resistance. Some companies said there is no way you can replicate in an online environment what you can do in person, but even in those cases, as things moved forward, and here it is maybe a year into it, many of these companies realized we still have to build our people. Our salespeople must be selling, and our leaders must continue to build their teams even though they are all remote, and a good chunk of the people who said no to online training have jumped back into the fold.

“What Dale Carnegie has done in Dane County is in-person classes with masks, and we’ve been doing them in other cities where we’ve been even without masks where it’s not mandated. Cross our fingers, but we haven’t had any problems at all, and over the course of the past 18 months maybe half of our business has been online and maybe half of it has been in person. They key thing is that leaders in organizations realize they can’t just let their people out to lunch, right? They still have to build them, and whether it’s in person or online, whatever the option is, they’ve got to do it.”

What I remember about the Dale Carnegie training from 20 years ago is that you must have some personal contact because you’re trying to figure out how to read people’s cues and relate to them. It’s a little harder to do that online. Not impossible, but a little harder.

“Well, with the systems that Dale Carnegie is using, it is not a one-way thing. It is highly interactive. You can get into breakout meetings. People can see each other in the breakout meetings. You can bring them back from the breakout meetings. One of the people, the leader of the team, gives their thoughts. You’ve got people writing on white boards. Everybody can see. I’ve got one colleague who is doing classes where people are online and other people are in person at the same time, in the same class. The technology of that is something more than yours truly can handle. It required somebody who could be a producer. You’ve got a producer, you’ve got a trainer, you’ve got somebody else who is coordinating the virtual, plus the in-person stuff. We are not doing that, but it is something that’s out there. It’s about adapting to the times that you have to adapt to.” 

What about the vaccine mandate? As a rule, if you’re not willing to be vaccinated, should you be willing to sacrifice things that people who get vaccinated would not have to give up?

“I’ve got my two vaccinations, and my booster, and just about everybody in my family, with one exception, has been through the same thing. But the one exception has had COVID already. I really don’t have a strong opinion on it. I don’t think the government should be mandating it, though. That’s just a personal thing.”

Is that the civil libertarian in you talking?

“It could be that [laughing]. It could be. The things our president has done to do it through OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] of all places, it just boggles my mind. That is the libertarian in me, yes.”

What can you tell us about the new president of the southwest Wisconsin franchise of Dale Carnegie Training, Matt Norman?

“I’m going to give you two answers to that. First, Matt Norman is a third-generation franchisee. I knew his grandfather when I started in the business. His dad was a contemporary of mine. He’s been in the business for about 15 years now. They are the single most successful operators in the country. They have Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota, so they have an expansive territory with many people working for them. One of the organizations in the last fiscal year exceeded the previous fiscal year. They have been very successful in building their people and building their team.

“So, that’s half of the answer. The other half is the individual who we’ve had working for us, a guy named Jon Walrath, has effectively been running our territory for the past two years as Kathy and I have started to back off. With a couple of exceptions of a couple of clients, he has basically done 90% to 95% of our business for the last two years. When Matt Norman and I talked about the transfer of ownership, one of the things he thought was critical was that Jon should stay on, and Jon is staying on. He’s the one who has been building relationships with our Madison clients as well as our other clients in the southwest [Wisconsin]. He has a background of 20 years in Dale Carnegie. He’s worked in different parts of the country. He had been down south, but his roots are in the UP [Upper Peninsula of Michigan]. That’s how he happened to come to us in the first place. He’s been doing a great job for us.” 

The last question I’ll ask pertains to what’s next for you and Kathy? What are your plans?

“We’ve got 10 grandchildren. That’s one answer, and that’s only with four ‘producers.’ We’ve got another one who is about to get married and another who is hoping to find the right person at some stage of the game, so there is no question that we’ll be spending more time in that department. Golf is one of my warm-weather pastimes. I do golf with a group of guys right now, but there are other opportunities that I’ve turned down because I haven’t had time to do it. There will be a lot more than that.

“In the travel department, we have booked and canceled a major trip to Italy four times since the pandemic began. We are booked again, and we hope the fifth time is the charm. We’re looking at the entire month of May that we plan on being there. Beyond that, obviously — traveling and enjoying life.”

Click here to sign up for the free IB Ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.