Formerly Homeless CEO Now Helps Businesses Grow to Meet Their Potential

Entrepreneurs set out to be successful in whatever they do. It might not be the first thing they bring up when asked the why or how of their chosen path. When it comes right down to it, being an entrepreneur means that you are able to find success on your own terms. That success might mean your product does well in the marketplace, being you’re able to live how you’ve always wanted, or you’re able to grow and help your business flourish. The ability to help a business grow to reach its potential is a success story for anyone. It’s the ultimate dream for some businesses. Start out as a small company and slowly build stream, growing to fill new buildings and provide more services to clients. It’s an amazing opportunity but one which requires a deft hand and leadership skills that are ready to face the challenges. We had the opportunity to speak with Gabriel Bristol, president of Intelicare Direct, a call center for one of the largest life insurance companies in the country. We learned more about his background in business, how he approaches managing such a large operation, and his tips for growing your business the smart way.

Tell us about your business background and your career at Intelicare Direct

My “career” started when I found myself homeless on the streets of Lansing, Michigan and a job opportunity came my way to work for a call center. Initially, I was more interested in selling my blood for money but since that isn’t really a viable survival plan, I relented and took the job. It turns out, I was really good at it. As my professional and analytical skills developed, so did my managerial skills and after a stint at Met Life and the LA Times, I became the CEO of a troubled company and turned it around by doing a complete overhaul of the business model and customer service experience. This success led me down a path where for several years this was my life, taking troubled companies, on the brink of bankruptcy, and turning them around to profitability. When I came to Intelicare Direct they had about 60 employees working out of a converted auto-body shop. Here though the challenge was different. I wasn’t brought on to save the company from bankruptcy, I was brought on to improve their product and help them manage growth. Three years later we now have 3 locations with over 500 full-time employees.

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How have you built your expertise in managing a growing, united team?

Honestly, I Lead Like The Janitor. What does that mean? Janitors are approachable. Nobody is ever intimated to ask the Janitor for some help and the CEO should be no different. Janitors regularly demonstrate their concern for the people around them in a lot of little ways. A CEO needs to do the same and show his employees they’re valued and more than just cogs in a machine. Janitors have their ears to the ground and know pretty much everything about what’s happening in the company. A CEO needs that same level of knowledge. Finally, Janitors are humble. Their job is to serve, just like a CEO’s job is to serve. Any CEO who practices these skills will have a team that really values teamwork.

If a team is comprised of strong-minded individuals, how would you ensure your group still remains cohesive and happy as you grow?

This is a great question actually because generally managers, directors, vice presidents, are all Alpha personalities. They’re the ones who have stood out, taken on extra work and looked for ways to climb the corporate ladder. All of these Type A-ers together can create a difficult, back-stabbing environment if not managed properly. The first step to managing that is picking the right people to promote in the first place. Alpha men and women are great at getting work done, but only some of them really work well with others, and any CEO can tell you the importance of a senior management team that actually behaves like a team. The second step is to make sure everyone at the table respects each other. This requires the CEO to speak highly of each member of the SMT and their accomplishments in front of the rest of the team. This kind of “resume-ing” builds not only respect, but confidence.

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How can you keep your team members from getting burned out as a business grows?

Another great question. In business you have to strike when the opportunity is hot and that can mean long hours, weekends and almost no vacations. But people aren’t machines and they need time with their family, or to go away periodically. The best way to empower them to do that is make sure the people under them know how to do their job if necessary on a short-term basis. Enable key employees to make sure all their work is covered so that they can take time away. It then becomes important that the CEO respect this time and not pester the employees when something minor goes wrong and even fix it if possible. Remember, a janitor is there to serve.

What is your favorite management tip for making sure your team feels heard and honored for their work?

Honestly my tip for this is not to have a tip for this. Recognizing work well done is as important to a company’s work environment as oxygen. Recognize good work often and in many different ways. Give shout-outs in the company newsletter. Write a hand-written note. Take an employee out to lunch. Give them a gift certificate, etc. etc. etc. Having an employee of the month is great, but not just one employee did great in a month. Recognition is motivation and if you want motivated employees, recognize their good work as often as possible.

What is your best leadership advice for entrepreneurs or business owners expanding their business for the first time?

Know your skill set. Are you good at managing people, or is sales really your expertise? Do you know all your costs and what your margins need to be? Whatever you don’t know, hire someone who does and then let them do their job. Hire the right people who will complete your skill set and then be willing to grow from there to make you a more complete leader.

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