Two years in the Australian Outback was the catalyst for Linda Kluender’s bold move into business.
Photo by Kris Kathmann
Linda Kluender really gets into learning, teaching and business and the three mesh well to make her Minnesota Lake consulting business. But she doesn’t teach the finer points of business buying and selling. And she doesn’t wave a magic wand over an accounting hat and out pops a rabbit of cost-cutting measures to keep your company afloat. Her business consulting solutions are more in the interpersonal realm.
So if you downsize, Linda Kluender and Klassen Performance Group can help you manage the people aspect. If your plant manager or line supervisor has John McEnroe’s temper, she can coach him. And customer care or sales employees that don’t care? She can train them so they do. It’s all done low-key by an experienced professional who has ridden the rocky road of corporate America and felt the potholes.
Her love of learning and teaching first blossomed in the Australian outback. In 1975, she was a hungry Univ. of Minn. graduate after adventure and teaching experience, and two years spent instructing rural and aboriginal students in Australia seemed good food. “When I graduated from college it was a tough time for finding work, similar to what we’re experiencing now,” she said. “That was especially true in education. This job (in Australia) was my first teaching job.”
Year one she taught rural students, and year two aboriginal children in Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef. She said, “I saw two sides of a vast country. It was like dropping in on America and experiencing Minnesota and California.”
She and her fellow teachers, who were from the U.S. and Australia, became friends out of necessity—though in all probability they would have bonded anyway due to their shared loves of adventure and learning. The teaching assignment stretched her. Certified to teach English, she also had to teach Australian history and German due to a shortage of teachers. “Australian history was interesting,” she said. “All I had to do was keep one chapter ahead of the children.”
It was a great two-year stint. Returning home to Minnesota, she taught school two more years before having second thoughts about her career. When she’d attended the U. of M., as a rule women had shied away from business, and drifted more toward traditional careers in education, nursing, and administration. She had other ideas now, thanks to her mind-stretching Australian experience. “My eyes had been opened to opportunities in business that weren’t presented to me earlier in life,” she explained. “Going into business was a good move, and I have never regretted it.”
So she worked at Hubbard Milling in Mankato as a human resources representative and there edited the company magazine. Hubbard Milling was a large family-held company owned by the Confers. They made her feel as if she was part of their family. “That’s where I first learned about interviewing, selecting and placing people,” she said. It was experience that would pay dividends. From early on at Hubbard Milling, she learned that listening and asking good questions were essential business skills.
In three years she left Hubbard Milling to raise young daughters, but a few years later she got the “work” itch again and landed a writing job at Land Magazine, one that allowed her the flexibility to earn money and change diapers. In a short while she was named its editor, and through the position acquired valuable managerial experience. The position was a natural fit because she had edited Hubbard Milling’s magazine, where she’d learned writing, interviewing, photography and layout skills.
“Again, journalism reinforced in me the importance of asking the right questions and listening,” she said.
Other lessons were learned, too. “I started at Land Magazine in 1985,” she said, “at the beginning of the farm crisis. It was a tough time, with lots of change. I learned an important lesson covering agriculture: no matter how long you’re in business, such as farming, unexpected change comes. The farmers who changed and adapted, and were open to new ways, seemed to thrive. The ones clinging to the past struggled.”
Kluender knew firsthand the struggles farmers faced. She was raised on a Minnesota Lake grain farm and with her husband had worked a farm. Bad times and good don’t last forever, she said. In good, plan for the inevitable downturn. And in bad—“We all emerge from difficult business times stronger, better equipped and wiser for the next time.”
And then came the mother of all bad times.
At first her new position and company seemed exciting, almost intoxicating. Kluender began part-time at Mankato’s Clear With Computers (CWC) in 1993 in human resources to help CWC through a spate of hiring. She worked into a full-time position. “They were ramping up so heavily with employee count,” she said.
In the early ‘80s entrepreneurs Ray Toumala and Jerry Johnson cofounded CWC with the then-fresh idea of creating software to help sales representatives sell more effectively to customers. At one point the company had more than 300 Mankato-based employees. Since then it has undergone a series of mutations. The company’s headquarters has moved from Mankato to Boston to Minneapolis, its stock now is traded on NASDAQ as Firepond (FIRE), and it employs only a Mankato handful. The rise and fizzle of its stock price from $108 to the equivalent of 30 cents mirrored the short-lived fireworks of other dot.coms.
She wouldn’t trade in her five years for anything. She began at CWC in human resources and branched into training and performance management. She coached managers who had employees with performance problems, and sometimes helped managers let employees go if the “fit” wasn’t right. “My years there (1993-1998) were in a sense chaotic because of CWC’s rapid growth,” she said. “Everyone grew by leaps and bounds because the learning curve was so steep. You had to keep up with the latest information about technology. It was full steam ahead, an exciting time.”
The competition was fierce for hiring quality employees. To satisfy recruits not exactly overjoyed with CWC’s semi-rural location, the company opened a Twin Cities office. New employees received “signing” bonuses. Salaries rose for highly educated technical workers. CWC offered “bounties” for referrals. Kluender recruited at colleges and job fairs. “We were getting the word out about CWC—and we were very aggressive,” she said. The company’s potential seemed infinite. These were heady, almost giddy days, with employees scrambling project to project, trying to stay one step ahead, searching for that silver bullet to win the next account.
And then she hit a huge pothole on the rocky road. Almost overnight the company asked her to help downsize. “It wasn’t pleasant dealing with the layoffs,” she said. “Suddenly we had to cut back, and I had to help plan and coordinate it, and do it humanely.” Her job was gut-wrenching, she said, “because as a company we had been through a lot. I had worked alongside these people. It was tough to be the person telling them their job was being eliminated. Some people were very emotional.”
Many of the laid-off employees migrated to the Twin Cities, with more than a few of these landing on terra firma in better situations. The ex-employees remaining in Mankato either began their own start-up companies, like Kluender, or they filtered into various high-tech businesses.
“That was a growth experience,” she said, “because I had to let people go in a way that protected their dignity.” The layoffs had tested her. As a human resources professional she’d always had the mind-set of train, launch and develop. The gearshift was now stuck in reverse.
But her experience was not wasted. In her last year at CWC she developed a close working relationship with Klassen Performance Group (KPG), an outside consulting company brought in to raise employee interpersonal skills to higher levels. She said, “I was attracted to the quality of their thinking and ability to tie everything together. I liked the skills they worked on, and the way they presented. And KPG seemed to be getting through to our employees. They received lots of good feedback from leaders and managers.”
KPG’s training covered thoughtful ways managers could help employees align themselves with company goals and purposes, and ways for managers to delegate, time manage, collaborate and conduct effective and efficient meetings. KPG’s training revived in Kluender memories of her long-lost teaching career. It also reminded her of the seminal importance of asking good questions and of listening—a familiar mantra for her—and new ways to perceive problems. “It was all so intriguing,” she said. “I was learning that a business’s best opportunity for improving productivity was for its managers and supervisors to learn people skills.”
In 1998 she left CWC to become a Klassen Performance Group partner. Today KPG is a loose partnership of five that meets bimonthly. Each partner is financially independent, yet they do share ideas, assessments, and tools. The other partners are based in the Twin Cities, as are some of Kluender’s clients. Like any entrepreneur, she had to build her business from scratch. Her KPG partners helped by cross-sharing tactics. To get more wired into the business world she began reading two to three business books monthly, major newspaper business sections, and now she religiously reads online editions of Fast Company, Fortune, and Inc. She began talking—and listening—to successful people.
“And I knocked on doors,” she said. “In interviews with businesses I’d ask the decision maker, What are your current people challenges? What would you like improved? Is there a way I can help?” She said she was once again using her listening skills—and trying not to tell the client, at least right away, all she could accomplish.
Business picked up. Five years later she counts as clients Condux International, Crysteel Manufacturing, Capstone Press, McQuay International, Retek, Marathon Multimedia, E-Travel Experts, HickoryTech, Coloplast Corp., Thin Film Technology, Minnesota State University, National Culinary Association, Minnesota Dept. of Transportation and others.
When she initially meets with an executive, she prefers to examine the company’s business in terms of vision, strategy and people. “The leadership of a business owns the vision, which means only they can decide where the organization will be in five years,” she said. On occasion she has helped leaders clarify their vision.
Once a company vision has been developed, Kluender then guides clients through a workable implementation strategy, a road map. The final step involves training employees to carry out the strategy. For example, a company may have as its vision a 15 percent increase in net profits over five years. To reach the vision, the company might include as one part of its overall strategy an improvement in cross-selling of services—and to cross-sell services, sales employees will need training.
Occasionally, Kluender has been asked into touchy situations where she learns it’s the boss who needs training, not the employees. The boss may insist it’s the other way around. “That is a challenge,” she said. “It’s not natural for most bosses to listen well because usually they are wired to tell others what to do.”
The Land Down Under
“In some ways Australia is ahead of the U.S.,” said Linda Kluender of Klassen Performance Group. And she shakes her head at people who say Australia is behind. “In terms of appreciation of and protecting natural resources, they are ahead.”
She said that retail outlets closed Saturday noon and wouldn’t reopen until Monday. Australians rushed through Saturday morning, but once their errands were done, they relaxed. “Australians know how to balance relaxation and work better than we do,” she said. “After noon on Saturday the atmosphere was family-oriented and fun.”
The Way We Were
Though she enjoyed her three years at Hubbard Milling, Linda Kluender smiles now at the archaic way business processes were handled back then. The computer era had not yet reached Mankato in 1980.
She said, “We didn’t have personal computers on desks. Like most businesses, we had just one mainframe. We did all work by hand, including record keeping. It’s just mind boggling now to imagine. I took care of the administrative reports that dealt with tracking company head count. Hubbard Milling had many branch locations. It was all paper and pencil, and often I was erasing.”
Magna Cum CWC
“Ray Tuomala and Jerry Johnson had passion,” Linda Kluender said of Clear With Computers’ cofounders. “It must have been exhilarating for them to see the business grow. They had passion for the people there, and they were forward thinkers.”
For instance, in the early ‘90s Johnson wanted to assemble a knowledge database, so that when the company needed to solve a problem or tap into specific expertise, it knew where to go. While knowledge management has come of age in the world of business only recently, Johnson was thinking about it a decade ago.
One last thought about CWC: “I worked with two especially excellent executives in terms of growing people: Dick Bouquet and Dick Lueck. Both were great at raising the bar of what could be accomplished.”
Linda’s Laundry List
Companies call on Linda Kluender often to help improve a manager’s supervisory skills. “That includes helping them manage employee performance, set expectations, appraise performance, bring out the best in employees, and give feedback that is positive and acted upon,” she said.
She’s also asked to help employees adapt to change. “I’ve worked with one company where it’s common for employees to be halfway through a project when the company does a complete change of direction because of a customer with a changing need,” she said. Kluender helps the team separate the controllables from the uncontrollables, and to learn to support each other through change events. “When we learn to expect change as part of the project, we can be more proactive and less defensive when it occurs,” she said. “Our approach can then be ‘So what? What now?’”
Other times she’s involved in sticky situations. “Occasionally I do one-on-one sessions with troubled employees,” she said. “I decipher what needs changing, and offer feedback. Sometimes the employee is not a good fit for a particular team; other times the whole organization isn’t a good fit.”
Clients also hire her to train sales and customer care personnel. “In down economies, especially, businesses understand the importance of sales. They want to keep their sales and customer sales staffs sharp.”
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