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October 2007
Finetuning the Fit
By Janet Kropinak

     It is a common misconception that some people are born good communicators and others are simply not. Studies of human behavior and assessment tools indicate that these are not always inherent traits some are lucky enough to possess and others not, but instead a learned behavior that some have had the fortune of being taught.

     Few people know this better than Denise Altman, who has spent most of her adult life observing people both in and out of the business environment, and has molded her own business, Altman Initiative Group, Inc., around the idea that people need to be given the appropriate “tools” and taught how to use them.

    Since branching out her business in 2001, Altman has helped countless companies and their employees become more effective in the workplace, and in turn, increase their profitability. Working on the theory that virtually every company can benefit from this kind of servicing in one form or another, there is certainly enough work available to keep Altman Initiative Group busy and growing.

 

Defining Moment

     Denise Altman began her professional career with accounting firm Dellinger and Deese, where she worked as the marketing director and head of the consulting department, eventually becoming a partner.

     She traces her defining moment back nearly 20 years when she read the comments of one of her employees on an upward evaluation. “I was called ‘abusive’ by one of the employees. I tried very hard to find a way I could put a positive spin on this but I wasn’t able to. So instead, I set out on a mission to understand why this person saw me this way and find a way to correct this behavior,” she remembers.

     Her search and her discoveries soon led her down a road that changed both her life and the career path she was on.

     Shortly after her review, she was introduced to the DISC Profile, an assessment that examines the behavior of individuals in their environment or within a specific situation. “I took the test and, as I studied my report, it became clear to me how this person had seen me as abusive,” she comments.

     She was fascinated by the information exposed and spent a considerable amount of time studying DISC, realizing that there were things that she could change about herself that would help improve the way others perceived her and inevitably help her to function more effectively.

     “This was learned behavior and I had to teach myself to adapt to people in their environment and in a way that was comfortable for them. I needed to learn how to speak in their language and to tone down my ‘High D’ personality and mirror the personalities of those around me,” Altman explains.

     She began to understand what it meant to be ‘High D’; that along with being very active in dealing with problems and challenges, they are often also seen as demanding and aggressive. While these traits may have helped her become a successful business woman in her own right, it was important to adapt to others and to help them feel connected to her.

     A couple years later, after significant learning about the “tools” of good communication and how to effectively use them, Altman was rated on a subsequent evaluation : “I went from being ‘abusive’ to being defined by my peers as someone who listens to them, cares about them and helps them reach their goals.”

     This experience not only helped Altman become a better communicator but also emphasized the growing demand for these types of services, even within the accounting firm. “We billed ourselves as a full service firm, and that meant offering more than just accounting services,” she notes. So, with that in mind, she developed a business plan to help companies address some of the problems she had come across in her studies.

     In 2001, Dellinger and Deese was bought by a national firm, and instead of making the move with them, Altman decided it was time to go into business for herself.

 

The Business Plan

     Altman was fortunate to have prepared a business plan and have an established customer base she had acquired during her time at Dellinger and Deese.

     Because Altman had both the concrete training in numbers and knowledge of the soft skills, she already had an edge over much of her competition. Business owners appreciated that she could look at problem situations from both perspectives. “I understood that there has to be profitability in it for a company to be willing to spend the time and money for this type of training,” she notes.

     Lisa Corder of LYF-TYM Building Products echoes this sentiment: “Denise knows us as a customer and really understands our needs extremely well, so she is able to provide the appropriate product and services to us. Additionally, she knows our company culture which strengthens her ability to really meet our needs. She doesn’t beat around the bush and isn’t afraid to tell you something you may not want to hear. As a business owner, I really appreciate that quality in her!”

     Altman Initiative Group began to evolve, helping companies discover the tools and techniques needed to better hire, integrate, fine-tune and grow employees. To help Altman handle her growing clientele, she developed an alliance of contractors, each trained in different areas of expertise. She needed to feel comfortable referring clients to specialists if necessary, and was in an excellent position to determine the resources needed.

     Although about 75 percent of Altman Initiative Group’s clients are based in North Carolina, 25 percent are located across the country, and some are even headquartered internationally.

     The need for her services being so widespread, Altman makes an effort to work with the companies that she is best suited to help.

     “Any company that has people needs what I do, making the market huge! If I am not the best person for the job, if I’m not what they are looking for, I will happily refer them elsewhere. There is plenty of work and I don’t want to spend my time on a job that I’m not the right person for,” she says.

     Altman would ultimately like to become a resource for all businesses looking to take the steps to help their employees succeed, whether that means she works with them, or if she simply helps them identify their problems and outline the best solutions.

     Metso Power HR manager, Debbie Winkelman, comments, “Denise has been a great resource for us. If I need something and I don’t know where to go, she is who I turn to. And if she isn’t what I’m looking for, she helps me find what I need.”

 

Lean and Mean

      In the spirit of only taking the jobs that are right for her, Altman prides herself in keeping her business plan “lean and mean.”

     The DISC profile is the backbone of most of what Altman Initiative Group does. Altman breaks down their services into four key categories, the first being “Meeting Facilitation.”

     “Essentially, we are there to make something happen,” she smiles. Altman and her group help to make sure people stay on task and remain focused. “A lot of people have meetings, but not very many people are having good meetings, and time and agendas are valuable commodities,” she comments.

     The second area they focus on is “Non-Technical Training.” Here they are teaching both owners and their employees the soft skills: communication, time management, stress management, and even creativity. Even more targeted training classes are available in a range of topics such as supervision and management, and asking the question, “Would I work for me?”

     Altman says that her class “Help, these people are driving me crazy,” which focuses on understanding the DISC profile, is her most popular training class.

     Another focus of the Group is on “Hiring Processes.” Altman comments, “It is simple. If you don’t know what you are looking for, you are never going to know when you find it.”

     Daniel, Ratliff & Company has used Altman’s hiring processes, training seminars and has even invited Altman to speak at their annual meetings. “Denise has added so much value to our firm. She has been instrumental in helping us recruit some good talent and increasing the productivity of the people we have with her presentations. And she has been a great sounding board for the leaders of our firm on a variety of leadership issues over the years,” says John Ratliff.

     Altman uses a behavioral-based methodology and can help a company in one of two ways. Either they take the reins and do the hiring for them, everything from posting the position to interviews to new employee training, or they put a process in place so that companies can learn to hire more effectively.

     LYF-TYM has also benefited from the hiring processes of Altman Initiative Group. “The tools that Denise and Altman Initiative provide have given us much better success matching a person’s characteristics to the characteristics the particular job demands. Before we utilized her services, our success rate in hiring the right people for our key positions in management was not as good.”

      “Coaching” is the final focus area for Altman and her group. “This is where we help people to apply the training they have gone through,” she says. The coaching programs are either by telephone or face-to-face.

      “What we are doing is helping people learn how to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, and people are receptive to this once they understand the impact it can have on their lives,” she comments. That impact she has seen on her clients is what keeps Altman going and excited about her work.

     “This training isn’t just training someone to do their job better, but also how to live their life better. It really does have a profound impact on people,” she comments. “I love seeing and being part of businesses thriving; and that only happens when their people are thriving.”

 

Adapting to Change

      Altman is very matter of fact in describing the types of services her group offers as a necessity rather than a luxury:

      “First, you have to get the right people in the right jobs, and we oftentimes fail at this. Second, we need to do a better job of giving these people the right tools to do their jobs better, aside from the technical skills that they come to us with. And finally, we have to make the work environment one that people want to work in and be able to thrive in.”

      A recent Monster.com survey indicates that interesting and challenging work, being “in” on things around the office, and full appreciation of their work are some of the most important things to employees.

     Altman Initiative Group is working to change the behavior of only addressing things when they are wrong. Altman says affirmatively, “When employers take the time and resources to provide their employees with this type of training, it is sending a message that they truly care and are investing in their future, and people respond to this.”

     Altman’s very practical approach and sense of humor make very popular. Debbie Winkelman, who has used Altman Initiative Group for training, coaching and employee development, describes Altman’s approach by saying, “She’s a dynamic person. She captivates her audience and is very participative; it is her interactive approach that gets people involved and keeps them interested.”

     Altman Initiative Group recently began offering “On-Boarding” services, which helps new employees adapt to their new environment. They offer instruction and feedback, teach them connectedness, and in the end, move them closer to establishing a long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationship for both the company and the employee.

     “It would be nice if employees came to us trained when we hire them, but they don’t. So we need to work to correct this within our own companies,” explains Altman.

     John Ratliff subscribes to Altman’s teachings and urges companies to take advantage of her services. “She has a charisma that really grabs your attention. I can’t imagine a company that wouldn’t gain from her value. There is such an array of talent and offerings out, there but she does it in a way that is different than most. Anyone can use what she does.”

     Altman uses the analogy that you wouldn’t buy expensive office equipment without servicing and maintaining it, and encourages companies to use the same thought process when they address the needs of their employees.

     As Altman puts it, “We believe if business owners and managers realized that there was a better way, they would use it. That’s the mission of Altman Initiative Group, Inc.—to help companies discover tools and techniques to better hire, integrate, care for and grow employees. The result--more profits.” She takes great pride in opening doors to greater achievement and a significant number of and some significant alumni can attest to that.

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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