Not ten minutes after he asked his team to show a united front, the pair traded insults and verbal barbs with no concern for who they were embarrassing.
"It was then I realized that not only were people at the very top of the company going in different directions, they were not listening to each other or respecting what others had to say," says Ostertag, recalling the events of a decade ago.
Ostertag did what he had to do. He replaced nearly every member of his senior team. "But that quickly manifested itself in job insecurity further down the ranks, and I realized we needed to do something to develop a sense of teamwork," he says. "We needed a mission statement and we needed to develop a culture of mutual respect that fostered cooperation and innovation."
This was particularly important because, as a global company, General Semiconductor had a workforce that was spread from North America to Asia and involved employees who spoke five languages. With only 200 workers located inside the United States, Ostertag had to find a formula that worked across cultures and job classifications.
Headquartered in a modest office building in an industrial park on Long Island, New York, General Semiconductor makes power management components for the high-tech industry.
From its manufacturing centers in Europe, Taiwan, Ireland, the United States, and China, the company makes the tiny transistors, diodes, and rectifiers that control the electronic impulses that power everything from automobiles and cell phones to dishwashers and personal computers.
General Semiconductor turns out over 17 million of these minute parts a day, each wholesaling for well under a dollar. Customers include all the major electronics manufacturers, among them Phillips, Sony, and Delta.
Originally a division of General Instrument, General Semiconductor is an independent entity employing 5,600, with revenues approaching $500 million.
Looking back, Ostertag says he brought his new team together at a brainstorming session to come up with the company's core principles.
"From the get-go, this company was a cash producer, a profit center for General Instrument, so in general terms, the company was in good shape," Ostertag says. "But if we wanted to grow, I realized, our task was to put down on paper what our core values were and then make sure everyone was on the same page."
From around the table came words like "quality" and "integrity" and phrases like "good customer service" and "on-time delivery." From that starting point came a cohesive mission statement and a list of eight company values, what Ostertag now refers to as General Semiconductor's "culture points."
"The work was sound because we haven't changed them since they were created."The next challenge was to spread the word throughout the company. Thus was born People Plus, an in-house leadership and problem-solving program developed by the company's HR staff of six that uses the company's mission and values as a starting point for individual growth.
"We're quite serious when we talk about leadership even to a bench worker on the assembly line," says Gary Barello, a human resources staffer. "Lots of people will say, 'Oh, I'm not a leader,' but when we point out that the essence of leadership is influence, they realize everyone has leadership qualities and responsibilities."
The company instituted a program called People Plus that involves a conventional 360-degree review of each employee using a comprehensive self-assessment matched with feedback from supervisors, managers, peers, and subordinates chosen by the employee. But it includes a twist. Once the written evaluations are completed, each staffer, from Ostertag down, meets privately with an outside psychologist to discuss what the reports said and what behavioral adjustments the staffer might consider.
Ostertag says that People Plus focuses on bringing out the unique talents and contributions of every employee and helping to blend them with those of others on the work team.
The results were immediately measurable. Two years after the program was implemented, another survey of the 145-member worldwide senior management group indicated that out of 39 development areas, 36 showed improvement.
"It is great to know how other people see you, because each of us does things that might be bothering others without our knowing it," says Selena Chai-lin Wang, a manager of information systems applications. Wang can vouch for the program's cross-cultural utility. A native of Taiwan, she began her career at General Semiconductor in 1989 as an industrial engineer in Taipei. She now works out of the company's main office in Melville, New York.
Applications engineer Neven Soric says that People Plus has helped bring the company together despite its far-flung locations. "It is good to know that everyone has done this program, especially since it is presented as providing constructive criticism," he says. "It provides continuity from the top down."
Employees from the newest shop worker to a number-cruncher in corporate know that Ostertag takes his culture points seriously. "In fact, it wasn't long after we put them in place that someone printed up a credit card version," he says. "They knew when they saw me coming, whether it was in the factory in Taiwan or Ireland or here, that I might come up to anyone and ask them to rattle off four or five of those values. I didn't mean it as a test, but more to show that that is what everyone here is striving for."
Five years after People Plus was in place, it gave birth to a sister training program, the Employee Development and Certification Program, also devised by the company's own in-house HR staff.
"As I traveled around the company, especially during the time we were preparing to go it on our own, I was getting some very basic questions from our workers," Ostertag says. "I really believe that empowering employees is the key to any company's success, but you can't do that unless everyone is working from the same knowledge base." So he set his HR staff to the task of finding out what employees wanted to know about the company.
"No question was off-base; we took everyone seriously," says Barello, the project's manager. Once he had the questions in hand, he then assembled a group of "subject matter experts" to answer them.
What HR eventually produced was a 135-page standard three-ring binder of information that includes everything from a list of the company's board of directors and history to a description of products, customers, and competitors to basic financials.
Ostertag credits the attention to staff interaction and cooperation with helping the company to nearly double revenues since 1996 and achieve greater market share.
"From our perspective in HR, these programs have translated into a very stable workforce with little turnover, whether we are talking about our manufacturing plant in Ireland or in Europe," HR director Linda Perry says. The average length of service among the six-member human resources team is 13 and a half years. For the technical marketing support group, staff longevity is about 12 years, 9 months.
Ostertag says that revenues have grown from $361.9 million in 1996 to nearly $500 million for 2000. Employment has grown during the same period by 2,400. Of the company's many successes, General Semiconductor prides itself most "on having the most knowledgeable and well-trained employees in the industry."
Workforce, March 2001, pp. 44-45 Subscribe Now!