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As Ruby Fills its Ranks with Receptionists, A CEO Turns Drucker’s Managers Into Cultivators


It’s an assignment worthy of the late management thinker Peter Drucker: Create a training program capable of turning receptionists into executive decision-makers. There’s no doubt that Jill Nelson, CEO of Ruby Receptionists, is the type of management-minded business leader that Drucker would have admired. Still, her techniques at times may have caused the management guru some pause.

“We begin with one hiring criterion: Everyone we hire cares about other people and is naturally vested in other people’s happiness,” says Nelson, who begins explaining her fast-growing business by listing the first of the firm’s five core values.

At 140 employees and with revenues expected to reach $11 million in 2013, it appears that fostering the happiness of others can be a fruitful business model, especially when the others are small business professionals eager to add enthusiastic professionals to their frontline business functions.Jill-Nelson-150x150

From its offices in Portland and Beaverton, Oregon, Ruby supplies virtual receptionist services to more than 2,300 small businesses throughout North America, and as Ruby grew, so too did the demands on management. Having founded the business as a virtual receptionist herself, Nelson made promotion-from-within a key management philosophy.

“Every last manager we have started out as a receptionist. And every direct line manager that we have had never managed people before,” explains Nelson, whose unconventional management approaches are stirring some intrigue after Ruby was recently named as the best small company to work for by Fortune magazine — a note of distinction that Fortune sounded after analyzing, among other things, employee survey results.

“At the end of the day, it was our employees who revealed how much they felt respected by management. They felt that there was a good infrastructure and training and that they were doing something that made a difference,” notes Nelson, who says that it was Ruby’s evident success in developing its people that led the firm to recently steer clear of outside leadership development programs and to instead opt to create one of its own.

“Look, we know that we’re getting something right,” says Nelson, who credits the firm with developing its own training programs, including its signature training for receptionists.

“This began with us searching internally and asking, ‘What are the practices that have made our staff feel so supported and valued?,” explains Nelson, who says that Ruby prefers to use the word “cultivator” rather than “manager.”

Along the way, Nelson admits, not all of Ruby’s talent needs have been able to be satisfied in-house. She estimates that four or five hires, including the firm’s IT director and sales leader, were recruited outside the firm. Still, she points out that both have since recruited from the ranks of receptionists.

“What we’ve learned is that when we get an A player from the outside, part of their obligation to the firm is to pass on that knowledge and develop our receptionists, who are looking for ways to learn and grow,” says Nelson.

Having earlier this year added 30,882 square feet of office space when it opened its Beaverton office, Ruby now has some space to grow.

When it comes to employees working remotely, Nelson apparently sides with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who recently put an end to Yahoo employees working from home.

Says Nelson: “As far as I can see into the future, our business model requires us to work together in centers. It’s part of what creates our culture and even the service that we deliver.”

Asked about flextime arrangements, Nelson says: “What we’ve found is that the job is sophisticated enough that it demands full-time people, so everyone is hired as a full-time receptionist.” However, Ruby’s CEO admits that there may sometimes be exceptions for students or tenured receptionists who are permitted to work a 32-hour week.

Recently, the firm has dedicated two senior people to help craft the firm’s leadership program, a platform specially tailored to help Ruby receptionists advance into the ranks of managers and then on to becoming leaders.

You can only wonder what label Drucker would have attached to such an undertaking.

“Concept of the Cultivator” comes to mind.

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