Like any pair of siblings, Neil and Gary Jaffe each view the world very differently. While Gary is focused on people and the quality of dialogue he has with his leadership team at Booksource, Neil tends to look at things from a more strategic perspective.
“I think about the challenges we have faced as a company in the industry,” says Neil, president of Booksource. “A big one was our transition away from the bookstore market, which historically has been our largest revenue stream, and focusing on the school market.”
The brothers are looking to keep Booksource, which is owned by GL group Inc., in a position to drive maximum revenue. The move to the educational market is part of that, as is the integration of digital media and e-books.
Managing such a transition is not easy, and that’s where Gary’s biggest challenge comes in. When he took over as CEO at GL group a couple of years ago, it was important to him to have the right people in place to help him with the transition process. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
“They weren’t giving me any advice and guidance when it came to some of the decisions we had to make as a leadership group,” Gary says. “It was getting the proper feedback that I was looking for that those people weren’t giving me.”
As Gary viewed the situation, he was confident his leadership team knew what he wanted from them.
“We have a saying around here to give people explicit expectations,” Gary says. “Those people knew their role. They knew what we wanted. But for whatever reason, they just didn’t have the business acumen to give me the proper answers.”
Both Neil and Gary needed to find a way to solve their problems if Booksource was to perform to its full potential. The best course of action was to attack both problems and move ahead with a renewed sense of focus.
“If you have to do this and you have to do that and then you have to do this, why not just do it all at the same time?” Neil says. “People are going to be going through change. At the end of it, it’s all done.”
And so the brothers set out to make the changes they believed would put Booksource in a better position to grow.
Assess your team
Gary was very frustrated with his leadership team and the lack of feedback it provided. But despite that frustration, he still found himself questioning whether it was really a problem.
He got with his business coach and told her that one of his key people was doing his own job quite well. He just wasn’t offering much in the way of guidance to Gary.
“He’s just not giving me advice,” Gary says. “And she turned it around and said, ‘By all means, I feel like he is hurting you. You’re not able to get what you need from him, therefore he is hurting you.’ And I totally agreed with that. The person can be hurting you if they are not doing the extra that we are expecting them to do.”
Neil is quick to add that Gary is not lacking in the ability to do his job or make decisions on his own. Rather, it’s one of his strengths that he is eager to gather feedback and use that to make even better decisions.
“Gary always has a natural inclination to listen a lot,” Neil says. “Unfortunately, he wasn’t getting helpful answers. That’s where he recognized what needed to change. When he asked, he needed to get much better answers from people who were engaged or thoughtful or had different ways of thinking about things.”
Leadership is a very fluid process. If you’re not at least thinking about how you interact with your team, you’re not using that team to the best of your ability.
“You have to make changes with people who don’t listen enough or don’t lead from engagement among the staff,” Neil says. “You can either listen too much and not get the feedback and have a problem or you cannot listen enough and have great people giving you feedback, and you’re not moving things forward.”
In Gary’s case, it was the former and that needed to change. Once he made the decision that he had to replace some of his people, he had to determine what qualities and attributes the replacements would need to have.
“It’s the qualities that you are searching for that are most important,” Gary says. “Determine what those criteria are. That’s more important than having the person available that you’ve picked out.”
In other words, you can’t just pick a person who is different than the one you’re trying to replace. You’ve got to take time to know what qualities you are looking for and then go out and find that person.
“You’ve got to listen, you have to have this person meet other people and you have to get other people’s feedback and opinions to see if it’s really the right fit,” Neil says. “Get a lot of feedback from a lot of different people. Make sure you look at the criteria and go off the job description. Do all the things you would normally do when hiring.”
As he proceeded with his changes and found people who had the qualities he was looking for, Gary learned that he wasn’t the only one who had noticed a problem on the leadership team.
“One of the guys after he was terminated, one of the guys who worked on his team came up to me and said, ‘I knew it was only a matter of time. I’ve worked with you for 15 years, and I know you can only take so much,’” Gary says.
It’s OK to try to help a person to try to get them to provide you with what you need. But trust your gut when you think you’ve gone far enough and reached a point where it’s not going to happen.
“For me, it’s always a matter of, ‘Have I done everything to get this person to understand what I’m looking for when it comes to giving me feedback?’” Gary says. “If my gut is saying, ‘I’m not going to get them to understand,’ it’s time to make the change.”
Engage your team
As the personnel issue was being addressed, both Gary and Neil were assessing Booksource’s strategic direction. It was key that everyone be part of the changes that were occurring and be kept apprised of what was happening.
“If you’re strategically focusing on the right stuff, it’s going to make the staff better too because they will have less to worry about,” Neil says. “They are all focused and engaged and passionate about the right thing that is leading to good rewards. A busy facility is an energetic place and it creates a morale boost, a staff boost, an engagement and they feed off of each other.”
Booksource had always been open with its financial data and numbers, but Neil wanted people to feel like they had a real part in affecting those numbers.
“The first step is to get people engaged,” Neil says. “If you have the potential to get a bonus, you’re going to work a little harder to make sure that we as a team achieve that goal. ‘If we achieve that goal, I might get a little more money.’ It teaches the staff that a big order is a good thing.”
Neil says there is a lesson to be learned for management when incentives are introduced into an organization.
“It teaches the owner that that bonus and that engagement and showing them the number and giving them a goal and a target is a very positive thing for the organization,” Neil says. “People will work harder and faster and you need less people, and it all builds on itself.
“There are dozens of other ways to open the books to give people an opportunity to see what’s happening and to participate. Start small with opening it and providing some kind of incentive to people and then you’ll see the benefit.”
You’ve got to follow up beyond introducing incentives and sharing information. If you just do it once and let it fade away, your people will lose a lot of faith in you as their leader. But if you steadfastly follow up and stick to it month after month, year after year, you’ll earn strong loyalty.
The key is setting expectations and then meeting them.
“I want to know what the end result that is my expectation is going to be and try to figure out how to get there,” Gary says. “What would it mean? What would it look like? We do a lot of follow up to see if the decision we made is right or wrong. If it is wrong, what do we need to do to go back and get it on track and get to that desired end result?”
Meetings are held with management, and then quarterly with employees to provide updates with how the company is faring in meeting its goals.
“They can look and ask questions and say, ‘Oh yeah, at the beginning of the year, you said you were going to do 40 brochures, three new catalogs and this, that and the other,’” Gary says. “They know what we said we were going to do. The staff has to OK the plan from the managers.”
Getting your team involved in what you’re doing can only help you as an organization.
“It all goes back to that involvement issue,” Gary says. “Listening and taking feedback. We don’t feel you can make a better company if it’s straight from the top down. We need it both ways.”
Transparency also puts pressure on you to really think about the decisions you’re making for your business.
“You’re showing yourself so if you’re not doing everything right, people might realize, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to see my weaknesses,’” Gary says. “We all know we have weaknesses. That’s why we need the support of others to figure out how we can get over those weaknesses.”
As Neil and Gary look at Booksource today, they see a company that is much more focused on and much more engaged in what needs to be done.
“We’re having one of our busiest months in the history of the company,” Neil says. “And we’re renovating the big break room that we have, so there are tables out in the warehouse and a refrigerator out there, but it’s all tremendously organized. People don’t complain about it, people don’t grumble about it. They just have a tremendous amount of engagement and it’s because of the changes we made.”
Gary says employees feel just as much a part of the success or failure of the business as management does and that’s a good thing.
“By understanding it and getting people involved in reporting those numbers, I’m not responsible for the budget,” Gary says. “We all are responsible for certain areas of the budget and people have to watch it. They are accountable for it.” <<
How to reach: Booksource, (314) 647-0600 or
The Jaffe Files
Gary Jaffe, CEO, GL group Inc.
Neil Jaffe, president, Booksource
Gary: St. Louis
Neil: St. Louis
Gary: Bachelor’s degree, human development and family life, University of Kansas.
Neil: Bachelor’s degree in marketing, University of Illinois; MBA, Washington University in St. Louis
What was your very first job?
Gary: Camp counselor. It was a sports camp. This was their summer, and I needed to make sure that they enjoyed it. If the activity wasn’t engaging, we’d change that activity to find something that was fun for these kids.
Neil: My first real job was a busboy at a hotel restaurant. It taught me that you have to wake up early and work hard.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life?
Gary: No. 1 is my dad. I’ve been around him so long and I’ve listened to these stories and he’s preached these things over and over again, and I’ve had 30 years of training from him. It all boils down to character. He’s shown the character that Neil and I have taken not only in our jobs, but in our family life as well.
Neil: It would definitely be my father, but I would also say my older brother, Gary. He has taught me a lot about life and leadership.
Who would you like to meet, or have met from the past?
Gary: We spend a lot of time at Disney World and it was in the ’60s when Walt Disney had the vision of a place where families can go. I’d love to see what his reaction would be today.
Neil: George Washington. I’m reading his biography now.
Know what you want from your leadership team.
Get your people involved in meeting company goals.
Be accountable to your employees.