Atlanta (1302)

It seems that every other week there’s a major story in the media about a company claiming that one of its competitors has purloined a cherished secret that provided an unfair competitive advantage. This is all part of running a business in today’s fishbowl environment, where sensitive information is too abundant and can be obtained by almost anyone and everyone who is so inclined.

In this era of heightened visibility, some of the best companies, especially high-tech firms, play everything incredibly close to the vest, particularly when it comes to providing information about current sales trends, new products and projects that they are exploring or developing. This is because such information is a coveted company asset. In today’s “victory at almost any cost” world, too many are looking for that edge to leverage whatever they can to stack the odds in their favor.

We also read too frequently about how easily these secrets have somehow wound up in the wrong hands. Sometimes a loose-lipped employee simply talks too much to too many people in the wrong places. Occasionally, someone simply leaves a briefcase or smartphone, jam-packed with confidential information, in a bar, at a restaurant or on a plane.

What’s not talked about much is the frequent practice of competitors simply asking what appear to be innocuous questions of lower-level personnel in a company in order to garner nuggets of “inside information” usually without risking the perils of violating any legal statutes. It’s also common practice for Wall Street security analysts to simply walk into a retail store, as an example, and begin asking questions about trends, what products are selling and which aren’t. It all gets down to the reality that it never hurts to ask a question because one never knows when a valuable tidbit will be revealed.

Like it or not, this is just the way it is, and there will always be people who ask and others who tell. What can you do to protect your coveted information? The answer is basic: mandate that providing revealing responses to specific questions is a violation of company policy and could result in draconian consequences for anyone who spills the beans, no matter if well-intended. Once your employees and suppliers know the ground rules and the consequences, you’re one step closer to closing the possibility of vital information inadvertently slipping through the sieve.

The best way to accomplish this is to establish, enforce and continually reiterate a “one voice, one company” policy. This translates into all hands within your organization knowing what can be told to outsiders and, more importantly, what can’t. This policy must be in writing and must state what types of questions are off limits. It must also explain how the questioner is to be handled when the interrogatory is posed. In my retail chain experience, we often had competitors, vendors and industry analysts visit stores and ask all types of questions. Candidly, I don’t blame them, but with a clearly understood policy, employees know how to respond by referring the questions to headquarters and a specific department or individual. Ninety-nine percent of the time the person asking the question never follows up with the corporate office because he or she knows the desired answers will not be forthcoming.

Most employees want to please their employer and most want others to think they are in the know. When you create an ironclad policy, it takes the pressure off of your people and adds another layer of security about things no outsider needs to know. For your suppliers, require that each sign a confidentiality agreement and specify that you have a simple “one strike and you’re out” policy. Also use your own secret shoppers to test your vulnerability by having them ask the forbidden, just to verify that the company veil is not being lifted by the unauthorized.

This protocol is certainly not foolproof, and periodically, there will be lapses — the most frightening of which are the ones you’ll never learn about. It all gets down to a numbers game. Confidential information, just like the cash, equipment and other assets on your balance sheet, can never be taken for granted and must be protected. Anyone can look in your fishbowl in this day and age, but it is your job to make sure that what they think they might find is not what they get.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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Friday, 02 November 2012 14:29

A matter of perspective: Focus on what matters most

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Are we grateful for the things we have? Are we grateful that we live in a country where the government can’t seize our businesses, where there’s no threat of rebellion and where we can go home to the comforts of our modern homes?

Many people in the world don’t have any of those luxuries. Some can’t even look forward to a good meal or clean drinking water. Most of us here in the United States don’t have to worry about such problems because the people that came before us worked hard to create a nation that has an amazing standard of living. The generation before us rose from the troubles of the Great Depression, led the fight against Nazi aggression that killed millions and returned home to finish making America into a superpower, but do we ever pause to think about the contributions our mothers and fathers made to make things easier for us today? They lived in small houses, often sheltering multiple generations, and worked long hours to make a better life for their children and grandchildren and selflessly went off to war to protect our freedom.

Do we ever think about any of that? The answer for many is no. Gratitude is in danger of becoming a lost art as we focus on accumulating money and possessions, always looking to be better or richer than the next person.

How many times have you read about or talked to someone who had everything you could ever ask for — nice home, nice car and no money problems — lamenting the fact that he or she doesn’t have as much as or more than someone else? We sometimes catch ourselves comparing who has more instead of who has less.

As business leaders, we should have some sense of moral obligation to help those within our sphere of influence, whether it’s our peers, employees or the person who lives down the street. We should be doing our best to look out for those around us, but too often, our days are consumed with the details of business.

Our world may be built on information, but wisdom is lacking. Business has been boiled down to statistical analysis and quarterly earnings reports while people are just another line on the ledger. There is often little room for gratitude in corporate America, and that’s a shame.

When our focus is on accumulating things, we can never enjoy it, because we don’t know how. How can we enjoy something when we’ve already raced off to try to get more? Like a kid tearing through a pile of Christmas presents, we never really take the time to appreciate each gift.

In this season of giving thanks, we should take a moment to think about those who came before us and who helped us get to where we are. Let’s thank those around us for a job well done and consider reaching out to someone who could use a helping hand. But most importantly, let’s consider putting our lives in perspective by thinking about those who are less fortunate.

When we focus more on gratitude, we’ll make a difference that’s far more effective than any business plan. It will allow us to take the time to celebrate success and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Gratitude doesn’t require a giant donation or a huge event; sometimes the little things are more effective.

In the end, we’ll find that the only things truly worth accumulating are good will and happiness. It’s in our control to start helping everyone around us get their fair share, and that’s something all of us can be thankful for.

Fred Koury is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or fkoury@sbnonline.com.

The U.S. Army briefly used the slogan “An Army of One” for its recruiting efforts. While I can’t speak to its effectiveness, I’d argue that the slogan goes against the principles for building and growing a global organization.

There’s a Korean proverb that states, “A kitchen knife can’t carve its own handle.” To me, this means that even the strongest leaders often need help from others. For a growing global corporation, strong collaboration is even more critical. In my role as chief strategy officer, I need to work with employees at every level to garner insights into areas where I may not have the experience they do. This provides a different perspective and builds a more positive environment in which everyone feels and acts like a true stakeholder.

For my last article of the year, I’d like to focus on the most critical component for corporations looking to grow globally: teamwork. This year’s Summer Olympics provided a lot of metaphors for the business world, including the importance of building strong teams. The daily life lessons include overcoming obstacles and how to find success, even in loss.

While CorFire understands the importance of individualism and innovation, the team approach is, for us, a better workplace model as it strengthens inventiveness and provides employees with access to a wider array of insights and ideas that help move our business forward.

But it can be challenging to build functional teams across geographic locations or offices. Sometimes this is because of real issues such as time differences or language barriers. In other instances, however, employees may simply not see the value of working closely with a peer with whom they don’t have frequent interaction.

Promote process

To get employees on board, management needs to communicate the value of building well-designed teams. The goal of establishing a team approach within a corporation goes beyond creating good will among co-workers. Although a positive environment is one upside, it is not realistic or practical to believe everyone will get along equally and that a workplace will be free of disagreements.

The ultimate goal is to build better products and deliver better service than your competitors. To do this, successful organizations take a pragmatic approach to building teams by looking at employees’ skill sets, personalities, and strengths and weaknesses. By building processes around the teamwork philosophy, a company factors the broader organization into decisions such as hiring and restructuring.

I liken this process to a sports team’s recruiting decisions. The smart teams look to complement their core players in skill sets and personalities. In some cases, talent trumps all, but team chemistry and the ability of a player to work within the system need to be weighed heavily.

Get personal

As companies become more global, they may want to implement personality tests or behavioral assessments as part of their hiring and team-structuring processes. There are a variety of tests available, and many do not require a lot of financial or time investment from the company, its employees or its prospective hires.

These assessments do more than ensure that organizations hire the right people; they also help companies build efficient teams in which the people mesh well and build on each other’s strengths.

Keep doors open

While an open-door policy may not be practical every working hour in every organization, the overarching philosophy is a good strategy for companies as they grow and build teams.

By encouraging communication and feedback, employees can share issues that need to be addressed before they boil up and become a serious problem. Even better, employees can discuss their views on what is working well within the organization so management can do more of it.

Work hard, play hard

I don’t think CorFire employees will be walking over hot coals any time soon as a way to build stronger teams or individual confidence. However, we strive to provide an environment where employees can have fun inside and outside the office.

Activities are not always formal. They include signing up a group of employees to attend a business or association luncheon. More formal “fun” activities such as employee cookouts are another way to help employees learn more about each other in a stress-free environment.

Look at the dynamics of your company to determine what optional activities will generate excitement in your workplace and enable your organization to “be all it can be.” <<

Sang Yook is chief strategy officer of CorFire, the mobile commerce business unit of SK C&C USA. You can reach him at (770) 670-4700.

When a position opens up at your company, a decision must be made whether to fill it with someone working in the company or hire someone from the outside. Each course has its benefits and drawbacks.

“When assessing your current staff, consider possible positions that a highly skilled employee would benefit from,” says Mary Delaney, an account manager with Ashton Staffing, Inc.

She says it may be the case that certain employees are outperforming or underperforming in their current roles and highly skilled employees may not be using their abilities to their fullest in their current positions.

However, there is reason to exercise caution. Delaney says, “Internal hiring immediately limits the prospective hiring pool and the company may miss out on a better-suited candidate.”

Smart Business spoke with Delaney about the difference between promoting from within and seeking to fill a position with a new hire.

How should a company evaluate the talent it has on its staff?

Aside from role-specific evaluations, monitor the employee’s work ethic. Look to see if they abuse sick days, are consistently tardy, if they share the company’s values and mesh well with its culture and if they’re able to adapt to changes within the company.

Consider the dedication level of the employee, which can be measured by the number of years they’ve invested with the company and what they have contributed in that time. Don’t just rely on numbers for this. Think back to instances where the employee succeeded in building and creating a flawless name for the company. Seek feedback on the employee from customers, phone surveys, email responses or co-workers.

Discuss your findings with the employee. Let the employee know they are not going unnoticed. Choose areas in which an employee has overachieved and acknowledge them for his or her hard work and dedication. Suggest ways of improving specific areas of concern you have with them. If there is a suitable promotion or role change, offer it to them.

What are the risks and benefits of looking inside the company to fill an open position?

Hiring from within can be very beneficial. A current employee’s familiarity with the company will allow for a cleaner and simplified transition period. Already aware of the company culture and policies, the current employee will most likely get up to speed much faster than a person new to the organization. Time spent interviewing and negotiating with an external employee is eliminated. Many companies use promotion from within as an incentive tool and a reward for good work or longevity with the company. This increases motivation and loyalty from internal employees. Hiring from within is typically economically beneficial. The position to be filled immediately transitions to a lower-level, less skilled position. This can significantly reduce the costs of recruitment and training expenses.

Hiring from within the company can also have some drawbacks. An internal promotion may inhibit the opportunity for innovation and progression. The company may lose out on fresh ideas and the creativity that can come from an external hire. Company morale could be negatively affected and friction among colleagues may arise if an envious employee feels slighted by a colleague’s promotion.

Ultimately, each company’s hiring decision is going to be unique. What’s best for one company may not work for another. Be sure to consider both positive and negative implications of internal versus external hiring before opening the position. Consider your budget, time frame, company culture and prospective talent on hand first. Internal hiring is generally faster and cheaper but may create hostility between colleagues and leave the company without the best-suited candidate or fresh innovative ideas.

How can a company ensure it has qualified candidates prepared to fill positions as they come available?  

Both mentoring and cross training are great tools for motivating your employees and sharpening their skills. By implementing a combination of these two, your employees will step out of their normal role and comfort zone by taking on new challenges. This keeps both the employee and job role from becoming stagnant. The challenge gives the employee a sense of achievement, which increases confidence and overall job performance.

Mentoring establishes a positive atmosphere of teamwork and success. When a talented employee displays initiative to go above and beyond, support that with cross training. Give them higher-level responsibility. Invite that employee to participate in more company-wide planning and decision-making meetings. Give them room to establish more goals and priorities. Reassign responsibilities that the employee does not like or are routine. A great way to promote company-wide training and development is by providing access and reimbursement to continuing education classes or company-specific training seminars, which ultimately sharpen employee skills.

In terms of cost, which is most often the more prudent: hiring internally or from outside the company? 

Hiring internally can save you time and money. You avoid expenses on advertising, screening and in-depth job training. Current employees are familiar with company policies and culture, and generally transition instantaneously into their new position.

However, if you strictly hire internally to save on these costs, you may lose out in the long run. Consider the risks and benefits of internal and external hiring before you make your decision. Each company is unique. Consider how your company morale will be affected if you hire internally. Do you already have a candidate who is an excellent fit? Or would you be sacrificing the need for ‘new blood’ and fresh ideas?  Hiring internally to save on costs up front may lead you to losing out in the long run. Determine which is the best route for your needs before you decide to open the position.

Mary Delaney is an account manager with Ashton Staffing, Inc. Reach her at (770) 419-1776 or mdelaney@ashtonstaffing.com.

Insights Staffing is brought to you by Ashton

With a rising number of federal regulations, it is becoming increasingly difficult for business owners to remain compliant and easier for them to inadvertently run afoul of the laws, says J. Richard Hicks, CEO of HR1 Services Inc.

“You can find yourself with a lot of governmental fines and legal problems if you don’t dot your I’s and cross your T’s,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Hicks about issues that could land you in trouble and how to take steps to avoid them.

How can wage issues cause problems for employers?  

Just because you pay people an annual salary doesn’t mean they aren’t viewed as hourly by the Department of Labor. So if you designate your receptionist as salaried, that does not mean that is an exempt position. And, if that person works 43 hours in a week, and is found to later be employed in a non-exempt position, he or she is due overtime.

Not paying that might work while that person is still an employee, but it’s often when employees leave that employers get in trouble. If the employee goes to the DOL and the employer is found to be noncompliant, it can be liable for back pay, penalties and interest.

How can a 401(k) plan get an employer in trouble?  

If you delay depositing funds within a certain window, you are opening yourself up to problems when the audit team from the DOL knocks on your door. For example, if there was a big upswing in the markets on the days you were late and your employees’ accounts could have increased, you have to make up that entire amount, plus penalties. In addition, the fiduciary responsibilities of 401(k)s lie with the employer. To be in compliance, you have to review the funds at least once a year to ensure that you offer a stable and diversified fund portfolio. Hiring a third-party fiduciary also poses a danger, as that doesn’t remove the responsibility of the employer. If you hire someone else to be the fiduciary, and that firm doesn’t perform, you, as the employer, are still on the hook.

How can a drug policy land an employer in hot water?  

Employers who want a drug-free workplace may do random testing, but you have to take a regimented approach. You need a third party who is at arm’s length from the business to administer it. Where employers slip up is that they randomly select a person for testing one quarter, then the same person is randomly selected the next quarter. So they throw that person back in the hat to test someone else. But it has to be truly random.

Those issues can buy you problems with the government and with litigators.

What do employers need to be aware of regarding benefits?  

You need to be consistent with your benefits. For example, say your labor force has a high turnover rate and you want to classify some employees as labor and some as management, in order to offer a more benefit-rich program to management. You can do that, as long as you are consistent on how you define those classifications. But if you have a cousin who is classified as labor and you grant him benefits, this can raise discrimination issues, which can be very expensive.

What other laws does an employer need to be aware of?  

Employers have to understand the Americans with Disabilities Act, because it’s an area they can really trip over. Be aware of protected classes and how they can impact your company.

The Family Medical Leave Act can also present problems, as disgruntled employees can find ways to exploit it. For example, district court rulings have determined that the employer is responsible for monitoring employee absentee rates and notifying them in writing if they are FMLA-eligible. The employer has a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that employees are aware of their rights.

If someone is missing two days of work every two weeks, they may be dealing with an illness, and you have to make them aware of FMLA. If you fail to do so and then let them go because they are missing so much work, they can say, ‘I was sick all that time and had no idea I was eligible for FMLA, so here’s my lawsuit.’

What steps can employers take to protect themselves?  

Employee handbooks are truly the first defense mechanism. You need to craft an employee handbook and live by those published rules. And you can’t ignore someone doing something wrong just because they’ve been there for 15 years. You need to address it, because that’s where you get into trouble.

Be very consistent in the way you handle disciplinary actions. Lay out the rules in the handbook, then follow them to the letter.

Some companies may be able to use generic forms for big ticket items, for example, ‘We don’t discriminate, we follow wage and hour laws,’ etc. But most need to craft a custom handbook that meets the specific needs of their business.

The other mistake companies often make is that they publish the handbook and then think they’re OK and never review it. But if there are changes, perhaps because of a new law, for example, a handbook must be updated in order for the employers to remain in compliance. A company may try to write an employee handbook itself, but I highly recommend getting an outside expert to help you get it right. If you set up your first line of defenses incorrectly, when you face litigation, your entire defense starts to unravel before your eyes.

J. RICHARD HICKS is CEO of HR1 Services Inc. Reach him at (800) 677-5085 or RHicks@HR1.com.

Insights Professional Employer Organization is brought to you by HR1

On November 28, the 2012 Midwest Social Media Summit will be held at Executive Caterers at Landerhaven in Cleveland, OH. This one-day-conference will offer tips and insights from social media experts and top business leaders who will help you reconsider your strategy or validate your approach.

For more information and to register, click here.

And as a special bonus to our Smart Business readers, we're giving away five FREE tickets to the event! To enter the contest, simply do one of two things:

  • Visit the Smart Business Twitter page and follow us. Then just send out a tweet that says, "I don't want to be anti-social. I want to attend the 2012 @Smart_Business Midwest Social Media Summit!"
  • Visit the Smart Business Facebook page and like us. Then post to the page, "I don't want to be anti-social. I want to attend the 2012 Smart Business Midwest Social Media Summit!"

We'll draw the winners on Monday, Nov. 19.

For additional information, please contact Anne Hydock at ahydock@sbnonline.com or (440) 250-7041.

A good board of directors can be a great support for a top executive regardless of company size. The most common type of board offers advice; however, other boards act as fiduciaries, which have legal liability for the company’s practices – and thus are much more actively involved in overseeing the company. In either scenario, before establishing a board of directors, a small business owner needs to be clear about why he or she wants a board and what the owner is prepared to do to get maximum value from a board.

These steps can help with developing your board of directors:

1) Get prepared. Write down what you want them do, how much time they will need to commit monthly, how long you want them to serve, where you and the company need the most advice, and what are you willing to provide as compensation to board members – if anything. Many nonprofit boards don’t offer payment beyond lunch, but for-profit entities typically provide a quarterly stipend or payment.

2) Choose broadly. Many business owners draft friends and industry colleagues to sit on their boards initially. However avoid picking carbon-copies of yourself. Look for board members with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It is useful to have board members from a wide range of fields, including legal, finance, accounting and marketing. Organizations such as the U.S. Small Business Administration’s SCORE program of retired business executives and The Alternative Board can connect groups to potential board members.

3) Orient the board. While board members may be familiar with your organization or products, they may have only a broad understanding of your operations. Therefore, it may be useful to provide orientation for incoming board members to cover organizational structure, functional duties for each division and division head, a brief description of each product/program/service that includes its target market, as well as pie charts that display major revenue streams and expenses.

4) Share authority. Many entrepreneurs conceive and build a company according to their liking and their understanding of the customer. Owners and managers should run the day-to-day operations in alignment with the board policies. A good board will encourage the development of processes for rationally researching, analyzing and assessing all aspects of the company. Moreover, few board members want to give up their time to meet to essentially rubber-stamp every executive decision.

5) Reassess your board periodically. What you need today to help your business flourish may not be what you’ll need in three or five years. As you periodically conduct mid-term strategic planning, you should review the skills and resources presented by each board director in light of where you want to take the company. Don’t be afraid to disband and redesign your board.

Patricia Adams is the CEO of Zeitgeist Expressions and the author of “ABCs of Change: Three Building Blocks to Happy Relationships.” In 2011, she was named one of Ernst & Young LLP’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women, one of Enterprising Women Magazine’s Enterprising Women of the Year Award and the SBA’s Small Business Person of the Year for Region VI. Her company, Zeitgeist Wellness Group, offers a full-service Employee Assistance Program to businesses in the San Antonio region. For more information, visit www.zwgroup.net.

Monday, 01 October 2012 11:21

The fine art of commitment in business

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"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.“ W.H. Murray

Last month we discussed how to make the right choices in life and business. We talked of positioning ourselves as business leaders in such a way that we make good, solid choices.

This month, I would like to follow up that article with one concerning commitment and business. Will the two topics complement each other? I believe the answer is yes. In fact, I see the topics as dependent on one another.

Here is my premise: When we work through the process of making a choice and we lack commitment to that choice, ineffectiveness is sure to follow.

First, a few assumptions I hold related to commitment: 

  1. Commitment is more than a head game.
  2. Commitment is positive.
  3. Commitment itself is a choice.
  4. Commitment flows from powerful leaders.
  5. Commitment is the driving force needed to push our choices into reality.

Now let’s fledge out each of these assumptions.

Commitment is more than a head game.

While our commitments start as a thought process, they cannot stay in our head. One way to state this is:

Commitment is a verb – it’s an action word.

Deciding to commit to a choice is only the beginning – now comes the real work. We must act on our commitment to that choice or, as I said earlier, ineffectiveness is sure to follow.

Commitment without action is worthless. When we have done the due diligence and made a right choice, we must act for that choice to have:

  • Impact
  • Meaning
  • Power
  • Results

Commitment is so much more than a head game. It involves action.

Commitment is positive.

When business leaders decide to make a commitment to a goal, plan, strategy or new direction, they have made a positive decision.

Let me try to draw the timeline out a bit:

The leader has painstakingly worked through all the considerations needed in order to make a right choice.

The leader now makes a conscious commitment to that right choice and moves out in action related to the commitment.

The choice and the commitment are going to have a meaningful, powerful, results-oriented impact on the leader’s business.

That is positive. When we follow this series of actions, no matter what the outcome, the result is positive. This realization can help us as leaders to see our role and our work in a very different light. 

Commitment itself is a choice.

This might seem obvious, but it is important for this reason:

Not committing to a choice that has been deemed “right” is a sure and certain way to open the flood gates of ineffectiveness in our business. Not committing is a choice we make to not do the right thing, the best thing, and the needed thing to move our business forward.

Simply put: committing or not – we make a choice – the difference is very important when it comes to good business.

Commitment flows from powerful leaders.

Over the years, I have heard trainers or speakers say that the mark of a powerful leader is his or her ability to make choices.

This is true, but the statement does not go far enough. In my estimation, real, powerful leaders are the ones that can make a choice, commit to that choice and take direct, intense action related to the choice.

This ability flows naturally from powerful leaders. It is second nature to the way they conduct themselves, their teams and their business. It is fun to watch it unfold.

Commitment is the driving force needed to push our choices into reality.

Each time we make a choice we are setting a goal that wants to be achieved.

As Mack R. Douglas reminds us that the good news is:

“The achievement of your goal is assured the moment you commit yourself to it.”

Commitment is the vehicle—the force—that drives our choices from concept to reality. The power of a simple commitment has transformed many leaders and their respective businesses. Without that power, I have seen business after business and leader after leader flounder and fail.

I think commitment is lacking in so many areas in our society these days. In developed and free nations, people are blessed with the ability to make choices, but often we lack commitment.

In business we are confronted with the need to make right choices on a minute-by-minute basis. Each leader and team member is charged with making choices as a significant part of their daily activities. Those choices then require a commitment. This is the game we play in the workplace and in life.

The process is really simple if you think about it: Make a choice. Commit to the choice. Act.

Are you ready?

DeLores Pressleymotivational speaker and personal power expert, is one of the most respected and sought-after experts on success, motivation, confidence and personal power. She is an international keynote speaker, author, life coach and the founder of the Born Successful Institute and DeLores Pressley Worldwide. She helps individuals utilize personal power, increase confidence and live a life of significance. Her story has been touted in The Washington Post, Black Enterprise, First for Women, Essence, New York Daily News, Ebony and Marie Claire. She is a frequent media guest and has been interviewed on every major network – ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX – including America’s top rated shows OPRAH and Entertainment Tonight.

She is the author of “Oh Yes You Can,” “Clean Out the Closet of Your Life” and “Believe in the Power of You.” To book her as a speaker or coach, contact her office at 330.649.9809 or via email atinfo@delorespressley.com or visit her website at www.delorespressley.com.

Lois Kelly is the author of “Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word-of-Mouth Marketing.” She offered her ideas about the top types of stories people like to talk about. If you’re pitching your company to investors, customers, partners, journalists, vendors or employees and you don’t use at least one of these storylines, you probably have a problem. And, most likely, you’re too close to what you’re doing, so you think that you’re uniquely “patent-pending, curve-jumping and revolutionary.”

1. Aspirations and beliefs. More than any other topic, people like to hear about aspirations and beliefs. (This may be why religion is the most popular word-of mouth topic, ever.) Aspirations are helpful because they help us connect emotionally to the speaker, the company and the issues. They help us see into a person or company’s soul.

2. David vs. Goliath. In the story of David and Goliath, the young Hebrew David took on the Philistine giant Goliath and beat him. It is the way Southwest Airlines conquered the big carriers, the way the once unknown Japanese car manufacturers took on Detroit and the way social media is taking on the media giants. Sharing stories about how a small organization is taking on a big company is great business sport. Rooting for the underdog grabs our emotions, creates meaning and invokes passion. We like to listen to the little guy talk about how he’s going to win and why the world — or the industry — will be a better place for it.

3. Avalanche about to roll. The mountain is rumbling, the sun is getting stronger, but the rocks and snow have yet to fall. You want to tune in and listen to the “avalanche about to roll” topic because you know that there’s a chance that you will be killed if caught unaware. This theme taps into our desire to get the inside story before it’s widely known. It’s not only interesting to hear someone speak about these ideas, but they also have the ingredients for optimal viral and pass-along effect.

4. Contrarian/counterintuitive/challenging assumptions. These three themes are like first cousins, similar in many ways but slightly different. Contrarian perspectives defy conventional wisdom; they are positions that often are not in line with — or may even be directly opposite to — the wisdom of the crowd. The boldness of contrarian views grabs attention. The more original and less arrogant they are, the more useful they will be in provoking meaningful conversations.

Counterintuitive ideas fight with what our intuition (as opposed to a majority of the public) says is true. When you introduce counterintuitive ideas, it takes people a minute to reconcile the objective truth with their gut assumption about the topic. Framing views counter to how we intuitively think about topics — going against natural “gut instincts”— pauses and then resets how we think and talk about concepts.

Challenging widely held assumptions means that when everyone else says the reason for an event is X, you show that it’s actually Y. Challenging assumptions is good for debate and discussion and especially important in protecting corporate reputation.

5. Anxieties. Anxiety is a cousin of the avalanche about to roll, but it is more about uncertainty than an emerging, disruptive trend. Examples of anxiety themes abound: 1.) Financial services companies urging baby boomers to hurry up and invest more for retirement: “You’re 55. Will you have your needed $3.2 million to retire comfortably?” 2.) Tutoring companies that plant seeds of doubt about whether our kids will score well enough on the SATs to get into a good college. Although anxiety themes grab attention, go easy. People are becoming skeptical, and rightly so. Too many politicians and companies have bombarded us with FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) with no facts to back up their point.

6. Personalities and personal stories. There’s nothing more interesting than a personal story with some life lessons to help us understand what makes executives tick and what they value the most. The points of these personal stories are remembered, retold and instilled into organizational culture.

7. How-to stories and advice. Theoretical and thought-provoking ideas are nice, but people love pragmatic how-to advice: how to solve problems, find next practices and overcome common obstacles. To be interesting, how-to themes need to be fresh and original, providing a new twist to what people already know or tackle thorny issues like how to get IT and marketing organizations to work together despite deep culture clashes between the two.

Here’s a good exercise for your team. Have them read this column and then answer the question: What storyline does our marketing currently use? Then, if you’re brave enough, ask the question: What storyline should our marketing use?

Guy Kawasaki is the co-founder of Alltop.com, an “online magazine rack” of popular topics on the web, and a founding partner at Garage Technology Ventures. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki is the author of ten books including Enchantment, Reality Check, and The Art of the Start. He appears courtesy of a partnership with HVACR Business, where this column was originally published. Reach Kawasaki through www.guykawasaki.com or at kawasaki@garage.com.

The number of seismic changes in the way business is done during the past 10 to 15 years is unprecedented. Just ponder the magnitude of all that has occurred as you read this list: Cell phones became ubiquitous, and computers with 24/7 Internet access moved from the strident screechy tones and beeps of telephone dial up to today’s broadband connections that transmit huge amounts of data in seconds, resulting in virtually everyone being constantly connected.

Instead of getting the latest news at 11 p.m. and sleeping on it, we now receive a constant stream of information in real time. Reaction time has moved from digesting the myriad of hard copy reports that awaited you at the office each morning to now making decisions simultaneously with that first sip of morning coffee while reading data on a smart devise.

In addition, the era of easy money is also long gone, along with what seemed to be extraordinary and unlimited growth where the average company would do just fine, propelled by a rising tide of good times.

The tragedy of Sept. 11 jolted the world permanently, altering the way people live and think about the future. There are no more givens that one will grow up, go to school, get a job, have a family and live happily ever after. Two major wars have lingered beyond anyone’s worst expectations. Then came the economic meltdown of 2008 when the wheels came off the wagon and the music stopped playing while everyone frantically searched for too few remaining chairs. With the stock market crash and the banking/lending meltdown, even the most sanguine turned jaundiced toward their views of government, business and what the future holds.

Even those businesses naively ensconced in their fairytale cocoons realized it was no longer business as usual. What worked for years would no longer move the needle. Customers’ attitudes and loyalties could no longer be taken for granted as businesses acknowledged that future success and prosperity could well be the exception, rather than the rule.

Does this mean that everything that we’ve learned in the past has gone swirling down the drain, including basic business principles and practices that were sacrosanct?

There are no pat answers to deal with almost revolutionary metamorphoses, if you don’t change, you most certainly will become a victim of change.

Welcome to the new ‘now.’ If you’re leading an organization today, you must devote the majority of your time and efforts to looking ahead and trying to find the answers before your competitors even know the questions. Change has become how we must do business. What worked for your company previously is, at best, a fleeting memory overshadowed by the customers’ mindset of “What have you done for me today?” In short, there are no guarantees other than you’ll have to continuously get better or be gone.

A scary thought? It all depends how you approach this new reality. With changes come new opportunities, new ground rules and the ability to find a better way and deliver that better way more efficiently and effectively.

So how do you go about preparing for the future? Certainly use all of the new tools that are at your fingertips. Instant information on the Web is available to all of us with a few keystrokes directed at a growing number of sophisticated search engine. Data that took weeks and months to gather can now be gleaned in minutes or hours. While Americans are graying as the over-50 crowd mushrooms, don’t ignore the young who know only this new way of life. Does this mean you should add a few 14-year-olds to your board? Maybe not a practical idea, but be sure you’re at least talking to a couple of them on an ongoing basis. Ideas come in many forms, many times from the most unlikely.

You must retrain your team to challenge virtually everything and find a better way, envision products, goods and services that no one knows they even need yet, and create a strategy to deliver them compellingly and creatively.

Will there continue to be business casualties? You bet. Much more importantly, however, there will be many business successes for those companies led by visionaries who answer that morning wake-up call each day with an open mind to the new now.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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