It’s time to start working smarter, not just harder

The business realities that
have followed in the wake
of the veritable worldwide
economic meltdown during the
past six months desperately call
for action and dramatic changes
in the way we do business. It
can no longer be business as
usual. The need is immediate
for a review and rewrite, if necessary, of every company’s play-book and standard operating
procedures. The era of unfettered growth fueled by an abundance of available capital has
come to a screeching halt.

Lavish perks, such as jets,
opulent retreats and extravagant company events, are now
not only politically unacceptable
but also fiscally imprudent. The
same applies to the practice of
analysis to the point of paralysis, the expense of redundant
layers of management and
the luxury of an expansive
support staff. Business
excesses in any form or fashion have gone the way of yesteryear’s three-martini lunches
and smoke-filled rooms.

New rules dictated by sobering economic realities require
every business to get by with
less staff, less cushion and, yes,
less money. All managers must
take a refresher course in how
to “do it once, do it right.”
Thoroughness and thoughtfulness have become the underpinnings in this new school of
business. Superfluous actions
must be replaced with an
increased emphasis on efficiency, effectiveness, and the elimination of roadblocking and
laborious bureaucracy. Time
wasters, both functions and
people, must be avoided.

Every CEO, owner and senior
manager must lead by example.
No longer can it be, “Do as I say,
not as I do.” Success will be
measured by results achieved in
days, weeks and months, rather
than the traditional long-term,
five-year plan for every major
undertaking.

Wasted motion is management’s new enemy. Time not
spent on accomplishing specific
objectives can lead to a disastrous detour. Leadership must
have time to think and act.
Distractions must be avoided
like a money-borrowing, long-lost, deadbeat relative.

Communications to all constituents must be clear and
underscored by facts and reality.
Businesses need less talk and
more meaningful actions and
results. As an example today,
the average executive receives
more than 100 e-mails a day and
spends more than eight hours a
week on electronic communications. New definitions must be
established as to what “keeping
me in the loop” really means. As
a leader, do you really need to
know every painful detail of
what’s happening with all of
your direct reports? Descending
into minutiae will take you
away from strategizing.

Alternative methods of communication need to be reintroduced, such as the unique
practice of requiring team
members to actually talk to
each other rather than texting
one another from a next-door
office or cubicle.

Today, more so than ever, time
means money and must be coveted like one of the most precious assets on your balance
sheet. If the clock stops ticking
and you run out of time, you
most likely will run out of
money eventually.

Empower your key people to
make decisions to keep moving
forward. Teach people to think
twice before sending an e-mail
or placing a phone call by asking themselves, “What is it I
want to report, and is it just nice
or is the information really necessary? Will the initial message
require another follow-up communication in the next few
hours or days?” Before they hit
the send button, train your team
to ensure that the message is
complete and includes the who,
what, why, where, when and
sometimes how of the subject
matter. There is nothing worse
than receiving an e-mail that is
incomplete, which then requires
an e-mail reply asking for clarification. Make it a rule that if
your people send you a message, it must be informative and
actionable, not just an FYI that
has morphed into a CYA.

Discipline your organization
to set predetermined follow-up
dates on everything of importance. Everyone in the organization must know that if a deadline is going to be missed, he or
she must inform the pertinent
parties before the clock strikes
12. It’s not just a matter of common courtesy; it is about saving
extraneous effort. As these new
standards are communicated
and processes begin to permeate
the organization, you’ll find everyone becoming more focused
and much more goal- and task-oriented. Working smarter, not
just harder, must be integral to
your organization’s strategy.

In these unprecedented times,
it’s not perspiration, it’s performance that counts.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual
sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise
Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products
venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. 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 [email protected].

Jumping through hoops and dodging bullets …

There is a new world order
for CEOs and business
leaders, fueled by the dramatic global economic
upheaval that has sent the
stock and credit markets into
turmoil, not to mention the
depressing effects on consumer and business spending.
Today’s executives must start
dancing to a different tune by
doing a new iteration of the
traditional two-step of jumping through hoops and dodging bullets just to survive.

Warning: Previously tried-and-true methods may not
apply to the future and could
definitely be hazardous to
your very existence.

Are these words scaring
you? They better. The time to
act is now. You must marshal
your forces to start thinking
and behaving differently.

There are dangers ahead
as well as new positive
opportunities for those
who are fleet of foot.
Wisdom is the ability to discover alternatives. Challenging
existing practices must
become SOP, or standard
operating procedure. No
longer can any executive
enjoy the luxury or indulge
in the hubris of waiting for
things to improve. Instead successful leaders will be the ones
who challenge, rechallenge and,
in some cases, force change by
taking their people kicking and
screaming over the finish line,
whether they like it or not.

No area of a business can be
exempt from this review.
Everything is subject to scrutiny, and everybody must
search for better ways.

Organizations must simultaneously start at the bottom and at the top and
meet in the middle to ensure every aspect of
their go-to-market process and
strategy is examined. The goal
is to find ways to increase revenue while reducing expenses.
This sounds almost ridiculously simple, but it’s surprising
how many companies don’t
think this way.

In this new era, businesses
must cut out fat and, at the
same time, not be afraid to add
initiatives that can produce a
satisfactory return on a new
investment of money and effort.
Inertia is the enemy. Leaders
must also ensure that everyone
in the organization knows the
promise to the customer. In
retailing, it’s called a “never out
list.” This means that if you
operate a grocery store, as an
example, you can never be out
of milk or bread. If the store
starts to run low and can’t be
replenished through normal
sources, you must go buy these
items from a competitor rather
than disappoint one customer
— which could lead to losing
that customer forever.

Begin your challenge process
by asking your team to examine everything and ask themselves the question, “Is there a
better way?” The better way
can be eliminating the redundant and the nonproductive or
simplifying the too complicated, while finding new hot buttons that will better serve your
customers.

Don’t be bashful about promoting the new “whatevers”
that will help your customers
survive in this new world order.
Don’t worry about being a fear
monger promoting concerns
and the booby traps that lie
ahead. However, when you
show the negatives, also serve
up solutions. Your customers
are desperately searching for
new ideas in these frantic times.

When you ask your team to
look at the old and find the
new, it’s guaranteed that some
will say, “We do it this way
because we’ve always done it
this way.” That will be your
cue to go ballistic and remind
the person that it is no longer
business as usual.

Ask your direct reports to
make two lists. One should
include existing things they
currently do as possible candidates to change. The second
should be a list of new initiatives that can serve the objective of boosting revenue and
producing a return. In some
cases, this type of request has
been known to cause severe
pain between the ears of
some, but refusing to do a
deep dive to engage in intense
thinking is not an option in
this environment.

Also, make sure all of your
direct reports push this same
exercise down to their people.
Most importantly, you can’t
just promulgate the need for
change without creating a formal process to vet each worthy recommendation.

Within short order, you will
have a series of initiatives to
take to the next step. If only a
few pan out, you’ll be ahead of
the game.

Taking all of these steps will
help ensure that if the music
ever stops playing, you won’t
be the last man dancing with
no chair on which to sit.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual
sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise
Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products
venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. 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 [email protected].

OMG — panic in the streets!

OMG, texting generation’s
abbreviation for “Oh, my
God,” aptly describes the near cataclysmic financial market gyrations during the infamous last weeks of September
2008. Businesses must never
forget the survival lessons that
these events teach.

During those tumultuous
days, Lehman Brothers, the venerable white-shoed investment
banking firm, folded after 158
years. Lehman’s fall followed on
the heels of the Bear Stearns
demise that rocked the investment world several months earlier. Little did we know that we
had not seen anything yet. Next
came the collapse of Fannie
Mae and Freddie Mac, along
with the rescue of AIG, the
world’s largest insurance
company. Just when we
thought the worst was over,
Washington Mutual was
seized almost in the dead of
night and sold, making this
the largest bank failure in
history. Next came the Fed’s
shotgun arranged marriage,
with Citigroup agreeing to buy
the failing Wachovia Bank only
to be usurped by Wells Fargo
that triggered a shootout
between the two rival bidders,
which was ultimately won by
Wells Fargo.

If most people hadn’t been so
scared or lost so much money,
this wild ride would have been
intellectually fascinating.

OK, what is, is. However,
have we finally learned our lesson? Only time will tell. For
common variety executives or
owners with no hope of a government bailout if they mess
up, they’d better take note if
they want to continue to play in
this risky game of business.

There are numerous lessons
to learn from the last eight to 10
years of excess and reckless
behavior that almost shattered
the foundation of our system.
So what were the biggies to
remember and etch into the
minds and hearts of your teams?

If it is too good to be
true, don’t believe it; it
will never last.

Unprecedented growth, with
little or no regard for common
sense, combined with loaning
money to someone who might
be light on the old-fashioned
requirements, such as a job and
at least a credit history that provides a 50-50 chance for repayment, is a recipe for disaster.
Call me a dreamer, but collateralizing a loan with something
that has some value near the
amount being borrowed makes
good sense, too. The harsh truth
here is a sobering case of financial reality — as in how many
zeros are in a near trillion-dollar
rescue? Here’s another novel
thought: Don’t give customers
credit when you have no clue if
they can pay you back. Moreover, once you do extend credit,
be all over them like a cheap
suit if they start paying late.

Make the journey as good as the destination

We all know top-level
executives down to
hourly employees who endure their jobs, thinking that
if they can hang in there long
enough, they can leave with the
carrot for which they have suffered. It could be a retirement
pension, a stay bonus, health
care benefits, a gold watch, a
golden parachute or any combination of the above.

This mindset makes for a miserable journey, and when one
gets to the destination, the payoff
is seldom as fulfilling as imagined. Worse yet are those people
who have muddled through
their entire careers doing jobs
they despise, all the while
dreaming of the “thereafter.”
When the end finally does come,
their life could suddenly turn
into a premature “hereafter,” as
in pushing up daisies.

Think about the wasted
effort and frustration of
waiting to realize a dream,
only to find out in the end
it is really a nightmare. Maybe
this sounds a bit draconian, but
there are too many people who
say they’ll put in their 20, 30 or
40 years and then go do something “worthwhile.” Imagine
the dismal quality of their
lives when their workday
feels like a week and weeks
seem to pass like years. This
makes for disgruntled workers
who inhibit productivity and
pull the good people down with
them.

Create enjoyment in
the workplace

Ask your employees what
their favorite and least favorite
days of the week are, and it’s
almost guaranteed that Friday is
at the top of the list and

Monday is at the bottom. Now that is not
terrible, but if your people
are more concerned about getting through the week than pursuing the challenges with which
they deal every day, your business is suffering or surely will
suffer from inertia.

Management’s job is to make
sure that employees can gain a
sense of enjoyment and satisfaction from doing their job efficiently and effectively. Leadership must set measurable
benchmarks so that everyone
can keep his or her own personal scorecard and recognize his
or her own self-worth. Measurements can be just about anything from reaching a sales goal,
completing a project or solving
customers’ problems in a way
that meets or exceeds their
expectations.

Sometimes, it is the simple
things that count the most. As
an example, in many major call
centers when customer reps
make a sale or solve a caller’s
thorny problem, they walk over
and ring a bell in recognition of
their accomplishment of the
moment. Workplaces such as
this, where performance is continually recognized, can be highly fulfilling. These same techniques can be translated into
any environment. Sometimes
the more outrageous the action,
the more satisfying the recognition. Of course financial rewards
are important and a meaningful
reflection of good performance,
but, as they say, “Man does not
live by bread alone.”

Show appreciation
to get appreciation

Most companies pay “market
rate” for employees in any given
category. So why is it that one
company has terrific employee
satisfaction while others, whose
pay is comparable, have dismal
scores? It is not just about
money. The best organizations
figured out long ago that they
must engage their employees
and make them part of the
process, not just spectators.

Most people don’t get up in
the morning and say, “I’m going
to do a mediocre or bad job
today.” When that happens in
your company, ask yourself if
management is communicating
with employees about the
progress of the business, including the good news as well as the
challenges. Equally important,
has management told employees “thanks” recently and
underscored to them that their
efforts are not only just appreciated but also have enabled the
company to succeed? Find the
hot buttons that invigorate your
people and start pushing them,
not just when you think of it or
feel like it but on a regular and
sustained basis. Also, don’t be
afraid to share periodic setbacks or bad news. This, too,
sends an important signal that
every employee is a part of the
team, and it’s the employees
who define the company.

By doing all of this, don’t be
surprised at 5:00 p.m. on some
Friday afternoon when you
wish your people a good weekend and they respond with sincere enthusiasm, “Look forward to seeing you Monday.”
When this happens, you’ll know
that you’re making the journey
as rewarding as reaching the
destination.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual
sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise
Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products
venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. 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 [email protected].

Customers aren’t going to take it anymore!

In 1976, a satirical movie
titled “Network” won four
Academy Awards and quickly gained a cult-like following.
The flick centers on an anchor
newscaster who’s fed up with
his job and the world around
him. His frustration erupts during a live national TV broadcast
that galvanizes the nation with
the rant, “I’m mad as hell, and
I’m not going to take it anymore.” This protagonist’s action
prompts Americans across the
country to literally open their
windows and shout this defiant
pronouncement.

That was then, and this is
now. Today, it’s not a fictional
character, but the public at large
that has adopted this mantra.
The worm has turned, and now
customers have the power —
and they know it. No longer
do consumers have to
accept inferior products and
dismal service. Most frustrating, according to many
surveys, is the “attitude” that
accompanies many businesses’ lack of follow through and
poor service.

In our Internet-driven world,
with almost instant communications, blogs and chat rooms, the
consumer has come of age.
There is a new movement afoot,
and customers of the 21st century will not be denied!

What does it cost your business when you consistently
break promises and disappoint? Most likely, it’s not only
your potential growth but
your very existence.

Each day that your company
turns on the lights and opens
the front door, you need to be
prepared to keep your promise. Consumers have lost their
patience with apathy, incompetence and rudeness. In
these difficult times, a number
of companies that have been
around for years won’t make
the next cut. This will occur
not only as a result of a poor
economic environment but
because too many companies
just don’t deliver.

Disappoint me once, shame
on you; disappoint me
twice, shame on me.

This cliché sums up the new
“two strikes and you’re out”
consumer mentality. There are
simply too many alternative
companies for customers to
put up with an inordinate
amount of corporate mumbo
jumbo and sleight-of-hand
shoddy treatment.

Take for example the experience of calling a company’s toll-free number. It’s a fair bet that
the caller could be disappointed
not just because the issue may
not be fully resolved but also as
a result of the indifference and
the negative attitude of the
customer service personnel.

On the positive side, there
are still standout companies
that make customer service
their passion. One of the best
is the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain.
If you have ever visited a Ritz
and asked an employee the
location of a restroom, he or
she won’t merely tell you;
instead, he or she will accompany you to the facility. This
can be a bit disconcerting particularly when an especially
enthusiastic Ritz employee initially seems to be prepared to
join you in its typically spotless
oasis of mirrors, marble and
porcelain. Overkill? Perhaps to
some. However, to most, it’s a
refreshing example that the
Ritz and its employees care
about making that extra effort.

Do employees wake up in the
morning and want to do a bad
job? Absolutely not. The problem doesn’t stem from the
employee providing the bad
service but from the employer
that accepts mediocrity and
incompetence. In effect, companies become enablers by
doing a poor job of training
associates and not enforcing
customer service standards.

In the land of the blind, the
one-eyed man is king.

To meet or exceed expectations, a company does not have
to do anything extraordinary.
Most times, just being civil and
moderately efficient will win
over a customer. For a variety
of business reasons, including
expense control and the all too
prevalent personnel cutbacks,
many organizations let customer service go to seed. Make
sure you spend your money and
devote resources to where you’ll
get the best return. Customer
service should be the very last
cut before you’re forced to permanently turn off the lights.

This is a wake-up call for
every owner and corporate
executive to double their efforts
to ensure that they are making
their customers’ life at least tenable, if not easier. Anything less
and you run the risk of becoming the target of newly empowered and technology-savvy customers who know how to make
themselves heard electronically
with a cry that could be heard
from every window around the
world.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual
sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise
Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products
venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. 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 [email protected].

Strong caveat to new management

Hippocrates, the father of
medicine, also knew a
thing or two about business. In the fourth century B.C.,
he crafted the Hippocratic oath.
Extracted from this sage pledge
came the dictum, “First, do no
harm.” Even after more than
2,000 years, this oath could be
appropriately adopted today by
corporate titans. Every day,
companies are bought and sold
from around the corner to
across the world. Organizations
of all types undergo management and leadership changes —
sometimes as frequently as athletes change their socks.

Many times, changes are necessitated by poor performance or
new ownership. The “out with
the old, in with the new” actions
during transitions are frequently
required and appropriate.

However, too frequently, ill-conceived changes can
cause a negative domino
effect. Before anyone realizes it, the cure becomes
worse than the malady.

New leader, new worries

As the ink is still drying on a
new leader’s contract, almost
instant promulgations are
made that the new kahuna
has brought in his or her own
team, frequently including the
head operator, marketing strategist and financial guru. The precipitous action of throwing the
baby out with the bathwater
can include key people who
have the critical “institutional”
knowledge of why this or that
works or, equally important,
why something won’t.

Often the first shoe to drop is
only the beginning. The usual
scenario is that the other executives who come in with
the new leader proceed with great dispatch bringing in their
own people, further upsetting a
fragile apple cart. This exponential process many times causes
turmoil and costly business disruptions before anyone realizes
the organization is at risk and
the troops are not only restless
but also operating in fear mode.
Things stop getting done, sales
suffer and customers become
unhappy because after these
radical changes in personnel
nobody knows who’s on first
and who does what under the
new leadership. It’s not uncommon for the old team members
who stay on to be treated like
redheaded stepchildren.

Changes at the top are typically initiated because the former
leader simply couldn’t get the
job done. Most rational business people have no quarrel
with this. This doesn’t mean the
people below the old boss are
all bad. In fact, they actually
may be very good and understand the intricacies of the business, but because of poor leadership, they couldn’t function
effectively or their creativity
was stymied. However, if the
new CEO takes the Hippocratic
oath, a great deal of suffering
can be avoided.

Wait a minute

Perhaps there is a better way,
including enforcing a moratorium on wholesale personnel
changes for a specific period of
time and certainly at least until
the dust settles and a thorough
evaluation of existing people
and processes is completed.
The best of the best buyout
companies have a meticulous
review and integration process
that is launched after an acquisition. This process not only
assesses skills but also incorporates sensitivity because new
management/owners know
they are messing with a lot of
people’s lives. When changes do
begin, they are done professionally, providing dignity to the
departed.

Leadership must recognize
that during a transition all parties, particularly the employees
and the customers, are watching. Indiscriminate changes will
long be remembered, and when
the employee who does stay
receives a new offer a month or
a year down the road, he or she
will not have forgotten how the
company treated its “loyal people” during the change process.
Customers, too, have their
favorite people in a company,
and most times, they are the
lower-level support types who
are most likely unknown to the
CEO. When the time comes, the
customer will also vividly recall
how the company behaved and
treated its customers and
employees during the transition.

To avoid the unnecessary rush
to judgment of an existing team
member, process or strategy, new
management must stop, look,
listen and learn before acting.
Speed certainly counts but not
as much as aiming before firing.

When the time comes, as it
usually does, for a management
transition in your organization,
gather your top people together
and have them raise their right
hands and repeat after you: “No
matter what changes we make,
our primary consideration must
be to first, do no harm.”

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual
sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise
Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products
venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. 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 [email protected].

Follow the leader

How many times have you
stood at a busy crosswalk with other pedestrians waiting for the “Don’t
Walk” signal to flash to “Walk”?
How many times have you
along with other unsuspecting
pedestrians entered the crosswalk before the sign changed
because one “leader” prematurely elected to proceed
across the street? The lesson
in this example is that blindly
following the leader is not
always to your best advantage
and can sometimes be downright dangerous.

Think about where most leaders get their ideas and inspirations. Certainly, they do some
analysis, read the papers, watch
TV and check the Internet. No
doubt, they also talk to associates, consult the usual suspect
experts, such as barbers/hair-dressers, taxi drivers and probably even have periodic pillow
talks with whomever, just like
all of us. After digesting and distilling all of this critical data, the
experts have an “aha” moment
and promulgate their epiphany
of the next trend, be it where
the stock market and economy
are heading, what the consumer
will need tomorrow or how
companies must change. Just as
sure as the sun sets in the west,
the majority of business executives aren’t much different from
the people at crosswalks.
Without any qualms or questions, they fall into lockstep and
follow the leader before really
thinking about where they’re
going and if it’s even safe.

In business, wisdom is the
ability to discover alternatives.
Let’s examine other methods of
creating a new strategy, playing
the stock market, buying real
estate or pursuing whatever
else is your vice or pleasure. No
matter what you’re trying to
accomplish in order for your
company to cope with change,
fundamental bottom-up analysis
is the best starting point. You
must also think as a contrarian
and create alternative scenarios
that are applicable to your specific circumstance. Be creative
in your thinking but not outrageous. You’re not looking for a
one-in-a- million chance to win
the lottery. Instead, figure out
how to adapt your business to
meet your customers’ altered
needs and counter their resistance points.

Dreaming of “what could be
and should be” has a place in
your analysis process. However, your dreams must be
grounded and fact-based. Look
at your current business environment and then ask, “How
can we do it differently from
others, and how can we turn a
negative into a positive?” Don’t
be intimidated by what the
leaders are saying and doing,
but instead, study what your
customers want and then figure out creative methods to
deliver it in a manner that will
knock their socks off.

Here is a hypothetical solution
using contrarian thinking.
Assume you own a health spa
50 miles from the center of
town. Gas prices are reaching
new highs every day while environmentalists are turning up the
volume about the negative
effects of gasoline on the planet.
Prominent “thought leaders”
aggressively tell the populous to
stay close to home to save
money on fuel and, at the same
time, help reduce air pollution
by driving less. If you simply
played “follow the leader,” you’d
be calling a real estate agent to
move your spa from its pastoral
setting to the urban center.
Instead, you turn lemons into
lemonade by adding free luxurious limo pickup and return
service for your clients so they
don’t have to pay for the gas.
To deal with the environmental piece, you promote the fact
that your limo is a hybrid or
runs on big electric batteries
and/or has a very long extension cord.

In 1929 when the stock market crashed, many investors
were doing half gainers off tall
buildings while others on Wall
Street wisely chose not to follow and instead became buyers. After the devastating trauma of Sept. 11, New York City
real estate prices plummeted
over predications of pending
economic doom. However, the
“smart money” started buying
previously coveted properties
at bargain prices and eventually reaped huge profits.

Use difficult times to your
advantage by challenging common wisdom and searching for
innovative opportunities and
solutions. Following the leader
can sometimes be OK, but
very seldom are the results
great. Buying straw hats in the
winter and not becoming an
automaton follower can be
very profitable for your organization and you.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual
sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise
Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products
venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. 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 [email protected].

Is victory at any cost a real victory?

There are many CEO types,
some successful, some
not, who have taken a page from the playbook of the
legendary Green Bay Packers’
football coach Vince Lombardi.
He was known for proclaiming his hard-nosed theories
about winning, some say, at
any cost. Then there’s the
hugely successful, yet equally
infamous, Indiana college
basketball coach who believed
more in action than words.
Unfortunately, his actions sometimes included hurling objects
onto the court when he lost.

Similarly, too many business
leaders focus almost exclusively
on winning for the sake of winning without fully understanding the economic and human
energy commitment needed to
reach the goal.

It’s well established at self-help meetings that each
attendee must stand
before the group, introduce himself or herself by
first name and state that he or
she has a problem. For those
in business who are addicted
to the need to win without
regard to ramifications, imagine this assertion, “Hello, my
name is (you fill in the first
name here) and I’m an irrational, compulsive winner.”

Every organization has associates who must always be first,
be right and never lose. The
problem is, many times, the
cost of being numero uno is
simply not worth the price.
Remember, your team doesn’t
have to win every game to win
the championship.

As leaders and managers, we
must recognize when an all-out
effort is warranted and, just as
important, when it’s not.

In addition, we must
train our associates,
particularly the younger ones, to know how to assess
the cost of a victory and how
and when to pick their spots.

“Business is a marathon, not
a sprint.” This is an overused
saying but, nonetheless, it’s
dead-on right. Leaders must
operate their organizations to
achieve continuous progress
and growth, not to win every
single battle just for the sake
of the fight.

The concept of zero defects,
the same as in always needing
to win, is not only unsustainable, but it is also simply too
costly and painful.

Sure, if you’re the maker of
airplane jet engines, then I’m all
for zero defects, particularly if
I’m flying on the plane. However, if you’re the producer of a
widget that is not essential to
maintaining safety, it’s cheaper
and more practical for the end
user to replace the widget as
needed rather than to pay the
higher price for zero defects.

There are some simple practices to follow to ensure you
invest your organization’s resources wisely to achieve a win.

Weigh the ROI. First, before you
start any project, determine
the payback. All victories contribute something, but they’re
not always of equal value.

It’s critical to know when
enough is enough and it’s time to
just pull back and settle for second, third or drop out completely. This is easier said than done
because there are many factors
at work, including the mysterious chemicals that drive the
alpha male and alpha female.

One problem is that for type
A personalities, winning sometimes just feels so darn good.

Analyze the costs. A second
consideration is burnout. You
can’t let your employees put in
100 percent or more on every
undertaking. Associates who
constantly do so serve you
well for a short time, but, in
the end, they unceremoniously fizzle out like a cheap firecracker.

Measure results. Third, when
launching every meaningful
effort, create a 1 to 10 scoring
scale, with the lower numbers
representing the less important
goals/projects. You must communicate with your people
when the effort is worthy of a
9 or 10 so they know to turn
on the adrenaline for success.

When dealing with something rated a 1 or a 2, they
must certainly try but also
know how much it’s worth
investing to achieve the goal’s
desired outcome.

As a sanity check, tomorrow
morning when you wake up,
look in the bathroom mirror
and then audibly introduce
yourself to yourself. If, in your
heart of hearts, you hear a little voice saying, “Hello, my
name is (fill in your name
here) and I am an irrational,
compulsive winner,” you’ll
know it’s time to reprioritize
because it does matter how
you play the game if you
want to win consistently
year after year.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual
sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise
Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products
venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. 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 [email protected].

How to get past the toughest gatekeepers

In the typical company,
about 80 percent of business decisions are made by only 20 percent of its employees. Before your team members can get to a “yes” for an
order or deal, they must first
navigate past the gatekeeper
to reach the decision-maker
with the big pen.

Most companies spend their
efforts training salespeople
how to sell but neglect to
teach them how to get in front
of the manager who can give
the nod.

As the CEO of a Fortune 500
company, I was always
impressed and, at times, even
amused by the renegade peddler who made his or her way
across the desk from me for a
one-on-one session. I would
wonder if this person was
the no-account brother-inlaw of my gatekeeper, had
incriminating photos or
perhaps was a bona fide
seller who had convinced
my assistant that he was
offering something that
could make a difference.

So what’s the combination to
unlock that formidable door?
First, make sure your people
are targeting the right person.
Translation: Find out who in
the company calls the shots
on what your organization is
trying to sell and, equally
important, who is this honcho’s trusted assistant.

Sometimes, reaching the
higher-up is easier if one initially
starts a step lower. Increase
the odds for success by writing and/or calling the target’s
assistant, addressing him or
her by name. Always remember an administrative assistant
has real clout and must be
treated accordingly.

Unless the salesperson is
lucky, the initial call or note will probably not get the job
done. Instead, teach your people how to stand out in the
crowd. Start with a letter to
the assistant and follow up
with a phone call two or three
days later, but no longer, or
the note will be long forgotten.
Any combination of phone
calls, e-mails or personal
handwritten notes can be
effective in breaking through
the clutter that bombards an
overworked assistant.

Bear in mind that assistants
aren’t obstructionists. It’s just
their job to block time-wasters.
The worst nightmare for any
gatekeeper is being rebuked
by the boss asking, “Why did
you let that turkey in?” One
must always provide meaningful rationale for the proposed
tête-à-tête with the leader.

I vividly recall around the
spring of 2000 when my assistant suddenly started telling
me “wonderful things” about
the state of Pennsylvania.
Turns out that Tom Ridge, the
then-governor of the Keystone
State, learned that I would be
making a decision on where to
locate a new mega-sized distribution center that would
employ hundreds of people.

Instead of sending me the
usual propaganda, he chose to
call my assistant, introduce
himself and explain why
Pennsylvania would be the
right site for us. My assistant
later “confessed” that she had
several calls and a note of
thanks from the governor,
who subsequently became the
country’s first security czar.

Although she never admitted
it, I suspect the assistant provided the governor tidbits of
useful insights about the other
states with which Pennsylvania
was competing.

It sure doesn’t hurt, either, as
was the case with Gov. Ridge,
to convince this right-hand
person she would be fulfilling
her mission by getting him
through to me because, in
fact, Pennsylvania really was
the best location.

Things to avoid include calling and saying, “I’m from the
IRS,” or implying that it’s a
“sensitive personal matter,”
which might get one through
to the boss but also result in
having the phone slammed
down in the caller’s ear within
three seconds.

Also, never, ever bully the
gatekeeper with threats, such
as, “Do you know who I am?”
This tactic is guaranteed to
put the pursuer at the top of a
“black list” — which can
prove more difficult to get off
than Homeland Security’s “No
Fly list.”

For those who ultimately
reach the sacred ivory tower
and are successful, it’s wise to
give the gatekeeper credit for
having had the smarts to let
them in, which is exactly what
Tom Ridge did. Teach your
team members that the velvet-glove approach can spare
them the wasted energy from
huffing and puffing and trying
to blow the door down.

P.S. Yes, Pennsylvania won
the competition to become the
site of the new facility.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual
sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise
Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products
venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. 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 [email protected].

Dying a thousand deaths

It’s been said, “Life isn’t
always fair,” when it comes
to how we’re judged.
Profound words, but no great revelation for anyone in business. Even the glory of unique
innovation and head-turning
results is ephemeral, evaporating all too quickly as it becomes
yesterday’s news. The public’s
mindset today is, “What have
you done for me lately?”

Thomas Edison invented the
light bulb, but when was the
last time you acknowledged this
life-altering invention? Have you
ever exclaimed, “Let there be
light,” as you entered a dark
room and flipped the switch,
while giving thanks to this holder of more than 1,093 patents?
Conversely, when you flip
that same light switch and
night does not instantly turn
into day, you’re likely to
mutter expletives about
the unreliability of this
basic utility.

Then there’s the example of the company that paid
200 consecutive quarterly dividends with the precision of a
fine Swiss watch. One day, out
of the blue, that company has
a shortfall, and the dividend
is reduced or eliminated.

The morning paper will
plaster this “omission” in a banner headline, followed by predictions of gloom and doom
for the offending company. No
one cares that for the previous
50 years, the dividend was
barely noted with a one-line
notice hidden in the back
pages of the paper. Worse yet,
when each dividend check was
received by the shareholder, it
probably rated a big yawn, if
any reaction at all.

We’re constantly being
measured by what we
don’t do or neglect to do. Companies spend billions of dollars devising programs simply to meet customers’ expectations.

Some of the most successful
businesses really don’t deliver
anything very astonishing. Instead, they provide consistency,
be it a good hot cup of coffee
or a safe, clean hotel room in
every location around the corner or around the world.

When these companies miss
one time, the customer goes
bananas. Vitriolic correspondences are launched, accusing
the company of incompetence
and apathy.

How can your business minimize the risk of being chastised
for what it doesn’t do? First,
you need to set standards
below which the company cannot fall — no way, no how.
Second, promulgate these goals
as the holy grail of your company’s entire reason for existing.

Make them part of your mission statement, ensuring that
everyone from the janitor to
the CEO knows what is
expected and, more important, what role each plays in
delivering on the promise, all
the while knowing that being
taken for granted is the price
of admission.

Fail once, and you will die
1,000 deaths for what you neglected to do. The harsh reality is
that if you do it right 99.99 percent of the time, no one gives it
a second thought. Do it wrong
once, and your customers will
indelibly etch the transgression
into their memories.

Organizations can improve
their odds of survival and success by paying attention to
basics and by dealing with
details. For example, as a
salesperson, you make a
prospecting call on a potential
new client, and the next day,
you send a thank-you note.

You won’t get much credit
for doing this. It is a zero sum
game. You’ll be remembered
only for the note or call you
didn’t make when your competitor sends the thank-you
letter or follows up verbally.

Here’s another scenario: A
subordinate’s 90-year-old
great-grandmother passes
away, and your company forgets to send flowers. If you
send the flowers, they’ll blend
in with the others, but if you
neglect to do so, your missing
bouquet will be conspicuous
by its absence.

This same discipline applies
to your personal life. Have you
ever missed sending a lousy
$2 Valentine’s Day card to your
spouse or significant other? If
you do participate in this ritual
and you’re lucky, you might get
a peck on the cheek. If you
don’t, be assured it’s the start
of World War III, and your partner will never let you forget it.

Make your own list of must-dos and have your employees
do the same. Sometimes, the
big winner can be the company that doesn’t stand out for
the wrong reasons.

Many great businesses have
been built on reliability, and too
many companies have ultimately failed for errors of omission.
Being invisible at the right times
can be a strategic advantage.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual
sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise
Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products
venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. 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 [email protected].