Tidy up dirty little messes

We all have them. Some
are hidden in obscure
corners of a business; others are slung around the neck
like the proverbial albatross.

Much like barnacles that
build up on the bottom of a
boat, at first, they don’t cause
many problems, but as they
accumulate, they start to slow
things down and damage the
veneer. Every business has its
inevitable little messes —
some self-inflicted, others created through being at the
wrong place at the wrong time.

It can be a bad hire who just
doesn’t get better, a less-than-stellar contract or a costly
piece of equipment that just
never performed as promised.
Like those annoying barnacles, they hang on and don’t
go away by themselves.

It’s just a matter of when and
how before you must stop
ignoring these issues. The
question becomes, is it better
to clean up all of these transgressions in one fell swoop or
endure the perpetual agony by
successively fixing each problem as it becomes unbearable?

How to handle mistakes and
missteps depends on a number
of factors, starting with, do you
own the business and report to
no one, or do you have investors,
banks or others to whom you
are accountable? Out of the
necessity of using OPM (other
people’s money), most businesses aren’t completely independent. It’s the old story about
investors and lenders: You
can’t live with them, but most
of the time, you can’t live without them or at least without
their money.

Nonpublic companies can
take a page from the playbook
of their publicly held cousins to
learn how they deal with their
big bloopers and blunders.

History shows us that most
public companies tend to take
their lumps all at once, employing a kitchen-sink strategy, ridding the organization of anything that doesn’t measure up.

Dealing with these issues is
much like having a terrible cold.
When you’re knee-deep in
cough drops, decongestants
and Kleenex and suffering with
aches and pains, you think that
the big one is coming, and you’ll
soon be on your way to that
special boardroom in the sky. A
week later, when the symptoms
have subsided, the good news is
that brush with the Grim Reaper
is all but forgotten.

Sure, public companies know
that when they launch the cleanup process, their stock will go
down, the media might trash
them, and investor activists and
class-action attorneys will likely
rattle their sabers. However, just
like that bad cold, if handled
properly, this too shall pass.

Nonetheless, by moving with
great dispatch and with a little
luck, the cathartic company will
be in a better position after the
housecleaning and when the
bumpy ride ends.

There is strength in numbers.
Frequently, stocks of companies
in the same business sectors
move down in sympathy with
each other. That’s why public
companies take advantage of
periodic economic dips because
they know they’ll have the necessary cover to make their
fixes. Actually, if a company is
one of the standout performers
in its group during tough times,
naysayers will assert that it’s just a matter of time until the
other shoe drops and the last
man standing (the company
performing well) is pulled down
with its peers.

For the unseasoned, all of
this may sound very cynical
and disingenuous. However,
the ebbs and flows in the business cycle are much like biology — it’s just nature’s way of
cleaning things up.

When business is great,
almost no one thinks the trend
is ever going to turn bad, and
when it’s bad, nobody thinks it
will get better.

To be rid of your nasty little
problems, it gets down to making hard decisions. If you know
something will never work,
seize the opportunity at hand
and jettison the excessive baggage. Few mere business mortals are miracle workers and
can fix everything without
divine intervention. Learn to
leave those types of situations
to a much higher authority.

One caveat — this cleansing
cannot be undertaken in a
Machiavellian, take-no-prisoners manner. Instead, have a
methodical, well-reasoned plan
that you share with your team
as you move through the
process of discarding the bad
and strengthening the good.

When possible, do it at a time
and place of your choosing for
the greater good of all of your
constituencies. The first step is
to stock up on an ample supply
of those cough drops and tissues to treat your woe-is-me
sniffling and then begin building
for a better tomorrow.

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].

Don’t negotiate with yourself


Everyone who is anyone
has a top 10 list of this or
that. So why should I be any different? At the top of
my list of the biggest time
waster is, “negotiating with
yourself.” It’s superfluous and
an exercise in futility. The
only good news is if you’re an
investor in the makers of
Maalox or Valium, it is a
proven revenue enhancer.

Asking yourself repetitive
and numerous rhetorical questions will thrust you into a
vicious cycle on a road to
nowhere. It’s much like playing pingpong with yourself:
There is never a winner.

From time to time, we all
engage in this exasperating
process. However, when
negotiating with yourself
becomes a habitual routine
for you, you’re well on
your way to diluting your
effectiveness and driving
the people around you to
distraction or worse.

Do not confuse this negative mental gymnastic with
the more productive process
of playing “what if” games.
The difference is with “what
if” scenarios you should
deal with a series of facts
to which you can add various suppositions to predict
the most likely outcomes. This
is simply good business and
prepares you for whatever
battle you’re about to embark
upon, such as buying a competitor or making almost any
type of deal. A thoughtful and
reasoned negotiating strategy
is loosely similar to the lessons of physics, which teaches
us that, “For every cause,
there is an effect; for action,
there is a [predictable]
reaction.” On the flip
side, it’s of no value
to negotiate with yourself, without concrete facts,
trying to guess what someone
is going to say or do.

Negotiating with oneself can
migrate from the subconscious
to the conscious and then
erupt into a full-fledged traumatic episode. After submitting
your proposal and before you
receive any feedback, you conjure up myriad responses that
you think you might receive,
engaging in a second-guessing
game of woulda, coulda, shoulda. In the cross-examination of
a witness, attorneys call this
“asked and answered.” This
may play well on the TV show
“Boston Legal,” but in real-life
business, it’s a waste of energy.

In essence, under the majority
of circumstances you can predict with a relatively high
degree of certainty how the
other side will respond. As a
way of an example, let’s examine the key factors in a typical
acquisition by one company of
another. First, Company A
decides to buy Company B
because there are management, market and/or economic
synergies. Company A makes
its offer and the decision usually gets down to three fundamental considerations.

First, what is the price, as in
“show me the money?” Is it
fair or a low-ball offer?
Moreover, who gets how
much and when? Secondly, at
the end of the day, which side
will get to call the shots in the
newly configured venture?
Combining management
teams and calling it a merger
of equals and keeping everybody happy is about as likely
as finding peace in the Middle
East in the next 30 days. It
sounds great, but, unfortunately, the desired results are usually nothing more than a PR
spin based on fairy tales.
Thirdly, which side will be perceived as the winner in the
public’s eye? This is particularly significant in public company transactions. Keep these
types of predicable formulas
in mind because, based on
empirical results, they are
good antidotes for negotiating
with yourself.

Here is a simple preventive
method to avoid endless self-doubt during the downtime
between when you make
your offer and when you get
that first response. After you
fire your opening salvo in the
form of whatever you’re
offering, then stand down
and wait until there is something to respond to other
than your own self-doubts
and negative thoughts.
Although it will take a herculean effort and willpower,
refrain from questioning your
proposal and always give the
other side first opportunity to
respond. This will eliminate
or, at least, dramatically
reduce your own internalized
histrionics. You’ll not only be
more productive, but you’ll
be a better leader and possibly a happier executive.

Remember, there are a lot
better ways to get your exercise other than playing a game
of pingpong with yourself.

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].

Analysis paralysis

There is a delicate balance
between using facts and
employing intuition to make important decisions.
Combining the use of both the
right brain for creativity and
the left brain for analytics has
been the formula for many
great success stories.

Managers often use a number
of proven methods to launch
the decision-making process.
Rarely, however, is there a single protocol or technique that
always works best. How one
approaches an undertaking
depends on circumstances,
including time and resources.

Under certain circumstances,
it makes sense to drill down on
what needs to be done, and
then, as Nike asserts: “Just do
it.” This method using the
right cranial hemisphere is
recommended when you
are well-versed on the subject and have successfully
done something similar in
either your current role or
another life.

More often than not, you
need to build a very tightly
crafted road map, which takes
you through each step, whether
it is launching a new product or
service, starting a business, or
reformulating a troublesome
strategy. In cases such as this, it
is not only understanding the
variables and paybacks but also
a matter of down and dirty
scrounging for the available
information, and then testing
and analyzing assumptions and
hypotheses before proceeding.

Analysis is a prerequisite to
establishing parameters and
arriving at a go/no-go decision.
The process must often include
a healthy dose of “time-outs”
when applicable to rethink
pieces and parts of a project for
either a sanity check or just a
double check.

Before passing the point of no
return, knowing how to proceed with an undertaking must
include digesting and interpreting data based on facts and history. It is pure bravado to pioneer without first learning from
what others have done previously to determine what
worked and what didn’t.

Analysis traditionally is an
integral piece of any puzzle.
However, analysis can be —
and often is — overdone. In
many cases, analysis can lead to
paralysis, which in business can
be fatal. The government
should require a warning label
on every business book and
business plan, which might
read, “Caution: Excess and
repeated use of facts and figures can lead to permanent
paralysis.”

In a perfect world, one uses
both hard-core analysis and creativity as the tools to reach a
conclusion. The best executives
use their head (for analysis),
their heart (for supplying the
passion and inspiration) and
their gut (for intuitively propelling them in the right direction). On a bad day, any one of
these faculties will get you
through the decision-making
gauntlet. On a good day, all
three kick in, and suddenly, you
can see through those clouds
that have plagued your project,
leading to the granddaddy of all
solutions.

However, there can be a big
downside to too much analysis.
It occurs when one wants zero
risk through even more study
and research before pulling the trigger. Analysis then becomes
an excuse for delaying or never
making a final decision.

Today, we do business where
“mind to market” is measured in
days and weeks, not months and
years. As they say, “He who hesitates is not only lost but can be
toast, too.” Many times, it is better to launch and then fix, rather
than continually postpone.

Typically, there are two types
of people. The first are those
who are almost exclusively fact-driven, and the second are
those who seem to shoot from
the hip and are often considered lucky when their ideas succeed. Given the choice, I would
rather be lucky than good.

Many executives are very
smart but not particularly lucky.
They’re the ones who, no matter
how hard they work, never
seem to catch that brass ring.
They’re always talking themselves out of taking the next
step until updated facts are available. Conversely, I know a number of successful people who
always seem to arrive at the
right decision at the right time.

Are these leaders lucky or
good? It’s probably a combination, but I believe that to be
lucky, one must also be smart
enough to know that he or she
is lucky and then simply seize
the opportunity. The best executives use their left brain to
interpret and analyze data but
give equal weight to all three
finely honed biological tools we
have: our head, heart and gut.

Sometimes, no decision is
worse than the wrong decision.

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].

When should you fire a customer?

How many of us can say we will only do
business with people and companies
whom we both like and trust? Probably not too many.

A favorite fantasy of employees is telling the
boss to take the job and shove it. For the boss,
a recurring dream is to tell that recalcitrant, or
even more dubious, customer to take his or her
business and cram it.

The reality is, not many organizations can
afford to do business only with like-minded
customers whom they really respect and enjoy.
It’s a big world out there, and our customers
come in many shapes and sizes with their own
idiosyncrasies and personas — some of which
are more tolerable than others.

If doing business were limited only to customers who were liked, there would be no
mega law and giant accounting firms. Huge
multinational investment banks wouldn’t exist,
and most companies would have headquarters
in offices the size of phone booths instead of
skyscrapers. A nice benefit would be all of
these service firms would save money on rent,
but generating enough volume to keep the
doors open could be an issue. The good news
is you’re not marrying your customer. Much
like holding your breath underwater when
you were a kid, you can do it regularly for a
certain period and be no worse for the wear.
The more salient question is, will you do business with people whom you do not trust or
who don’t meet your ethical standards? Every
organization must have parameters and an
internal gauge that rank the “like” and “trust”
factors. When the internal gauge reaches the
“red zone,” then an alarm must sound causing
you to ask some tough questions. Over the
years, I have written a number of pieces commenting on what I call the “mother rule.”
Simply put, you shouldn’t do something if you
wouldn’t want your mother to know. Others
pose the “front-page question”: Would your
company do something if it were reported in
tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal lead story?

Just as individuals should have a moral compass, organizations must employ a similar
series of benchmarks or lines in the sand,
which, when crossed, escalate the status of a
customer relationship to a “go, no-go” decision.

Maybe most of us do have our price, but compromising our ethics can be too costly, no matter how important a customer’s business
might be to the bottom line. If a client’s
methods cause you to wake up at 3
a.m. and ask yourself, “What would
mother say?” then you must recognize you’ve entered the danger zone. Whenever that indelible line is crossed, you cannot turn a blind eye
to behavior that might be inappropriate.

Periodically, any business relationship can
enter a gray area. When the alarm bells sound,
that does not necessarily mean that you have to
“fire” the customer; instead a meeting for you
to probe for honest answers is mandatory. To
prepare for this meeting, have all your facts
together and avoid allegations of “he said, she
said” and glittering generalities. You must be
specific as to what transpired that precipitated
your angst. After the review is completed, you
must be fully prepared to walk or, depending
on what you learn, run away from the customer. Sometimes this is more easily said than
done, particularly when you have to deal with
meeting payroll and paying your bills.
Remember, however, as they say, “You’ll either
have to pay now or pay later.” If you make an
exception because the customer in question
only occasionally crosses your ethics line, the
long-term cost of the infractions might be
much more significant than you ever fathomed,
even to the point of being a fatal error.

On the other hand, taking your concerns to a
customer might lead to an understanding that
allows you to continue the relationship and, in
some cases, not only solidify it, but improve it.

The best way to do business in today’s environment is to have transparency in the relationship, which significantly helps to avoid
unpleasant surprises. It also makes for a more
satisfying and longer-term partnership with
your customers. This criterion will set the right
example for your employees and will also lead
to a much more productive and successful
company. As an added plus, you might actually,
every once in awhile, sleep through the night.

In terms of doing business only with people
you like, it’s akin to the old adage: “You can pick
your friends but not your relatives.” In the case
of business, sometimes your customers are
comparable to those certain relatives. The
good news is, you don’t live under the same
roof with your customers; you’re just taking
their money for services rendered.

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].

Fate or fantasy?

As children, we all have our fantasies, from saving the world from space invaders to meeting Prince Charming.

In adolescence, the fantasies become more grounded by the world around us – being the high school quarterback who throws the Hail Mary pass in the final game, or the actor who is discovered while playing Juliet in the school play and becomes an instant idol.

As we begin careers, our dreams turn to those measured either economically or intellectually. We dream up obscure ideas that will transform our companies into the new industry gold standard. Or some fantasize that they will be revered by their employees as they lead an egalitarian organization in which retirement is mandated at age 30 with full pay and benefits, or when each employee reaches a net worth of $10 million, whichever comes first.

However, for far too many, inertia sets in as dreams flicker, then fade. What happened to those who envisioned themselves as the CEO superhero, a great leader who could leap tall buildings with a single bound, move faster than a speeding bullet and be more powerful than a locomotive? What caused the disconnect?

The wannabe leaders were as smart as the next guy, just as educated and perhaps even better-looking. It probably began with a twinge of doubt, followed by off-the-chart-insecurity. Instead of innovating, many acquiesced and blended into the masses, driven by fear of failure. All of a sudden, instead of dreaming about leading, a previously dare-to-be great innovator looks forward to the tranquility, safety and obedience of merely following.

So what makes one person a dynamic leader and the other a follower? Is it fate, or a lack of fantasy? Everyone knows how to dream, but an incredibly small number know how to transform innovative dreams into an unprecedented smash hit.

Is there magic in the metamorphosis of taking the germ of an idea to meteoric heights? No. I firmly believe that true discovery is many times just a matter of follow-through, combined with the tedious and methodical amalgamation of forming myriad pieces into a grand mosaic - a completed puzzle that ultimately unlocks that elusive secret sauce.

In Shaker Heights, Ohio, sits Laurel School, where the receptionist answers the phone with the proud assertion and challenge, “Dream, Dare, Do,” followed by the school’s name.

This motto underscores my philosophy about the integral ingredients for achievement. The school has synthesized a complicated formula into three simple words.

Although most of us frequently dream, only a precious few have been taught to dare and do. Too many have learned that daring to think or act differently could be risky and might lead to failure or ridicule.

Worse, that seemingly great idea might turn out to be the next grand dud, much like the New Coke. And we ponder the sacrifices involved in “doing.” After all, we live in a world of immediate gratification, where most believe extra effort must have a guaranteed, iron-clad pay-off, or why bother?

There are too many reasons to not take chances. This is a wonderful country where the ordinary person can still live the American dream of a house with a two-car garage, a flat-screen plasma TV and a cell phone/PDA.

No guts, no glory. No pain, no gain. The more difficult the struggle, the greater the victory. We’ve heard these phrases too many times, but they are true: To create something meaningful, meaningful effort must be invested.

We’ve been brainwashed that great leaders are just ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I believe the opposite: Extraordinary leaders take the ordinary and find a better way. Look at what’s been done by dramatizing the attributes of the basics - bread, water and coffee, which are marketed in unique stores, with glitzy packaging and formulations that generate massive sales and profits.

The streets are littered with potential great ideas because when the authors of these concepts reached the proverbial fork in the road, they chose the path of least resistance.

Instead of working through the issues and discovering alternatives, they succumbed to the comfort of inertia. But those few who did persevere can be found running their own businesses, leading major corporations or making meaningful contributions in their chosen field.

Remember, the problem with dreaming is that most of us wake up and cannot recall the outcome. However, when you combine dreaming with daring and doing, your fantasy can become your destiny.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at [email protected].

The wolf at your door

Anyone who runs a business knows that when you least expect it, “stuff” happens.

Sometimes that “stuff” can potentially be very damaging. So what happens when you find the wolf huffing and puffing at your door?

How should a CEO, owner or leader of a company react to a negative situation? One thing that never works, and that can sometimes dig you into a deeper hole, is to claim immediately and summarily that there is no problem. The worst tactic is to deny, deny, deny before knowing all of the facts, only to find out afterward that there are issues that need addressing.

Like it or not, perception many times becomes reality. If someone claims there is an issue, then in some form or fashion, it must become your immediate issue. The urgency with which you respond to the situation depends on who’s doing the huffing and puffing.

Never forget that where there is smoke, there is usually fire, and becoming defensive because you’ve been challenged or because your ego is bruised can set you and your organization up for even more problems. Reacting with righteous indignation is a no-no.

Every day, there are new reports about a company that finds itself in the spotlight. Read the newspaper any day, and you’ll learn of claims being made against myriad companies, from a public corporation backdating stock options to give the option recipients a lower strike price, to facing an environmental claim, an accounting problem or employee harassment charges.

Union threats and problems are also guaranteed to send chills down the back of even the most stoic CEO.

Once the gauntlet has been thrown down by an accuser — be it a government agency, shareholder, or employee — it is time to move to the military’s most serious readiness level, DEFCON One, more commonly known as Red Alert. This translates into a process of ready, aim, fire — not ready, fire, aim.

Don’t deny anything just yet. Instead, respond by stating that the matter will receive immediate and thorough attention at the highest level of the organization. If appropriate, outside specialists must be called upon to provide a disinterested review.

Never — and I mean never — try to sweep a problem of any magnitude under the carpet. After making your initial stop-gap announcement, immediately bring your team together and provide leadership by meticulously vetting the initial allegations.

Secondly, appoint a spokesperson responsible for responding to all of your constituents, the media and the public in general because, in a time of crisis, an organization must speak with one voice. Under certain circumstances and depending on the issue, it may be necessary to remove either a senior person who has a vested interest in the outcome or even yourself from the review process.

Impartiality and objectivity are central to resolving the issue quickly and removing any clouds of suspicion.

If you find that the negative assertions are true, or even partially true, determine an appropriate course of action commensurate with the problem, then take your medicine, no matter how bad it may taste going down. If that means terminating someone for the transgression, so be it. If it means publicly stating your organization did something wrong, get on with it.

In taking action, it is mandatory that you package your response so that it is comprehensive and forthright, addressing the cause of the issue. Do not insult the public’s intelligence by offering up a mere placebo or Band-aid fix. The public is cynical about business, so make sure you do the right thing. It will be easier in the long run.

On the flipside, if your due diligence finds there is no merit to the claim, weigh the cost consideration of the struggle ahead for vindication from an economic as well as a time, effort and diversion standpoint. As much as I hate to say it, sometimes it’s just not worth fighting the fight.

However, if there will be meaningful and measurable damage in any form to your organization, then prepare your defense, have your facts in hand and charge into battle, not in an emotional frenzy but instead employing a methodical and strategic approach.

As in the story of “The Three Little Pigs,” just because the wolf said, “Let me in, let me in” doesn’t mean all the huffing and puffing will blow your business in. At the end of the story the wolf got just what he deserved when he was boiled in a kettle of water.

Sometimes, there is justice in this world.

Having it both ways

From time to time, we all want to be something we’re not. When I ran a Fortune 500 company, I would bemoan the trials and tribulations of dealing with layers of management, outside and inside auditors, attorneys and regulators.

On the flipside, when I started the company, I frequently fantasized about what it would be like to be the CEO of a huge organization, with executives doing the heavy lifting, legions of lawyers, and all kinds of accountants to calculate and analyze things.

So where is the happy medium, when you can have your cake and eat it, too? In my case, after transitioning from a start-up to a medium-sized and then to a multibillion dollar company, I realized you can have it both ways, running a company the same no matter its size, number of employees, or geographic breadth.

Sweat the little stuff while focusing on the big picture. Recognize your customers’ needs, preferably before they do, and execute your plan efficiently and effectively with a sense of urgency.

In a small company, you keep your ear to the ground, usually know the answers before others even ask the questions, and watch the cash every day. Equally critical is understanding the trends, your employees’ concerns and your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.

In a Fortune 500 company, it’s not much different, except that your reports and profit and loss statements are delivered to you in fancier binders.

Big, small, or in-between, you must frequently hold both formal and informal updates with your key people. Size should never be a factor governing the flow of critical information. Opportunity many times comes disguised as a negative, and your job, no matter the size of your company, is to develop that sixth sense to recognize the issue and then take action.

You must structure lines of reporting and methods of operation — no matter the organization’s size — to allow you to keep your pulse on the business in real-time. It doesn’t take long to have a business turn south with a vengeance.

Some may say if you’re staying on top of the business, you’re a micromanager. I say, “Bunk.” If you’re in charge, then take charge.

When things go wrong because someone let something fall through the cracks, nobody is going to remember that you were The Great Delegator. During the first 18 months of my company, I required every store to call my home seven nights a week to give me sales figures, which I recorded in a ledger.

This was easy when we had two or three stores, but it became more of a time commitment when we got to 25. However, this ritual enabled us to rapidly grow by managing cash flow, with an emphasis on accounts payable down to the last few dollars.

Every night, I knew what vendors I could pay the next day. Micromanagement? You bet, and proud of it. This protocol not only accelerated our growth but set a management style for executives to operate in a similar know-what’s-happening fashion. After our next surge of growth, I reluctantly took my wife’s strong suggestion to stop the nocturnal phone calls and graduated to a headquarters answering machine for stores to call, followed by computerization.

As we broke through the ranks from small to large, the procedures weren’t much different, other than the daily cash management was delegated, and my senior executives and I reviewed the numbers at the beginning of every week.

The devil is in the details. That doesn’t mean that the CEO has to manage the details, but if not, he or she must be sure that the person delegated to do so has at least a mild case of paranoia and a smidgen of fear of failure, which keeps the best managers on top of their game.

To prevent small, garden-variety problems from accelerating to biblical proportions, you must manage the process and be tuned in to the flow of factual information on a real-time basis. The delicate balance comes into play in knowing how and when to run the place like a Fortune 500 company and when to run it like a ma and pa store, depending on the circumstances.

One size never fits all, and events and circumstances dictate your tactics. This means that you, as the boss, must instinctively understand when to be an observer and when you must get your hands very dirty, very quickly, to survive, to succeed or to excel.

Michael Feuer is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at [email protected].

Beware of first impressions

It happens to all of us.

Sometime, somewhere, we have all fallen victim to one of the most deadly sins in business — making snap judgments based on first impressions. It can happen when someone walks into your office for an interview or when you meet a client or customer for the first time.

Take the highly anticipated interview that you have scheduled with the prayed-for Mr. or Ms. Right. After months of scouring resumes and talking to head-hunters, you are certain you have found your savior. You fantasize that this person will join your company, initiate changes, fix what’s broken, make you even more successful and give you that elusive time to spend with your family.

Your assistant announces that the water-walker has arrived, and with much anticipation, you eagerly have the person ushered into your inner sanctum for the moment of reckoning.

You straighten your tie, pull down your jacket, prepare to flash your best smile and extend your right hand as the hoped-for miracle-worker crosses your threshold. In seconds, you size up the candidate from head to toe and feel a searing pain in your frontal lobe as your great expectations deflate like a cheap carnival balloon.

What happened? You have just made an instant decision based on an initial visual scan. Deep down, you know by training and intellect that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but nonetheless, you feel as if you’re in a book store staring at the dust-covered book jacket of what must be the worst novel on the planet.

In this case, something has turned you off. OK, so the candidate’s big, bold, very out-of-date glen-plaid suit with the wide-striped shirt and polka dot tie may not exactly go together. And perhaps your would-be messiah grew up in a place where dentists and orthodontists were unavailable.

You know in your heart of hearts that beauty is truly only skin deep. So what do you do next after making this superficial decision? 1. Salvage the interview and dig deep to find the person’s inner strengths and capabilities. 2. If the applicant is from a competitor, gain insight as to why the other guy seems to beat you. 3. Try to figure out a way to make the session professional, doing so in the shortest amount of time acceptable and without the risk of the candidate filing a legal complaint for perceived discrimination. Although rudeness doesn’t justify a lawsuit, it can tarnish your reputation and that of your company.

The best course of action is to force yourself to ask intelligent, insightful questions that may penetrate the candidate’s negative aesthetic faade. Ask open-ended questions requiring him to respond by stringing together a few intelligent sentences.

Never ask yes or no questions but instead probe by framing your interrogatories in a manner that makes the candidate think. Ask him to walk you through how he salvaged a bad business situation or explain the steps taken to land the best business deal of his career. After five or 10 minutes, you may find that he grows on you and has unique redeeming qualities.

If your issue is merely cosmetic, there are fashion consultants, coaches and, under the most severe circumstances for an otherwise superstar, minor cosmetic surgery. Seriously, though, over the years, I have found that many of my first impressions have been proven totally inaccurate once I dug a little deeper and determined how someone thinks under fire, communicates and translates concepts into actionable plans.

The most successful salespeople have learned never to judge a customer who walks into the showroom based solely on garb or physical appearance. The best story I have ever heard occurred in a very tony New York city Fifth Avenue jewelry store when an unshaven gentlemen in tattered jeans and a work shirt came through the door.

All salespeople but one looked askance at this shopper. However, a young new saleswoman engaged the potential customer, asking basic qualifying questions before jumping to a “not going to waste my time” conclusion. The result was a fairy tale come true for the saleswoman when the unkempt customer purchased a 70-carat diamond ring for his wife.

The buyer was a high potentate from a foreign country, and this salesperson earned the highest commission in the store’s history.

Not all interviews or stories have happy endings. About 50 percent of the time, that first gut reaction will probably be closer to the truth, but the other 50 percent of the time, you may have the opportunity to discover a diamond in the rough.

Spar or strike?

“Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children.”

This quote from George Bernard Shaw could be used with literary license to describe an inexperienced manager’s early naive missteps and the value of a little seasoning. Most of us started our careers with determination, and a new, young manager launching a career typically undertakes everything with the same unbridled, dogged enthusiasm without filtering for the importance factor.

Much like young love, it’s exciting but oftentimes ephemeral as the new manager learns that not everything can be a cause celebre and a No. 1 priority. Most important, not every battle is even worth fighting. One of the most meaningful lessons a new manager learns is when to spar and when to strike.

In this same vein, one must learn that in the rough-and-tumble corporate/organizational world, getting in the last word in a business debate and proving one’s point just for the sake of being right are not always worth the effort. These are sure ways to dissipate energy and burn out.

The trick to producing, succeeding and excelling is to not succumb to futile exercises that don’t provide an adequate payback. Sure, people want to be right and are reticent to back down from a position that may be laudable and possibly even correct. However, before going to battle, ask this simple question: “To accomplish the objective or to prove a point, what is the investment in time and energy?” Always consider how much personal currency you will have to use to accomplish the goal.

This may seem mercenary, but after surviving the first 10 years of my career and maturing, I seldom did or said anything unless I knew what was in it for my company, for my cause or for me. Sounds Machiavellian, but it’s a pragmatic approach that avoids superfluous effort.

We all have limited mental and physical resources, so why waste them on issues that, at the end of the day, will do no good and no one will remember anyway?

Not many people would decide to go on a vacation, jump in the car and drive away without knowing where they were headed. The same applies to putting money in a bank account — you should always know the interest rate.

These analogies apply to a business project, initiative or a debate with a boss, a board of directors, peers or subordinates. Know the payback.

Sometimes it’s healthy and even fun to go through the mental gymnastics of a friendly discussion. If you’re doing it for sport, go for it. However, realize what your motivation is and then enjoy the process, win, lose, or draw, if that is how you choose to spend your time.

Business transactions, service initiatives and product launches should employ the same ground rules as personal efforts. Many companies have gotten caught up in the chase for the sake of the chase. Wall Street is littered with what at first blush looked like the dream-come-true merger or acquisition.

A company goes down the road of the chase, and the contest over who wins begins to overshadow what the deal will produce in long-term benefits. The statistics on deals that actually work as planned are startling. According to a number of experts, only 25 percent of all U.S. business combinations ultimately produce results as originally promised, be it bottom line, top line or other transaction boast-and-brag synergies of market share gain, customer benefits of efficiency.

What happened? Most likely, one side got sucked into a battle that wasn’t worth winning. The rationale becomes that so much time, effort and ego were invested that the buyer didn’t want to back down, even though in their heart of hearts, they knew that something just wasn’t right.

Experience shows that some of the best deals are the ones that executives walk away from when the deal ceases to make sense. The headline announcing the big acquisition makes for great reading, but that same newspaper will wrap that night’s garbage, and the glory of the deal will soon bow to shareholders demanding to see the money.

For a more in-depth study on this subject, which can be understood in three minutes and 19 seconds, I direct you to one of my true business heroes, Kenny Rogers. This legendary composer sang “The Gambler,” which tells it like it is: “You need to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

Remember, getting there is just the first phase of the real battle.

Combine professionalism with passion

Every business owner I’ve ever met wants their employees not only to be consummate professionals but also to have that nagging burning in the belly that’s driven by a deep-rooted passion for the organization.

I knew one over-the-top executive who attempted to accelerate the motivation process by distributing T-shirts emblazoned with such mottos as “To Die for the Company Cause is to Live Forever!” and “Losing is Never an Option.”

In reality, professionalism comes from training and personal values. Raw passion, however, comes from the soul and is an emotion instilled over time by one’s thorough commitment to the mission.

Having an employee become personally involved couples the organization’s goals with the individual’s personal objectives. These positive outcomes range from better serving the customer to rewarding stakeholders to simply creating a better mousetrap with product and service innovations. Everyone has their own hot buttons; the trick is to align them with the company’s modus operandi and goals.

It is nave to expect a new person to come on board and instantaneously be imbued with passion. Unfortunately, passion cannot be administered intravenously or mandated. It is a leader’s job to nurture the neophyte through education, action and example.

Don’t be fooled by self-promoters who always seem to say the right thing, expecting the boss will believe they have become overnight converts just waiting to be the first to volunteer to drink the company’s Kool-Aid.

Signs of passion impersonators, who only want to expedite their career paths, include being the first to offer to work weekends, nonchalantly stating, “No problem, I’ll just miss my son’s junior high school graduation. He’ll do it again in four years.” Or, “I don’t need to go to my best friend’s wedding. After all, there’s a 50-50 chance she’ll have another in a few years.”

When these types of off-the-wall assertions of devotion are uttered, you must immediately recognize you have a chameleon on your team who changes direction based on political circumstances as many times a day as Imelda Marcos changed her shoes.

The passion litmus test is when associates do the right thing consistently for the company, the customer or the stakeholder, always putting their own agenda well behind those they serve.

Don’t become disillusioned if your new employee doesn’t immediately internalize your organization’s mantra. This process, like a fine wine, must ferment over time. Of course, it’s easier when the goals are compelling, such as finding a cure to a dreaded malady, or when the product or service generates heart-warming results.

So how does an executive motivate a new team member to hit the ground running and start producing before passion kicks in?

The first step is to hire the right person for the right reasons. At the top of my “must possess” list is a sense of professionalism and the need to internally recognize the obligation that comes with taking on a job and giving it one’s all.

True professionals, whether they intellectualize it or not, are often hired guns brought in to accomplish specific objectives. The one common thread, as corny as it sounds, is that the real professional was raised to understand the simple obligation of giving an honest day’s work for a day’s pay.

It’s as basic as that. Over the years, I have been associated with many talented people who held themselves to this standard, and I was seldom disappointed by the quality and quantity of their work. Apathy is a killer in any business.

Whenever employees respond to your request with an indifferent shrug, mumbling “whatever,” it’s a sure signal that the person is just going through the motions without the pride of doing the job right for either the company or their own self-esteem.

The best of the best always have an internal barometer that measures success, and when you give them the appropriate direction, that barometer will work 99 percent of the time.

When they first begin the job, they may go home at night and be able to turn it off more easily than one who is emotionally committed. However, if you provide a new hire with the proper orientation and guidance, lone day training and know-how will intersect with emotions.

This is the magical point you’ve worked toward, when your student achieves the delicate balance of combining professionalism with passion, which makes doing the work as fulfilling as reaching the goal.

Michael Feuer is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at [email protected].