Keeping your company’s secret information secret is a matter of increased focus on protecting company intellectual property

In the last three decades, international trade has increased by a factor of seven — but unfortunately, this advance has also ratcheted up the rate of trade secret theft, an impediment that costs corporations hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

That rate of growth has catapulted multinational commerce to such prominence that it now accounts for a third of all economic activity worldwide.

principal, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing

principal, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing

“The world is getting to be a smaller place at a remarkably fast pace,” says Joseph Ahmad, a principal in the Houston law firm Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing. “When we were kids, there might have been a handful of companies that did a particular thing and probably most or all of those companies were in America.

“Nowadays, we’re seeing competition come from everywhere,” says Ahmad, who primarily represents business executives in trade secret cases and employment-related litigation. “The barriers to entry are rapidly declining, so now a lot of companies are facing competition from all over the world.”

Other factors driving the increased incidence of trade secret theft include large pockets of economic stagnation around the globe and the widespread conversion of analog business information to digital formats, which lends itself more readily to leaks and cyber attacks.

Pamela Passman, president and CEO, Center for Responsible Enterprise & Trade

Pamela Passman, president and CEO, Center for Responsible Enterprise & Trade

“In the last few years, there are a couple of key reasons why trade secret theft has grown,” says Pamela Passman, president and CEO of the Center for Responsible Enterprise & Trade, a nonprofit group whose mission is helping companies reduce counterfeiting, piracy and trade secret theft.

“One reason is the economic times we’re going through. People feel constrained, and they’re working under great financial pressure, so many people are cutting corners. Also, a great deal of companies’ information is becoming digitized and, therefore, more easily transferable.

“So instead of walking out of a place with stacks and stacks of papers, a person can walk out with a USB drive that has a huge amount of information on it.”

Increased cyber leaks and cyber attacks are also contributing to the problem, Passman says.

“There are some fairly aggressive third parties that have stepped up their activity in that area,” she says.

Ahmad agrees but points out that the lion’s share of trade secret misappropriation he encounters is a consequence of actions taken by a company’s employees or ex-employees.

“Of course, we do hear from time to time about individuals or organizations — especially overseas — who hack in to companies’ systems,” Ahmad says. “But, in my experience, that’s not a common occurrence. Most of the trade secret theft I see occurs via a current or former employee.”

That is why, Passman says, it’s essential to be straightforward with employees about your company’s policies regarding confidentiality, particularly as it pertains to trade secrets and other types of intellectual property.

“You have to be very clear with your own employees about your policies and about how serious you are about protecting your intellectual property,” Passman says. “Because that’s definitely where your greatest risk lies. And this is a critical issue both while those employees are at the company and after they leave the company.”

The labor market factor

Unemployment and sluggish job markets are also key factors contributing to the increased risk surrounding trade secret theft.

“Unfortunately, in this type of market, job seekers sometimes resort to extreme measures to gain the kind of edge they feel they need to get a job,” Ahmad says. “I’ve seen many new hires — whether consciously or subconsciously — come into a job with the belief that their value is increased if they can, as some of them would put it, ‘hit the ground running’ when they get on the job.

“In other words, they feel that with the help of their previous employer’s trade secret information, they can do a better job for their new employer. Sometimes this happens with the complicity of the new employer, but sometimes employees do it on their own, because they feel it makes them more marketable.”

What, then, are some practical strategies CEOs and their teams can employ to insulate their companies against the risk of having their trade secrets stolen? One of the important early steps executives can take is to enlist the help of a broad cross section of people in their organization to tackle the issue.

“First off, what I suggest is establishing a cross-group team of people to focus on protecting the company’s intellectual property,” Passman says. “This team should include somebody senior in the legal department, somebody senior in R&D, somebody from business development, somebody on the operations side, for example if they have a manufacturing division, and somebody responsible for procurement and the supply chain. It’s important to bring all these disciplines together and instruct them to establish some policies in this area, including trade secret policy.”

Another step that should be taken by companies that have significant intellectual property to protect is requiring employees to read and sign confidentiality agreements.

“The confidentiality agreement is first and foremost,” Ahmad says. “You have to make sure that every employee understands the significance of holding your company’s information confidential. All employees must be required to agree in writing they will do so.”

There are a number of items and types of information that companies can put into their employee confidentiality agreements to help protect their intellectual property.

One approach is to list or enumerate the company trade secrets and other types of information that are required to be held confidential. Another tactic is to include language stipulating that inventions and similar types of newly created information automatically become the confidential property of the employer.

“This helps the company in several ways,” Ahmad says. “First, you get to define what your trade secrets are and what information is expected to be held confidential and you get to formally notify the employee about it. This also enables you to make sure that whatever new intellectual property your employees develop will be the property of the company, and they will agree to hold that information confidential.”

Vetting third parties

Another area where companies seeking to protect their intellectual property need to be vigilant is conducting due diligence on third parties, such as suppliers and customers, as well as companies they may be seeking to acquire or merge with.

“For any key third parties that you’re going to be sharing your intellectual property with, it’s essential to conduct due diligence on them,” Passman says.

Due diligence encompasses activities such as research, interviews and online searches. A key part of the process is being alert to “red flags” — potential problem areas signaling that the third party may not be effective at helping co-protect the company’s sensitive information.

“Basically, you want to see if [the third party] has any red flags you need to be aware of,” Passman says. “For example, if they’ve been involved in different kinds of litigation, especially litigation involving intellectual property or trade secrets. And you’d want to explore and make sure you understand how they go about managing and protecting the intellectual property of the third parties that they in turn do business with as well.”

Regarding the employee confidentiality agreement, Ahmad says it’s unwise and potentially dangerous for a company to regard this process as a one-and-done deal. In other words, it’s insufficient to simply have employees read and sign the agreement and then file it away. Companies need to remind employees periodically about their confidentiality agreements and about the importance of keeping the company’s sensitive information private.

“Companies sometimes leave themselves vulnerable to trade secret theft loss if they approach these confidentiality agreements like a checklist,” Ahmad says. “By that I mean they can’t just have the employee read and sign the agreement, and then they knock it off their checklist and forget about it. The problem with doing this is you can be sure the employee will forget about it too.

“Many times, an employee will enter into a confidentiality agreement, and then they’ll work for the company for 10 or 20 years, and they’ll forget they even have the agreement. As a result, they don’t really respect the company’s trade secrets the way they should.”

Thus, it’s important to periodically remind employees about their confidentiality agreement — and even more important to underline that agreement’s significance when the person’s employment with the company ends.

“That’s probably the most critical aspect — how the matter is handled at the end of the employment relationship,” Ahmad says. “I’m often shocked at how many employees I see who have signed confidentiality agreements, and at the end of their employment, whether they resign or are terminated, they’re not even reminded that they have these agreements. Many of them don’t even know they have them.”

Business executives would be wise to take advantage of the employee exit interview because it represents their company’s last chance to underscore the imperative of keeping its trade secrets just that: secret.

“At the exit interview, employees must be required to sign and confirm that they understand their responsibilities in regard to keeping the company’s information confidential,” Ahmad says. “By doing that, you’re drilling in to the employee as they’re leaving the company — and presumably going to work for someone else, who just may be one of your competitors — that, ‘Hey, listen, this is serious. We take this matter very seriously.’”

How to reach: Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing, www.azalaw.com; The Center for Responsible Enterprise & Trade, www.create.org

How Larry Feldman keeps Subway ahead of competitors

Larry Feldman was living a double life. As assistant minority counsel of the House Banking Committee, his day job was dealing with Capitol Hill’s most pressing issues: the Chrysler bailout, alternative fuel sources and cradle-to-grave health insurance. But come lunchtime, he headed across the street to oversee an operation pretty much as critical to Washington’s well-being. Feldman, you see, managed the local Subway.

“I would do congressional hearings in the morning, run across the street, take off my jacket, put on my apron and stand behind the counter to make sure the operation was going well,” says Feldman, CEO of Subway of South Florida and Subway Development Corp. in Washington, D.C. “These lobbyists would look at my face and say, ‘You look very familiar.’ And then after lunch, I would run back, take off my jacket and do hearings.”

Since opening up his first Subway location 35 years ago, Feldman has grown his territory of restaurants to approximately 1,500 locations and 1,600 employees throughout Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and, most recently, South Florida. But his success hasn’t just earned him respect in the franchise world — it was Feldman who helped pioneer Subway’s development agent growth model in 1979 — it has also earned him a nickname: Mr. Subway.

By eliminating company-owned stores and empowering entrepreneurs to grow territories through franchised locations, Subway has become the largest fast-food chain in the world, surpassing the iconic McDonald’s with more than 37,000 locations worldwide. Here’s why the growth model is still viable and successful decades later. 

Top gun retention

Sheryl Dawson, Executive Partner, Talent Strategies Group, a Division of CPI Houston

Retaining top talent in these turbulent times remains very high on today’s executive agenda. Equally critical is the need to minimize the crippling effects that key talent departures have on organizations, especially those that rest much of their success on these high output, unique talents. Yet very few firms create and follow through on a retention strategy that really makes a difference. Why is this? And how can organizations “crack the code” on talent retention? Based on recent interviews with a several executives in firms with outstanding reputations for leadership retention, there are several ingredients that, when effectively blended, result in an environment where the very best talent thrives. They raise their own performance bar, often feeling a synergistic relationship with the organization, and are less likely to abandon ship. Key ingredients in the retention of top talent cited by these executives in the know include:

  • Culture focused on talent development
  • Broadened leader bandwidth
  • Effective general manager
  • Well-developed retention strategy
  • Effective orientation and on-boarding

Culture focused on talent development

I pull my team together for just about every morning to discuss briefly what took place the day before. We often cover highlights and lowlights, recognize combined contributions and review what we need to do better. We refer to these sessions as our morning huddle — whether in person or by conference call. When we break, people are pumped to reinforce our customer-focused atmosphere.

Comments such as these define the benefit of a work climate or culture that focuses on individual and team development. They don’t just talk about it, they live it! Retention is typically very high in organizations where the culture supports team work, individual development, recognition for contributions, and encouragement to perform.

Broadened leader bandwidth

Organizations that enable leaders, through a variety of means, to identify individual needs and respond with a portfolio of styles typically achieve significantly higher levels of retention. One size does not fit all! Top performers need to be treated as exceptions, because they are indeed exceptions. If leaders over rely on their most comfortable style, they’re bound to miss the mark on many occasions. It’s interesting to note that in cases where leaders have the capacity to respond with a number of styles, the total team and organization benefits.

Effective general manager

The factor that seems to have the greatest influence on retention of key talent is the effectiveness of the general manager in creating and maintaining a high performance culture. One executive vice president commented that her most promising general manager has a deep-seated need to raise the bar for each employee just enough so they feel truly stretched all the time. Her leadership cascades down the organization to every contributor to the point where individuals choose to raise their own bars. The signal here is for organizations to both unleash leader capacity and invest in development so leaders can realize extended capabilities.

Well-developed retention strategy

Some organizations have actually created “offices of retention” to elevate the challenge to a higher level. Often a very senior executive is accountable to the CEO for shepherding retention-related efforts and takes the lead. Even without this level of focus, many organizations see significant retention progress with well-developed and communicated retention goals and objectives for the entire organization.

Effective orientation and on-boarding

By my third week with the company I felt totally connected and ready to do battle! By my second month I realized that everything I was told on the way in was accurate. Now, three years into my relationship with the firm I realize that a solid beginning was a key reason for staying.

Comments like these are common in organizations recognizing that effective induction, orientation, and on-boarding have a huge impact on retention. Yet, very few firms treat these early phases with the attention they deserve. This impact is magnified for top talent.

A final observation on “cracking the code”

Organizations should remain in close contact with top talent, being careful to consider adopting retention practices that are truly desirable, and can be effectively managed. Too often firms select more initiatives than they can handle, and more than they need. Firms that have achieved their desired levels of top gun retention know all too well that just around the corner is another lure tempting their most prized possessions.

Sheryl Dawson is an executive partner with Talent Strategies Group, a Division of Career Partners International (CPI), Houston. She has over 25 years experience in talent management, team assessment, leadership development, and career coaching and consulting. She can be reached at [email protected] or (713) 784-3197.

Read more from Dawson: Talent management solutions: How CPI Houston helps companies optimize their bottom lines

Investing in employee development for bottom-line impact

Matt Williams, Director, Executive Coaching and Leadership Development, Talent Strategies Group, a division of Career Partners International — Houston

A recent Harvard Business Review study revealed that almost 40 percent of a company’s strategy can be diluted due to poor execution[1]. Additionally, estimates attribute up to 70 percent of a company’s operating expense to labor costs and yet only 38 percent of employees are reportedly engaged. With this much at stake, the importance of development activities and alignment of organizational goals with strategy is paramount. In spite of the apparent need for investment in employee development, what remains a challenge for many organizations is the determination of, or perhaps acceptance of, returns associated with investments in development activities.

Coming from a position with direct financial responsibility with a laser focus on clearly measurable ROI to a talent management consulting role, I have observed that the focus is often on process rather than results. It’s understandable that CEOs and leaders with P&L responsibility struggle with justifications in which clearly stated expectations for outcomes are absent or fuzzy.

Most leaders accept that employee development has value, but determining how much and what programs requires some effort. To assist in establishing value of development activities, the investment required, as well as the methodology to employ, considering the following three areas proves useful:

  1. Business need
  2. Development requirements
  3. Desired business result

Defining the business need

Defining the business need should begin with clarity around the organization’s goals and what skills, competencies or behavioral changes are necessary to meet those goals. While on the surface this may sound simplistic, assumption is the enemy here. A thorough identification and assessment of what skill sets reside within the targeted group or employee is required to reduce risk and improve organizational engagement toward stated goals. This can often be accomplished through the mining of information available in the HRIS/LMS system, utilization of assessments, and the application of knowledge transfer mapping strategies.

Defining development requirements

Once the business need is clearly defined and competencies identified, a plan outlining methodologies and deliverables can be designed to address the development requirements or gaps. Key questions that should be addressed include:

  • How will the change in required skills, competencies, behaviors be achieved? Options may include traditional training, coaching, mentoring, or blended approaches.
  • When are the assimilation of these skill sets required?
  • How will the outcomes be measured?

Development of human capital is a complex endeavor, with differing needs among employees. While training offers an organization the opportunity to “roll out” learning to multiple assets at one time, each employee will assimilate skills based upon their personal experience and capabilities as well as work/assignment opportunities. Another consideration often overlooked, is that the more senior the level of responsibility, the greater the requirement placed upon emotional intelligence in addition to “technical” competencies. These realities expose the limits of traditional training in improving leadership competency. Coaching and mentoring provide the opportunity to raise self awareness and encourage individual accountability to achieve growth initiatives. Continual improvement in leadership effectiveness attributable to coaching interventions may be satisfactorily quantified by attention to specificity of expectations and measured outcomes.

Defining desired business result

After clearly defining the business need and the development requirements, defining what changes in business results can be anticipated due to the development activities is essential to effective measurement of the return on investment. Estimating improvements in productivity, sales, customer retention, etc., can be specifically anticipated, forecast and measured to further quantify and validate the business value of development activities within your organization. The proposed investment balanced against the anticipated outcomes will then provide leaders who have financial responsibility a quantifiable method of weighing the value of development against other investment opportunities.

Identifying delivery options

Following approval of the development initiative, the selection of talent management resources (internal or external) for delivery will determine its success or failure. The organizations and individuals who provide the training and coaching services should be vetted as rigorously as you would a prospective employee. In this process, it’s helpful to determine:

  1. What are their qualifications as an executive coach? As a trainer, facilitator, etc. (depending on application)?Degrees, certifications, etc.?
  2. What is the scope of their business experience? Their services?
  3. What type of project or area of expertise best defines them?
  4. Can they provide the necessary resources locally/nationally?
  5. What references can they provide?

Development initiatives are often considered expendable due to more immediate, and seemingly concrete, issues associated with near term performance; however, when 70 percent of operating cost is associated with labor and statistics report that only 38 percent of the workforce is highly engaged, to ignore the need is to risk collision with the unseen iceberg just below the surface. Our responsibility as leaders, regardless of functional responsibility, is to understand and clearly quantify the investment opportunities that will result in the greatest return for our stakeholders.

Matt Williams is the director of executive coaching and leadership development at Talent Strategies Group, a Division of Career Partners International (CPI), Houston. A certified executive coach, Williams has over 25 years in corporate roles including 10 years as president and CEO of a medical technology company. For more information visit www.talentstrategiesgroup.net or call (713) 784-3197.


[1] Harvard Business Review, Turning Great Strategy into Great Performance, Markins & Steele

How employee engagement has paid big dividends at Peak Corporate Network

Gil Priel, principal and managing director, Peak Corporate Network

Eli Tene, principal and managing director, Peak Corporate Network

Gil Priel and Eli Tene were about to take on not one, but two significant challenges that would literally reshape the way that their business would be run. The fellow principals and managing directors went into the effort with their eyes wide open to the inevitability of bumps along the way.

“It’s not going to be seamless and it’s not going to be smooth,” says Priel, who shares the title of principal and managing director with his partner, Tene. “But we didn’t do it overnight.”

The partners wanted to take a number of different companies that they owned and combine them into one organization under one brand name: Peak Corporate Network. Once that was done, they wanted to implement a customer relationship management system to bring clarity and order to the process of helping clients of the 230-employee company buy, sell and manage their real estate.

“As time went by, we really felt our clients wanted to have our service,” Priel says. “The fact that we had the different companies was just confusing. It was tough to sell.”

The key to a successful transition in both the brand change and the CRM implementation was the attitude with which the partners brought it to their employees.

“It’s important to embrace them, empower them, educate them and make them part of the process,” Tene says. “When we’re changing this atmosphere, people need to understand it’s a partnership between the leadership of the company and the people that work there. That makes the process much easier to go over and makes it much easier to get everybody to work through this in the best interest of the company. That was a challenge we’re still going through.”

With the move to one brand, Priel says the tough part was getting people to look beyond their specialty and push other areas that were now part of their company too.

“They resist the adjustment because they are used to doing things in a certain way and they are afraid that change can reveal weakness,” Priel says. “They have to start thinking and talking about everything that we do together as a big company. They can’t just talk about their specific service.”

When you engage your people in regular dialogue and portray change as being something that you’re going through too, you make it more palatable.

“It’s something that leadership must be part of,” Tene says. “You can’t just implement it without support. It needs to be reinforced from senior leadership.”

As for the implementation of the CRM system, Priel says similar principles apply. Implementing change comes down to helping people feel comfortable with it and helping them see the benefit of it.

“You need to start with baby steps,” Priel says. “Like anything else, what do you need from me? You need to come to those people who need to work with the CRM and you need to show them what it means for them. Why it’s good for you to use. As long as you can explain that and show it and make sure the training process is painless and something they can understand, it should work.

“The initial reaction is, ‘Oh my God, I’m being monitored, where before I wasn’t.’ That’s your hurdle. You say, ‘Yeah, you’re being monitored. But you’re going to know yourself when the last time was you called on this guy. Why has his business gone down this year compared to last year? Maybe you need to go visit him more often.’ It’s being able to prioritize channels and clients and it makes everybody’s work so much easier.”

There may be some people who can’t make the transition to what you’re doing and you need to be ready to accept that. But if you take the mindset that you’re all on the same team working toward the same goal, you’ll stand a better chance at achieving success.

“We see the results,” Tene says. “The sales are jumping.”

How to reach: Peak Corporate Network, (818) 591-3300 or www.peakcorp.com

Don’t give up

When you’re taking on major changes in your business, you’ll undoubtedly face a situation where someone isn’t ready to do what you need them to do. You’d be a pretty cold and heartless person if you just cast them aside without checking first to see if they could help you in other areas.

“Some of the stuff we’ve implemented has shown us that someone might not be right for the position they are in,” Priel says. “So we think and we strategize about how that person has a lot of qualities. Where can we utilize those qualities? We’ve had several people where we’ve moved them from one company to the other or one division to the other and they have succeeded. We’re trying to set people up for success, not for failure. Before we ever fire someone or lay someone off, we think about where he could be useful. What strengths does that person have?”

How David Hoffman seeks to make price irrelevant for his customers

David Hoffman, chairman, founder and CEO, DHR International

David Hoffmann has never tried to make DHR International Inc. the most affordable executive search firm in the market. His goal since launching the firm in 1989 has been to provide the most value to his clients.

And despite an economy that still has some business leaders feeling skittish about their finances, Hoffmann says his philosophy about pricing still fits.

“The overall competitive global landscape that we are all dealing with today makes price a secondary issue,” says Hoffmann, founder, chairman and CEO at the 410-employee firm.

“[Clients] are more interested in something that can change the marketplace and give them a competitive advantage that before this product or service offering, they didn’t have. In almost any business you can think of, they are all going after market share.”

Pricing may be more important in some industries and less important in others. But however your clients feel about your costs, how can you get them to really focus on the great value that your company wants to provide them through your product or service?

“If you’re going to have that ‘McDonald’s hamburger’ around the world, you need to be consistent,” Hoffmann says. “Any great company has a consistency with its message and a consistency with its product. General Motors is a big client of ours and those cars are distributed all around the world.

“They pretty much function the same in any part of the world as they do in Detroit where they are manufactured. Consistency of quality and consistency of brand is critical when you’re thinking about growing a company at any level.”

That doesn’t mean that you come up with one way to do something and then never change. It means you’re consistent about how your product is presented, consistent about how it is packaged and consistent about the way you respond to concerns.

“We say, ‘Look, not only are we going to find you the best executive to fill this need, but we’re going to tell you how we did it, demonstrate how we did it and build a competency that tells you that this is not just a good candidate, this is the best candidate on the planet and here’s why,’” Hoffmann says.

You need to be the kind of company that clients know they can turn to for anything and you’ll come through for them. You build a reputation and they just expect you to come up with great results.

Those results don’t just come from your own initiative, however. They come from an intense and consistent study of your competition.

“One needs to look at the competition and say, ‘OK, where are they weak?’” Hoffmann says.

Go back to the time when you launched or took over your business and identified a need you wanted to tackle in the marketplace.

“You had to see a need or why would you have started the business?” Hoffmann says. “I would define those needs and then I would exploit those needs in terms of messages to the marketplace. It could be that my widget has a lifespan that is 50 percent longer than the next competitor’s lifespan. Be able to demonstrate that is factually correct.”

The key is you’re constantly focused on your product or service and never assuming that you’ve got it all figured out.

“One needs to explore their competition, analyze their weaknesses, create a product around those weaknesses and exploit it to the potential customer base in a way that is going to be effective through advertising, marketing or media placements,” Hoffmann says.

“You have to be adaptable to change in a changing environment and evolve, but keep the fundamentals of that business intact. At the same time, you have to be anchored to that which made you successful in the first place.”

Being consistently great is never easy, but it’s what your goal needs to be. Don’t be afraid to use your team to make it happen.

“It’s getting everybody together and saying, ‘Look, in 30 days, let’s go out and figure out what our competition is doing and see how we can differentiate,’” Hoffmann says. “It’s not a bad starting point.”

How to reach: DHR International Inc., (312) 782-1581 or www.dhrinternational.com

Do your homework

Studying your competition is a very different thing than copying what they are doing. You’re trying to take what they do and do it better, says David Hoffmann, founder, chairman and CEO at DHR International Inc.

“The way I did it is I looked at our competition that was much bigger than us and I looked at their outlets that they utilized to get their message out,” Hoffmann says. “So we looked at the competition of the big five search firms in the world. Today, we’re one of those.

“Look at who is doing it really well, look at where they are going and take aspects that you think you can capitalize on in whatever business endeavor you’re in. Some of those will be attainable and some of them won’t.”

Hoffmann knew he couldn’t replicate the kind of advertising campaigns of companies such as Coca-Cola or Budweiser. But he found ways to sell his brand in a way fit his budget.

“There is just a whole host of ways to get one’s name and brand to the marketplace,” Hoffmann says. “You’ve just got to see what fits.”

How Courtney Lyder drove his team at UCLA to achieve the impossible mission

Courtney Lyder, Dean, UCLA School of Nursing

Courtney Lyder was curious. He wanted to know how many of his employees at the UCLA School of Nursing had read the most recent 10-year plan that was about to expire. It was more than 20 pages long and Lyder had a pretty good idea what kind of response he was going to get.

“The answer was very few,” says Lyder, who is dean at the 150-employee school. “My rational was if we have a plan that is 20 pages long that no one is going to read, why do we have it?”

Unfortunately for his team, Lyder had a solution.

“So I was convinced that a 20-page plan is something that no one is going to read,” Lyder says. “And 10 years is a very long time in business. So I said I wanted a new plan that was no more than five pages. They said, ‘You’re crazy. It’s not going to happen.’”

So what do you do when you see something that needs to be done and your people don’t believe they can do it? You can start out by giving them reassurance that they can in fact do it, but you then need to move quickly into selling your plan as to how they actually will do it.

“There has to be a sense of trust between the leader and the employees,” Lyder says. “They have to buy into the sales pitch.”

Lyder talked about how important it is for an organization to have direction. People need to know why they are doing what they are doing and what it actually accomplishes.

“For me, if I don’t have a plan, I don’t know what I’m doing,” Lyder says. “If we don’t know what we are aspiring to, then how are we going to look at tomorrow?”

Lyder needed to sell his team on the need for a plan, but he also needed to sell them on a plan to develop that plan.

“Knowing the culture of my organization, I have discovered that we get much more buy-in when people feel part of the decision-making process,” Lyder says.

So Lyder created a task force. He selected the people for the group because he felt like he could construct a team that would work well together and have a good shot at accomplishing his directive. He didn’t want to force anyone to join it and he didn’t want people who would just give each piece of the project a rubber stamp.

“I wanted people who would critically analyze and look at our brand and the previous plan and ask questions,” Lyder says. “How will we reimagine what we do?”

Ideally, you create a task force that has an odd number of people. And it really shouldn’t have more than 15 people if you want it to function effectively.

“If you have more than 15 people on a task force, it just becomes chaos,” Lyder says.

Once the task force was put together and a chairman was appointed to lead it, Lyder backed off and let them do their work.

“The key is if you’re getting regular routine updates on the progress or lack of progress,” Lyder says. “If I saw after two months that one page was written, that’s when I would intervene. That’s why it’s key for me being the leader to be in frequent conversations with the chair to get my finger on the pulse of what’s going on. It’s not that I want to shape what’s going on, but that they are moving. And if they are not moving, what’s the rationale? Maybe I do need to pay a visit.”

By taking a more hands-off approach while at the same time being an encouraging voice of support, Lyder’s team came through and came up with a new plan that looked at the next three to five years and was just two pages long.

“The key is to keep an open mind as to what the final product may be,” Lyder says. “Get the organization to embrace the document and make it a living document. In this particular exercise, the task force did a sterling job.”

How to reach: UCLA School of Nursing, (310) 825-3109 or nursing.ucla.edu

Give people a voice

One of the key aspects of developing a strategic plan is getting the support of everyone in your organization. You need to make everyone feel like they had a voice in its creation.

Courtney Lyder knew there was no way he could put all 150 of his people on a strategic planing task force and expect to get anything other than chaos. But he wanted those people who weren’t on the 11-member task force to feel like they were given a chance to offer their thoughts.

“We all have our biases,” Lyder says. “We all have to recognize that even the leader is biased to some extent. So you give every single employee ample opportunity to critique and to ask questions. Give them a chance to say, ‘This is crazy,’ or whatever.

Then you can go back to the committee and say, ‘We need to think about this perspective.’ Sometimes we might go, ‘That was a great suggestion. Why didn’t we think about that?’ As long as people think the process is transparent and have an opportunity to critique it, that alleviates a lot of the anxiety about the task force.”

How Kurt Artinger got employees to take good growth and make it even better

Kurt Artinger, Founder and CEO, Replacement Services LLC

Kurt Artinger turned an idea he had 10 years ago into a 40-employee business that made $8.1 million in 2010. Replacement Services LLC, which helps people find replacements for their lost or stolen jewelry, grew at an average annual rate of 30 percent over its first decade.

Few would have questioned Artinger if he slid into cruise control and just tried to keep a good thing going as long as he could, especially at a time when so many companies are struggling.

But Artinger had no plans to take his foot off the gas pedal. He wanted to grow even faster.

“If you’re thinking about continuous improvement, then I don’t care what I developed two years ago,” says Artinger, the company’s founder and CEO. “What I’m going to develop a year from now is going to be a heck of a lot better than what I did two years ago.”

In order to make that thought a reality, Artinger accepted that substantial changes might be necessary. The difference this time as compared to when he founded the company was that he now had a group of people around him to assist with devising a winning plan.

“So we sat down with basically a blank sheet of paper on a wall that was about 8 feet long and we put our value stream process down,” Artinger says. “What processes can we eliminate? What has value to our clients? Is that value worth that touch? We started identifying how to streamline what it is that we do.”

Artinger wanted to get down on paper every step that his company took to deliver a service to its customers. The goal was to figure out which processes worked really well and which ones required some tweaking to improve performance.

“That’s the reality of growing a company,” Artinger says. “The little problems that you have aren’t that huge, they are little problems. But if you double it or triple it, those problems become huge. So that’s what you have to identify.”

It becomes a simple process if you can set aside your ego and listen to what your people are telling you.

“Egos get in the way of so many good leaders,” Artinger says. “They have the ability to lead and change, but your ego comes into play and it’s like, ‘Is it about me personally or is it about the company?’”

Artinger just wanted the business to keep growing. Ideas that rose to the surface included achieving better inventory control and finding a simpler way to track items through the system.

If these problems were solved and the company grew even faster, Artinger would get all the glory he wanted. More importantly, his people who made great contributions to the effort by identifying key issues that needed to be addressed would get recognition and take a big step toward becoming leaders themselves.

Artinger just needed to take the time to work with them and see what thoughts they had in mind to integrate their ideas into the company’s work flow processes.

“It would be real easy for me to sit there and say, ‘You know what? That’s a great idea. Here’s what we’ve got to do,’” Artinger says. “If I do that, have I put them in position to be a potential leader later on? I haven’t. I’ve just solved the problem. It’s not my intention to beat them up, but to help them have a well-thought out plan.”

When your people have suggestions, ask questions to see how much thought they have put into it and don’t put them in a position to wait to be told what to do next.

“I don’t want to dictate how to resolve issues or problems,” Artinger says. “I want them to tell me what they think the solution is because I’m always learning how my people think.”

Through this effort which began in January 2011, Replacement Services has made progress, especially with its shipping department.

“We took a process that was about three days and our average turnaround time now is three hours,” Artinger says. “We exceed customer expectations and that’s one of the big things we look at.”

How to reach: Replacement Services LLC, (888) 205-2522 or www.replacementservices.com

Show your passion

Kurt Artinger looks forward to getting hit with a challenge when he arrives at work every morning. It’s what makes leading Replacement Services LLC fun.

“If you’re managing a group of people and/or you’re the CEO of a company, you have to be passionate about what it is that you do,” says Artinger, founder and CEO at the 40-employee insured jewelry replacement company. “In this environment, I don’t hit near as many walls as I used to. It’s always growing, always learning and always continuous improvement.”

Your people are going to look to you for clues about whether or not they should be excited about a new initiative or a new way of doing things. And one of the best ways to build excitement is through inclusion in the work that needs to be done.

“I’ve got people who say the only way I’m leaving the company is if you pry my dead butt from the seat,” Artinger says. “And that’s because they have value. That’s what people want, to be valued as employees and valued as people. If you do that, you’re going to have a very successful company.”

Marcus Corwin develops engaging products with broad customer appeal

Marcus Corwin, president, American Exhibitions Inc.

As the president of the traveling exhibition company, American Exhibitions Inc., Marcus Corwin knows that creating the “blockbuster” exhibitions that the public wants to see involves creativity and ingenuity. But it also takes a lot of patience and upfront research.

“You don’t get Broadway successes overnight,” says Corwin, who joined the Boca Raton, Fla.-based exhibition company in 2006. “Most of them don’t make it. So how do you create something that people are going to want to see, that they’re going to be excited about, they’re going to be engaged?”

The company must develop new products all the time that it knows will resonate with customers. Corwin says that step one is figure out what fascinates and excites your potential audience — a million-dollar question for any business. This was the goal he had in mind when the organization developed its Mummies of the World exhibition, which focuses on a topic that has fascinated people for centuries.

“When Pepsi or Coca-Cola go to design a new soda, they’ve gone and done some focus groups, they’ve done some development, spent money on marketing,” he says. “And as good as they are, sometimes they get it wrong. So with regard to how do you find a product that you want to bring to market … sometimes we have it in our gut.”

Part of creating a hit with customers is having a sense for what the public wants by doing your homework and knowing who your customer is. By looking at similar exhibits that resonated with consumers, for example, Corwin was able to recognize trends toward subject matter such as human anatomy. The fact that these exhibits were extremely popular with consumers around the world evolved into the concept of mummies.

“Our thought process was what else would be people interested in seeing, because people are always interested in their history and the cultures that came before them,” Corwin says.

From there, it’s finding out how much they like it, what aspects resonate and most importantly whether they will pay and how much they will pay for it.

“We went and we had focus groups here in Florida,” Corwin says. “We had focus groups in Boston, Mass., and we had focus groups in Philadelphia — all which helped us identify the public’s perceptions of mummies and the public’s needs of why they choose an exhibition to come to, why they chose a museum to come to, how they spend their money and what are their trigger points in coming to see an exhibition like mummies.”

With focus groups, it’s important to examine a variety of feedback. Corwin specifically wanted to know which points of interest appealed to the majority of the audience, what price points could turn that interest into business, and which marketing materials were inviting versus frightening.

In the end, the company was able to put together the largest collection of mummies ever assembled in history from Egypt, South America, Asia and Oceania.

“We’ve had over 500,000 people see the exhibit already,” Corwin says. “Over 85 percent of them liked the exhibit a lot and would recommend the exhibit to their friends, family and relatives.”

Corwin says that when you have a product that’s successful, you need to then be asking yourself questions such as “What is our progression of additional product?” and “How do we continue to grow?” so you are always building on success.

Since the company opened the exhibit, it has done exit surveys at every location to determine what drove customers to attend and what they did and didn’t like so they can continue to improve the product. Now that it has built this brand and knows that people like mummies, Corwin says the next venture is to create sequels, such as Mummies II.

“From my company’s viewpoint, it’s almost like being at the helm of an ocean freighter,” Corwin says. “When you’re at the helm of an ocean freighter, you are looking way ahead, because it’s going to take you a period of time to shift the direction and speed of the ship. So I’m looking not one year out, but where am I going to be two, three, four, five years out with our company.”

How to reach: American Exhibitions Inc., (561) 482-2088 or www.americanexhibitions.com

Considering costs

In any kind of strategic planning, budgeting is very important. When you’re putting on a nationwide exhibition for thousands of people, it’s critical to map out your budget as clearly as possible so you can deliver for your partners and customers.

“The budget and forecasting is the premise of why you’re going forward with a project,” says Marcus Corwin, president of the exhibition company American Exhibitions Inc.

This was the greatest difficulty for Corwin and his team as they planned for “Mummies of the World,” especially because the economy is so uncertain.

“Sometimes we’re in a strong economy,” he says. “Sometimes we’re in a weaker economy. You can only make the best effort that you can do, but sometimes with the outcome, you are powerless.”

Once the budget and forecast make sense, being able to execute on that successfully involves a number of factors. One of the most important things to keep in mind is not getting carried away with ideas that haven’t been thoroughly vetted and can end up draining more resources or money than you have available. By making sure you are effectively planning and managing the costs, you can deliver your product at a better cost and profit.

“You have to deliver your product within those parameters,” Corwin says. “We found like typical in all worlds, designers have great ideas. And sometimes those ideas are pie in the sky and you have to be able to make sure that those ideas work, those ideas work within a budget and that the exhibit can be produced within that budget.”

Bill Giesler employs strategic planning to help Pedco E&A Services

Bill Giesler, Owner and President, Pedco E&A Services

Bill Giesler has had to endure more change at Pedco E&A Services Inc. in the past five years than the company has had in its 30-year history. The climate of the current economy, the moves necessary to adapt to it, clients’ changing needs, and the start of retiring baby boomers has given the company a wake up call.

Giesler, Pedco’s owner and president, knew that with all this happening around the 84-employee design and consulting firm, business operations and the way leadership looked at the company had to change.

“We said, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got to really change how we look at this business, how we manage the business, and how we lead the business,’” Giesler says. “In the last five years, this company has made a right turn from wherever we were headed; we deviated significantly from that path and really took control of our destiny as opposed to just floating down the river and going wherever it was taking us.”

That revelation and the ongoing changes inside and outside the business led the company to explore strategic planning.

“Our clients are changing in the downturn and they’re getting leaner and meaner and looking for quicker, better, cheaper ways of doing business, and we’ve really got to stay in alignment with where they are and what they’re doing,” Giesler says. “It really boils down to managing change. A lot of changes have been occurring over the last couple of years and just trying to stay in alignment with our clients on one side and then on the internal piece, we’ve got a lot of transitions occurring internally.”

The company had run itself tactically over the years and needed help making the transition to more strategic business and processes

“Over the last five years we’ve really opened ourselves up to bringing in outside experts and we brought them in for marketing, business development, HR, strategic planning, project management training and not just local experts but national experts as well,” he says. “What we’ve done is really tried to learn what the best practices are nationally and those that apply to us that we can use we grasp those and implemented those into our processes and how we look at the business.”

Trying to problem solve challenges internally was no longer garnering the best results. Giesler needed to strategize about how the company could improve for the future.

“You have to start off with strategic planning. … Think strategically and be open to using outside advisers and experts to understand best practices industrywide and utilize that,” he says. “The process that we went through recently is we discovered to a deeper level who we are. We developed six critical success factors to our business and we had really never thought of our business in those terms. Once you kind of focus on that you understand what drives what.”

Strategic planning is a great way to make your company nimble and adaptable to change. To get the most out of it you have to involve a team.

“You need to involve a cross-functional team in that process,” he says. “When we started out revisiting our process we were just going to use three or four of the very senior people to develop the plan. To have success at that strategic planning process and really get buy-in and then be able to implement it you need to involve a whole lot more people and it needs to be cross-functional. You need to reach out into every part of the organization that has an important role and involve somebody at some level in the process.”

HOW TO REACH: Pedco E&A Services Inc., (513) 782-4920 or www.pedcoea.com  

Roll with the changes

As a result of a new strategic plan, Bill Gielser, president of Pedco E&A Services, kept pace with change by finding out more from the company’s clients.

“It’s really developing your critical success factors, action plans and priorities as a result of the strategic planning process,” he says. “You have to continue to have those high-level meetings on a periodic basis to make sure that you’re staying in alignment.”

Surveying and measuring customer satisfaction in some way shape or form is an important process.

“It really takes a lot of doubt out of how well you are doing,” Giesler says. “We also do an annual survey to understand what’s going right and what’s not and we look for themes. We’ve really implemented that strategy so that we stay close to them and that we’re looking at that and analyzing that and really setting goals based on that on an annual basis.”

Along with staying aligned with customers, it is critical that you continue to invest in your resources as much as possible.

“A lot of times the first thing to get cut in a recession is investing in training and development and I would really challenge people to do your utmost best to continue to invest in those things even though it’s a down economy,” he says. “That will pay dividends over and over and over as you move forward and as you come out of the down economy.”