In these strange economic times, you need to talk to your bank as much as the bank needs to talk to you.
Instability in the banking world is what led to the economic downturn, and while things have stabilized, you still need to be aware of your bank’s status. Is it one of the banks that was mostly unaffected by the crisis, or did it have to take government money to survive?
You need to know because you don’t want to be taken by surprise.
In the old days, it was the banks asking all the questions. They wanted to know about you and your business to determine whether you were capable of paying back the money you wanted them to lend to you. Now, they are asking those questions and more about every customer, because they can’t afford any more bad loans. At the same time, you can’t afford to be left high and dry by a bank that suddenly decides to pull your line of credit because someone there decided he or she didn’t like the industry you are in. It’s important to ask as many questions about your bank as the bank asks about you.
This is where trust comes in. Both parties need information to make the relationship work. You need to be honest with the bank so it is not taken by surprise, but the bank also needs to be honest with you about what it can do for you now and in the future.
Ask yourself how much your banker really knows about your business. If he or she has never come out to see you and ask about your operations, you have to wonder how much he or she really cares about the relationship. If your banker isn’t going to try to understand your business, then how will you convince him or her to loan you money when needed? What will the bank base its decisions on if it doesn’t truly understand your company?
If your banker has invested some time in you, then you should invest some time in him or her, as well. Review the products and services you use with the bank and see if there are better options that might be available. Are you paying for services you aren’t really using? Are there ways the bank can help you improve your cash flow?
A good banker wants to be an adviser. If you aren’t getting any advice, you may need another bank.
In these economic conditions, it’s also a good idea to have a backup plan. What if your bank called tomorrow and said that it had to eliminate your line of credit? Could you survive?
Develop secondary relationships, both with other decision-makers in your current bank and with decision-makers in other banks. This way, if your current banker leaves or is downsized, there is already someone in place either there or somewhere else who is familiar with your business.
In today’s world, you can’t afford to be surprised by anything, let alone a sudden decision by your bank that’s driven by things outside of your control.
Work the relationship you have with your banker, but make sure you are always aware of what’s going on with your bank, just like it will be aware of what’s going on with you.
If you look through a list of top companies and compare it to a list of high-growth companies, you will usually find one thing in common: a commitment to training and development.
These companies see the way to continued growth through a continual development of their employees. Some focus on the basics of the job, some focus on leadership development, and many organizations do both. The equation is simple: Equip employees with the right skills and knowledge, and they’ll whip the competition. And the level of commitment of some of these companies is staggering.
For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers invested more than $10 million in developing 25 global programs dealing with issues of diversity and inclusion. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals sent 1,800 salespeople through an eight-level “career ladder” that recognizes performance and elective credits from approved coursework. Vanguard invests 34 hours of instruction and 17 hours of on-the-job training for its top performers, touching on topics like the company’s leadership values, coaching others and transition strategies. More than 50 percent of those who go through Vanguard’s training have been promoted to a supervisory role.
How much you spend isn’t as important as what you are committed to accomplishing. Regardless of whether you are a $10 million company or a $2 billion company, the same principles apply.
While many CEOs can see the potential of training, they hesitate because of the unknown. What will the return on investment be? How do you measure how much more effective your employees will be? Those are tough questions to answer, especially in an economy where every penny counts.
But if you want to be one of the best companies, you are going to have to take the long-term view and make the commitment. If you work closely with your managers and staff to make sure you are training on the right topics, the benefit will come. You will give employees the skill sets they need to succeed, they will take ownership of projects, and they are more likely to build a long-term commitment with you.
Not every training program has to cost millions. If you work with your local university and community college, you’ll find there are a lot of affordable programs that can meet your needs. Many offer online modules that can be completed at any time, minimizing disruptions among employees. Others offer pre-class and post-class assessments so you can see how much employees learned in the session.
No matter what type of training you choose to pursue, make sure you are completely committed to it. Don’t do it just so you can add a training overview to your company description on your Web site or as a means of enticing job seekers. If you are going to invest in people, then you need to believe in it to make the program work.
Once you are committed, make sure you maximize your return. Survey employees to find out what they are interested in learning about and what they thought of completed training sessions. That information can help you create some initial plans or refine the ones you already have. Training is most effective when all parties involved — employer, trainer and employees — are all committed to the end goals.
In a time when many companies are cutting back, a lot of midsized companies are eliminating training and development programs as an easy way to boost the bottom line. But if you are cutting back, some of your competitors are not. When the economy turns around, they will have a better-trained and more committed work force to take advantage of new opportunities.
The question to ask yourself isn’t, “Should I cut training?” The question should be, “Can I afford not to invest in my people?”
Every CEO sees the need for a health plan. Without one, recruitment of top talent becomes very difficult, and employees spend too much time worrying about potential health issues and how they will pay the resulting bills.
But once you decide to get a health plan, things get complicated. Which plan is right for your company? The options out there vary considerably. At one extreme are the plans that put 100 percent of the costs on the employees, while at the other extreme are the plans that are 100 percent funded by the company.
Most plans fall somewhere in the middle, and that’s where the CEO needs to step in. A large part of your culture is based on your benefits package, and probably the biggest element of that is your health insurance. What you pick says a lot about what kind of corporate culture you want to have.
If you pick a plan with a lot of benefits and the costs are mostly picked up by the company, that sends a certain message to your employees or potential employees. Some CEOs are perfectly happy with a basic plan, in which a fair portion of the costs are carried by the employees. That too, sends a message about how you value your work force. Employees generally have an idea of how well their employer is doing. If you are wildly successful but offer a poor health plan, that tells them that you are not all that concerned about them and gives your competitors a potential recruiting advantage. Is it worth losing talent for a no-frills health plan when for a few dollars more, you could have at least been on par with the rest of your industry?
If you are committed to a good health plan, you may want a “Rolls Royce” package, but if you are on a limited budget, you have to make choices. You have to do the best you can to provide the highest level of coverage for your employees.
When you are a smaller company, you may have no choice but to offer a bare-bones package. But as you grow, your plan should get better to mirror your success. The important thing is that, as CEO, you get involved. Do not delegate the final decision to someone else, because your health plan has major cultural and economic ramifications for your company.
If the message from your office is about how much you care about employees and the human resources manager cuts health benefits by 50 percent, that’s a major conflict in message that could severely damage your culture. That’s why it’s important to be involved in the process.
In this economy, the temptation will always be to cut, and that’s understandable. But there may be other options available to you. Shopping around for a better rate might help, but if you have employees located in multiple states, the market is limited and the price difference may be negligible.
The other strategy is to focus on the root causes of your health costs. Work with your existing provider to find out where your money is going and what it offers to help you control it. This is another factor to consider when looking at plans. If one provider is slightly more expensive but offers a free or low-cost comprehensive package that will help your employees be healthier, your overall costs may be a lot lower in the long run.
While things like wellness programs may seem like hype, a study of a workplace wellness program found that during a two-year period, employees in the program missed three fewer days of work, meaning a return of more than $15 for each $1 spent on the program. Other studies show that for every $1 spent, you save about $4 in health care expenses and $5 in improved productivity.
If you pick the right plan and put an emphasis on good health, the message sent to your employees will be clear: You care. And healthy employees are a key factor to achieving a healthy bottom line, even in an unhealthy economy.
FRED KOURY is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a deviation from my usual themes about how to be a strategic leader with an entrepreneurial bent. Instead, this month, I explore why executives may be effective at running businesses but frequently fall short in managing their own money. Like many businesses leaders, I thought I was a street-smart steward of my own portfolio of stocks, bonds, hedge funds and private equity. Then came a wake-up call, manifested by what I would characterize as a less than amicable separation between a double-digit percentage of my assets and me.
During recent market gyrations, assets that took most of us years to accumulate and build were significantly reduced in mere months. There were warning signs. One word kept popping up on prognosticators’ radar: subprime. This was quickly followed by dire predictions that some of the world’s more storied financial institutions could crumble faster, under the weight of toxic loans, than their counterparts did during the infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Sure, in hindsight, I knew there were troubles brewing. I read The Wall Street Journal daily and Barron’s Financial Weekly. In addition, just like President Obama, nothing comes between me and breaking news from my BlackBerry — nothing.
So why did I and the vast majority of other executives experience a precipitous and cataclysmic exodus of assets damaging not only one’s net worth but ego, as well?
There are apt comparisons between why the shoemaker’s children go barefoot, why the person who represents himself in court has a fool for a client and, yes, why business executives are many times pretty mediocre investment advisers to themselves.
The core issue gets down to priorities, energy and the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. Business leaders in today’s environment must have an unrelenting laser focus on running their organizations. This, however, can result in one-dimensional thinking.
How many times has your spouse or significant other told you that you don’t listen? Case in point, at breakfast you review your previous day’s business results and your spouse asks you a question, as in, “What would you like to do this weekend?” and you respond by passing the sugar. This is simply an example of time and attention limitations, not lack of interest.
Certainly, you know the mechanics of the markets, you know where you have investments, but at the end of the day, after dealing with myriad business issues and opportunities, you just run out of gas. Because you may be good at making money doesn’t mean you have the discipline and expertise not only to preserve it but also to grow it.
What can we do differently to rebuild our assets, while not losing a beat in doing our all-consuming day jobs? Compartmentalize, compartmentalize, compartmentalize!
Just as you set aside specific time to focus on various aspects of your work, you also must compartmentalize your personal investments and then devote time to them on a regular basis.
Start by scheduling some solitary time with yourself to know what direction your portfolio is going and, more importantly, where you want to take it over the next three to five years. It gets down to something as simple as three sessions every two weeks or some sort of quiet time with yourself. During the first session, review whether your portfolio has been either up, down or sideways. In the second time slot, try to understand how and why it got there. Devote the third review to new investment ideas and consider any adjustments.
Managing a portfolio is much akin to playing a hand of poker, during which you must decide to call, raise or fold. Just like in business, if you hesitate too long, you may lose. Treat your investment reviews the same as you would an update with a subordinate. Establish performance parameters, make notes and always assign yourself follow-up action dates.
It’s going to take some time to rebuild our portfolios. Remember it took an astonishing 25 years for the Dow Jones Industrial Average to return to its pre-1929 crash levels. However, with some discipline, a plan and perhaps a decent adviser, you can at least ensure that your kids will always have shoes and you won’t feel like a fool whose investments deteriorate from passive neglect.
MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own moneyduring a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annualsales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to BoiseCascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder andco-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuerserves 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@example.com.
Just about everybody, after entering kindergarten, will become involved in talking about another person behind his or her back. Sometimes comments can be hurtful, sometimes innocuous. However, if correctly framed, “behind-the-back venting” can also be constructive, not to mention therapeutic.
It’s a national pastime for everyone to think that he or she is smarter than the boss. Many times, an employee can and certainly should outshine his or her superior on specific subjects. As a boss, you can be sure your people will compare their abilities and creativity with yours and second-guess your strategies and practices. Therefore, I suggest that you facilitate the process so that talking behind your back can occur more regularly, on your terms, and be productive to boot.
There are some very simple and effective methods to providing “employee back-talk time.” As CEO of my Fortune 500 company, I discovered that I could control this process by structuring a means where all my direct reports could have an open forum to take their best shot at me. Early on, I created an Operating Committee, which was composed of my direct reports and other key corporate managers and executives who had to carry out company mandates and run the place day in and day out.
I attended only one Operating Committee meeting and made a statement that took less than a minute. I simply said that this would be my first and last appearance at “your” weekly meetings and that, going forward, the group would set its own agenda. I emphasized, however, that on every agenda there should be “back-talk” time, during which participants could vent their frustrations and talk about any traditional unspeakables even if they reflected negatively on my leadership, decisions or capabilities. I stated that the only thing I asked was that once the committee thought I was making some big mistakes, someone must be appointed to come and tell me with my promise of immunity from prosecution. I made it clear to the Operating Committee members that their job was to make me better and, to facilitate that, they could talk about my shortcomings, real or perceived, behind my back.
Now, I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck, and I knew that not all of the comments would be complimentary. I approached the process in a very Machiavellian manner, knowing that if I could get past the bruised ego, I could become a more effective CEO and ultimately deliver better results for all constituents.
Each week, my people were able to identify my errors, which were often plentiful. At times, I observed the folks leaving the Operating Committee meetings with a very satisfied smirk on their faces. Why? Because they got whatever was bugging them off their chests. They were able to compare notes, and I think, in many cases, they realized that what might have been festering as a big problem was, in the overall scheme of things, not particularly significant.
Another ancillary benefit of the behind-the-back talking is that it tends to diffuse situations that might otherwise grow to biblical proportions. This release enables the team to move on to issues of greater importance.
There are a number of other practical ways to foster venting in your organization. During particularly tense times, it is appropriate to excuse yourself from a planned dinner after a day of meetings with employees because your gut tells you they need to have time to themselves. It takes a certain confidence, including a healthy ego, for the leader to foster this process. Most of the time, when I bowed out of a dinner with subordinates, I knew that my employees’ ensuing collective catharsis would give them satisfaction and refocus their efforts.
In the public arena, our country’s leaders have all experienced a not-so-behind-their-back venting, particularly by the media, within minutes of making a statement. Pundits would dissect what was said right, wrong or that was irrelevant. This ongoing safety valve has served citizens well and provides an effective method for public officials to gauge acceptance of their actions and plan their next steps.
You, as a leader, can use similar “back-talk” techniques to maintain equilibrium in your company and reduce both petty and deep-seated distractions that impede progress. Being a good manager means accomplishing objectives through others. Being a great leader means keeping the team focused and communicating with you and each other.
Politics in business and talking behind the boss’s back aren’t always negatives, as long as you manage the process and encourage it with your blessing.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maybe you didn’t trust Enron, or even necessarily know what Enron was, but your financial adviser probably did. If you trusted your adviser with your money and he or she trusted Enron’s executives, well, the end result was probably bad.
Business is built on a chain of trust. The stockholders trust the company’s directors who trust the officers of the company. There may be additional intermediaries, such as a financial adviser or stock broker, but everything hinges on trust.
When that trust breaks down, things get ugly. Unfortunately, it happens all the time. Enron got plenty of press but think about how many times you read about a local banker or business executive who was committing fraud at a company.
As a CEO, you have to walk a fine line between trust and control. If you trust someone too much, you may leave yourself open to mistakes of inexperience or just general oversights. If you don’t trust your team enough, you become a control freak, stifle innovation and your growth comes to a screeching halt. Failing to trust your managers means you’ll be spending all your time making day-to-day decisions, leaving yourself no time to manage the big-picture strategy of the organization.
The balance between trust and control is difficult to find because, as the CEO, you are ultimately responsible for what happens in the company. It’s a heavy burden to carry, but worrying about what an employee in a far-off office might do is counterproductive to your long-term growth, not to mention to your health.
The only thing you can do is prepare. Surround yourself with good people who can help you avoid bad situations. You have to trust in your managers and advisers, but no one is ever going to have everything covered.
You can have a high degree of faith in humanity and believe that people are good by nature and will do their best, but for me, it’s my faith in God that lets me sleep at night.
You do your best to oversee the operations, but the old Ronald Reagan saying, “Trust but verify,” applies here. Try to set things up so that there is always someone checking someone else’s work. One person might make a costly oversight, but if you have someone else checking, the odds are in your favor that the mistake will be caught before it costs you money.
You also need to be accessible to all your employees. Walk around and get to know as many of them as you can. Herb Baum, the former CEO of Dial, used to host “Hot Dogs with Herb.” He’d cook hot dogs out on the factory floor for the workers to give them a chance to speak about whatever was on their mind. The idea is, if there’s a major problem, someone is going to speak up. Maybe a machine isn’t working properly and it’s costing productivity, or maybe someone’s manager is doctoring timecards.
If employees feel comfortable talking to you, that’s another layer of protection. Good people don’t like associating with bad ones, and they’ll help you identify potential problems, regardless of whether it’s with a process or a person, if you just take the time to ask.
You have to take a lot of risks to be successful in business. One of the biggest risks of all may be the trust we have to place in our managers who control our money, our inventory and our people. To mitigate the risks, all you can do is educate yourself, educate your managers and get the best advisers you can. If you do all that, the only thing left is to place portions of your business in the hands of those you trust the most.
FRED KOURY is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or email@example.com.
In 1982, seven people died from Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules that had been tampered with and laced with cyanide.
The way Johnson & Johnson, owner of the Tylenol brand, reacted to the crisis became a precedent for the right way to handle a crisis. Company executives made quick decisions that were based in part on company values that had been written in 1943. The company recalled 31 million bottles at a cost of more than $100 million. It ceased all production of capsules and replaced them with tamper-resistant caplets.
In the short term, Tylenol lost 27 percent of its market share, but through its customer-focused actions and quick thinking, it regained all the market share it had lost.
While this is an extreme example, it goes to show you that you have to be ready for the unexpected. At the time, there was no way for Johnson & Johnson to even imagine that someone would use its products as a way to poison people.
Johnson & Johnson executives invested the time and money needed to deal with the crisis and make the brand as strong as or stronger than it was before.
If you’ve been in business long enough, you know that the unexpected is always around the corner. A crisis is not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.
Could anyone have predicted the tragedy of Sept. 11 or its far-reaching economic consequences? Anyone doing business in the southeastern United States probably knows firsthand what kind of economic effect a major hurricane can have on the bottom line.
Your next crisis might not even be so far-reaching. It might be a key employee who falls ill or quits that leaves you scrambling to fill in the gaps. Or maybe postage costs rise 20 percent, like they recently did, and cut into your cash flow.
Regardless of the scale of the challenge, you have to be ready for it. One of the best ways to be prepared is to have a reserve of resources both in cash and time. Set aside money each month, so that you have funds to draw on in an emergency.
Just about any crisis will require cash. If you’ve got funds to draw on, you can either get the people or supplies you need to address it, or at the very least, keep your cash flow going in the short term until you figure out a long-term solution.
The other investment to make is in time. Put time on your schedule each week to deal with the little details. This kind of investment can often let you extinguish a small fire before it becomes a raging inferno. When a big crisis hits, you can clear your schedule, but a little investment upfront can help you avoid some of the internal challenges that can get out of control.
This is also where your advisers earn their money. If you’ve assembled the right team of people, when something unforeseen occurs, you can gather them together and, as a team, plot your next move. They’ll help you avoid blind spots and resolve things quicker than you could do alone.
Regardless of whether your crisis started internally or externally, you have to lead by example. Be resilient in your pursuit of the resolution. Exhibit confidence so that others can rely on you to get the job done.
It won’t be easy things in business rarely are. But if you have taken the time to build a rainy day fund and assembled a solid team, you are well on your way to handling the next crisis and moving your company back up the mountain again.
FRED KOURY is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Again!” my tae kwon do instructor shouted, commanding the class to another repetition of the fighting combination we were learning. The moves were difficult, and I was already tired from a long day at work.
With each repetition, my arms and legs felt heavier, and I began to hold back, conserving my energy while hoping that no one noticed. Because I was the highest-ranking black belt, I had the senior position on the mat in front of two dozen students, a position where my every move was visible and expected to be an example for others to follow.
As my instructor moved among us, inspecting each person’s form and technique, I was careful to give my best when he was near and then rested when he walked away. In this way, I believed I was maintaining my image as the senior student without actually having to exert the effort.
It was in one of these moments of executing the movements halfheartedly that I was surprised by the whispered voice of my instructor close behind me.
“Who are you when no one is watching, Mr. Huling?”
Even now, I can recall how I felt at that moment. At the instant I heard his voice, I realized that there was no shame in being tired or unable to perform at my highest level; the shame was in trying to uphold an image that wasn’t true.
Have you ever tried this same approach? Can you remember a time when you had lost all passion for the work you were doing but put on an image of energy and false enthusiasm for the people around you? Perhaps you can remember sustaining an image in a relationship, portraying a personal connection that you no longer felt or feigning dedication to a community service project that, in truth, had become a dreaded burden.
No matter when or where it happens, the moment you shift your energy toward maintaining your image crafting your actions and your words to sustain the appearance of something that isn’t true you compromise your most valuable attribute: the content of your character.
If this is where you are, there are three important things to remember.
First, the people around you usually know the truth, in spite of your efforts to conceal it.
They have built-in radar for inconsistencies and subtle cues that tell them the smile on your face isn’t matched by the feeling in your heart.
While you may not be quite ready to resign from the job or end the relationship, you can stop exhausting yourself to convince people that everything is great. Instead, begin to be more authentic in what you say and do. Don’t say yes when you mean no, compliment only what you truly respect, and pause to consider whether each action you are about to take aligns with your personal values for honesty and integrity.
Second, if perfection were the requirement, no one would succeed. All of the people around you face their own fear of inadequacy and rejection and, like you, are tempted to create a better version of themselves through the image they want you to see.
But if you will begin to acknowledge your own imperfections that you don’t always make the right choice and aren’t always in control of every situation you will not only drop your own image and become more authentic, you’ll set others free to accept their imperfections as well.
Finally, remember that the image you are sustaining is actually a reflection of the person you want to become. When you create an image of passionate engagement with your work, it’s because you really want your work and your life to have these qualities. Instead of pretending that you love your job, channel that same energy into a written vision of what you really want, and then commit to finding an opportunity that takes you toward it.
Let this simple Latin phrase become the standard for your life: “Esse quam videre,” which means “To be, rather than to appear.” When you do, you will discover that the person you truly are is actually greater than the image you tried to create.
JIM HULING is CEO of MATRIX Resources Inc., an IT services company that has achieved industry-leading financial growth while receiving numerous national, regional and local awards for its values-based culture and other work-life balance programs. The company was recently named one of the 25 Best Small Companies to Work for in America for the third year in a row by the Great Place to Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management. In 2005, Huling was awarded the Turknett Leadership Character Award for outstanding demonstration of integrity, respect and accountability. Reach him at Jim_Huling@MatrixResources.com.
Basic communications supposedly started with the cavemen about 130,000 years ago.
Those Neanderthal dudes really knew how to cut to the chase and get their message across. Using symbols and markings, they told what needed to be known: “Where’s the food, fire and danger?” When friend or foe came across the message, it was immediately understood.
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, took a giant communications leap when he spoke through this instrument to a nearby companion device and said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I need you.” It was artful in its simplicity (the message, not the phone).
Since those times, there have been huge changes in communications, but with innovation comes excess. Today, businesspeople often provide TMI too much information.
Examining e-mails that have been returned to me because the recipient was out of the office, I have been struck by how much people will tell you about where they are, what they’re doing and why. Examples include this one from an employee who obviously decided to stop working but continued to collect a paycheck: “I’m sorry I cannot read your e-mail today because I am out of the office. Actually, my boss thinks I’m taking my sick grandmother to the doctor, but instead, I’m on an interview that will hopefully lead to a better job so I can not only take my grandmother to the doctor but make enough to even pay the bill for her exam.”
The same goes for out-of-the-office voicemail messages: “I’m not in today because I seem to have the bug that’s going around. I spent all night in the bathroom, but by tomorrow, I’ll have this beat. Leave a message after the beep and I’ll get around to you one of these days.”
We’ve all been frustrated listening to and reading this drivel when we’re simply trying to get a question answered. Just think about the dollars that are wasted in corporate America, including your organization, because people have the misguided sense that others want to know the details but were afraid to ask.
Telling people what he thought they wanted to know worked for Dr. David Reuben, author of “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask.” No doubt he made millions giving people information they didn’t ask for, but he was a notable exception, and his subject matter was more compelling than most.
The newest TMI phenomenons are blogs, which have evolved from the traditional intimate diary with a running account of the author’s life. It used to be that a diary was for teenagers dealing with everything from peer pressure to raging hormones. The safety net was knowing that what was inscribed would never be read by another living soul.
Today, modern blogs, which are public on the Internet and transcend age boundaries, often include the scribe’s innermost secrets. Some also have graphics that provide too much visual information, leaving little to the imagination.
Since this is a business column, I will stick to offering suggestions as to how you can manage your employees’ voicemail messages and outof-office e-mail replies for the greater good. I am a proponent of establishing your own e-mail/voicemail police, whose job is to protect and serve protect your organization’s image and serve your customers’ needs.
Some might think this is a form of censorship; I prefer to think of it as an extension of marketing to enhance a company’s perception.
Start with surveying your employees’ current responses for their business e-mail/voicemail messages and be prepared to be shocked by both the content and length.
Next, have your HR or PR staff put together brief scripts that get the desired message across. Each message should be tailored to the person’s job function and provide an alternative contact when there is an immediate need.
Establish standards of what is appropriate. Explain to your employees why you are doing this and that it is another technique to demonstrate how your organization is better than your competition. Consider ending all voice messages with the same tag line emphasizing your best attribute, such as, “Prompt service is our No. 1 priority,” or, “Getting to the point makes us better.” This beats gratuitous endings such as, “Have a stupendous day.”
Most employees will appreciate the scripted assistance because it gives them one less thing to do. For those who don’t, buy them a diary in which they can continue to record their personalized messages, and make them promise to keep those messages to themselves and never share them with your customers.
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@example.com.
The car is the culmination of a company seeing a chance to dominate a market and setting goals to achieve it. In the 1980s, Toyota had what were considered good near-luxury cars in the Cressida and Crown models, but sales were not especially strong when compared to how fast Corollas and Camrys were leaving dealer lots. Lincoln and Cadillac had both fallen from grace, Chrysler had moved down market, Mercedes quality was not at its high point and Audi was suffering from the stuck accelerator debacle.
In short, Toyota saw an opportunity to dominate a market. It assigned a team of 1,400 engineers, 2,300 technicians, 60 designers and 220 support people to create the next great luxury vehicle under the Lexus brand. The company built 450 functional prototypes, and no expense was spared to beat the competition, and in 1989, the first Lexus hit the showroom floor. Its high level of luxury and reliability and lower cost than some competing brands made it the leader in luxury vehicles.
By creating a vision and a plan to get there, Toyota created a dominant brand. It’s been almost 20 years now, but thanks to long-term planning and commitment, the brand is still as vibrant as ever.
There are four key tracks to executing a plan to achieve your goals.
The immediate track. These are objectives that range from today to about six months out. This is all about focusing on what you are doing today to work toward your overall goal, achieving short-term objectives to give you a headstart on your longer-term goals. There will always be a lot of distractions, but you have to stay focused.
The short-term track. This track is about focusing on processes six to 18 months out. How can you do things faster and better? Where can you build efficiency into your systems?
The long-term track. This track is setting goals for where you really want to be in three to five years. These goals are bigger in scope and start filling in the pieces to your long-term vision. The more of these goals you achieve, the closer you get to realizing your vision.
The vision. This is your long-term vision that is at least five years away. What’s the ultimate goal of your company? It’s the proverbial carrot on a stick that you are always chasing. As you move to-ward it, it moves even further, driving you to try even harder and achieve more.
This sounds fairly simple, and you may already have plans that fall into these ranges, but the real trick is working all the plans simultaneously. Toyota worked on all these tracks simultaneously to build Lexus into what it is today.
Companies that aren’t as successful tend to be good at working only one or two tracks at a time.
Some companies have great vision and know where they want to be in five years, but don’t know how to work the day-to-day detail in the short term to get there. It’s sort of like a person who dreams of traveling to Europe one day but spends more time dreaming rather than actually figuring out a way to save the money and plan the trip.
Others are good at achieving intermediate goals such as growing sales, but they never really set a vision for what they want the company to be. Sales continue to grow, but to what end?
Toyota could have kept selling the luxury cars it had and probably been fairly successful. Instead, the company had a vision to be a leader in a market segment and set a course to get there by creating a new brand that would set the standard.
The key is to work all four tracks of the plan simultaneously so that you hit your short-term, intermediate and long-term goals on the way to achieving your ultimate vision of what you want your company to become.