Thursday, 25 June 2009 20:00


Lois M. LeMenager is happy to have an open-door policy. However, that means she sometimes has to take her work home with her as founder, chairman and CEO of Marketing Innovators International Inc.

But LeMenager doesn’t mind doing that because the open-door policy creates a positive work culture at the people performance management and measurement organization, which posted approximately $200 million in 2008 revenue.

“You are working at night, and I don’t think there is a good CEO that doesn’t,” she says.

Smart Business spoke with LeMenager about how to use an open-door policy and how to talk to employees.

Q. How do you communicate that you have an open-door policy?

I think it trickles down from the management. They realize that the managers can come in and be comfortable. I don’t think I’d like anything more than to have a suggestion box full of suggestions from everybody in the company because those people are the people that know their jobs. Maybe we are overlooking what should be done or what should be improved.

In this company, we have pretty much a feeling that everybody knows they can say something and they are heard.

Q. What advice would you have to establish an open-door policy?

You need to have some corporate meetings. You need to bring in the people that are the worker bees. I think you need a good HR understanding and share the corporate goals all the time — you keep them informed about that. We have corporate meetings, and we have celebrations once a month, and we (bring) people in once a month with anniversaries and birthdays. They are all in the same room and talk. You make sure they realize that this is kind of a relaxed situation in here, where they can say things, and you know what, they do.

Q. How do you get employees to open up?

You need to be a walking-around CEO. You have to show yourself, make yourself present, make sure you attend all the affairs, participate and make sure that they know that you believe in them and you are concerned about them.

The first thing is to make them feel comfortable. Ask about their family or, ‘How are you doing? What are you doing? Glad to have you.’ If they are new employees, ‘What can we do to help you be comfortable? Do you need training?’ I think that’s a big thing. We should make sure that we know what they need.

We offer them training … and that we are sensitive to their family affairs, if they needed time off to attend school meetings. We are pretty flexible, and I think you have to do it that way. Of course, you never, ever want to be stuck up with your employees.

Q. What is a pitfall to avoid when trying to show an open-door policy?

If (you) are going to keep an open-door policy, always have time to stop and listen when they come in if they want to see you. No matter how busy you are, unless you are on a conference call you can’t interrupt, and they would know better than that. But, you have to make time for them. That’s the big deal. That’s when you are going to show them that you care.

Sometimes, I can put off a call or do something if there is something dramatically wrong or when I know there is a situation that needs to be handled. Then other times, I’ll say, ‘OK, come back in five minutes. I’ll be finished here, and I will see you here before I leave.’

Q. How do you motivate people to share feedback?

That has to start from the management team really. The management team has to accept the executive team and interface with them [so] that the management and their people want to interface. So, we have to show them how to do it. We have to make sure that they see that that way. We want to hear from these people.

Q. With this kind of culture, how do you find the best people to fit in?

You have to make the best effort you can. You have to look at their backgrounds, and we like to (see) that they have so much college education. I’m kind of perplexed with that because I only finished high school. If you have self-learners and self-starters, sometimes you have to give those people a chance. But we need to have people that are happy with themselves.

They have to be somebody that has a good attitude, that can learn, that can be trained, and not just somebody that comes in at 8 o’clock and flies out the door at 5. You pretty much, in the first month, can tell who those people are.

Q. How do you tell that you have the right fit during an interview?

I don’t think you can absolutely make sure. When we are looking for somebody, we have two or three people interview them, and they get together and they (say), ‘What did you find? What did you think? What do you think?’ Somebody interviews tremendously well, and then they are a flop. Some people are a flop at the interview and are marvelous people. You have to take your chance — get the gut feeling, take the chance, and then in 90 days, you are going to know.

How to reach: Marketing Innovators International Inc., (800) 543-7373 or

Published in Chicago
Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

An open environment

In difficult times, Eric Maryanov strives to maintain a direct connection with his 32 employees at All-Travel.

“The core message of an organization and its core factors do have stability in this ever-changing world,” says the company’s founder and president. “You need to apply the message in all aspects and communications.”

Focusing on his message and on open communication has helped Maryanov grow the company, which he founded in 1984, to 2007 sales of $38 million.

Smart Business spoke with Maryanov about how to maintain open communication and how to set the tone at the top.

Q. How do you develop a message for employees to follow?

By open communication and their ability to query back, so that if they’re sensing, ‘Wait, that’s not the message I heard last time,’ their ability to question it, so I am able to either redefine or reclarify it. Listening to the staff and all of their input is a huge part of success. They know more of what is happening on the customer level. And not listening to only one member of the staff but getting information from all staff and multiple perspectives of the same questions.

It’s regular and consistent communication and consistency in your message, be that through e-mail, staff meetings or one-on-one conversations. The consistency of the tone and message has to be there. It’s not one of those things that just happens once in awhile; it’s ongoing, daily, it’s a reinforcement of the message.

The tone comes from all aspects of everything you do. Sometimes we don’t realize the staff watches our every move, motion and attitude, and it’s an awareness that we have to have at all times.

Q. How do you keep the lines of communication open?

Make sure that sometimes you’re out and about in the office. E-mail is a wonderful tool, and I spend a good amount of my day on e-mail with staff, being accessible to them, raising questions to them to trigger back their response and keep a dialogue going back and forth.

It’s being responsive and at least acknowledging. I try to encourage most of that communication to come in the form of e-mail. But also what fosters that is, at times, sharing the positive with the staff. By receiving a commentary e-mail, when you’re able to put it in a positive light, it’s easier to respond not only to the person who sent it but share it with a greater segment of the staff with a positive response and/or explanation. But if you always start with, ‘That was a good question, and here’s why,’ or, ‘That’s something we should give some further thought to,’ and letting everybody hear that response, it doesn’t give people the fear factor of coming forward with their own comments or ideas.

(You learn about) trends in the marketplace, trends within the business itself, and oftentimes, it’s the first source of finding out if there’s an employee problem. It’s important to treat employees as individual people and recognize that everybody’s needs are different and their individual needs change over time. Show an honest interest in the basics and fundamentals of their life.

Q. How do you treat employees as individuals and not just as employees?

It’s listening and paying attention. People will usually share with you far more if you listen, and that’s how you know the highlights of what’s happening in their world. And then periodically ask about those issues — be it the person who’s expecting their first grandbaby or somebody whose child is getting married or somebody who’s dealing with an ailing parent. Pay attention to those factors and ask about it.

Pay attention to one’s own words. Don’t apply a cookie-cutter approach to everybody in the company. They are, in our case, 35 different individuals, and just like no two people are alike, you just can’t communicate necessarily the exact same way with all of them. You need to recognize how best to communicate with them individually and what levels they need themselves. My most important clients are the staff — if I take care of the staff, they’ll take care of the customer.

Q. What is the benefit of keeping the lines of communication open?

Our most important asset is the employee. It’s the relationship they establish with the clientele, and that’s our best way of knowing what is of interest to the client, what we’re doing right for the client and where the trends may be in the marketplace.

Treating the employees as individuals is the way we want them to be treating our clients. If I’m not treating them as individuals, how would I expect them to treat our clients as individuals and to build that same relationship with the client individually on some level as I look to build with them.

How to reach: All-Travel, (310) 312-3368 or

Published in Los Angeles
Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Interviewing in depth

Tim French takes his time when filling an open position, because hiring quickly can have disastrous results.

When the CEO of The French Co. needs to fill a spot on his roster of more than 100 employees, it takes him months to assure a good fit. And to make sure he gets it right, those he hires have usually survived several interviews and undergone tests analyzing critical thinking, skills and personality.

“Someone who is a great worker, with great skill sets, can be very disruptive if they don’t fit with your culture,” says French, who co-founded the retail maintenance service company with his wife, Donna.

Smart Business spoke with French about how to choose the right employee to fit your business.

Q. How do you determine whether a candidate is a good fit?

You can look at their resume and ask very specific questions to figure out whether or not they are misleading you in the resume.

If they’ve alluded to a grade point average from college, I’ll ask for verification of that. Most employers don’t do that, but I figure that’s a great place to start to see whether or not they’re misleading.

The other thing that we look at is, history repeats itself. If the applicant has done a great job in the past and it can be proved through results, then they’re most likely to continue that with your company. If that isn’t the case and you can’t prove what they’ve done in the past, it is likely they won’t deliver results.

Q. How do you verify a job candidate’s past performance?

It can be exhaustive. It goes down to in-depth interviews with past supervisors, and we’ll go as far as we can, interviewing customers and vendors they have interacted with. We start with the resume to try to qualify what’s on the resume, as well as what they’ve told us in the interview.

Generally, what we find is if there are some exaggerations or misinformation in one area, we’re going to find that in all areas. If there is total trustworthiness, it generally will play out through all of the research that we do.

It can take several months to hire a new staff member. They’ll go through as many as four or five interviews with senior management and the hiring manager, and we put them through a series of tests, including critical thinking tests and skills tests.

What our employees who have joined us have told us is it’s the most exhaustive interview hiring process they’ve ever seen, but they’re really glad we do it because it produces really good hires.

Q. How does testing help in the interview process?

The critical thinking test is a test of whether the applicant can think deeply, can think strategically and can problem solve. It’s a series of questions that results in answers that they give and produces a report back to us — it’s a third-party test that we use.

We also do skills testing. For example, we’ll test for grammar, we’ll test for proper letter writing, we’ll test for Excel and PowerPoint skills, depending on the position they apply for. We want to make sure we don’t have to spend significant time training in these basic areas.

We’ve had some wonderful people apply who can’t write a business letter, and unfortunately, that speaks to who we are as a company. A poor business letter reflects very poorly on the company.

Many of these are computer-based, so we sit them down at a computer and let them go through and either take the test online, or we’ve got some internal things that we’ve done.

The DISC [dominance, influencing, steadiness and conscientiousness] analysis is really a personality profile that helps us understand how this person will operate within a specific environment. For example, there is a different profile test for management than there is for sales. It gives you really a full view of who this person is.

The way we use it for applicants is to figure out if there are some glaring problems here that we can’t get over. It also helps to support theories that we may have come up with during the interview process. Then, once hired, it helps us support them in areas they may be weak in.

Q. What questions have been successful for you in understanding the candidate?

One of the questions that I like to ask is why have they specifically selected our company, and how does it fit with their life goals? I can quickly determine whether they’ve spent time researching the business and have some reason that they want to work for us versus those that are just sending out resumes for a job.

An applicant, whether it’s higher level management or a staff employee, they are delivering their very best performance in an interview, and they should have done their very best prep work in advance. If they haven’t done that for their next career, then I’m not interested in hiring them, because if they don’t do it for their career, they’re certainly not going to do it for our employees here and for our customers.

How to reach: The French Co., (800) 321-8875 or

Published in Akron/Canton
Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

Safety net

Columbus Woodruff II is adamant that he’s never leaving Cleveland, but Hotcards Inc., his 100-employee printing company couldn’t survive on its Cleveland business alone.

Luckily, it doesn’t have to, as Hotcards’ Internet presence allows Woodruff to take orders from around the world and compete with much larger printers.

“The fact of the matter is that if someone has a 17-inch monitor, your store is as big as every other store on the Net,” says the founder and CEO of Hotcards. “They’re all 17 inches.”

Smart Business spoke with Woodruff about how to build your Internet presence and how to write a blog that helps your bottom line.

Q. How do you create an effective Internet presence?

Step No. 1 is to have a great Web site, not just a good one. The one thing I see people do is say, ‘Oh, I have a company; I want a Web site.’ And then you ask them, ‘How much would you like to spend?’ and they give you a few hundred dollars.

Then you ask them, ‘What do you expect the site to make?’ And they say $30,000 a month. You expect to spend a few hundred dollars to make $30,000 a month? That’s not going to happen.

You have to make an investment into the most important employee you have: the Internet. It works tirelessly, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It can be a customer service rep; it can be your secretary. It can be all these different things if you invest the money, the time and effort that it takes to have a wonderful site.

When I say wonderful site, I mean it has to be built correctly. It takes money to do that, but there is no better return on investment than an awesome Web site.

Q. How do you create a great site?

First, there is a difference between a Web designer and a Web developer. Designers can make your site look nice. A developer makes it work nice. Doing all the great things a good Web site should do is way more important than it just looking nice.

Any company that is looking to make an impact should do a great Web site because it levels the playing field.

Say you’re ABC Landscape Co., and there is another landscaping company. If anyone’s like me, they go on the Internet to check your company out. If your site is awesome and all the next person has are a couple pictures of some lawns that they have done … I’m going with this guy over here, because his site gave me a free quote and let me schedule an appointment and asked me how big my yard was [and] it did a calculation. Then I looked and they had a blog about lawn care, and it had a feature on why you should use this fertilizer and when you should cover your plants.

So become a resource. Spend the money you need to spend to build an excellent Web site because it definitely has a better chance of having a great return on investment than just having one of your friends’ nephews or kids build a site.

Q. How do you know your site is helping your bottom line?

To know that it’s working, you’d have to base it on what was happening before you did it. If you were getting 10 orders a day before and now you’re getting 30, it’s working.

It depends on what you want your site to do. If you just want leads and all of a sudden you’re getting phone calls and getting e-mailed leads from your form on your site, that’s time you weren’t taking yourself to answer all those phone calls.

It’s like if you have a car that has four airbags and you have eight airbags. Four was good, but eight doesn’t hurt. There’s no way it can hurt me to have more airbags than I had before.

Q. What does a company blog need to do to be effective?

The one thing they need to do is stay focused on their industry. Try their best to become a resource. For instance, we are a printing company; we do a lot of political printing. So a lot of our blog has to do with political printing. A lot of it has to do with printing in general, good design, nice ads, tutorials, ideas.

But it all revolves around our industry. So we wouldn’t start doing blogs on cool cars. It doesn’t make any sense for us. It needs to stay revolved around your industry so people can seek you as a resource.

There is no industry that could not have a blog. It’s great when people look up to you as an authority because you have a blog. Just keep things going, make nice entries on your blog. It’s a great way for any business, on any level, in any industry, to help themselves generate interest and traffic.

How to reach: Hotcards Inc., (216) 241-4040 or

Published in Cleveland
Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

Clear orders

When Chris Frost has an issue with one of his 300 employees, he doesn’t beat around the bush.

“I sit down with my mission statement and value statement and say, ‘OK, you and I have a disagreement, you and I have an issue we need to resolve,’” Frost says.

Frost, who operates three McDonald’s franchises as owner of Frost Inc., finds that getting right to the point and communicating clearly is a driver for any successful business.

Smart Business spoke with Frost about how to make sure you are being clear with your message.

Q. How do you become a better communicator?

The key to it is having a very clear objective, a very clear end in mind, and then getting the right people that have the ability to make decisions involved in setting the path to get to that end goal. Then it’s being very clear with what the steps are to get there and communicating the results.

You have to be very clear in communicating results because if folks don’t know where they stand and how we are doing toward the goal, it is very difficult for them to get there.

Q. How do you make sure employees understand what you are communicating?

I’ve got a group of people that I consider my executive team, and it really gets down to working with them on their communication skills to make sure the message gets passed down through the entire organization. I’ve got a couple of operations guys that I meet with on a weekly basis — minimum of a weekly basis — and talk about game plan and objectives and what the plan is and what the results are and what the goals are. Then, they take it to their team.

Then, on a regular basis, I spend a minimum of two or three days a week in my restaurants communicating with the management people at the restaurants, which could be a couple levels down the ladder [from those] that I meet with on a weekly basis. (It’s) to talk about, ‘What are we working on? How are you doing?’ just to calibrate and to make sure the message that I want sent down is being communicated.

So, we have some checks and balances in there, and for the most part, it works out pretty well.

Q. How do you make sure lower-level employees are being honest with you?

Just being in the restaurants regularly, they know me on a first-name basis. I try to make a point of knowing something about them, their family — having that type of discussion about their son’s soccer team or whatever the example may be.

Plus, they see me regularly. I think that’s the key to it. If I were to show up once every six months and start asking them questions, then I think they are going to lock up. They see me regularly, they know me, and the discussion is pretty laid-back, just asking some simple questions.

Q. What advice do you have on how to create an open environment and be a better communicator?

Be consistent. I think consistency is the key. The other part is, when you determine the course, to hold the line. A lot of individuals, peers if you will (think), ‘What’s the topic of the week?’

If I were to be working with and mentoring someone, my first thing would be to say, ‘What is your objective, what do you want out of this business and what do you want out of this company? Let’s set that goal and let’s set a 12-month plan that says, ‘This is what we need to do.’ We’re going to be consistent, we’re going to be clear with our direction, and we’re not going to jump from week to week.

It’s going to be a clear message, and we’re going to be focused on results and not change course.

Q. What is a pitfall to avoid in communication?

Don’t have what I call unplanned meetings. Don’t waste time with time wasters. If we have something to meet about, we’re going to meet, we’re going to discuss the topics and we’re going to be clear on it. But don’t have meetings just to have meetings.

People have a Monday meeting and, ‘We meet on Monday because we have a Monday meeting, not because we have something important to meet about.’

The key to being a good communicator is when you have the opportunity to communicate, that what you communicate is relevant, it’s needed and it’s timely. The best way to word that is, don’t have Monday meetings because it’s Monday, but to have Monday meetings because we’ve got something relevant.

How to reach: Frost Inc., (813) 991-4874

Published in Florida
Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

The sky’s the limit

Is your company successful? For Douglas O. Kirberg, the answer to that question depends on your definition of success.

“When I started out of school, I thought if you make $24,000 a year and you had 20 guys working for you, you’ve got it made,” says the president of Kirberg Co., a roofing company founded by his grandfather in 1920. “So you’ve got to keep revising those as you go along.”

Kirberg’s constant revision of the company’s goals has helped propel 2008 sales past the $20 million mark.

Smart Business spoke with Kirberg about how to establish an impressive track record and how to become a better listener.

Q. How do you develop a vision?

You really have to have the desire to be in business or grow your business. Whatever branch of business you’re in, you have to have desire to do it and the willingness to really work hard. It’s not 40 hours a week. You’re going to live and breathe it for many years, seven days a week.

Here’s another key thing: You have to set goals. Years ago, I wrote a simple handwritten note. It read, ‘Where do you think you want to be in 10 years or five years?’ And you keep revising those goals because they change.

You might make your 10-year goal in five years. Then you might decide, ‘Well, do I really want to get bigger or not?’ There are pros and cons to each.

Q. How have you managed business growth?

As far as the managing of it, you’ve got to have a good CPA working with you, good insurance brokerage or firm, and your bank is really important — as people are finding out now.

The most challenging time for us was when (former President Jimmy) Carter was here and we had 21 percent interest rates. If you were not on good terms with your bank and weren’t considered a good account, you were in trouble, just like now, when people are not getting loans. If you have a good relationship with your bank, you’ll be able to get a loan. You’ve got to get a good track record.

If it weren’t for the bank, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today because we didn’t have that much cash coming in.

Q. How do you establish that track record?

Definitely get to know your banker. You’ve got to go in and meet them, talk to them. Let them know your whole business. Don’t try to hide stuff from them.

A lot of people are afraid of giving out financial statements. When you’re first starting out, you had better be prepared to do that. We have to do it today. You have to learn that’s the way it is. You have to be straight up with the bank and the insurance people and your advisers.

Q. How do you build strong relationships with your business partners?

You have to listen to others — others who work for you and other advisers you might have, like your lawyer, your banker and your insurance people — generally people you do business with.

Ask them questions. See what you’re doing correct or wrong. If it’s an industry type, just ask how they feel you are doing compared to your competition. Are you doing as good as they are, better than they are? What are your strong points and weak points?

If you’re talking to your banker, it’s pretty much the same thing. Are you weak with money? Find out if you are spending too much or not spending enough.

Q. What are some of the things you can do to be a better listener?

There’s really no techniques, it’s just something where you have to shut up every once in awhile and let them talk. It is a learned technique, but it’s pretty simple. You just have to be quiet and let them talk.

When you give somebody a job, let them do the job. I found out when I started growing my company that it was easy to let me do their job. They didn’t know whether to tell me to get out of their part of the business or not. They’re thinking, ‘You own the company.’

If you get involved, the next thing you know you’ll be doing it all anyway. I have two sons here, and I have to step back once in awhile. We don’t reinvent the wheel, though. You have to remember the mistake has been made; let’s not do it repetitively.

Q. How do you make yourself step back and let people do their jobs?

Think how you’d like to be treated. If you were given a job to do, would you like someone looking over your shoulder constantly? Or would you like someone who would let you go ahead and do the job and then discuss it?

Get your job done, turn it in and discuss it then.

How to reach: Kirberg Co., (314) 534 4444 or

Published in St. Louis
Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

Baking a bright future

Ken Reimer has proven himself as a restaurant turnaround expert, having guided restaurants, such as Tony Roma’s, through tough times and into steady waters.

But this time around, he’s building a strong business from the get-go, one that doesn’t require his turnaround skills. As co-founder and CEO of the fast-casual restaurant chain Baker Bros American Deli, he’s positioned the chain for a solid future and posted revenue of $15.3 million in 2007, just nine years after its founding.

Smart Business spoke with Reimer about how to develop a strong vision for your business to increase its chances for success.

Q. How do you create a solid vision?

If we listen carefully to what the consumer wants — very carefully — and relate that to the economic implications and competitive circumstances, that’s the starting point. I want a product that works. All products aren’t bound to work now and for the long term.

We start with that, and that again goes back to the consumer and what qualities we have. There’s a lot of marketing stuff behind that but what qualities we have or should have that meet their demand.

Then I believe in having the highest quality product available in the sector, but not everybody needs to do that. You can be a low-price producer or be differentiated in a variety of ways. You say, ‘What do we have that really makes sense? What can we offer that’s useful to other people and that is attractive to them?’

Then, of course, how do we go about doing it? There’s a lot of pieces and puzzles on every side — operational, technically, marketing, finance, pricing and all of those issues. So I always start with the consumer and the product I’m talking about and how to meet the consumers’ demand for today and tomorrow, as well.

Q. What’s the key to really listening to consumers?

First of all, we need to take them seriously. When I say listen, I mean listen. I don’t mean that we prefabricate ideas that are generated by the wisdom of the CEO or even the CEO’s personal likes or dislikes.

In the case of the Baker Bros, I had a lot of data, and I understood a lot of data about where the consumer was moving, speed of product, high quality of product, consistency of product, price levels. Those were the consumer drivers for this thing called quick-casual, and that’s just drawn from a wide base of industry knowledge and research.

There was a hole in the industry 10 years ago, which is now filled by quick-casual. We had a product that the consumer would want if we could execute it properly, and then you have to say, ‘How does that fit with the competition, and what is already going on in the industry?’ That would be true if I were doing an insurance product or radio or television or any other kind of consumer product.

Q. How do you stay connected with consumer needs to help you recognize opportunities?

I looked at my product in relation to what my competitors were doing and then looked at the consumer demand side of the equation. It’s a lot of research.

Here’s where the consumer is moving. They wanted speed of service because their lifestyle says they’re busy, so the nature of food service dining was changing as they saw it. Speed of service was important.

In the old day, the company is saying, ‘Here’s my service, here’s my product, here’s how you’ll take it. Here’s my menu — take it or leave it. This is how we do it. We work at my pace, my speed — take it or leave it.’

I used to work for an insurance company years ago that was struggling, and the products were always designed by the actuaries, and I said, ‘Why?’ That’s how they always do it, and it was a lot of mumbo jumbo, and I said, ‘That doesn’t have anything to do with what the consumer wants to buy. Why don’t we see what they want, what they need, and then we’ll build the products to match what they want?’ It was very successful.

In this restaurant thing, the quick casual gives the consumer the opportunity to be absolutely in charge. They don’t have to wait for a waiter or waitress or host or hostess, they order what they want, they can leave in 20 minutes, or they can leave in two hours. They’re not getting rushed out, and they’re not getting upsold.

If you’re already in business, you do it with focus groups and other marketing techniques and research and questionnaires and all those things. Always be on top of what they are doing and where they are going.

If you can’t do that, then you’ll wind up being mediocre forever, and that’s no fun.

Published in Dallas
Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

Building confidence

The ability to inspire confidence in employees is critical, especially in rough economic times, says Michelle Abreu.

“It really pushes people to go far beyond what they thought they could do,” says Oxford’s president and chairwoman. “Also, as a whole, when you have everybody with that kind of mindset, it really pushes your organization to new heights.”

That mentality has helped Abreu — who co-founded the firm in 1998 —grow Oxford to 2007 revenue of $18 million.

Smart Business spoke with Abreu about how to inspire your employees to achieve their goals.

Q. How do you inspire your employees?

By remaining focused on what your goals are and not waning from that. Not doing things that you wouldn’t otherwise do.

We’ve had certainly a lot more team meetings just to make sure people are calm, that we do have the right fundamentals and our business is solid. That really inspires confidence that they know and trust that we have been doing the right things and we continue to do the right things for the benefit of the company.

There are always ups and downs. You have to expect, as an organization, that you will have down years. Bring people in and brainstorm creative ideas.

A good example of that is, at the end of the year, we had a team meeting to talk about cost-cutting opportunities. We brought everybody together and said, ‘OK let’s have a contest. Who can come up with the best ideas for the company?’

That really inspires people to give their best, knowing that they’re directly impacting the bottom line and can have a real impact beyond just the work that they have to do every day.

I think it’s important for leaders to be inspiring, really displaying confidence in everything that you do. Certainly, especially in today’s economic environment, it puts a lot of stress on managers and leaders within the organization, but your employees can see that and your customers can see that. That’s not something you want to outwardly display.

Q. How do you display confidence?

Always putting things into perspective is a key piece to that — recognizing that if you display nervousness or a knee-jerk reaction or concern, that will emanate within your organization.

When I look at our organization, I don’t just consider that I have a family that I provide for. I am helping and our organization is helping to provide for all of their families, as well. So they’re trusting, as the leaders they’ve chosen to work for, that we are doing everything in their best interest. And frankly, I don’t think that coming to work and acting and behaving stressed out and whatnot really helps anybody, it certainly doesn’t help them be more productive.

Putting things in perspective is the big piece of that. Make sure that you have the necessary cash reserve and that you’re still making sound business judgment. Never appearing to be concerned or afraid of failure and go into everything knowing you’re going to be successful and really emanating that throughout the organization. Leading by example and making the impossible seem possible.

Q. How do you make the impossible seem possible for your employees?

By giving them examples of ways that can be achieved. Allowing them to see that if it’s just me that has the vision or goal for the company, I can’t do it by myself.

Through our strategic planning process, we bring everybody together to understand what our three-year process is going to look like. Then, we have pretty detailed plans on how we plan to achieve that, and we share that with everybody.

By showing them a road map, it then becomes reality, and that’s something people can believe they can do. It only makes them feel much more enthusiastic about what they bring to the table and how they’re going to help get to that goal that you’re trying to get to.

The way that we do that is, as a leadership team, we develop the strategic plan every year. It’s a rolling strategic plan, a three-year plan. Once it’s finalized and our leadership has agreed to it, we then gather all of our employees together.

As a final draft, we ask for input from them. If they have ideas or they think there are some areas where we’re lacking or it’s not what they expected, we then take that feedback from them and we finalize the plan. Once we have the plan finalized, then we come up at a department level or a major function level with an action plan. The leader of that area will then work within their organization over the course of a month and a half to develop strategic actions, and we assign owners.

If you are very inclusive with your employees, you ask them for their help, you ask them their opinion, you ask them to be very involved in the development of the strategic plan, people are inspired by that.

How to reach: Oxford Consulting Group Inc., (614) 310-2700 or

Published in Columbus
Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

The art of problem-solving

David L. Deming knows better than to try to run The Cleveland Institute of Art by himself. Instead, the president and CEO involves others in the process of developing a strategic plan for the CIA and its 2008 operating budget of $16 million, and then he focuses on guiding his team toward that plan.

“I am reminded over and over again through my career that you really need to have a vision for what it is that you want your school to be doing and what the direction is,” he says. “Without that vision and direction, everybody flounders.”

Smart Business spoke with Deming about why you shouldn’t try to do it all yourself and how to find the right people to help you make the right decisions.

Q. How do you create a vision for an organization?

A big part of building the vision is that you’re not pulling it out of the sky. You’re usually doing it by talking to a lot of people you have respect for and respect for their particular thoughts, dreams and aspirations. The vision that you usually come up with is built on a lot of communication with a lot of people.

When you finalize that vision, hopefully a good leader is finalizing that vision not in isolation but openly with key leaders in your institution.

Q. How do you ensure other people are involved in the process?

One of the principal things we look at is to have a small group of people representing the faculty, staff, and administrative staff and board to be an overseer of the process, because you really want buy-in from a lot of people, so you develop a lot of task forces of individual issues. Then you bring those task forces together, and they report to the bigger group.

You just collect a lot of information. A lot of research goes into a good strategic plan. Then it’s up to the board leadership, the president and the vice presidents to finalize an action plan to move forward on.

Q. How do you determine who serves on the task force?

The automatic first thought most people have is that you just seek out who you think are the best people who are going to come up with the best solutions or recommendations. But if you only do that, you will alienate everybody else.

So what you usually do when you create these task forces is you do ask certain people to step up to be leaders. But then you open it up for anyone who wants to join that task force to do it. You never know where great ideas can come from.

Sometimes you have people on your faculty or staff who might be shy, they aren’t going to be as vocal at times. But you definitely want to give them opportunities to step up and have the input when it’s really important to have at the beginning of those processes.

Q. How do you determine what these task forces should do?

For example, we would have a task force on academic programs, and the charge would be to look at what people really want out of their careers these days. What are they anticipating that they want out of college? That research is very important.

If you’re not doing that research, you may be designing a curriculum they have no interest in. Then, they’ll go somewhere else.

I would dare to say that many universities and colleges in the past have taken the attitude that we know what they need to learn; that’s what they’re going to get when they come here. That worked for quite a long time.

But with the way information flows these days, even sophisticated faculty are seeing their jobs differently than ever before because they recognize that they have to continue learning at almost the same pace their students are in order to become effective teachers and leaders.

So we are all in a learning institution; we are all learning and trying to keep up and trying to think ahead, so when we design a curricula, we’ve designed it to be flexible for constant change and adaptation to the needs.

Q. What do you do with the input you get from the task force?

The steering committee would receive those reports. Usually, one or more members of the task force not only hands the report over in writing but verbally walks the task force through it, so there is clear understanding of what the document is.

It’s always in the form of a recommendation. Everybody understands that going in. They are making recommendations based on what they’ve found.

For instance, a recommendation could possibly be something the institute decides not to do, based on a number of choices that may come before us. But if the task force has really done its job, it will probably be solid information that would be very helpful to move on. That’s why you do these things.

How to reach: The Cleveland Institute of Art, (216) 421-7000 or

Published in Cleveland
Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

Building relationships

If you don’t have satisfied customers, you don’t have a business, says John Krajewski.

At the heart of any company’s growth is its ability to meet the needs of its customers. But it’s more than just answering your clients’ phone calls; it’s also knowing your clients and their business operations, says Krajewski, managing partner of the 35-employee law firm Stark & Knoll Co. LPA.

“Get to know them better as people and get to know the issues they’re dealing with,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Krajewski about how to develop client relationships to guarantee customer satisfaction.

Q. What are the keys to developing trusting relationships with clients?

With our customers, we provide legal services, and in providing those services, our clients are buying our knowledge and expertise. But in reality, they can’t fully evaluate if we draft a good estate plan or write a good legal action.

What they are making their decisions on is the little things like phone calls being returned. Are they feeling valued — that their opinions and their business is valued?

Be responsive to their needs. If we don’t know the answer immediately, we’ll research it. If we can’t get to it that day, we will tell them we need to get back to them, and we will be prompt in getting back.

The most important thing is to be straightforward and honest with them. They simply don’t call us to generally chat. They call for our legal opinion and advice on how to get something done, and we try to give a clear path on how to achieve their goals.

Be clear with them. Lay the groundwork ahead of time for what they’re looking for. Sometimes they’re looking for a quick answer and they don’t want a treatise or a big paper written. They want just a short, simple answer. You have to know your client; you have to learn their business.

Q. How do you learn your clients’ business?

Some of it comes with just experience of working with them. Simply do your homework. Research — read their company handbook, read the materials that they provide for their customers.

Other aspects of knowing their business are walking through their facility, learning exactly what they do and how they do it. If it’s a manufacturing facility, to see how the operation works, find out who the key people are at the business and their various roles.

And to work as a team. We are attorneys and provide legal advice, but we try to do that in a team spirit. We do it in conjunction with the accountants, in conjunction with the bankers and in conjunction with the owners of the business.

Sit down and meet with them. We try to periodically sit down with them and at least annually, if not more often, take a review of where they are, where they want to be.

You not only talk to people when times are tough and you’re looking for business, but you talk to them when times are good and [find out] what their plans are. Some businesses, their plans are to expand into different market areas, different parts of the country or world. Others want to diversify and not be dependent on a product. It’s important to understand what your customers’ goals are.

By having the involvement … you learn what they do, and you can be on the lookout for issues or cases that you see come up that can affect them or decision or laws you see that can affect them, and you advise them of those things.

This is what we do. We’re a business law firm, and we are a small business. We understand the importance of not nickel-and-diming them on things, being responsive on the phone, and if they have a question, picking up the phone and answering the question. If it takes a little bit more work, then we do additional research. So we try to work with them as a team to try to grow their business.

Q. How do you maintain strong client relationships?

You call them up. Make sure everything is all right. We’re in this together to grow their business, to grow our business.

Personal contact — you need to stay in touch with your customers and your clients. It may be a regular monthly meeting with them or a quarterly meeting, but keeping in touch and not forgetting who your customers are.

I think the best advice is to talk to your clients, either at breakfast, lunch or visit their business. Sit down with them in periodic reviews and establish goals and objects of what they need and see if you can help them.

If you can’t be straightforward with that, get them the best help they can have no matter what the issue is. If it’s a legal area that we may not handle, we have to get them the best advice. They may be a great manufacturer, but just like they don’t know everything, we don’t know everything.

How to reach: Stark & Knoll Co. LPA, (330) 376-3300 or

Published in Akron/Canton