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Mike O’Neill does not consider himself to be a micromanager. But when he sees people at Switch: Liberate Your Brand, who are, it doesn’t make him uncomfortable.

“Micromanagers are great if you can line that skill set up with a need that you have in your organization,” says O’Neill, partner and CEO at the 100-employee experiential marketing agency. “In our organization, the people who tend to be more micromanaging among us tend to end up in the execution side of our organization and at the project level, not at the management level. It doesn’t work.”

The lesson here is that you need to give people a chance to succeed and find their sweet spot in your organization. Sometimes the person you have at your disposal just needs to find the right place to apply their talents.

“There are people that are in this organization who are very good, but they are the kinds of people who just seem to be wired where they have to have their hands in everything,” O’Neill says.

“How we’ve handled that is that person manages the project managers because the project manager has to keep track of a tremendous amount of detail and be very organized and really does have to be involved in all aspects of a project. The trick is to line those folks up with a position in the company where that’s a plus and not a negative.”

Get more people involved in personnel decisions such as making hires and awarding promotions to help discover where a person’s talents can best be put to use.

“Anytime we’re hiring someone or considering a significant promotion where we are going to put them in a leadership position, we tend to have them talk to a lot of people,” O’Neill says. “We’re interviewing right now for someone in business development. I’ll guess and say that person has probably met with eight different people from Switch.”

Whether it’s you that is doing the hiring or promoting, or someone else in your company, that second or third opinion can be crucial to putting a person in the right spot.

“I’ve hired people that I was convinced when I hired them, ‘Oh my God, this guy or this girl is just going to be a rock star,’” O’Neill says. “And it turns out they weren’t. And then I’ve settled for people that turned out to be great. You have to recognize it’s sort of a ‘one plus one has to equal three’ situation. The one dynamic that you don’t know is what they are going to be like working here. They worked some place else, they did a great job and they have a great track record. But every organization is just a little bit different.”

If you bring someone in and it’s clear they aren’t working in their present position, and can’t really seem to find another position that fits them, you need to move them right back out.

“You demonstrate to people that you’re serious about it,” O’Neill says.

But before you take that drastic step, make sure you’ve given that person an honest chance to succeed. If your decision is based less on performance and more on a personality conflict between you and the individual, it could lead to problems down the road.

“You have to manage the personal chemistry part of it and the needs of the business and find the balance between the two,” O’Neill says. “If I’m here picking on someone I don’t like and making it personal and never taking them seriously because for some reason, I don’t like them, people are going to look at that and go, ‘Oh, well, that’s our culture here. You’re either in the in crowd or you’re not.’”

How to reach: Switch: Liberate Your Brand, (314) 206-7700 or www.liberateyourbrand.com

Think before you speak

Mike O’Neill likes to tell a story about Winston Churchill and a long speech the famous British politician once delivered.

“His handlers came up to him afterward and said, ‘Boy, that was a really long speech,’” says O’Neill, partner and CEO at Switch: Liberate Your Brand. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry I didn’t have enough time to prepare a short one.’ He meant it takes time to really focus things down and make those choices about what’s most important to talk about.”

When you’re looking to get your people engaged in some aspect of your business, you need to think before you speak.

“You have to be selective,” says the leader of the 100-employee experiential marketing agency. “You can’t have 10 priorities. If you have 10 priorities, you have no priorities. We try to really hone stuff down and say, ‘Here’s what we really want you to know and remember.’ We usually do that at the beginning of the year and then we get together at least once a quarter to update people on how the year is going.”

Pick things you want to focus on and then keep people informed about what’s happening in those areas.

“You’ve got to be really explicit about your objectives,” O’Neill says. “It’s getting everybody in the company feeling like they are working for the same company and going in the same direction.”

Published in St. Louis

As we make our way out of the worst economic downturn in our professional lifetimes, we are challenged to engage our organizations in the effort to turn the corner and achieve growth. Leaders have historically relied upon innovation, discipline and consistency to do so. In battling through the recession, many companies were forced to cut jobs, reduce spending and make significant changes to their organizational structure.

Conscious decisions were made to focus more on internal matters and spend less to service markets and customers.

But word travels fast in the world of Twitter and customers have immediate access to information about products and companies. This enables both customers and prospects to make better choices, often without sacrificing quality or service. To keep pace, you must adapt accordingly.

Engage your people

Leadership is vital for positioning the company, developing strategies that create value and engaging people to execute those plans. You must make appropriate investments in capacity and capability, innovation and talent. Communicate your vision and goals and be certain you have alignment throughout the organization.

Many organizations are trying to reinvigorate their employees after downsizing and focus them on growth. Be certain you have the right people with the right experiences to not only perform these duties but to enable you to compete effectively. Provide an environment and resources to motivate people to manage the complexities while strengthening the business. Engage them in the process while maintaining an effective dialogue to bolster their confidence. Not only will they succeed at their jobs, but they will also creatively seek out solutions to issues and find new opportunities for the organization.

Achieving growth is highly dependent on how you lead and what you focus on. You must lead the growth initiative. Be visible, engaging and in touch but avoid becoming too hands-on.

Open your eyes

One key point that seems to have been forgotten recently is competitive intelligence. You should never lose sight of where the market and competitors are going. The competition will always seek out new opportunities and innovation, especially if you remain idle. Comparing your capabilities with your competitor’s is very worthwhile.

You also need to stay in touch with your customers and have a good knowledge of how they operate and what is important to them. Find ways to engage your customers. Listen to them and gain an understanding of their views, challenges and opportunities. This will enable you to be more effective as a leader and will show the organization what you value. Determine firsthand how your products, programs and service affect overall customer satisfaction. Confirm that you are producing and providing these at a level that meets or exceeds their expectations.

Track your efforts

Growth takes determination and foresight. Seek out growth and consider new opportunities where your company can deliver value not only in traditional markets but also in adjacent markets and new verticals.

When you know where your company can deliver value, push to drive innovation and collaboration. Effective new product development capabilities are necessary to ensure the continued success and growth of the company. Without new products, the company cannot have continued revenue growth or stay current with the technological advances of its competitors. Building effective collaborations can facilitate speed to market, investment and creative thinking. You also must know where and how to collaborate to bolster your innovation capabilities. Evaluate your overall supply chain and determine what aspects you must own and control as opposed to being able to influence these areas to achieve your goals. Flexibility could be key to allowing you to react quickly to changing markets and dynamics.

Just as leaders and management initiated the cost management actions to survive the recession, they too must monitor leading indicators and lead the organization on its growth mission. Knowing where and how to compete, selecting the best talent, and driving innovation will ensure sustainable growth. Success requires fresh thinking, creativity, collaboration and continuous innovation at all levels of the organization. Once you find the necessary tools, you’ll find it a lot easier to achieve your desired growth.

Tony Arnold is founder and principal of Upfront Management, a St. Louis-based management and executive consulting firm. Utilizing C-suite experience as a CEO and executive experience in early-stage startup and Fortune 100 companies, he brings unique skills, insights and perspective to enable clients to improve business performance. Tony can be reached at (314) 825-9525 or tony@upfrontmgmt.com.

Published in St. Louis

If you asked your employees, would they be able to tell you your firm’s core objectives?

Do you know?

Simply put, a core objective is a critical force that drives the company. Yet every day businesses operate without a solid sense of their core objectives. Many companies don’t know the role core objectives play or how they form its underlying foundation.

It is a well-known fact that Southwest Airlines considers flight turnaround time to be one of its core objectives. Many Southwest decisions support this turnaround objective, including the hiring of in-house mechanics and cross training of all personnel. The flight and ground crews understand the importance of the objective and work together to ensure turnaround times are met, and because the objectives are measurable, flight-by-flight performance is published for all to see so teams clearly know if they have met their objectives, and they can make adjustments if they have not.

The reality is there are generally four or five objectives that drive each firm. Because every business is different, it’s important to identify which objectives are critical for your business and your customers. The further removed your core objectives are from your customers’, the more opportunity you provide a competitor to step in and close the gap. A good example is when the domestic automotive market let the Japanese step in between it and its customers. While quality was not a core objective in practice of the domestic automakers, it was for customers. So when Japanese automakers took advantage of this disconnect, they turned an entire industry on its head.

Once your firm has identified its four or five key objectives, there are several strategic mapping methods you can use to your match core and customer objectives. My firm uses a COAR map designed by CASE Weatherhead School of Management’s Sayan Chatterjee. It is designed to map the relationship between four areas: customer outcomes, company objectives, activities and resources.

Here’s an example of how this works:

Let’s say your entrepreneurial 10-year-old wants to earn some extra money this summer by operating a lemonade stand.  If we asked a 10-year-old (and we did) what his or her core objectives would be, the answer might be: Repeat customers, great lemonade and make a profit.

If we asked the 10-year-old’s customers for their core objectives, they might say: Lemonade that is readily available, great taste and reasonable prices.

In this case, the 10-year-old’s core objectives match the customer’s objectives. With the objectives in hand, effective activities follow easily: recipe, location and cost-effective supplies. Every decision this 10-year-old makes should then align with the established core objectives. If your company’s core objectives are to make a profit and enjoy repeat customer business by selling superior lawn services, the activities and resources that you assign to ensure you have superior lawn services will determine how successful you’ll be in achieving repeat business.

We like the COAR map because it illustrates the interconnections between the customer and the company’s objectives, the core metrics that we should track and the financial allocations for activities and resources that support the objectives. Understanding the connections between customer and corporate objectives, activities and resources is imperative for long-term business success. Once you’ve aligned these connections, you’ll have a good handle on the driving forces at work within your firm.

Victoria Tifft is founder and CEO of Clinical Research Management, a full-service contract research organization that offers early- to late-stage clinical research services to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. She can be reached at vtifft@clinicalrm.com.

Published in Akron/Canton

Let’s say you can pitch your business like Moses delivering the Ten Commandments ? your passion and energy will make a believer of just about anybody. Unfortunately, there is only one of you, and there are multitudes of people who need to hear your message. 

Yes, technology has changed business communication, but one fact remains as true for you as it was for Moses: nothing beats word of mouth. For that, you need people – advocates ? and you need to arm those advocates with memorable messages about your organization.

Who are your potential advocates? Any person within your company or outside of it who can speak on your behalf ? customers, vendors, clients, employees, salespeople, service reps and so forth. Advocates are invaluable when you’re implementing a particular strategy or promoting a new product or service. But just as important, advocates can build ongoing buzz for your business by passing along positive messages about your company whenever the opportunity arises.

To arm your advocates most effectively, think like a politician. Give your advocates talking points ? succinct, specific messages that support the larger story. You can give different advocates different talking points, but don’t give any one person more than three. The following types of talking points are especially memorable and persuasive.

Statistics, trends, and other numbers 

People remember numbers, whether it’s calories or horsepower or hamburgers served. To find the numbers just mine your own data. Has business increased 20 percent each year? Did you receive 15 e-mails from satisfied customers in a single month? Do you have 36 positive ratings on Yelp? Are 80 percent of your clientele return customers?  If your business is too new to have impressive numbers of its own, broaden your search to the field. Find statistics that support the cost-effectiveness or other benefits of businesses like yours.

Third-party validation

Politicians seek endorsements of influential groups and individuals to add credibility to their campaigns. Third-party validation is just as effective in promoting your business. Within your organization, that might mean a vote of confidence from various departments or from clients; but keep in mind that it must be specific. Telling your employees that you’re getting positive customer feedback is nice, but vague. Instead, give your team leaders specific talking points to pass along, such as, “The president of Able Corp. said this was the fastest turnaround of any company he’s hired. He’s thrilled.”  For advocates who will be spreading the word to the outside world, think like a movie marketer and provide “blurbs” from your most impressive clients or from positive coverage in print or on web sites. Comb consumer review sites for memorable quotes that you can turn into talking points. For example, “One customer called us the da Vinci of carpet cleaners.” Obviously, awards you have won are the most succinct and impressive type of third-party validation.

Track record

The longer you have been in business, the more talking points you can develop from your track record. Have you been in the same location for 10 years? Have you met every deadline for the past six months? Is yours a family business that goes back two generations? Encourage your best customers and clients to visit sites like Yelp and Angie’s List, where their positive reviews will build an instant track record if your business is new or fortify your track record if you are already established.

It’s worth taking the time to brainstorm talking points about your business in general, particularly important upcoming projects, as well as to list all the people who could be your advocates. Keep in mind that the folks your advocates talk to will also be able to spread the word, meaning they will then become your advocates. That’s why your talking points must be easy to remember. Keep them brief and use a colorful quote or a specific number to make them go a long way.

Chris St. Hilaire is the author (with Lynette Padwa) of 27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences and Win Allies (Prentice Hall Press). He is an award-winning message strategist who has developed communications programs for some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, legal teams, and politicians. Reach him at csthilaire@m4strategies.com

Published in Los Angeles

Eric Graf, president and CEO of Ritzman Pharmacies Inc., had to make the tough decision to close a store and combine two others because of the economy. However, Graf didn’t turn his back on those employees and found ways to retain them for when good times returned.

Graf, who leads 160 employees at the pharmaceutical company, understands sacrifices have to be made in business. He also knows that when times are tough you have to be strong and resilient.

“Like everyone else, we had to look at our business units and look where there was profitability and where there was not and where we could make better use of that,” Graf says. “Fortunately, we had some positive solutions to those challenges.”

Graf says the process wasn’t easy, but his decisions paid off in the end.

Smart Business spoke to Graf about how to handle the good and the bad in business.

How did you keep morale up as you were eliminating stores?

We were very cognizant of the impact to our employee morale within the company. Fortunately, as we downsized, we also knew that we had this startup, cold-start opportunity in a new location. So we bit the bullet and retained all those associates from the closed business unit from December until April when we opened the new business unit. That was huge in speaking to our people. You try to be upfront. You try to be present and not sitting way in the back so that you’re available and putting your face on things. You have to express things to them one on one rather than through memos. You have to make sure you have a presence with the associates.

What is important to keep in mind during tough times?

You have to stay with your core beliefs, your vision, mission and your core values. You try to live those as best you can. Those values serve you well in positive times when you’re asking for more because you’re short-staffed because growth is coming faster than you can keep up with. But it also serves you well in the negative times when you are making adjustments that can impact you negatively.

How do you keep employees informed about what’s going on within the company?

One of the things we do … is we publish our financial information throughout the organization. Everybody sees our revenue, our cost of goods, all of our top-line issues compared to budget, compared to prior year — they see those on a weekly basis. When it came time to close that store, there was no mystery. Everybody had seen the sales taking a dive and had seen that how could the store become financially viable. When they see that trend compared to other trends or other stores, they realize that something needs to happen there. That openness with financial information is very critical and people knowing and understanding why you’re making the decisions that you’re making is important.

What helped you recover from tough times?

It’s always key, especially as times get tighter and tougher, that you have strong vendor relationships. A vendor relationship is very much a two-way interaction. Whether it’s a good day or a bad day … you need to negotiate smart, not just strong. I recently read a quote from Indira Gandi that said, ‘Old leadership used to be about muscles and new leadership is about people and relationships.’ So while you’re striving to get a good cost and a fair deal, you need to be bringing value to them in terms of what you’re seeing in the marketplace. You need to be giving them feedback to improve themselves.

When you started seeing success again, how did you maintain it?

You have to build on that foundation. You have a heritage of different key strengths and that goes back to your mission, vision and core values. You look at the reasons for success and it comes down to your associates and how you serve your customers and what your priorities are there and how you deploy your assets.

Even though things are a little tougher, you have to look for those people who can get out there and find more opportunity and develop more business for you instead of pulling back on that.

HOW TO REACH: Ritzman Pharmacies Inc., (330) 335-2318 or www.ritzmanrx.com

Published in Akron/Canton

From Brian L. Davidoff’s perspective, leaders lean toward two extremes — autocratic or democratic. Their organizations, then, are either flat or pyramidal.

He aims for the middle at Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff Inc.

“If it’s too flat, you can’t get decisions made and it takes too long,” says the law firm’s managing director. “If the pyramid is too steep, you aren’t hearing the feedback sufficiently of the other folks. Good managerial decisions are the culmination of input from the balance of the organization.”

The law firm started out purely democratic about 35 years ago. But as it grew and young lawyers brought new perspectives, Davidoff realized not everyone would reach consensus on every issue.

Here’s how he manages his firm by considering every voice.

Spread the responsibility

When we look at younger lawyers or lateral partners to bring in, we look at people who can develop a book of business. We’re really hoping that the person that we bring in, ultimately, will become our longtime partner. One of the key elements of that is either that person has, if they’re more senior, or if they’re a junior lawyer, that we think they have the capability to develop a book of business.

All of our partners generate business. Many law firms … are structured where you have two, three, maybe half a dozen people who are the apex of the pyramid, and all the work flows down through them — that is not our structure. That has given our firm a lot of stability, and that — particularly in these turbulent economic times — has been attractive to other lawyers when they see if just one person left, the firm’s not going to fail.

Manage for the future

Many smaller firms have failed because of a model where you have two or three senior folks who generate the business who have not done a good job of transitioning the operation of the business to a younger generation. A lot of my job is making sure that the younger folks get into managerial roles at the firm so that when my generation’s no longer around, there’s someone else there. What we do is manage for the future.

Part of it is bringing them into various organizational committees in the firm. For example, we have a firm retreat coming up and the default might have been (having) myself organize the whole thing or maybe one of my senior partners. But what we did was we brought in one of our younger partners. He’s not doing it blindly by himself —obviously, I’m actively involved in that — but he is the one who’s responsible for putting it all together with our input, and that’s given him insight into the firm about, ‘Oh, this is there, that’s there, these structures are in place.’

Give newcomers voices

When we bring new people in, I ask them after they’ve been here for three or four months for their best practices: What have they seen in other organizations that we could do better? You really have to be open to hearing the alternatives, not to have a paradigm that, ‘This is the way it was, so this is the way it has to be.’ If you’re open to those possibilities and alternatives, you’re going to have a more successful organization.

It doesn’t mean that you swerve one way or the other. You need to have a stable ship. But you need to chart a course that has the voices of everybody.

You need to have a decision-making process, but you need to hear what’s being said and that, to me, is the key element. Making the decision is actually not that difficult if you’re open to hearing what’s being said.

Having other people know that you have heard what they’ve said [matters]. You aren’t always going to agree with them, but if they’ve had an opportunity to state their piece, that goes a long way to building consensus even if you don’t agree with them because the next time you’ve got to reach an issue, the fact that they’ve been heard is key. The ultimate decision of management is really a conglomeration of what everyone’s voices are. You’re going to have a whole lot different input and ultimately management needs to chart a course, but it shouldn’t be a course that they’ve independently set.

How to reach: Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff Inc., (310) 286-1700 or www.rutterhobbs.com

Published in Los Angeles

When Jeffrey Prough founded Critical Signal Technologies Inc. (CST) in 2006, he had just a handful of investors to back the health care technology startup.

The problem wasn’t convincing people of his vision -- applying technology to provide cost-effective health care solutions that give older adults, the disabled and chronically ill more autonomy -- but that the industry was still relatively new. However, Prough knew there was a substantial void in the health care industry when it came to serving the needs of aging baby boomers.

Prough founded CST as a provider of 24-hour personal emergency response (PERS) monitoring and related services for the elderly and disabled. He wanted to move away from the mindset of traditional health care, which focused on creating new programs and systems, and instead use technology-based solutions to address issues of the aging population. With its in-home and early intervention technology, for instance, CST reduces the need for hospital readmissions and emergency care measures, making health care more affordable and giving users more independence.

By showing the value of new technology advancements in health care for the elderly and disabled, Prough leveraged his knowledge and vision to play a key role in improving health care for these groups. As president and CEO of CST, he has led the company’s expansion to gain customers in all 50 states, as well as in Puerto Rico and Canada.

In 2009, Prough oversaw the acquisition of Link to Life, a 30-year-old PERS provider, and today, CST your Link to Life is the largest privately held PERS provider in North America. And in 2010, CST achieved an organic growth rate of more than 20 percent.

How to reach: Critical Signal Technologies Inc., (888) 557-4462 or www.cstltl.com

Published in Detroit

When Jeffrey Prough founded Critical Signal Technologies Inc. (CST) in 2006, he had just a handful of investors to back the health care technology startup.

The problem wasn’t convincing people of his vision -- applying technology to provide cost-effective health care solutions that give older adults, the disabled and chronically ill more autonomy -- but that the industry was still relatively new. However, Prough knew there was a substantial void in the health care industry when it came to serving the needs of aging baby boomers.

Prough founded CST as a provider of 24-hour personal emergency response (PERS) monitoring and related services for the elderly and disabled. He wanted to move away from the mindset of traditional health care, which focused on creating new programs and systems, and instead use technology-based solutions to address issues of the aging population. With its in-home and early intervention technology, for instance, CST reduces the need for hospital readmissions and emergency care measures, making health care more affordable and giving users more independence.

By showing the value of new technology advancements in health care for the elderly and disabled, Prough leveraged his knowledge and vision to play a key role in improving health care for these groups. As president and CEO of CST, he has led the company’s expansion to gain customers in all 50 states, as well as in Puerto Rico and Canada.

In 2009, Prough oversaw the acquisition of Link to Life, a 30-year-old PERS provider, and today, CST your Link to Life is the largest privately held PERS provider in North America. And in 2010, CST achieved an organic growth rate of more than 20 percent.

How to reach: Critical Signal Technologies Inc., (888) 557-4462 or www.cstltl.com

Published in Detroit

If you asked to see Mariani Landscape’s projects, CEO Frank Mariani would showcase the best he has to offer.

One day, hopefully, he’ll offer more.

“When we have reached mecca will be when I can tell you, ‘Here’s my entire book of business. Open the pages and stick your finger on a name, and we’ll go see that job, because every job is perfect,’” Mariani says. “Some people might think that’s unrealistic; I’m driven by that.”

That drive has already helped Mariani expand in services and size. He took over the family namesake when father and founder Vito passed away in 1973, leaving nine employees. Today, the company has 420 employees.

Smart Business asked Mariani how to grow and improve your company.

How do you communicate as you grow?

We have town-hall meetings about every eight weeks where we encourage everybody to come have pizza and we give a state of the union. Especially right now, it’s important because people are afraid for their jobs.

It allows people to get inside our head and understand what we’re thinking about, and hopefully, we can get an idea what they’re thinking about. An easy (issue) to look at right now would be the state of the economy and what we need to do to stay focused so that we can keep our team intact.

We open it up for discussion. People can raise any issue. If no one is attacked for their ideas, it will encourage participation. It takes awhile to build that trust. By shaking hands and having a cup of coffee with them, people are going to open up. If you make yourself available, they’ll let you know what’s on their minds. If you hide in your office, you won’t know what’s happening in your company.

What role have employees played in Mariani’s growth?

As we’ve grown the company, we’ve been able to add more expertise and offer our clients a better product, so it really is a win-win. To grow only for our clients and (not) benefit our associates would be a mistake. To grow for the associates without benefiting the clients would be a mistake.

When somebody comes in and interviews for a position here, we tell them, ‘If you have great ideas, let us know.’ Therefore, our company — which originally was strictly a maintenance company — grew to be landscape design, landscape architecture, landscape construction, then we brought somebody in who had expertise in perennials (and) started growing. All these types of things offer opportunity, which, in turn, allows growth, which, in turn, allows financial stability and opportunity for associates.

How did you position what was a small family-owned business for the growth you’ve seen?

A lot of it has to do with ego. I’m not embarrassed to say I really don’t want to be second.

We have an open-door policy, not only amongst our associates but actually for our peers in the industry. We encourage other landscape companies, ‘Bring your staff in and see how we go about doing business.’ It makes us sharpen the way we go about doing business because they’re going to see the work we do in the field, they’re going to see what our offices are like, so you put a little bit more spit and shine and polish on everything.

I’ve attended tours of other landscape companies and you go in there and it looks like a movie set where you see the fronts of the buildings, but when you walk in the door, there’s nothing behind it. I used to say to myself, ‘This is insulting.’ I’m proud of what we have here.

If somebody becomes better because of what they saw here, that forces us to take it to the next level. The more we can take it to the next level, the next level, the next level, the entire green industry benefits — so does Mariani Landscape, as long as we’re up to meeting that challenge. There’s nothing to hide; there’s only things to celebrate.

How to reach: Mariani Landscape, (847) 234-2172 or www.marianilandscape.com

Published in Chicago

At a well-known Ivy League school, a prestigious new science center was to be built on the north end of campus. The price tag: $260 million. Three major construction companies were neck and neck to win the job. The primary decision-maker for the university, Alice Dvorak, communicated that the winner would be selected based on strength of team connection.

The first two presentations involved each contractor discussing its own “unique experience and approach to building.” Then, the general manager for the third contractor began his presentation.

“Dr. Dvorak, Dr. Avery, President Chambers, Vice President Allen and Madam Jameson, my name is Robert Allen, and on behalf of Elliott Construction Company, we are honored to be considered for the Leonard T. Abraham School of Sciences project.”

At that moment, the energy changed based purely on the warmth in Robert Allen’s approach. He smiled, he had a friendly, confident tone and he looked each committee member in the eyes. But Robert Allen did something that neither of his competitors considered. He addressed everyone, as well as the project itself, by name.

How are you at remembering people’s names? Fantastic? Not so hot? Embarrassingly bad?

If you are like most people, you’ve checked off either B or C. What typically comes next is a litany of excuses like, “I’m good at faces but not names,” or “I just have a block, and I’ll never be good.”

There are a plethora of reasons why we forget names, but truth is, none of them matter. To the people whose names you can’t recall, your connection with them is less effective than when you do. The following are five simple rules for names that require commitment and repetition. The results are well worth it.

Ask people their name

How many times have you been to the same church, bar or gym, see the same people and never bother to introduce yourself? Think of the personal connections and professional opportunities you could be passing up. Make asking names a priority.

Spell and pronounce names correctly

These go together because they require similar efforts in clarifying, not assuming, for accuracy. Taking time to assure the correct spelling and pronunciation is something to attend to in fine detail.

Ask again when you forget

This may be the most underused tool because most of us tend to forget names immediately. By asking a name again, you are simply informing people that you want to value and respect them.

Remember

To lock names into your mental hard drive, use all tools possible, which can include rhymes like “Dan the man,” or associations like, “Rhonda from Reno.” Write names down, repeat them out loud, repeat them to yourself. Work hard, and you will get in better name shape.

Use them or lose them

When your name is called as someone who contributed to the success of a great team effort, it feels great. When your daughter’s name is on the Dean’s list, it looks like a work of art. Knowing names increases your confidence, makes others feel valued and is a competitive advantage in business. In writing, on the phone and in person, use people’s names.

In the case of Robert Allen’s presentation to Ivy U, it is comical to think that knowing people’s names alone could win a $260 million project. Experience, knowledge and a cogent strategy must be intact. However, the execution of these components involves making a likeable, trusted connection with decision-makers. Make names your first connection.

Joe Takash is the president of Victory Consulting, a Chicago-based executive and organizational development firm. He advises clients on leadership strategies and has helped executives prepare for $3 billion worth of sales presentations. He is a keynote speaker for executive retreats, sales meetings and management conferences and has appeared in numerous media outlets. Learn more at www.victoryconsulting.com.

Published in Chicago