According to experts, 85 to 95 percent of new products launched each year are failures. But since companies regularly consider industry data, market intelligence and relevant expertise as part of the decision-making process, these high failure rates are not likely due to a lack of information.
Rather, they are due to defects in our internal mental processes — flaws in the way we gather and process information that often go unnoticed and unaddressed. Here are three that can unknowingly create a virtual “mind field” of risk for business decisions such as new product launches.
1. Influence of the boss: Determining the level of sufficiency based on the source
In business, there are specific results that our boss or other stakeholders desire, and we attach strong feelings to achieving them. For example, if our boss has a significant attachment to launching a new product, we may spend disproportionately more time seeking information that validates the boss’s view than searching for information that conflicts with the boss’s desire.
As a result, we unconsciously go about gathering information under the boss’s influence and create an environment for faulty decisions. We end up living with the unrealistic but confident sense that we have figured out the way things are and that we have done that objectively. And if decisions do not go well, we find comfort that we can always blame our boss later.
2. Snap-judgment defense: The tendency to unreasonably defend decisions made solely on snap judgments
Due to the hard-wired threat response in our brain, we make rapid judgments about what is happening, which allows us to quickly determine what information is most relevant and then take speedy action. This is helpful when the threat is physical and we must act without delay.
But in business, we often find it easy to lose track of how quickly we are judging a situation or how much we’ve explained away.
Since we associate leadership with decisiveness, being decisive becomes a self-driven attribute causing us to focus solely on explaining and defending our snap judgment. Our logic circuits shut down and we are unable to objectively consider points of view that conflict with our own.
3. Shooting the critics: The tendency to marginalize people who disagree with us
Leaders know that any decision they make is subject to their judgment being questioned. And whether they’re fully aware of it or not, they’re really not in the market to have their decisions, beliefs and choices questioned.
Whether we are team leaders or CEOs, we subconsciously develop the tendency to marginalize people who disagree with us. When this happens, people stop telling the truth. They avoid rocking the boat and just quietly stay out of the line of fire.
The solution to this problem requires the courage to challenge our own thoughts. When these flaws in thinking are deeply entrenched, companies are at significant risk of being displaced by competitors, new technology and novel business models. By pausing to look for these cognitive defects, leaders can make better decisions, avoid problems, reduce risk, improve outcomes and never have to lament, “What was I thinking when I made that decision?”
Larry J. Bloom spent 30-plus years helping grow a small family business to more than $700 million in revenue. He is a consultant, the author of “The Cure for Corporate Stupidity: Avoid the Mind-Bugs that Cause Smart People to Make Bad Decisions,” and the owner of a start-up media and software company that promotes better thinking. For more information, visit www.curecorporatestupidity.com.
Companies typically want to do what’s right for those they serve. Key priorities should be customers, investors, employees and the communities in which the company is located — but not necessarily always in this order. The dilemma, however, is that many times short-term decisions can prove to be long-term problems that cause more pain than the initial gain.
It’s difficult to make all constituents happy every time. As a result, management must prioritize decisions with a clear understanding that each action has ramifications, which could manifest themselves in the short, intermediate or long term. Seldom does a single decision serve all of the same timelines. There are no easy answers and anyone who has spent even a short amount of time running a business has already learned this fact of life. So what’s a leader to do?
It’s a sure bet that investors want a better return, employees want more money and benefits, and customers want better quality products, higher levels of service and, oh yes, lower prices. This simply all goes with the territory and is a part of the game. The problem can be that, most times, it’s hard to give without taking something away from someone else. Here are a couple of examples.
Take the case of deciding to improve employee compensation packages. Ask the auto companies what happened when they added a multitude of perks over the years, as demanded by the unions? The auto titans thought they didn’t have much choice, lest they run the risk of alienating their gigantic workforces. History has shown us the ramifications of their actions as the majority of these manufacturers came close to going belly up, which would have resulted in huge job losses and an economic tsunami.
Basic math caused the problems. The prices charged for cars could not cover all of the legacy costs that accrued over the years, much like barnacles building up on the bottom of a ship to the point where the ship could sink from the weight. Hindsight is 20/20, and, of course, the auto companies should have been more circumspect about creating benefit packages that could not be sustained. Yes, the employees received an increase to their standard of living for a time anyway, but at the end of the day, a company cannot spend more than it takes in and stay in business for long.
Investors in public companies can present a different set of problems because they can have divergent objectives. There are the buy-and-hold investors, albeit a shrinking breed, who understand that for a company to have long-term success, it must invest in the present to build for the future. The term “immediate gratification” is not in their lexicon; they’re in it for the long haul. Another type of investor might know or care little about a company’s future, other than whether its earnings per share beat Wall Street estimates. These investors buy low and sell high, sometimes flipping the stock in hours or days. And, actually, both types are doing what’s right for them. The issue becomes how to serve the needs and goals of both groups. When a company effectively articulates its strategy, it tends to attract the right type of investors who are buying in for the right reason. This will avoid enticing the wrong investors who turn hostile because they want something that the company won’t deliver.
When interviewing and before hiring employees, it is imperative that candidates know where the company wants to go and how it plans to get there. Many times, this means telling the prospective newbie that the short-term compensation and benefits may not be as good as the competitors’ down the street, but in the longer term, the company anticipates being able to significantly enhance employee packages, with the objective of eventually outmatching the best payers because of the investments in equipment being made today.
The key to satisfying employees (present and prospective), investors, et al, is communicating the types of decisions a company will make over a specific period of time. Communication from the get-go is integral to the rules of engagement and can alleviate huge problems that can otherwise lead to dissatisfaction.
Knowing what is right for your company, based on your stated plan that has been well-communicated, will help ensure that you do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons.
Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at email@example.com.
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Dwight Smith is not ashamed or embarrassed that his Christian views drive his behavior in his business, Sophisticated Systems Inc., a supplier of information and technology solutions.
“This business is part of my testimony,” the CEO says. “So the blessings that the Lord gives me, if I live according to His will, will come to me and through me to others. I really believe in it.
“I am a very committed person. What that means is I pray about the business plan. I pray over the business every day.”
When Smith puts his life and work in God’s hands, he knows God then uses him.
“I believe in servant leadership,” Smith says. “And I think that when things go poorly, the leader should be front and center. When things go really well, the leader should be invisible.”
A serious business situation taught him that lesson. Smith’s company was about 10 years old, doing well and business was good. Then the red ink appeared, and he had to do some soul searching to find a solution.
“We had a terrible year; we lost almost $700,000,” he says. “When you are losing money that fast, that means you are borrowing money to keep afloat. So just imagine after being in business 10 years, waking up and you are $2 million in debt. And you just had a $700,000 loss.
“I remember getting on my knees and praying, ‘Lord, I’ve messed up your business. I have messed up my business. Will you take it and fix it?’”
Then he waited. He didn’t tell the people in the company the business was losing money until later. Smith didn’t want to panic them and felt confident that with some divine help, he could get out of the situation. With patience and some careful management, things started to look brighter.
“A year or so went by, and we turned it around, and we were making money again,” Smith says.
At that point, he called for a company meeting and made a confession.
“I said to the people, ‘A year or so ago, we almost lost everything,’ and I was looking at the audience, and they were horrified,” Smith says. “So I said to them, ‘How many people in this room tonight would’ve wanted to know that your company was struggling, that we were in bad shape?’ Every single hand in the room went up — and I didn’t know what to say.”
Smith explained that his experience working for IBM had taught him to share information only on a need-to-know basis.
“I just didn’t think the people needed to know,” he says. “I said, ‘The other thing is, I consider this to be a family, a big old family. So I’m the parent and you’re the child, and I’m protecting the children from bad things. I apologize. If we ever go through this again, I will be more open.’”
The following year, the company paid off the $2.1 million in debt and had a $300,000 profit. It didn’t borrow again after that for seven years.
When he heard the support from the employees at the company meeting, it got the ball rolling for another positive change in Sophisticated Systems.
“I can’t believe how many people have believed in this business, who have supported me through thick and thin, who would’ve always been there,” he says. “It is said, ‘For whom much is given, much is required,’ and that is because so many people have given to me, and I’ve asked for absolutely nothing in return.”
Smith, grateful for the support (some employees even offered to take a pay cut to keep the doors open), decided the company should pursue an employee stock ownership plan.
“I think that was the best decision I ever made — sharing the ownership with people whom I care about and whom care about their business, our business,” he says. “Why would the people who work here, who create the wealth and the value — why shouldn’t they be owners? They behave like owners. We ought to do that.”
Employees now own 40 percent of the company, and Smith owns the rest.
Smith is committed to causes outside his company as well. He and his wife, Reneé, founded the Thanks Be to God Foundation to support entrepreneurship and children across the globe. Last year, Smith went to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds. He made it to the summit in 10 days.
“We were hoping to raise $15,000,” he says. “The community came forward, and we raised $60,000 for the climb. All the stuff that I do, I kind of feel like Forrest Gump, where Forrest just ends up in all places at all times. That just made life so enjoyable, so overwhelming. It was such a humbling experience.”
A few of the organizations that have received support through the foundation include Big Brothers/Big Sisters, The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Campus Crusade for Christ, The TBTG Scholarship fund and others. ?
How to reach: Sophisticated Systems Inc., (614) 418-4600 or www.ssicom.com
There’s an old saying that nothing can happen until a sale is made. Certainly sales is not the only area of business that needs to be addressed while working toward building profits, but because of the urgency of today’s economic times, sales are top of mind for CEOs everywhere.
“If you’re trying to make an immediate impact in your company and build momentum toward growth, sales is a perfect place to begin,” says Wes Phillips, Orange Label Art + Advertising.
Smart Business asked Phillips and Rochelle Reiter, agency principals at Orange Label Art + Advertising, to clarify who is responsible for what when a company’s sales are on the line, and how those roles can best prepare their organization for success.
What are the CEO’s responsibilities in regard to sales?
The CEO has a responsibility to 1) drive profit and build value as it relates to the sales function – to ensure the right team is in place and supply support so there can be strong sales at higher margins; 2) ensure that the existing customer base is immune to the activities of competitors; 3) put systems in place for managing ongoing sales to the existing base; and 4) create a selling environment that combats commodity selling.
The first and fourth areas are the places where CEOs can make a difference right now.
How can a CEO evaluate and maximize the sales team’s activities?
The quickest way is to go on a sales call and let the salesperson do all the talking. Listen to what they are saying not only from a content standpoint, but also in terms of delivery. Is he or she confident? How are objections addressed? Spend a full day or week in the field to get a sense of what is going on in the market and what the reps are doing and how it’s resonating, and then go back and retool or refine the script. You may even identify things about the product itself that need improvement.
When you return to the office, consider what is ‘working’ in the field. Define what ‘working’ means, and then create SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) goals with and for the team. Put the goals in place and measure them on an ongoing basis. Even if the salespeople are engaged, there may be a gap between what they are achieving and what the objectives are. So be sure the goals are clear and that you’ve communicated them to the entire team.
How can the CEO ensure that the sales team is equipped with the most effective tools and materials?
The first step is to ask them what they need. It might be more traditional tools such as brochures or one-page fliers. Or it might be digital tools, such as e-newsletters — anything that can promote constant contact with customers and prospects. They might need a better database to draw from and for following up with prospect. Maybe they need to be better backed with a solid brand identity, better sales support, or advertising and marketing.
When asked what they need, salespeople will almost always say ‘lower prices.’ That is to be expected, but it’s rarely the thing to be managed first. Keep the focus on what you can do to keep leads warm and how you can equip the team to make contact last longer.
What is the role of the VP of sales or head of the sales department?
It’s up to the CEO to give accountability standards to the VP of sales, who is then responsible for developing the tactics. This person collaborates with salespeople and monitors their activity; identifies and addresses any performance gaps; ensures that salespeople are matched up with the appropriate accounts; ensures the efficiency of the farming cycle and works to improve it; works to increase the number of leads within the existing budget and the number of conversions; identifies purchase and buying trends in the market; and consistently interviews for new salespeople to ensure that the pipeline of talent is never empty.
The VP of sales is also responsible for training, recognition, and keeping the team motivated and productive. He or she should create an environment that is encouraging and that defines and rewards success.
What is the best way to shift the culture toward cultivating sales or new business?
Share new business with the entire team. Celebrate successes. Recognize areas for improvement. Hold brainstorming sessions across departments and ask for ideas to generate sales. Develop incentive programs — not just for salespeople, but for all employees. Make sure the team is generating new sales from the existing base and that your customers know everything you offer. Look at the systems in place in every department and identify ways to streamline them so they don’t get in the way of making sales.
Make it easy to buy from you. The net result will be happier, more loyal customers and your salespeople will have more time to sell.
WES PHILLIPS and ROCHELLE REITER are the agency principals of Orange Label Art + Advertising. Reach them at (949) 631-9900 or firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
There’s a lot of talk about core competencies in the business world, but people often don’t understand what the term really means.
Some CEOs think their core competencies are the things that generate revenue, so they set off on a wild goose chase of looking for the next great thing in areas where they have no expertise. A true core competency is typically defined as having three general traits: It’s hard for competitors to imitate, it can be leveraged widely across products and markets, and it provides benefit to the consumer.
For example, at Smart Business Network, our core competency is content. We started off as just magazines, providing content tailored to CEOs and other senior-level decision-makers. But as the market started to evolve from analog to digital, we changed with it. Our core competency of content didn’t change, just the way we presented it. We moved into events (presenting content via live speakers), e-mail newsletters (presenting content on a certain topic to a narrow niche), webinars (presenting content via interaction with an editor and subject-matter experts), custom magazines (presenting content from experts to their constituents) and websites (presenting content in digital form.) The common thread among all of these is content.
Content for us meets the three components of a core competency. It’s hard for competitors to imitate what we do because we have a 20-year track record of working with some of the top CEOs in the country to provide insight, advice and strategy to other leaders. The popularity of our magazines with senior-level executives gives us the access that others cannot duplicate. As illustrated by the number of places where our content is delivered, it’s being applied across several products and markets. And finally, our content provides a benefit to both the buyer and the consumer — the buyer gets a professional message delivered to a specific audience, while consumers get information that helps them run their businesses better.
It’s OK to change your products, just don’t change your core competency. We evolved from a magazine-only approach to deal with changing technology. People were consuming information from areas outside of print, and we had to adapt to survive. But through all the incarnations, we never lost sight that, for us, content is king.
Think of your product the way Coca-Cola looks at its soda. If you want a Coke, you can find a vending machine and get a 16-oz. bottle. You can go to the grocery store and buy a 12 pack of cans. Or if you are at a ball game, you can buy a cup from one of the vendors. It’s the same product delivered in a variety of ways. Wherever the consumer wants a Coke, there’s a way to get it.
This is similar to how we have approached content. If you want it in print, we do that. If you want it digitally through a website, we do that. If you prefer e-mail newsletters or microsites, that’s not a problem either. Custom content? We provide that, too.
Now look at your product or service. Are you making it available in every way possible? Are there avenues where customers are looking for your service that you haven’t taken advantage of? Would Coke be as successful if the only way to buy it was in a can from the local store? No. Are you limiting your own success by limiting the ways your product is distributed?
And in a similar vein, are you going outside of your core competency? Coke is a beverage company. It has its flagship products and has added on flavored waters and sport drinks as consumer tastes have evolved. But those market changes were dealt with by staying with its core competency. When people started becoming more health conscious, the company found a way to provide healthier drinks; it didn’t start a line of health clubs.
There are many other examples of companies that leverage their expertise without deviating from their core competency: UPS applies its logistics expertise through consulting and management services for clients; Dunkin’ Donuts sells its popular coffee in grocery stores.
If you truly understand what you do best and can find ways to apply it across multiple markets, success will naturally follow. Just be true to who you are and stick with your core competencies.
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.
In the sports world, there is a clearly defined champion each year. Every team strives to be the one that finishes on top, but most don’t make it. Many teams have good seasons and might be satisfied with that, but only one is the true No. 1.
The question to ask yourself is, what is your goal? Are you trying to be the No. 1 player in your industry? Or are you happy with just having the equivalent of a good season? A lot of you might say you are aiming for No. 1, but are you really putting in the effort to get there? Is everything you do focused on obtaining that goal?
Tiger Woods, Steve Jobs, Jack Welch and Warren Buffett know what it takes to win.
Building a championship team in any industry, whether it’s sports or business, is a full-time effort. Here are four observations on what it takes to get to the top.
Continuous improvement. Tiger Woods has a coach. One of the best golfers in our lifetime has a coach and works with him to get better. The coach challenges his thinking, pushes him to go further and doesn’t let him get complacent. Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you can’t get better. The road to the top requires long hours of identifying every flaw in your organization and then working tirelessly to eliminate that flaw. Once you are on top, you have to work even harder, because all of your competitors will be using your success as the new benchmark. If you don’t work to improve even more, you’ll drop back to the middle of the pack. The day you think you know everything is the day you start to decline.
Look ahead. Winners identify trends before anyone else and are able to take advantage of that knowledge. If you are working on continuous improvement, you’ll obtain what you need to move quicker than your competitors. Why? Because you will have networked more than the next guy, talked to more of your customers and interacted with your employees on the front lines. You will have spent more time analyzing the data and reading up on the latest trends. When you put all this information together, you’ll start to see patterns that you can take advantage of. Steve Jobs of Apple has been ahead of the competition with almost every product he’s launched. In fact, some of his few failures have been partly because he was too far ahead of everyone and the market wasn’t ready yet. Jobs is able to look at consumer needs and combine that with technology trends to create new best-in-class products.
Desire. This one is simple. If you don’t have the desire to be No. 1, then don’t expect to be No. 1. To be a champion, you have to have the heart of a champion. Maybe this is something you are born with or maybe it is learned. Either way, if you don’t have it, you’ll never be the best. Jack Welch wanted to be at the top of everything he did. If he wasn’t going to win, then he had no problem selling off business segments and using the resources to build a champion in another area. There’s nothing wrong with just being a “good” business, but don’t try to fool yourself by saying you want to be the best when you don’t really have the desire to do what it takes to get there.
Commitment. One clue that you might be lacking the desire to be the best in your industry is a lack of commitment. If you are only working 40 hours a week, you are probably not committed to being No. 1. With the talent level of the CEOs who are out there, it would be almost impossible to work fewer hours than they do and expect to beat them. You have to be willing to outwork the competition and do whatever it takes to win. Warren Buffett would often start his day at 4:30 a.m., and he also saved $1,000 by the time he was 14 — a lot of money back in the 1940s. He was committed at an early age to being a success. Long hours and hard work are mile posts on the road to a championship. Do you have what it takes to win it all?
FRED KOURY is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800) 988-4726 or email@example.com.
If you had the chance to share with your peers a great way to handle a particular business problem, would you do it? Most of us would say yes, because most people like to help others and share their successes.
For instance, Michael Feuer, the founder of OfficeMax and our longtime columnist, has a book available this month that shares more than 40 business lessons he has learned while taking his company from a startup to more than $5 billion in sales. He covers everything from getting through the startup phase to selling a business. No matter what phase of business you are in, there are best practices that you can learn from someone who has already been there.
I’m proud to say that this book is from our book division, where we help top leaders translate their ideas into print.
These books aren’t about bragging about successes — they are about helping others learn lessons that can be slow and difficult to learn without guidance. Think of them more like business textbooks where you are the professor, helping people eager to learn or grasp complex issues.
Even longtime CEOs of highly successful companies are always on the lookout for new ways to handle old situations. Maybe you could be the one that teaches Jack Welch something new about how to handle employees, but that can only happen if you attempt to share your ideas with others.
Books can also be a great way to share your broader leadership concepts with your employees. When you have hundreds or thousands of employees, getting all of them to understand your strategy can be difficult when it’s in the form of short e-mails, videos or town-hall discussions. A book is a great way to explain the intricacies of your strategies and share lessons learned with your junior executives so they don’t repeat the same mistakes you did when you were coming up through the ranks. You can teach them firsthand how to navigate negotiations, difficult employees or tough customers, all without ever leaving your office. What better way to educate employees about your company than to explain in detail your rationale for how you go about making decisions and how you develop strategy? If getting employee and customer feedback is important to you, you can illustrate the book with examples of how to effectively do it so your managers can carry the message throughout the company.
Employees aren’t the only ones who can benefit. Longtime customers might be interested to know how you think so they can better craft solutions and products that fit your vision. When they better understand where you are going, new partnerships might open up opportunities for both of you.
A lot of CEOs think about writing a book, but few ever get around to it. The No. 1 reason is a lack of time. But when you have someone else helping you shape your general ideas and guiding you through the process, it doesn’t take as much time as you might think. It’s like any other transaction — when you have someone helping you through the process, it moves much faster than trying to figure it all out on your own.
Michael Feuer took the time to pen the secrets to his success, and the result is an outstanding collection of tips that even the most experienced CEO can learn from. It’s not only an entertaining read, but it will also help you run your business better. I highly recommend it.
If you’ve ever dreamed of putting your ideas to paper to help others find the same road to success you’ve found, why not make a commitment to doing it now? We’ve been helping CEOs convey their best ideas to the business world for more than 20 years now in various media. Shouldn’t you be next?
For more information about how the Smart Business Book Division can help you, please call (440) 250-7026.
For more information on Michael Feuer’s book, “The Benevolent Dictator,” go to www.thebenevolentdictator.biz.
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.
Imagine for a moment that you are on a plane flying at 30,000 feet. As you cruise along, suddenly the door to the cockpit opens and the pilot walks back into the passenger compartment and starts getting drinks ready for the passengers and then leaves to deal with an unruly person in row 23. What would you think? First, you need to fly another airline. Second, why in the world is the pilot out dealing with things that are clearly the responsibilities of others?
There are two possibilities to this exaggerated example. Either the pilot isn’t very good and can’t focus on the task at hand or the people working with the pilot can’t get the job done on their own, so he has to come out and help. Either way, the plane doesn’t have anyone at the controls and the ramifications of that are very serious for everyone on board.
The answer is, probably no one, which also means your business is probably going nowhere fast, except maybe into a nosedive. The fact of the matter is, you can’t keep your business pointed in the right direction and navigate around hazards if you are distracted and forced to deal with issues that really belong to someone else. You have to have the right team to make your business ascendant.
Much like our mythical pilot described above, either the problem is you or the people who work for you. Either case requires you to take action. If the problem is you, then your management style needs to change. The only way you are going to be successful is if you start piloting your plane and leave the details to the people below you. At some point, you have to trust that they will get it done — maybe not the same way you would have done it — but done nonetheless.
If you talk to any successful CEO about what his or her average day looks like, it typically is all about strategic planning, meeting with investors, advisers or checking in with direct reports on key initiatives. Successful CEOs will not normally mention things like going on sales calls, troubleshooting a minor project or game planning about how to improve workflow within a department.
Why don’t they mention these types of activities? Because they aren’t doing them. If they were “down in the weeds,” dealing with details, who would be piloting the company from a strategic standpoint? The moment they started getting lost in the details is the moment the company would start to drift off course, because no one was there to steer it.
If the problem is your people, then that’s another issue. If you’re trying to pilot the plane but you have no choice but to go back and remind someone for the third time that you need some key piece of information or something else that should have long since been taken care of, then you may have a people problem. If you can’t trust the people below you to get the job done and they are doing poorly enough to where it’s a distraction to you, your only choice is to make a change.
That might mean training, it might mean moving someone to a different position better suited to his or her skills, or it might mean parting ways. But you can’t jeopardize the business by wading out into the weeds while the strategy goes on autopilot.
Being CEO is never easy. It’s up to you to decide whether the problem is the pilot or the crew, but one thing is for sure, you are never going to be able to pilot a plane if you are stuck in the weeds.