There are a multitude of options available to you when looking to raise awareness of your company or products through marketing and advertising. Advertising is simply one of the tools that can be used in a marketing campaign. Advertising can include a company image ad or an ad that calls for action based on your marketing plan. It is a way to reach your objectives and your goals through telling your audience about what you want them to know through a controlled messaging platform.

Marketing to the industrial markets is a very specific practice and covers a huge array of diverse industries — from power generation stations to pharmaceutical manufacturing. At Clark-Reliance, we use advertising as a tool to generate a response by the target — the potential customer.

So what is an effective marketing program and how do you go about developing one? We’ve divided the process into a few steps — no answers, but a guide to help you find yours.

1. What do you want to accomplish?

Whether you are introducing a new product, expanding your present customer base or penetrating new markets, a defined goal needs to be established before you can plan your marketing program. These goals can be easily measured, such as the number of leads generated from a direct mail campaign. Or they can be more difficult to measure if you are entering a new market.

Some industrial marketing programs may take longer to see the results, as the industrial sales cycles are much longer than those in the consumer market.

2. Understand your company’s capabilities, structures and operations.

Is there a budget for the marketing program? Does the program “fit” your sales and distribution structures? Do you have the capabilities to handle or respond to the desired results? Decisions on where or how you want the customers to respond should meet your available resources whether they are direct or through any outside sales channels.

At Clark-Reliance, most of our marketing programs are designed to handle direct replies from the program recipients, qualified and then fed into the sales channels, direct or through our representative networks. As our sales resources continue to expand with our growth, the lead qualification is being transferred directly to the sales channels. All current marketing programs have been designed for this change.

3. Know your customers more than they know themselves.

There is nothing more important and valuable than field intelligence. Know how your target market or customers’ purchasing process works. You may need a marketing program to get a potential clients’ “AML” (approved manufacturers list). Customers want to be assured of performance, product life and dependability. Getting on that list is vital in obtaining the opportunity to “sell” your products.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, many companies now require an invitation for a sales appointment. Clark-Reliance designed a very successful and creative marketing program aimed at product purchasing managers and product specifiers. We sent a box of creative marketing materials, which grabbed their attention and resulted in appointments and ultimately sales. Marketing programs that are targeted can be done very economically and produce exceptional results.

4. Channels to market — the many ways to reach your customers.

The industrial market has defined options: trade magazines, paper mail, trade shows, email and phones. When your marketing plan is developed, the channel to use may be crystal clear. Make sure it is to your customers. Of course, your budget may restrict those options.

One very effective and very economical means to continually expose the industry with news of new products and application solutions is to partner with a public relations firm that specializes in these markets. They are a critical partner in marketing planning, advertising and press releases. Their experience and contacts they have developed over the years continue to make inroads beyond our expectations.

5. Plan and develop your strategy to meet your objective.

Now the fun starts. Developing your plan — the message, the target, the channel and the desired response — is not a solo task. Use your available assets in areas such as engineering, field service and sales. Make sure to include your company’s advantages and your product “differentiators” in your message.

Use anything that will help the target respond and take the desired action per your plan. Prior to finalizing the marketing program, test it. A current customer with a good relationship works well. Make sure to ask them to be critical in their critique.

6. Launch and educate.

Launching is executing your plan. Communicating to your sales channel and internal departments that will be involved with customer responses is very important. What is the plan and what is their role? All employees like to see that their company is active in promoting themselves and their products, solutions and services. Everyone wants to be on a winning team.

7. Measure performance results and evaluate.

So how did you do? Try to get some feedback — ask the target customers that did respond what prompted them to respond, and what their specific likes and dislikes were to your approach. Keep in mind the results may take time to evaluate. Some industrial products have sales cycles over a year. Use these results when planning your next marketing plan and see your sales soar.

 

Matthew P. Figgie is chairman of Clark-Reliance, a global, multi-divisional manufacturing company with sales in more than 80 countries, serving the power generation petroleum, refining and chemical processing industries. He is also chairman of Figgie Capital and the Figgie Foundation and a member of the University Hospitals Board of Directors.

Rick Solon is president and CEO of Clark-Reliance and has more than 35 years of experience in manufacturing and operating companies. He is also the chairman of the National Kidney Foundation Golf Outing.

Published in Cleveland

It was late 2008 when Ross Bushman and his team had just finished a new strategy for the next five years of business at Cast-Fab Technologies Inc. Bushman, who is president and CEO, along with his team were excited about the new strategy that was put in place and what it could mean for the company.

However, just a few months later, 2009 began and the castings and fabrication industry was hit hard by the recession. Cast-Fab Technologies, a 280-employee, $50 million gray and ductile iron foundry that supplies castings, patterns, steel-welded fabrications and precision sheet metal components, lost nearly half its business virtually overnight.

“We went through some hellacious turmoil in our industry, to say the least, back in that 2009 time frame,” Bushman says. “It was a period of about five or six months where a lot of that drop occurred. It wasn’t that we just lost 30 or 40 percent of the business in one day. We didn’t lose any customers. What we lost was our customers weren’t buying anything and that was different.”

With its customers taking a break from business, Bushman and Cast-Fab had to look elsewhere to keep business going.

“We knew we had to stay strong, make some painful choices early on, and we didn’t procrastinate on them,” he says. “We knew there would be opportunities to pounce on.”

To take advantage of those potential opportunities, Bushman stuck to the company’s plan, reassured employees that things would be all right with hard work and new customers would be found through diversifying the business.

Here is how he carried Cast-Fab Technologies through the downturn.

Involve employees in your strategy

The recession caused panic in a number of businesses as individual industries began to see the effects of the economy. Bushman, however, wasn’t going to let panic set in at Cast-Fab — he communicated what the organization was going to do.

“Our people were going home every night and the news was not good,” Bushman says. “Everybody had a friend, a neighbor or a family member affected somehow by the economy.

“People need clarity and every day we were out there trying to talk about those things and we kept talking to them about reaffirming America’s manufacturing excellence. That was what we were after.”

To achieve manufacturing excellence Cast-Fab aimed to diversify the customer base, establish new customer relationships and continue to grow with current accounts. To put that plan in motion Bushman involved many people in the strategic planning process.

“You have to involve a lot of folks in the organization,” he says. “People are usually pretty surprised at how much different kind of numbers and things we are sharing even down to key shop-floor personnel. Team members need clarity. They need the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’”

Deciding who to include in the strategic planning process can be a difficult decision. A good strategy group involves people from different levels and experience.

“We certainly have the key managers involved, but we’re also looking out for those up-and-coming associates who are going to be the key folks five or 10 years from now and getting them to be part of the process,” Bushman says. “At the end of the day, these folks own the plan — the strategy map and the numbers on the scorecard and what specific metrics we are doing — they are intimately involved in developing those things with us.”

You want to pull in folks who are on a track to do some bigger and better things for your company down the road.

“That just helps with the breadth of opinion,” he says. “In the C-suite, we all can get blinders on at times and forget that information isn’t assimilated through the organization as much as it comes to you. That’s why your players need clarity — the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ — and you have to communicate those things.

“The toughest part that any organization has is getting an outside force’s perspective of what’s coming at you and trying to look at where things are going to be five or 10 years from now and what you need to be doing today to get there. That’s where some of those outside folks can help challenge you.”

People are usually surprised at how many folks Cast-Fab involves in its strategic planning process.

“We have around 280 folks today and we’ll take 25 or 30 people off-site to really be part of this process and really help map the future of the organization,” Bushman says. “They then own the plan and they believe in the words and the numbers that are on the page. It’s not just me or my brother sitting up there talking about those things and that’s really worked well.”

Get buy-in

Having all of those people in the room to help form a plan is extremely beneficial when it comes to gaining buy-in for a new direction.

“I talk to our folks and tell them, ‘This is your chance to write the script for the next four or five years for the organization,’” Bushman says. “It’s not just me standing up there going over the same old charts and numbers. We’ve really created some good alignment within the organization as far as goals. We’re getting people pulling in the same direction.”

To get your company on the same page and moving together, it takes patience and persistence. Bushman has identified the five dysfunctions of team training to get his employees in line.

“You have to be willing to get better and not just go through the motions,” he says. “Sometimes to get better you’ve got to have some conflict and some change. So we’ve used the five dysfunctions of a team training, which talks about dealing with issues in a professional way. Sometimes it’s not fun, but we’ve spent a lot of time getting the right people that fit together.”

When you’re trying to get buy-in for a new strategy or direction for the company, it is rare that you will please everyone, but it is critical that you get a majority on board with you.

“You have to keep working your strategy so it becomes ingrained in what you do,” Bushman says. “My dad told me years ago that if you got even 70 percent of your workforce on board, buying in to what you were doing, that’s probably world class. You’re probably not going to have everybody, you just have to keep getting some converts each day, each week, each year to what you’re trying to do and you’ll slowly move the needle.

“An 80 percent solution executed on time is better than a 100 percent solution executed late. It may not be perfect, but start the plan and start it working and work on the implementation phase. It’s about getting a little bit better each day as opposed to giant leaps.”

To move forward with a plan each day and each week, you have to put emphasis on the implementation of your strategy.

“Too often people go through a huge strategic planning process, they come out with a great plan, but they spent months and months doing it, and at that point, people are exhausted,” he says. “When the work needs to begin on the implementation side, it fizzles out a little bit.

“We really shortened the time on the strategic planning side and we really focused on the implementation. On the implementation side is really where plans are won or lost and strategies are won or lost.”

Move forward

Following Cast-Fab’s strategic planning process in 2008, the economy tanked and implementing a plan and sticking to it became more important than ever.

“One of the principles and beliefs that I use is that decisions in crisis demand calm leadership,” Bushman says. “We really knew that and really communicated as best we could with the organization.”

Bushman used that calm, yet determined demeanor to steer the company in a positive direction. With current customers putting business on hold, Cast-Fab looked to gain new business. It brought on new clients and diversified its offerings.

“We knew there would be some opportunities in the marketplace and there were,” he says. “We continued to use our strategy, and we continued to look at where we wanted to go and that’s how we made our decisions. We made some painful cuts at the time, there’s no doubt about it, but we were proactive with those. We didn’t wait too long.

“We really saw where things were heading pretty quickly and that allowed us to stay strong in many ways.”

The opportunities Bushman communicated to his employees came up in time. Cast-Fab made an acquisition and gained business from competitor demise.

“We had our most successful year that year of new customer generation,” he says. “We really needed to, because our current customers weren’t buying anything. I knew if we could get some more spokes into the fold once the current markets came back we’d be in pretty good shape.”

Throughout this period, Bushman made it a point to stay as positive as possible and celebrate any small wins the company made.

“You have to spend a lot of time talking about the positives, not just the negatives,” he says. “People think you have your plan and you come in and talk about the stuff that’s not going very well.

“We try to celebrate success, because how boring would that be to just come in and talk about the problems all the time. We try to spend three times the amount of time on the positives as we do on the opportunities for improvement.”

Some of those positives have come from the new product offerings that Cast-Fab has created over the years in order to diversify.

“Part of the strategy that has been working really well for us is we have developed a couple of product lines of our own to help us diversify,” Bushman says. “We have a line of bank equipment products that’s sold under the business and brand Security Systems Equipment. We do safes, vaults, safety deposit boxes, pneumatic tubing systems and anything that a credit union or financial institution may need that’s metal-based.

“We have another smaller division that does products for water and waste water treatment. That business is sold under the name Coldwall Wilcox Technologies. These are subsidiaries of Cast-Fab that are a smaller piece of what we do, but they do help us diversify.”

The key to diversifying to help grow your business is to not leave the core competency of your business behind.

“You can’t stray from your core competencies,” he says. “Ten years ago, we didn’t know anything about bank equipment, but we knew how to make fabricated product. An opportunity came up to make an acquisition there, and we did that.

“Eight years ago, we didn’t know much about the products in water and waste water treatment other than they used a lot of castings and fabrications, machining and assembly. We had to learn how to sell some of those products and establish ourselves in those markets, but at the end of the day, we know what we do here in this building pretty well, and we’ve never strayed far from that.”

By sticking to a strategy of following core values and diversifying the business, Bushman has led Cast-Fab into new realms of business. He plans to continue that growth.

“As a family business, we don’t want to be doing this just for one or two more years; we want to be doing this for 30 years and beyond and get it over at some point maybe to a third generation,” he says. “So we’re trying to do those things and make those decisions now for the long haul.” <<

How to reach: Cast-Fab Technologies Inc., (513) 758-1000 or www.cast-fab.com

Takeaways

Utilize employees from different levels in your strategic planning.

Continue to work your plan as you gain buy-in.

Diversify by using core competencies.

The Bushman File

Ross Bushman

President and CEO

Cast-Fab Technologies Inc.

Born: Cincinnati

Education: Attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and received a productions and operations management degree. He also received an MBA from the University of Cincinnati.

What was your first job and what did you learn from that experience?

My very first job was at Carlisle Construction. It was a heavy equipment construction company that rented cranes, dump trucks, etc. I was the guy who swept the gas pumps, worked in the truck wash and steam-cleaned the engines so the maintenance group could work on them. It was a pretty good experience for a 14-year-old learning different stuff. I learned how different people dealt with conflict.

What is some of the best advice you have received?

My dad taught me years ago that pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered. We use that a lot here when we’re talking about relationships with OEMs that we’re trying to establish for the long term. So when we’re in negotiations or doing pricing we’re talking about getting a fair return for what we’re doing to be able to sustain and grow the business, but at the same time we’re not looking for just one sale or a home run. We want to be able to do this for the long haul with them.

Whom do you admire most in business?

My dad taught me most of what I know. He’s been my hero in life. I was also part of a mentoring group here in town several years back with a fairly famous local business guy, Bob Kohlhepp. He is the chairman of the board over at Cintas and has been a great mentor to me and taught me a lot as well.

What are you most proud of at Cast-Fab?

I would have to say it was some of the work we did for the military. We did things on both sides of our business, ranging from ductile iron bomb bodies to some of the fabrications for the MRAP vehicles. A lot of our stuff isn’t necessarily seen when it is in use somewhere. It’s part of a machine or inside the guts of a machine, but when you can point to something that our folks are doing to help out our troops overseas, that’s pretty special to us.

Published in Cincinnati

I recently read two books discussing somewhat unique concepts, both of which initially appeared to be oxymorons and completely unrelated to leading serious organizations. However, upon further research, I found that they were actually quite relevant to the challenges that every CEO faces.

In his book, “Lead by Greatness,” David Lapin talks about “corporate soul.” At first, I thought it was simply another book about the need for leaders to have strong values and character. Yet as I read further, it became clear that Lapin was discussing something much deeper than what is offered by most other books on leadership.

Most leaders strive to create a long-term sustainable competitive advantage. However, trying to anticipate the future moves of your competition is typically a losing game. Lapin makes a compelling case to instead say it is often the unique passion and commitment of individual leaders that creates unique organizations. It’s the very nature of this authenticity that competitors simply can’t copy; in fact, this is what gives an organization its “soul.” According to Lapin, “It is impossible to generate human energy, a sense of purpose or tap human greatness in a soulless organization.”

Soon after, I went on to read “Get Lucky” by Thor Muller and Lane Becker. Muller and Becker talk about how serendipity, which they define as “finding what you’re not looking for,” can play a large part in your success. The authors take readers on a journey to explore how some innovators and companies have taken specific actions to ensure that they “get lucky” more often.

Although it is still difficult to predict precisely when your good luck will strike, Muller and Becker have identified eight skills that promise to generate more luck in your life. These are the essence of “planned serendipity.”

1. Motion — A classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing time and again and expecting different results. To make something happen, you need to get out and meet new people, experience new things and shake things up.

2. Preparation — We must be observant for anything new and approach these things with pure curiosity. When we use our “beginner minds,” as if we know nothing about the subject, we are able to see things in a whole new way.

3. Divergence — My favorite poem is “Two Roads Diverged into a Yellow Wood” by Robert Frost.  It’s necessary to explore new paths if we are to find new ideas and fresh ways to think.

4. Commitment — I have noticed that many, many more ideas are generated when CEOs are clear about their goals and intentions. A request for ideas to help stimulate growth is too vague and too broad — most people will have trouble identifying ways to help. However, when a CEO is crystal clear about his or her vision and goals, the clarity triggers all sorts of connections in our brains.

5. Activation — CEOs who want to generate creativity and “luck” on a regular basis design structures and experiences that force people to engage with each other in ways they wouldn’t normally do. Steve Jobs personally designed the new offices for Pixar so that all employees would have to mix with any and all other employees.

6. Connection — The Internet has enabled us to connect with virtually anyone else in the world. To make these connections valuable, it is necessary for people to take actions to help other people solve their problems or achieve their goals, even when they don’t know each other.

7. Permeability — To maximize the exchange of new ideas and information, leaders must create ways for their organizations to effectively communicate with the outside world — and, even more importantly, for the outside world to be able to communicate with those inside.

8. Attraction — It’s the passion and “soul” of great leaders that attracts great employees, customers, investors and strategic partners who want to align with the vision expressed by the leader.

It is worth leaders’ time to think deeply about their personal passion and how it relates to their corporate vision and “soul.” When you’re clear about your vision, you enable others to take specific actions that help you and your organization “get lucky.”

Paul Witkay is the founder and CEO of the Alliance of Chief Executives. Based in Northern California, the Alliance of CEOs is a strategically valuable and innovative organization for CEOs. If you have ideas or observations for generating breakthrough ideas more frequently and more consistently, contact him at paulwitkay@allianceofceos.com

 

Published in Northern California

Deborah, an executive in the consumer products industry, was asked by her boss to conduct an internal assessment of one of the company’s programs. She uncovered some potentially serious issues and was careful to address each one in the report she prepared. A few days after she submitted it, her boss called her into his office. He had red-lined page after page.

To Deborah’s surprise, he wasn’t interested in discussing her findings. “Look at the language you use,” he said. “You’re qualifying all of your observations. You don’t sound sure of yourself. You’re minimizing your entire assessment.”

As Deborah flipped through the report, she found instance after instance where she had diluted the impact of her observations. She realized that if she didn’t convey herself confidently, her message risked being lost. How could she present herself more confidently in the future?

There are plenty of ways we unintentionally undermine ourselves, whether it’s in our written words, our conversations, presentations or the way we carry ourselves.

Deborah’s problem — of softening her language to avoid ruffling feathers — is one way that a lack of confidence inhibits direct communication. Another way is when people intentionally distort, manipulate or hide the facts in order to present themselves in a more flattering light. People take credit for work they didn’t do, try to make others look bad or inflate their successes to get ahead. Lack of confidence is often at its root, as people aren’t comfortable or content to present themselves as they truly are.

If you struggle with one of these problems, either personally or with your staff, there is no quick fix. The good news is you don’t have to wait to feel fully confident. Start communicating directly and honestly and your confidence will improve.

Here are a few good strategies for communicating directly and honestly for maximum impact.

Delivery goes a long way. For one week, pay attention to how you convey your opinions and ideas to others. Does your language — written or verbal — command attention? Or do you instead soften your delivery so as not to seem too assertive? If you find yourself struggling with this, chances are you’re severely minimizing the impact of your message.

Create a safe climate. Leaders have a responsibility to create a climate where direct communication is valued and encouraged. Deborah’s boss did just that by speaking frankly with her. By doing so, he demonstrated his commitment to her and his belief that she can grow and become a stronger member of the team.

By helping her see how she was undermining her impact, he was telling her that her insights and opinions are valuable and encouraging her to be her own best advocate. If he had used a less direct approach, he likely would have found himself repeatedly frustrated with her work.

Stop qualifying. Next time you want to start a sentence with “I think that” or “I believe that …,” drop off the introductory phrase. Contrast the impact of “I think it would be beneficial to revise the marketing strategy” with “It would be beneficial to revise the marketing strategy,” or better yet, “I am confident that the marketing strategy must be revised.”

Don’t give in to fear. It’s a tough market out there, and there’s temptation in not rocking the boat. But in the long run, no one is well-served when you or your employees turn a blind eye to important but unpleasant information. Not only can this result in bad ethical decisions but in dangerous ones too.

One of our clients experienced this: Plant workers hid safety issues from management because they were afraid to tarnish the company’s strong safety record. It wasn’t until multiple workplace injuries occurred that the safety issues came to light.

Learn from others. Identify a colleague or two whom you perceive as being confident. How do they communicate? How do you know by their speech that they are confident? What additional small steps can you take to deliver your ideas with more assurance and conviction?

Ultimately, it’s important to remember this: If you don’t sound convinced about what you’re saying, it’s hard to convince others.

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She has forged a career, enterprise and an applied discipline on the practice of teaching leaders to be masters of change. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company with an emphasis on the behavior-side of change. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae at donnarae@bright-side.com.

Published in Akron/Canton

The U.S. Army briefly used the slogan “An Army of One” for its recruiting efforts. While I can’t speak to its effectiveness, I’d argue that the slogan goes against the principles for building and growing a global organization.

There’s a Korean proverb that states, “A kitchen knife can’t carve its own handle.” To me, this means that even the strongest leaders often need help from others. For a growing global corporation, strong collaboration is even more critical. In my role as chief strategy officer, I need to work with employees at every level to garner insights into areas where I may not have the experience they do. This provides a different perspective and builds a more positive environment in which everyone feels and acts like a true stakeholder.

For my last article of the year, I’d like to focus on the most critical component for corporations looking to grow globally: teamwork. This year’s Summer Olympics provided a lot of metaphors for the business world, including the importance of building strong teams. The daily life lessons include overcoming obstacles and how to find success, even in loss.

While CorFire understands the importance of individualism and innovation, the team approach is, for us, a better workplace model as it strengthens inventiveness and provides employees with access to a wider array of insights and ideas that help move our business forward.

But it can be challenging to build functional teams across geographic locations or offices. Sometimes this is because of real issues such as time differences or language barriers. In other instances, however, employees may simply not see the value of working closely with a peer with whom they don’t have frequent interaction.

Promote process

To get employees on board, management needs to communicate the value of building well-designed teams. The goal of establishing a team approach within a corporation goes beyond creating good will among co-workers. Although a positive environment is one upside, it is not realistic or practical to believe everyone will get along equally and that a workplace will be free of disagreements.

The ultimate goal is to build better products and deliver better service than your competitors. To do this, successful organizations take a pragmatic approach to building teams by looking at employees’ skill sets, personalities, and strengths and weaknesses. By building processes around the teamwork philosophy, a company factors the broader organization into decisions such as hiring and restructuring.

I liken this process to a sports team’s recruiting decisions. The smart teams look to complement their core players in skill sets and personalities. In some cases, talent trumps all, but team chemistry and the ability of a player to work within the system need to be weighed heavily.

Get personal

As companies become more global, they may want to implement personality tests or behavioral assessments as part of their hiring and team-structuring processes. There are a variety of tests available, and many do not require a lot of financial or time investment from the company, its employees or its prospective hires.

These assessments do more than ensure that organizations hire the right people; they also help companies build efficient teams in which the people mesh well and build on each other’s strengths.

Keep doors open

While an open-door policy may not be practical every working hour in every organization, the overarching philosophy is a good strategy for companies as they grow and build teams.

By encouraging communication and feedback, employees can share issues that need to be addressed before they boil up and become a serious problem. Even better, employees can discuss their views on what is working well within the organization so management can do more of it.

Work hard, play hard

I don’t think CorFire employees will be walking over hot coals any time soon as a way to build stronger teams or individual confidence. However, we strive to provide an environment where employees can have fun inside and outside the office.

Activities are not always formal. They include signing up a group of employees to attend a business or association luncheon. More formal “fun” activities such as employee cookouts are another way to help employees learn more about each other in a stress-free environment.

Look at the dynamics of your company to determine what optional activities will generate excitement in your workplace and enable your organization to “be all it can be.” <<

Sang Yook is chief strategy officer of CorFire, the mobile commerce business unit of SK C&C USA. You can reach him at (770) 670-4700.

Published in Atlanta

Optimism and pragmatism can go a long way toward achieving success. If you strategically put optimism to work through a focused agenda and celebrate successes, you can see a positive influence on attitudes and results.

A great example is the story of the pessimist who argued the glass was half empty, the optimist that exalted that the glass was half full, and the college student who grabbed the beer, drank it and was the only one who quenched her thirst. The college student was optimistic, pragmatic and focused — and she achieved the desired result.

I was first introduced to a meeting concept called Positive Focus while attending a Strategic Coach session taught by Colleen O’Donnell of Strategic Wealth Partners and designed by Dan Sullivan. She revealed the importance of kicking off staff meetings with positive energy derived from the attendees themselves. This is not a New Age method or fluff but rather the celebration and recognition of successes as seen by the eyes of your employees.

How it works

In the opening of management meetings or departmental meetings, each attendee shares one item he or she feels is positive and deserves the spotlight. It should be quick and it should avoid dragging a lot of detail into the explanation. This meeting concept:

? Actually highlights challenges — and how they were resolved — without the dreaded “update” process that slows down meetings.

? Provides recognition.

? Gives managers the opportunity to congratulate their staff or others on the recognition and praise being given.

? Starts the meeting on a high-energy note.

? Shows that challenges can be overcome through teamwork and any challenges that are going to be discussed in the meeting have a positive precedent to follow toward resolution.

? Reinforces the culture of collaboration and communication.

Story examples

It is tough to say that there is a “typical” positive focus in our meetings. The majority of the comments include a shout out for an employee or a team of employees by name for what they have been able to achieve. We also have customer stories and the success that a great win or implementation is doing for the company. We have had cheers for an improved bill of health or a clear cancer screen after a long health issue. We have celebrated the refreshed feelings after taking a vacation.

The content is not controlled or restricted. The purpose is to reflect on what is making our work lives better. This purpose helps us focus on what is right in the world and reminds us that we are among great, talented people and we can tap those resources.

Positive attitudes are proven to improve results and health. I believe executive teams should spend additional time developing more of the “can-do” attitude in our approach toward business. By focusing on optimism, it’s easy to see the pragmatic benefits to the organization.

The next time you are facing the dreaded update drudgery of a departmental meeting, I highly encourage you to turn the agenda around a bit and start with a Positive Focus moment. Then incorporate the agenda of every appropriate meeting. There will be time to discuss and solve the challenges you are facing, but the mental approach to the problem will make a difference in the approach.

My Positive Focus

Today, my Positive Focus is that I have had this opportunity to share a tactic that really works and has changed the complexion of meetings in a highly successful business. I believe it can have far-reaching impact elsewhere, too. <<

Lois Melbourne is co-founder and CEO of Aquire, a workforce planning and analytic solution company based in Irving, Texas. Visit www.aquire.com for more information.

Published in Dallas

It was the first half of 2008. For 15 years, the company that became BioClinica Inc. had developed a strong presence as a medical image management business in the clinical research solutions space. Mark Weinstein, the company’s president and CEO since 1998, had been on board for most of that run.

“It’s been a good business, a dominant business, but in March 2008, we decided to really broaden the business and go into a new area for us, what we call e-clinical solutions,” Weinstein says. “It’s technology and solutions related to clinical research. We were stepping beyond our core business and entering a new space, but our strategic plans were intact.”

Everything was smooth sailing until the fourth quarter of that year, when the economy slammed into a wall, plunging into its worst recession since the Great Depression. Weinstein needed to keep BioClinica on course, continuing to grow its e-clinical solutions business, but he now had to do it in a climate of extreme volatility and adversity.

“When that happened, we had to do what everybody did, which was figure out how to keep the business going and stay profitable throughout the downturn,” he says. “That was a big challenge because we had just stepped beyond our core business.

“The good news is, we did fairly well, we maintained profitability and continued to grow the new business, but our revenue ramp wasn’t quite what we anticipated when we went into the space.”

But keeping the ship on course wasn’t as easy as maintaining a steady heading. Weinstein and his leadership put in months of work behind the scenes to ensure that BioClinica could continue to grow. The company generated $68 million in service revenue last year, up from $62 million in 2010.

Know your strengths

When the recession hit, Weinstein and his team had to do what a lot of company leaders were doing — assess the business and figure out which areas needed which resources in order to help minimize the effects of the downturn as much as possible.

Weinstein knew BioClinica’s best bet was the company’s primary competency — clinical research. He and his team quickly came to the conclusion that the company needed to focus on new ways to employ what it does best.

“We know clinical research very well, and we always approached it from the management of medical images as it relates to information using clinical research results,” Weinstein says. “So we wanted to stay within clinical research, but we needed bigger markets to go after.”

Within the broader category of clinical research, Weinstein decided to pour more resources into technology. With the recession driving business volume downward, e-clinical solutions became more than a new area for BioClinica to explore. It became essential to the company’s ability to weather the recession and emerge from it in a position to continue growing.

“We knew drug development was going to continue, but the challenge we had was knowing that pharmaceutical and biotech companies, as well as the world in general, became kind of like deer in headlights for a while,” Weinstein says.

“So the question becomes, what do you do with your business to try and maintain profitability? Something I have always stressed to my people is that when you hit a down market, the last thing you want to do is exit that down market in a weakened state.”

You can’t adjust the flow of resources in your business without creating a domino effect. Scaling back timetables on projects, reallocating dollars and reallocating manpower all take a cumulative toll on the organization. Your reasoning might be sound, but if you don’t keep your people in the loop, all they’re going to see is chaos and upheaval. Morale will suffer and, in turn, so will your culture.

Weinstein says a CEO’s obligation to his or her people in a time of upheaval boils down to one word: transparency.

“Transparency was a big thing for me because it wasn’t just my issue personally; it was a company issue and a market issue,” he says. “I didn’t see it as everybody’s issue to try and solve it, but I was very open with everyone.

“In some ways, it was actually better from a communication standpoint than some other market situations you might find because everybody in the world knew things were changing. The issue was that we had to do our fair share as individuals and a company to respond to that.”

Weinstein relied on the company’s organizational structure as a vehicle for communication. He focused on developing solutions with his department managers, who then rolled those solutions out to their areas of the company.

The goal was to maintain as much of a sense of normalcy as possible throughout the organization. BioClinica was responding to an economic crisis, but Weinstein didn’t want that feeling to permeate the company ranks. He wanted his people to remain focused on driving growth and finding solutions.

“We started with our executive team and just worked the process,” Weinstein says. “It was pretty similar to what we would be doing in a normal budgeting process. The issue was, the situation was somewhat fluid due to the down market, and nobody knew how long it might last.

“It was a little scary there for a while, because the economy worsened faster than anything I could remember in my career. But I wasn’t alone in thinking that, and everybody understood that they had a role to play in being a part of the solution.”

Face your customers

You can put the best crisis plan in place, plot out every detail and allocate resources perfectly, but it won’t make a bit of difference if sales dry up. If your customers aren’t buying what you’re selling, you’re still in a world of trouble.

Weinstein knew he couldn’t just focus inward on his own strategies and processes. As the economy worsened, he had to look outside the company and make sure his people were still connecting with the people and organizations that purchase from BioClinica. He couldn’t strip mine the customer-facing areas of the company if he expected it to emerge from the recession in a healthy state.

“We wanted to make sure that customers didn’t see us as retreating, so we deemed anything customer-facing to be highly critical with regard to resource allocation,” Weinstein says. “Things like development work might have changed, the rate of change of some of our products and services might not be as fast as we would have liked otherwise, because we had to gauge what the business could support and afford.

“But we didn’t want to do anything that would have affected aspects of the business that are client-facing.”

When the full force of the recession hit, Weinstein and his management team started to receive inquiries from customers as to the financial stability of the company. Weinstein looked up on it as an opportunity to reinforce confidence in BioClinica.

“We deal with all of the top pharma companies — the top 25 in the world plus 75 percent of the top 50,” Weinstein says. “In any given month, we’re sending invoices to about 170 pharma companies. So we did have more inquiries than usual relative to making sure that we did have financial stability, because drug development is going to be the key to their success. The last thing they needed was one of their vendors associated with their clinical research having financial difficulty.

“The way you quell those concerns is through simply being honest. You need to be open with people about where you stand.”

If you try to sugarcoat an issue or dance around a problem, it will come back to bite you. It’s only a matter of when.

“At the end of the day, we are all measured from the outside market from a financial perspective,” Weinstein says. “So for me to say something is happening that is not going to happen, I am delaying something that is going to be causing a much bigger problem if people have valued me based on expectations that are going to change. You really need to manage the expectations.”

However, managing customer expectations can be more easily said than done, especially if the matter involves an employee who wants to make a big impression.

Sometimes, younger employees who are eager to make their mark or simply haven’t mastered the art of managing expectations, will overpromise on a project, which could damage your firm’s reputation. Depending on the size of the account and the influence of the customer, such a misstep can potentially have long-reaching consequences.

“Sometimes, you can have a person who sees a risky situation with a project, but rather than be the bearer of bad news, they’ll tell the customer that they can get the project done without mentioning the risk level involved,” Weinstein says. “That type of situation can end one of two ways: Either you get it done and you’re a hero, or you don’t get it done and you have very poorly managed the customer’s expectations.

“So I always tell people to err a little bit on the side of losing the excitement of being the hero and more on the side of helping the customer to understand the risk you are undertaking. That way, nobody is disappointed.

“Clinical trials never happen as you plan them. As a vendor, one of our roles is to fix problems when they occur. To tell the clients that there will not be problems is not the right answer in most cases.”

Your customer-facing people have to know what constitutes a major risk. As BioClinica continued to grow in the e-research field during the recession, defining the boundaries of what made a given project a suitable risk came down to judgment calls at the executive level.

Ultimately, any decision on risk tolerance is an educated guess. You research the numbers, you measure the resources you can put into the project and you gauge the expectations of the customer. Beyond that, there are no guarantees. You can only trust the judgment of the people around you.

“We’ve amassed a tremendous amount of experience in our business, and anytime you’re able to rely on people with experience, it’s to your advantage,” Weinstein says. “I feel very comfortable that I can sit down with the right group of people, and I feel confident that we can figure out pretty quickly whether the project under consideration presents a risk that is appropriate for us.

“You can take the risk, but make sure everyone involved understands the level of the risk. The customer could always tell you that they don’t want to take that type of risk.”

If you have to walk away from a project because the risk is too big, it’s never an easy decision. But if it comes to that and you’ve built your corporate culture on a bedrock of integrity and honesty, the right answer should be obvious when you get on the phone to the customer.

“It has to be part of the fabric of who you are as a company,” Weinstein says. “If you’re talking about walking the walk like you talk the talk, I really do require that here. It can be difficult because those are never easy decisions. You want to minimize the number of decisions like that. But you simply have to stay true to the fabric of what you are as a company and who you are as a person.” <<

How to reach: BioClinica Inc., (267) 757-3000 or

www.bioclinica.com

 

The Weinstein file

Born: Washington, D.C. Raised in Richmond, Va.

Education: B.A. in economics, University of Virginia; MBA, College of William and Mary

First job: I filled foundations with dirt in a new housing development. I did it by hand, one shovel at a time, then tamped it down so the concrete foundations could be poured. I was 15 at the time, and that as much as anything convinced me that I needed to go to college.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

As saying I’ve always enjoyed is, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ The path your business takes between here and the realization of your vision is not a straight line. There are a lot of curves and road switches. You have to constantly re-evaluate where you are headed. A good vision two years ago might not be a good vision now.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

I am a big believer in having a strong ego rather than a big ego. A strong ego elicits feedback and makes people want to share things with you. A big ego just turns people away, which is never good. You need input from a lot of different people to run your business the right way.

What is your definition of success?

Seeing the people around me thrive personally and professionally. I am not responsible for the personal lives of the people who work here, but I can help foster a balance between their personal and professional lives. If you have a good personal life, it will help you have a better professional life.

Published in Philadelphia

Laurence Mawhinney’s recession story is all too-familiar. His company took it on the chin, losing 25 percent of its workforce in the U.S. and forcing those who remained to do more with much less.

“Our team was experiencing enormous change in a very short time frame, and we had stopped investing in our people as part of our cost-cutting,” says Mawhinney, the president of Fisher & Paykel Appliances North America — which is the regional wing of New Zealand-based appliance manufacturer Fisher & Paykel.

“It was necessary at the time but very damaging to the morale of our team. And all of this is going on while the macro picture is pretty ugly out there. The general feeling among people wasn’t very positive.”

The challenge for Mawhinney was to turn around the mindset of the 200 employees in Fisher & Paykel’s North American footprint.

“We’ve had to refocus our team, help people become positive and forward-looking,” he says. “We’ve started to reinvest heavily in our team, and that has really helped to grow our business. It has helped reset our people’s minds to a positive state and realize that the company is focused on the future, focused on helping them and growing the business.”

But Mawhinney’s investment wasn’t just monetary. He and his team committed countless hours strategizing, communicating and promoting the culture.

Mawhinney and his team aimed their leadership agenda at one overarching goal: to strengthen the culture of their company, restore employee confidence, then harness the power of a newly motivated workforce to propel their region of Fisher & Paykel into the next chapter of its history.

“Once we realized that the way forward was pretty clear and we had more blue sky than dark clouds, that is when we saw that we really needed to change, to focus our culture and reinvest in our people,” Mawhinney says. “We needed to convince them that the company was on track and this was going to be a good place to work both now and in the future.”

Get the message

Nothing much has changed in terms of values over the years: Honesty is still the best policy.

When Mawhinney started to see evidence that the recession was loosening its grip, he didn’t try to minimize the damage that it had done to the business. In his communication with his people, he acknowledged the severity of the crisis, the extent to which it had damaged morale throughout Fisher & Paykel’s North American region and the distance that everyone would have to cover on the road back.

As the calendar progressed through 2010, Mawhinney kept employees updated on the financial state of the organization and gave them a clear picture of what areas of the company were performing well and not performing well.

“You have to be very honest, you show them your bottom line, you show them the areas that aren’t performing, and then you show them how to turn it around,” Mawhinney says.

“People are very understanding. It was a very difficult climate, so it’s not like people were driving home, listening to the radio and hearing good business news. It was all very negative. Everyone understood that and took a mature approach to realization of what we had to do to turn the business around.”

Mawhinney realized that the reassurance he could offer to his people was minimal at first. Once the economy started to show some signs of improvement, nobody knew if the improvement would be major or minor, fleeting or sustainable.

In addition to keeping employees in the know, the most important action you can take in that type of situation is to give employees a voice. You can’t simply mandate that they follow your prescribed plan of attack. You have to allow them to question the status and stability of the company and put your future plans under the microscope.

Though you may want everyone to completely buy in to your plans and fight the recession as a united front, each person has to come to his or her own conclusions about the situation.

It’s your company, but it’s their livelihood.

“What we did was centered very much on getting individuals together and listening to them, hearing what their concerns were and addressing the group from the perspective of really trying to understand what they’re going through, then presenting them with a strong business plan that we worked to develop together and using that as the way forward,” Mawhinney says.

“That was really a key to turning around the morale and the individual mindset throughout the company from a negative one to a very positive one.”

Crisis communication is usually about treading water. Employees simply want to know whether the ship is sinking — igniting the boilers and plotting a direction is of less importance until your people are confident that the company’s future is stable.

“At first, your communication will be along the lines of, ‘When do we stop making cuts? When can people stop worrying about whether they’ll have a job in the future?’ They want to know what steps you are taking to provide stability and eventually perform a turnaround,” Mawhinney says. “In our case, our people wanted reassurance that the company wasn’t just taking away and cutting to save.

Once the economy leveled off and we were able to stabilize the business, we started to demonstrate our commitment to the future. We were able to reinvest in our people and show them some wins, which was really critical.”

Grab some wins

A long-held truism in baseball is that pennants aren’t won in April, but they can be lost. The same can hold true when facing a turnaround or recovery in the business world.

You won’t slingshot your company to new heights of profitability and success in the initial weeks and months on the rebound, but the initial wins you do get, however small, are crucial for building the momentum that you will need to ride later.

Without those early wins to galvanize your company and build employee confidence, your recovery plan can stumble out of the gate and you’ll find yourself behind from the get-go.

As Fisher & Paykel started to rebound in the North American marketplace, Mawhinney made it a point to emphasize early wins to his people and demonstrate the importance of small victories at the outset.

“We started to be very successful with our outdoor products that we sell,” he says. “We were able to pick up market share in our outdoor division, which was very profitable for us, and it made for a nice improvement to our bottom line.

“Another big win was when we started to bring individuals together for retraining exercises, our cultural reinforcement and cultural understanding. They’re sessions that we have been running for over a year now.”

In the training sessions, Mawhinney and the leadership team placed the recession and recovery in a historical context. The real victory was in showing employees the staying power of the company. In more than seven decades, Fisher & Paykel had weathered numerous recessions and downturns and had overcome it all to develop into an industry leader.

“We sat down as a group and talked about the culture of the company,” Mawhinney says. “We talked about the history of the company, how the culture evolved due to that history and where we have come from. This company is over 70 years old, and we have been through similar cycles before.

“We used that history to draw analogies to where we are, what we have been through and how we’ve bounced back. That history, and the resilience of the culture, was very useful as far as getting people to understand that what we were going through was a cyclical event. It wasn’t a singular catastrophic event. We had been through this before.”

Early wins improved employee confidence in the future of the organization, which in turn strengthened their belief in the guiding cultural principles of the Fisher & Paykel organization — which is essential to any rebound or turnaround. Without a strong culture, your business isn’t healthy, regardless of the economic climate. Without a strong culture in a down economy, your business could face an existential threat.

“The culture has to be in everything you do,” Mawhinney says. “Everyone needs to be included at every level of your business. It’s important that your team understands that your culture can be a competitive advantage. In today’s environment, that can make the difference.”

Reinforce your culture

Mawhinney added momentum to the initial wins by continuing to link them back to the cultural principles of the organization on a daily basis. If employees can see how their daily tasks help advance the culture, and advance the success of the business overall, it can serve as an important motivational tool.

It’s something Mawhinney demonstrated by involving people in the strategic planning process.

By giving employees a view of, and input into, the strategic planning that was aimed at pulling Fisher & Paykel out of the recession, Mawhinney and his leadership team were able to give employees a sense of the steps management was taking to improve the company’s outlook, and how each person’s job affected the company’s ability to realize its goals.

“We had to develop a new strategy for a difficult time, and everyone was involved in that strategic planning,” he says. “The core values are clearly defined throughout the organization, and our teams have integrated those core values into everyday processes so that they are transparent to all.

“It includes defining the culture and defining a plan to implement the culture, which is really key in terms of stabilizing during difficult times and having that strong culture that can really carry you through.”

Mawhinney’s emphasis on promoting initial wins and on strengthening the culture has had the desired effect. Fisher & Paykel is exiting the recession with a renewed focus on the future. The company has begun making new hires and reinvesting in its existing workforce and has rebounded financially. The company’s North American operations generated $124 million in revenue during 2011.

“Maintaining a culture is really a function of having a strong training culture, as well as mixing the old with the new,” Mawhinney says. “What we found through these pretty challenging times is that the experienced and longer-term employees have really helped the new hires that we have made.

“Our new employees need to understand that our culture is different from what you might normally experience in a U.S.-based company, and it really helps us.

“We believe that you need to have an open culture. That is what I think we really have. It’s a culture where you can feel free to speak your mind and that if you have ideas, put them out there. If we can’t use them, we’ll at least consider them for later.

“It’s critical that employees feel a sense of ownership in what they do. Encouraging an open and creative culture will really help your business, and as the leader, you have to walk the talk if you want that type of culture.” <<

 

How to reach: Fisher & Paykel Appliances North America, (888) 936-7872 or www.fisherpaykel.com

 

The Mawhinney file

Born: Stratford, New Zealand

First job: I worked for Television New Zealand before joining Fisher & Paykel, where I’ve worked for 21 years. I’ve worked in the U.S. since 1997.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Innovation is great, but the bigger question is whether it solves a problem. You need to ask what your problems are, and respond to that. I’m looking for the people around me to offer solutions when they encounter a problem.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

You must have a creative spark, and have the ability to incubate new ideas. That means you have to demonstrate the kind of leadership that allows you to develop a creative culture in your organization. Also, you have to help employees see that what they do each day really matters to the company.

What is your definition of success?

Achieving positive results for retailers and shareholders, which will continue to allow us to invest in the future growth of the business.

Published in Orange County

As an entrepreneur, I have spent more than 30 years focused on celebrating the growth of our franchise owners, creating jobs, providing opportunities for advancement and giving back through our company charity, the Ms. Molly Foundation. These activities help foster the overall good health of our organization.

However, a more challenging endeavor is the process of considering my replacement in the event of a tragedy, eventual retirement or desire for a less-intense position than overseeing the day-to-day operations of the business. It is a process I recently went through as we named a new CEO, while I retained my position as chairman of the board.

Succession planning for an entrepreneur is not a task that most are likely to enjoy or look forward to, and I am no different. Many never do it, but that is a mistake.

While the day you don’t go to the office, lead the meeting or make the decisions may not be a savory thought, it is the process that will allow the organization to outlast you. Think about succession planning as your emotional insurance for the preservation and continuation of your life’s work.

Here are four steps to help you through this process.

Planning

Every business owner should first review potential internal candidates who could take the baton from you and continue leading the company’s mission. Take your time during this important first step and consider all of the qualities you want in your successor.

Then, strengthen your bench and develop your team as the next generation of leaders. If no suitable internal candidates are found, you then need to set your sights on an external candidate who you feel meets your criteria.

Whether you’re planning to step away from the business in one year or in 10, this process can take years, so start early.

Selection

Among those who lead teams in your organization, there will be a few who accomplish more than their peers and who more closely mirror your vision for the future. By deciding on a pre-selected candidate to be your successor, it allows you to provide targeted, leadership training, which increases his or her confidence and yours.

Take time to document the succession process and how long it will take for the next-in-command to lead the way. This part of the process can actually generate sincere excitement at the prospect of your hand-selected replacement taking over.

Transition

The slow and steady process of your succession doesn’t have to be a luxury. You have identified and trained your No. 2 and determined the length of time it should take for him or her to take over more of your responsibilities as you put your plan into action. It is imperative to the success of your successor for each of you to be committed to the new roles each of you will take.

If done correctly, there will come a day in this process where you will stand back and admire the new leader as he or she steps into the spotlight you once commanded.

Completion

As the preparations you’ve made in your plan come to fruition, the time has come to fully embrace the position you’ve chosen for yourself. I’ve heard this feeling described as being gently placed on an ice flow and pushed out to sea.

By knowing the tenacity it takes to succeed in business, I would bet you’re not the type to be pushed out of anywhere, ever. The survival instincts of a businessperson are what keep the quarterly reports in the black and the satisfaction of your customers and team high.

I can honestly say we now have the right successor in the CEO’s role, and I have welcomed my sole role as chairman. I have renewed excitement about the growth still ahead for our constituents, and I believe this approach will pay off for all of stakeholders and for yours.

David McKinnon is the co-founder and chairman of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Service Brands International, an umbrella organization that oversees home services brands, including Molly Maid, Mr. Handyman, 1-800-DryClean and ProTect Painters. To contact David, send an email at davidm@servicebrands.com.

Published in Detroit

Gordon Krater didn’t know where the bottom was. So he started focusing on the top.

Like just about every business leader, Krater had never seen anything like the recession that started in late 2008. The stock market started free-falling, the housing market crashed and two of the Big Three American automakers went to Washington looking for bailout money.

Not even the most educated and experienced of economic analysts knew where the slide would stop — or when. As the managing partner of financial and business advisory services firm Plante Moran PLLC, Krater faced a choice: Either brace for the eventual rock-bottom impact or focus his 1,700 associates on discovering present and future areas of opportunity despite the depths of the economic crisis.

“The most important thing was to not listen to all the noise,” Krater says. “Every day it seemed like there was bad news, but we couldn’t focus on just that. We needed to figure out what we thought was really going on. We needed to assess where we were and try to set a positive tone for the organization.”

Krater was elected managing partner in October 2008, on the front edge of the recession, and took over in July 2009, right in the middle of the economic free fall.

Thrust directly into the storm, he had to quickly figure out where Plante Moran could still generate positive momentum and rally his workforce around those areas — and he had to do it while his entire workforce was immersed in an environment riddled with stories of layoffs, foreclosures and bankruptcies.

“In the absence of communication, people assume the worst,” Krater says. “So one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that people really need to hear what is going on, and they need to hear that you are still confident in the company’s future. People won’t follow pessimists. They’ll follow optimists who are also realists.”

Get the real story

During the recession, employees at companies around the country consumed daily media reports about the deepening crisis. By the time team members arrived at the office for work each morning, they had already scanned a newspaper, watched TV during breakfast or listened to the car radio on the ride to work. Krater was already facing an uphill battle against negativity before he stepped into his office each day.

Krater couldn’t stop the bad news, and he couldn’t stop his staff from consuming bad news. But he could show everyone at Plante Moran that there was another side to the story.

Yes, the economy was in dire straits, and yes, it was putting a strain on just about every business. However, that was the surface-level story. If Krater dug a little deeper and asked a few more questions, he believed he could find the toehold that would help give his people a more positive outlook on the future.

To get the answers to his questions, Krater utilized Plante Moran’s vast and powerful client base.

“We have a really solid base, so we are a great place to take the pulse of the economy,” Krater says. “We have thousands of clients that include influential companies and leaders in our region. So I went out and talked to them. I tried to get what was fact versus what was conjecture, the real reactions to the issues at hand versus the reactions to a state of paranoia.

“I wanted to get a real sense for where our clients thought things were going, and where things were headed in reality. I didn’t want to just read a bunch of things in the media and allow us to be influenced by that. We needed to talk to our clients to get a real sense of where things stood.”

Krater was able to take what he learned from the firm’s clients and use it to keep his staff more thoroughly informed. If Krater foresaw a drop in business related to a particular account, he shared as much as he could regarding the reasons behind the drop in business and the potential severity of the drop.

“Rather than simply saying, ‘Business is down,’ we tried to answer how far down,” he says. “There is a big difference between business being 40 percent down and 5 percent down. If we had someone worried about whether a contract would be renewed, like a major auto supplier, versus having a contract canceled outright, there is big difference between those two. A big part of what we had to do was differentiate what was really happening versus the fear of what might happen.”

Krater wanted to focus his people on the day-to-day work of running the firm, not the horror stories coming from the nation’s financial centers. The staff at Plante Moran couldn’t help what was happening in Washington and on Wall Street, but they could do something about positioning the firm to weather the storm by strengthening its client relationships.

“People were concerned about the possible collapse of the financial system,” he says. “It was this growing idea that business as usual was over, and there was a new normal, which was a difficult concept for a lot of people to accept, both here and elsewhere.

“Here in Detroit, we had a front-row seat to watch GM and Chrysler go into bankruptcy, and nobody knew if they were going to come out. So all of that was swirling around, and we couldn’t do much about a lot of it. So what we needed to do was focus on our clients. We needed to do what we could, which was to serve our clients in the best way possible to help them through those tough times.”

Seize control

Taking control of a crisis means to take control of communication. Your people need to hear the truth about your company’s situation directly from you, which means you need to stay well informed, so that you can better share information with your people.

During the depths of the recession, Krater wanted to give his associates at Plante Moran a realistic view of the situation that the firm was facing. Often, people associate realism with pessimism. Nobody has ever associated a reality check with something positive. But Krater believes pessimism can run as rampant as optimism, if left unchecked.

“That’s why you can’t panic,” he says. “That is why you try to get to reality, to what is real versus what is being thrown around out there. You try to find your own answers as to what is going on out there with the economy, as opposed to taking what you read at face value. Of course, I read everything I could get my hands on about what was happening out there, but you verify what you read.

“You can be truthful and realistic and optimistic at the same time. I wanted our people to know that despite what was happening, we are still going to be here, we are going to emerge stronger than ever, and most importantly, here is how we’re going to do it. You need substance to your message.”

By taking control of communication, you are really taking control of your culture. When tales of woe are assaulting your people from all sides, morale starts to erode; the collective confidence of your people starts to wane, replaced by anxiety and paranoia, which produce a counterproductive work environment.

With frequent and comprehensive communication, you can combat the negative inertia of a crisis by reminding your people why your company can still be successful and by focusing everyone on those items. That approach reminds your people that they’re not helpless, they’re still capable of controlling the company’s destiny, and they have a means of pulling the company out of the crisis.

In short, you want to promote a message of empowerment.

“We tell a lot of stories around our firm, and we’ll talk about clients and their experiences with us,” Krater says. “Frank Moran was our founder, and his undergraduate college degree was in philosophy. One of the things he’d talk about was the idea that we were a people firm disguised as an accounting firm.

“So we have been focused on our culture, ideals and principles since the beginning. We’ll relay stories to each other about a staff member who helped a client, how it happened and so forth — not unlike how I hear Quicken Loans does it.

“If you ask a person who has been there for two years or more, they’ll be able to give you a number of examples of how to deal with a given situation, based on a story they heard from somebody.”

Properly managing communication, and by extension your culture, is a critical component of crisis management. If you let your culture wither in a time of crisis, you’ll find it is a long road back when you set about rebuilding it.

“Every company has a culture,” Krater says. “The question is, is it good or bad? If you let your culture go bad, one of the toughest things to do is rebuild it. It takes so much energy and time, and it’s just a very difficult task. It takes energy away from serving those who you have to serve outside the company in order to make your living. We have a great culture here, and one of the things we do is fiercely protect it. You can’t let anything get in the way of that.”

Invest in what you can

During a recession, or any time of crisis, you need to spend money.

It seems counterintuitive when business is down and revenue is drying up, but when you face choppy financial waters, your company needs you to invest in resources and talent more than ever.

At Plante Moran, Krater and his leadership team made a commitment to hiring new talent during the recession. With added talent, Plante Moran was able to explore new business avenues and set itself up for a period of growth as the recession has loosened its grip over the past two years.

Plante Moran frequently hires college graduates straight from campus, but during the recession, Krater and his team took a bit of a different approach.

“Other companies had to cut some really good people loose, and because of our strong culture and reputation, we were able to attract some really good people who had been cut from other companies,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest advantages of making your culture a priority. You can provide opportunities for people, and they know you are a great place to work.”

If your people know they can impact the future in a positive way, they’ll want to work for your company, regardless of the economic landscape. If they know their work will be appreciated by management, and make a difference in the long run, it will be much easier for your people to tune out the negativity around them and develop a goal-focused mindset on improving your company’s outlook.

“People want to feel like they’re in the know, and they want to feel like they are making a difference,” Krater says. “One of the problems you can run into as an organization gets larger is this attitude of, ‘If I don’t do this one little thing, it won’t matter.’ It can become harder to connect them to the impact they can have.

“Any business, any profession is a game of inches. The little things make the difference between real success and not doing as well. It’s having people who are empowered and believe in their ability to make an impact that makes the difference. That is where you find the real gold.” <<

How to reach: Plante Moran PLLC, (248) 352-2500 or

www.plantemoran.com

 

The Krater file

Born: Detroit

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of Michigan

First job: It seems like I always worked growing up. I was always cutting grass or babysitting. The first time I got a W-2, however, I was a lifeguard at a municipal pool when I was 16.

Krater on making an impression on Michigan State University men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo: We have an annual firm conference where we close the firm down for a day, right around the end of our fiscal year on June 30. Every single person is invited, no matter what their role is. It’s a day when we talk about the firm, what we’ve done, what our goals are going forward, and we celebrate. We celebrate not only the successes of the firm, but of the individuals in the firm.

Oftentimes, we have a guest speaker, and one time we had Tom Izzo come in and speak to us. I was talking to him before the meeting, he had his notes on what he’s going to say, and he asked me ‘So, who is here today?’

I told him everybody in the firm is here. He says, ‘You closed the whole place down? Every single person is here? Not many people walk their talk like you guys do.’

On the spot, he changed what he was going to talk about. He talked about (his 2000 national championship team) that had a rough start to the year. And he actually called in the maintenance man, his administrative assistant and a lot of other people besides just the players. He told everyone, ‘You know what? We’re not doing a very good job. Everybody has to do better, because everybody contributes to the success of this organization.’

He talked about how when they won the national championship, and they got the championship rings that everybody covets so much, the first ring went to the janitor, because he is the guy who opened the gym so the players can practice.

That sends the message that everybody’s contribution is important. That is how we feel, and needless to say, he was a big hit speaking to 1,700 people about something that we really try to practice.

Published in Detroit