It’s the big day. You’ve managed to score a meeting with one of the biggest companies in the world to talk about your brilliant, one-in-a-million business concept. You can’t wait to talk with their executives and share your vision for your ideas — ideas that are guaranteed to change the face of business forever, while earning billions of dollars in the process.
One problem. Unless you’ve been diligent in protecting yourself, you might well find yourself taken advantage of, or even have your ideas stolen altogether.
Sad to say, but there have always been people out there just itching to pick your brain and take your original thoughts without paying for them. Sometimes it’s inadvertent — they may not realize that your ideas have monetary value — and at other times it’s purposeful and with ill-intent. Either way, it’s important to recognize this reality and do everything you can to safeguard yourself.
Earlier in my career, I would often find myself in a meeting, and with my inherent enthusiasm (It’s for real, folks!), I’d elaborate on everything from product concepts to marketing and sales strategies. The next thing you know, the people I was meeting with would all be whipped into frenzy and we would verbally agree to continue the dialogue and develop our business plan in the weeks and months ahead. We’d have numerous phone calls and even some follow-up meetings.
And then suddenly … nothing. When I finally managed to get hold of them again, I’d be told they had changed their minds and were not going through with the project. Yet months later, I’d find they had actually gone ahead with the product without me — and using all the ideas I had given them in our meetings. Think I wasn’t royally peeved?
Because I knew that what I had to say was worth something, after this happened to me one time too many, I decided that I needed to start protecting myself. So here’s what I’ve learned to do now: If I’m coming to someone with an idea for a product I’ve developed, before I take the first meeting, I make sure I protect my ownership. I file for a patent, trademark or copyright — everything and anything that is appropriate for what I’m offering. I also ask the people that I’m meeting with to sign a nondisclosure agreement and make it very clear from the beginning that I’m prepared to protect myself.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that others won’t still try to take my idea without my permission — patents are worked around all the time — but it does mean that I have some leverage. Without it, I’d be dead in the water.
At the moment, I have a product line that I’ve been developing for several years, for which I have four or five patents, eight to 10 trademarks and 10 to 15 copyrights. These protections give my product value for a possible third party sale in the future. When you come right down to it, if I can’t protect the ownership of my product, it has absolutely zero value.
Besides my ideas for an invention or product are the thoughts I have for developing business strategies, which I present in a meeting or conference call. This is a more difficult situation because I can’t patent, trademark or copyright these ideas. Yet, the success or failure of the product or business idea will hinge to a large degree on how it is presented to potential customers.
These days I proceed with much greater caution that I ever did before. If I’m approached by a company that wants to meet with me because of my expertise in an area, I often charge an engagement fee upfront. I won’t share my best ideas until I know we have an agreement that protects me. Half of the money is paid up front with the balance paid out of royalties or perhaps as a straight licensing fee if we decide to go ahead with a product.
You’ll never be able to stop people from trying to take advantage of you. But whether you’re talking about your idea for a new product or the strategy for how to make it a success, keep in mind that what you have to offer carries genuine value, so never let your excitement override good judgment.
Tony Little is the president, CEO and founder of Health International Corp. Known as “America’s personal trainer,” he has been a television icon for more than 20 years. After overcoming a near-fatal car accident that nearly took his life, Tony learned how to turn adversity into victory. Known for his wild enthusiasm, Tony is responsible for revolutionizing direct response marketing and television home shopping. Today his company has sold more than $3 billion dollars in products. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many companies trace their success to innovation. Whirlpool invested millions of dollars to embed creativity into their business culture and build new offerings. FedEx pioneered computer usage in delivery vehicles, designed sophisticated automation for corporate shipping, and developed package tracking. Southwest Airlines is known for its 25-minute turnaround — developed after benchmarking NASCAR pit crews — and Wal-Mart is renowned for supply chain management practices.
Creativity spawns innovation, creates value, and enhances market performance. When IBM interviewed more than 1,500 global executives in more than 30 industries for its 2010 study, “Capitalizing on Complexity,” they found that creativity is now the most important leadership quality. My recent study of 70 technology firms explored marketing practices. While the companies were successful in innovation — the success rates were 82 percent for product technology, 70 percent for management know-how, 66 percent for innovative culture, and 60 percent for R&D expertise — process technology, ideas embodied in the manufacturing and operations, was the one weak link. It was practiced successfully by only 49 percent of the companies surveyed.
Generally, creativity plummets as people age. We learn what is correct and “accepted” and become obsessed with failure. With groupthink mentality and play-it-safe business cultures dominating, is it really surprising that great ideas are limited? Incredible success stories like Apple, Amazon, and Google are rare exceptions, not the rule.
So, how can companies successfully innovate? A five-step process can be insightful:
Identify the problem or business challenge
For example, ask “How might we improve product X or customer satisfaction?”
Offer many possible ideas or use “what if?” statements as steppingstones to new ideas. Think way outside of the box, but remember that you often have to implement within the box.
Find a tentative solution
Develop decision criteria and select the best option. Consider cost savings or efficiency (doing things right), effectiveness (doing the right thing) and flexibility (how else can we solve customers’ needs?)
Try out the proposed solution on real customers and get feedback for possible improvements.
Go to market and adjust
Roll it out, make necessary changes and profit from it. Creativity is a core business activity within an organization that leads directly to entrepreneurship. One of 3M’s seven pillars of innovation success is to have a broad base of technology. This multidimensional thinking is responsible for the development of many unrelated products, such as durable abrasives, highway signs and golf gloves.
Innovation management can be studied as a process improvement technique across a spectrum of activities, from R&D to design, new product management and cycle time reduction. So if you are unsure of how to make innovation a bigger part of your business, here are four tips to help you:
1. Commit to innovate. Whether your organization is a global giant or a small or medium-sized enterprise, establishing a creative climate is the necessary starting point to generate ideas that become profitable business opportunities. Encourage risk-taking, tolerate failure, reward success, and promote open and collaborative business relationships.
2. Get the customer actively involved in the innovation process through co-creation of value or customer toolkits such as web-based tools.
3. Always be innovating. Service firms are often stretched to capacity servicing existing clients or manufacturers may be pressured, putting out daily fires. Organizations may have little time for innovation. Yet, crises make innovation even more important. For example, the Tylenol poisonings led to the introduction of tamper-proof medicine bottles which resulted in increased customer confidence in Johnson & Johnson.
4. Plan for innovation. Break out of the routine through creativity retreats to re-energize and motivate your people. Consider quarterly brainstorming sessions, occasional dinner meetings or a weekend out-of-the-office experience (get done by noon on Saturday). Also, supplement face-to-face briefings with technology initiatives to stay on track. Be open to change!
Art Weinstein, Ph.D., is a professor of marketing at Nova Southeastern University and author of “Superior Customer Value — Strategies for Winning and Retaining Customers.” Visit his website www.artweinstein.com or reach him at email@example.com or (954) 262-5097.
If everyone in your organization was as invested in and knowledgeable about your company’s strategies as you are, your team would be unstoppable, right?
But how do you get everyone from the vice president of sales to the front-line worker to embrace that concept? I would argue that a targeted communication strategy can help get you there.
Tailor your message
Know your audience. Be concise and talk about issues that matter most to that particular group.
For example, in the Moe’s business, our general managers don’t care how many franchise deals we’ve sold, although it’s important to us. And our investors don’t care about our quarterly promotions, although those are important to us also.
Why does your audience care about what you have to say, and what is the one thing you hope they walk away remembering?
Consider the mode
Some people like to learn by doing. Others like to learn by listening. When communicating, know what your audience prefers, and present accordingly.
For example, general managers work in a fast-paced environment and are on their feet all day. It’s difficult for them to sit still and watch a PowerPoint for hours, whereas the VP of sales is used to that style.
At Moe’s, we do annual regional meetings were we pay for our general managers to attend. We try to make this meeting interactive with roundtables, panels and frequent breaks to keep our audience’s attention.
The timeliness of the message and the workflow of the audience can help you determine the appropriate vehicle. We know our managers and crew members are working in the restaurant all day, so if we send an e-mail at noon, they most likely will not read it until late that night. So if it’s something that can’t wait, perhaps a phone call or text message would make more sense.
Determine the frequency
In order to cover all of our bases, we communicate with franchise partners and general managers weekly via e-mail, quarterly via a newsletter, annually via regional meetings and biannually via a worldwide conference. Clearly, we know it’s important for this group to be hearing from us constantly and in various formats.
I meet with my management team monthly because it’s important that group understand what is going on with all departments so they can report back to their teams. Our stakeholders hear from us quarterly because they are most interested in financial data and trends.
It’s important to develop a communication strategy in advance to ensure wide attendance and rich content. Let people mark their calendars a year in advance if possible to reiterate the importance of the meeting.
Remember when communicating to articulate your message in a way that is most appropriate for your audience. Just because you prefer a certain form of communication does not mean your audience feels the same.
Lastly, always measure your success. Our conferences and regional meetings are always followed by a survey soliciting feedback so we can learn how to be better. We also do an annual associate and franchise partner satisfaction survey to find areas of opportunity. <<
Paul Damico is president of Atlanta-based Moe’s Southwest Grill, a fast-casual restaurant franchise with more than 430 locations nationwide. Damico has been a leader in the food service industry for more than 20 years with companies such as SSP America, FoodBrand LLC and Host Marriott. He can be reached at pdamico@moes.
Our twins came along more than 13 years ago. This double blessing came just two years after our second kid, who in turn, came a year and a half after our oldest. At 35 years old, my wife and I found ourselves with four kids under the age of 4 — three in diapers.
Today, we’re still a little twitchy at the sight of a double stroller but have recovered for the better part. Understandably, I’ve blotted out a lot of the memories from the early days, but there are a couple that I can’t escape: changing two kids simultaneously in the back of a minivan and the refrain we heard from most everyone we ran into: “You must have your hands full.”
My wife and I didn’t talk much about the diapers; there wasn’t much to be said. We did, however, marvel at the consistency of the “hands full” observation — it never varied, it was always and precisely the same words.
I don’t think that these folks were unimaginative or particularly prone to cliché. It was just the exact right thing to say.
A few months ago, my company was acquired, and since then, my co-workers and I have, well, had our hands full as we integrate ourselves into the new organization. But oddly, I never get the “hands full” line. Instead, it’s just as consistently “You must be drinking from a fire hose.” Odder still, when I went through my last acquisition a dozen years ago, it was the same fire hose analogy. Given that the twins were 2 years old at that time, I was drinking from a fire hose with my hands full.
Here’s the point: I’m getting through corporate acquisition the same way I got through early child rearing — prioritization. When two diapers are full, that’s the top priority. Teasing out the top priority during business integration is less obvious but just as important.
There are a lot of moving parts: Integrating an accounting system built for a 30-person company into the accounting system of a public company with nearly 10,000 people. Rationalizing completely different go-to-market and manufacturing strategies. Fusing together three product lines developed in four facilities in five time zones. Remembering dozens of new names.
But I also found the top priority: the strategy. The missing strategy isn’t as apparent as other priorities. It doesn’t call you on your cell phone at night, doesn’t clog up your inbox, doesn’t drop by your cubicle “just for a minute” or even cry to be changed. Still, formulating the new strategy for the new entity and then communicating it to all internal and external constituencies is undeniably the highest priority.
The reason is that everything flows from the strategy. A strategy states what you plan to do, for whom and how. More importantly, a strategy necessarily implies what you’re not going to do, what “great opportunities” you’re going to ignore. With a strategy, the answers to the daily dozens of questions become obvious. Decisions get easier and are made consistently. Having a great strategy doesn’t ensure success. Execution and plain dumb luck play a role as well. But an organization without a strategy is doomed.
Once the strategy is in place, other priorities can be addressed on a more tactical basis. The great news is that every one of these tasks will be addressed more easily and better within a strategic framework.
- Formulating and communicating a strategy is always the top priority.
- When your hands are full and you’re drinking from a fire hose, you have to step back from the day to day and prioritize tasks, regardless of what makes the most noise.
- Do yourself a favor. With a strategy in place, all other tasks are better and more easily addressed.
Ron Seide was formerly the president of Summit Data Communications, which was acquired by Laird Technologies in March 2012. Seide is now vice president and general manager of Laird’s Connectivity Products Business Unit.
Early last summer, Half Price Books, Records, Magazines Inc.’s revenue started flattening out noticeably. Many of the Dallas-based chain’s 115 stores were recording lower-than-usual sales increases. Others stores were staring at a flat line, and a few stores were even seeing sales dip a bit.
Sharon Anderson Wright, the company’s president and CEO, says the overall slackening of Half Price Books’ sales — caused by the lackluster economy and the ascendancy of electronic media and online sellers like Amazon — was not quite on a scale that she considered alarming. But it was noticeable and problematic, and Wright knew that she and her leadership team would have to deal with it immediately.
“It’s no secret that factors like the economy, electronic media, online sales — all of these things have been killing off a lot of the bookstores,” Wright says. “In the past our company has been pretty recession-proof, but this has been the worst economy we’ve seen in recent history. And when you couple that with the increases in online sales and electronic media, it’s been tough. So we’ve been having to work with that.”
For virtually all of its 40-year existence and through a number of tough economic periods, Half Price Books has experienced consistent, stable growth. The company derives the lion’s share of its revenue from used merchandise — books, magazines, music, video — which it buys and resells. Dealing in used merchandise has always been a recipe for steady success, irrespective of the economy’s up and downs.
“Normally, we sail above everyone in recessions,” Wright says. “We skate over the top of it, because everyone comes to us. We sell a good product at a good value, and we get incredible buys when people need to either make some extra cash or downsize or move. And we sell a lot of stuff when people are trying to reinvent themselves, or when they aren’t going to work every day so they have a little more time to read a book or watch a movie.
“Actually, we still are sailing above everyone, for the most part,” she says. “It’s just at a lower overall level. Our sales are flat, where we had been having 7 to 10 percent increases every year.”
The danger signs started cropping up in June 2011.
“We were doing fine until the beginning of this past fiscal year — a year ago in June,” Wright says. “That’s when we realized that sales were starting to go flat. The stores just weren’t doing as well as they’d always done. We’d always had increases in comparable stores, but now we were seeing that some of them were flat and some of them were down.
“The overall decrease was not drastic,” she says. “We were still making a profit, but it wasn’t as comfortable as it had been in the past. I wouldn’t say we were worried, but it was enough to get our attention. We had been fortunate to roll along and not have to worry about a thing for many years. But now we saw that it was time to look at some stuff and make some changes.”
The change-making started in earnest at Half Price Books’ semiannual management meeting last fall. Wright asked everyone attending — upper management, regional managers, district managers — to come to the meeting armed with ideas to counteract the company’s sales slowdown.
“At our meeting in October, we broke up into groups and put challenges before the groups,” Wright says. “We had asked everyone to come prepared with ideas for ways to improve their stores, their buying, everything. We spent three days hashing it over, and we came away with things that we are going to try, and with different groups that are going to try to fix different areas. We’re using the expertise of the people that are actually doing the job, to pay attention and see what’s broken or what can be improved on.”
Among Half Price Books’ new initiatives is a program to bar code all of the books on its stores’ shelves and computerize its inventory chainwide. This program, which is being rolled out over several years, has been implemented in about 30 HPB stores so far, and Wright says the company plans to install it in about 35 more stores by the end of this year. The bar-coding and computerization of inventory provides a dual benefit: It enables HPB to search for and find items for customers chainwide, and it allows the company to sell its merchandise online, both on its own website and on other booksellers’ sites.
“Once we’re bar-coded, then we can shelf-scan, and we’re listing the books on our own website, HPB Marketplace, as well as sites like Amazon, Half.com and Alibris,” Wright says. “This enables us to sell anywhere we don’t have a brick-and-mortar store. So we’re selling simultaneously off the shelf and online.
“And with 115 stores, we have probably the best variety and buying power of anybody, as far as what we’re able to get and sell,” she says. “So this is a pretty big deal.”
In addition, HPB is using the new online sales conduit to sell its own excess inventory. Previously the company had sold its excess books in bulk to smaller online-only resellers for a pittance. Now, by selling the books itself, HPB is making a better profit on them.
“We’ve always bought way more books than we could sell,” Wright says. “Some of the excess books we donate, but with most of our excess books, our practice has been to sell them in bulk to other book dealers. But we’ve come to realize that that’s ridiculous, because we’re cleaning the product, packaging it, getting it all neat and tidy, and then selling it to them basically for nothing. And then they turn around and list it online and compete against us.
“So we’ve started selling these books online ourselves,” she says. “My opinion is that if these other companies can sell them online, then we ought to be able to sell them online. And in doing this, we’re drying up those sites’ main source for good, cheap inventory. I think that’s going to work in our favor.”
Half Price Books is also starting to become more active in buying and selling educational textbooks.
“We’re focusing a lot more on the textbook market,” Wright says. “Before, we didn’t really think we could complete with [college bookstore operator] Nebraska Book Co. We brought in a gentleman who has a background in buying and selling textbooks, and he’s working with our stores on databases to help us determine what textbooks are being used at the different universities. We’re even going to experiment with a sort of reverse-bookmobile — a ‘buymobile’ that will go to university towns and buy books from students.”
Build a solid foundation
Wright attributes Half Price Books’ long track record of stable growth to the company’s founding principles, which haven’t changed since co-founders Pat Anderson — Wright’s mother — and Ken Gjemre opened HPB’s first store 40 years ago in a converted laundromat in Dallas.
“Our company has always been different all the way around,” Wright says. “We were founded by a war hero/peace activist/gray panther and a psychologist, and they started the store as a place where individuals and their values would be respected. It was based on the concepts of treating people fairly, providing a good value for the customer, not throwing things away and being good for the environment. Those are our founding principles, and they still hold true 40 years later. So any decision I make, and any decision the people around me make, is based on those basic founding principles.
“We have 3,000 people, and every day we give them a register full of money and say, basically, ‘Buy anything printed or recorded except yesterday’s newspaper, treat the customer right, pay the right amount, price it at the right amount, and put it out and sell it.’ And that has grown from — you know, originally we had eight-track tapes and 78’s, and now we have MP3 players and video games and consoles. We let our people experiment and try new things. If it somehow relates to something we think our customers would want or be interested in, then we’ll give it a try and see what happens.
“Each person that works here gets to think and be exposed to new information all day, every day. They’re basically entrepreneurs. They’re making it up as they go along, and if they come up with a good idea, then we’ll take it and spread it around.
“It’s built on trust, and we promote from within. So that’s why we’re a little different than a lot of businesses. On the other hand, I think it’s becoming more popular for companies to treat their people like that now. It’s kind of a Montessori approach to business.”
Pay attention to details
A couple other initiatives Half Price Books is undertaking could be said to fall under the category of running a tighter ship: sharpening the look of its stores, and making everyone more accountable for what they do, from managers to sellers.
“When you run a place like this, you have to look at the store closely,” Wright says. “The appearance of your store is hugely important. After our management meeting, I told the managers to go back and look at their stores with a fresh eye. How does it look to the people coming in? Because it can get a little doggy once in a while, a little dusty and dirty. And you can’t tolerate that. So we’re working hard to make our stores more inviting and friendly.
“You have to hold your store managers accountable for store appearance and store performance and all that kind of stuff,” she says. “At the same time, I’m definitely not a dictatorial leader. I’m more of a ‘Why not, let’s try it, let’s see how it goes’ type leader.
“The other thing you absolutely cannot tolerate in your stores is surly employees. In any business, there are always a few people around that might not be pulling their weight. We’ve become less tolerant of people who are unwilling to pitch in and do their part, because the other people really work hard. If they’re not going to enjoy what they do and do their job right, then let them go try to work for somebody else.”
In the end, despite the tough competition and the market-share inroads being made by online-only retailers, Wright says Half Price Books remains committed to the brick-and-mortar store concept.
“If we didn’t have the stores, then we wouldn’t have all of the great people that work for us, and we like providing something for our communities,” Wright says. “We feel that there are always going to be people that like not only a physical book, but they like a physical bookstore. The store is a place for people to come and hang out, and they bring in their books, and we get some incredible inventory from them. If we didn’t have brick and mortar, we’d be like those companies that are trying to buy bulk from us. Eventually you wouldn’t have anything to sell but a bunch of castoff excess inventory.”
Wright says Half Price Books’ new initiatives are working: Store sales are inching back up.
“For a while, we were looking at a situation where ‘flat’ was the new ‘up,’” she says. “Now we’re getting back to where ‘up’ is ‘up.’ It’s a good place to be.” <<
HOW TO REACH: Half Price Books, Records, Magazines Inc., (800) 883-2114, www.hpb.com
THE WRIGHT FILE
Name: Sharon Anderson Wright
Title: President and CEO
Company: Half Price Books, Records, Magazines Inc.
Education: Richland College, Dallas — studied art, anthropology, archaeology, photography, history
What were some of your earliest work experiences?
The first real job I had was at a grocery store called Foodland. I started working there when I was 15. Before that I had worked for my dad, filling orders for paint and stuff like that. He was a cuckoo clock salesman. But my first real job was as grocery store checker, and I loved it. My second job was as a trophy engraver and builder. I worked in a trophy shop. I engraved trophies and drill-pressed marble.
What’s a lesson you learned from those early jobs that you carry with you?
The importance of customer service. I always loved working the front counter. At a place like a grocery store, you relate to the person that’s in front of you, you take care of what’s going on right in front of you, and you just do that the best you can. I love talking to people, and in the grocery store we had constant lines, so you’re working directly with the people, and you’re constantly interacting with them and relating to them. I still try to use that approach every day.
Do you have an overriding business philosophy that you use to guide you?
The golden rule: Don’t expect or do anything to people that you wouldn’t want for yourself. Treat everybody equally. And listen to people. Respect them and respect what they bring to your company.
How do you define success in your business?
Being able to provide a good place for people to work and to provide something for the community that they need, and being able to be happy and feel good about what you do every day.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Don’t go to bed mad. My mom taught me that.
In “Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence,” the authors tell the story of a manager who used cars in the parking lot as a barometer of her team’s collective emotions after a merger. Immediately after the merger announcement, she noticed full parking lots even late into the evening.
She interpreted this as an extra level of excitement about the potential opportunities afforded by the merger. Over time, and as post-merger change initiatives foundered, the number of cars decreased, and she interpreted this as decreasing excitement and commitment.
But she also noticed that certain cars were a constant. There were “pockets of people” that remained productive and happy in the midst of delays in progress with the merger. What she found was that most people who endured the change with positivity were protected from the disorder by leaders who included them in the process of change, gave them needed information and provided as much control as possible over their destiny.
Effective leaders know how to promote engagement regardless of the strength of the winds of change — or in this case the lack of progress.
Something in our business environments is always changing — either internally or externally. In addition, something in our business environments is always stalled. Leaders need to understand how to keep the energy level up during challenging times.
Some of the most effective leadership behaviors during tough times are illustrated in this post-merger example: Include your team as much as possible, give them critical information and allow team members the appropriate level of autonomy so they feel they have some level of control over their immediate work environment.
The authors of “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work,” offer another key component of engagement. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer suggest that “of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
Think about the last time a key corporate client said to you, “You guys are integral to our success; we couldn’t have done this without you.” Were your steps a little lighter that day? After celebrating that success with others and thanking all involved for their contributions, how much more motivated were you to do a great job for that client? How much more motivated was your team?
As leaders, we need to ensure that our employees are not only making progress with organizational goals, but that they believe that their work matters. How do we do that?
There are several key principles to keep in mind: First, of course, is that people find meaning in their work in different ways. Some derive value primarily by how much they please your customers. Others focus almost exclusively on what they can acquire from their employment: status, money, etc. Others want to build an organization or army of people who will accomplish something great for its own sake and some simply derive pleasure from getting things done. What they do is less important than the accomplishment of achieving goals. Finally, there are people who find meaning by working with others who are like a family to them.
While none of us typically focus exclusively on just one source of meaning, it helps to remember that people do extract different primary sources of meaning and that leaders and managers need to have this in mind as they seek to lead others.
Second, once you know how your team members find meaning, make sure you don’t obscure it. Be clear about how what your team is doing connects to something beyond the day-to-day tasks in ways that has meaning to each person.
Finally, if you lead the entire organization, be clear with everyone, not just your team, on how the strategies, initiatives and measurable goals connect to different sources of meaning.
Helping people see the links between the progress they are making in their daily tasks and the meaning in their lives or the lives of others is one of the key tasks of leadership. Doing this well can only serve to fuel the fire of full engagement for your employees and for you.
Andy Kanefield is the founder of Dialect Inc. and co-author of “Uncommon Sense: One CEO’s Tale of Getting in Sync.” Dialect helps organizations improve alignment and translation of organizational identity. To explore how to get greater alignment behind systemic organizational changes, you may reach Andy at (314) 863-4400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Hoffmann has never tried to make DHR International Inc. the most affordable executive search firm in the market. His goal since launching the firm in 1989 has been to provide the most value to his clients.
And despite an economy that still has some business leaders feeling skittish about their finances, Hoffmann says his philosophy about pricing still fits.
“The overall competitive global landscape that we are all dealing with today makes price a secondary issue,” says Hoffmann, founder, chairman and CEO at the 410-employee firm.
“[Clients] are more interested in something that can change the marketplace and give them a competitive advantage that before this product or service offering, they didn’t have. In almost any business you can think of, they are all going after market share.”
Pricing may be more important in some industries and less important in others. But however your clients feel about your costs, how can you get them to really focus on the great value that your company wants to provide them through your product or service?
“If you’re going to have that ‘McDonald’s hamburger’ around the world, you need to be consistent,” Hoffmann says. “Any great company has a consistency with its message and a consistency with its product. General Motors is a big client of ours and those cars are distributed all around the world.
“They pretty much function the same in any part of the world as they do in Detroit where they are manufactured. Consistency of quality and consistency of brand is critical when you’re thinking about growing a company at any level.”
That doesn’t mean that you come up with one way to do something and then never change. It means you’re consistent about how your product is presented, consistent about how it is packaged and consistent about the way you respond to concerns.
“We say, ‘Look, not only are we going to find you the best executive to fill this need, but we’re going to tell you how we did it, demonstrate how we did it and build a competency that tells you that this is not just a good candidate, this is the best candidate on the planet and here’s why,’” Hoffmann says.
You need to be the kind of company that clients know they can turn to for anything and you’ll come through for them. You build a reputation and they just expect you to come up with great results.
Those results don’t just come from your own initiative, however. They come from an intense and consistent study of your competition.
“One needs to look at the competition and say, ‘OK, where are they weak?’” Hoffmann says.
Go back to the time when you launched or took over your business and identified a need you wanted to tackle in the marketplace.
“You had to see a need or why would you have started the business?” Hoffmann says. “I would define those needs and then I would exploit those needs in terms of messages to the marketplace. It could be that my widget has a lifespan that is 50 percent longer than the next competitor’s lifespan. Be able to demonstrate that is factually correct.”
The key is you’re constantly focused on your product or service and never assuming that you’ve got it all figured out.
“One needs to explore their competition, analyze their weaknesses, create a product around those weaknesses and exploit it to the potential customer base in a way that is going to be effective through advertising, marketing or media placements,” Hoffmann says.
“You have to be adaptable to change in a changing environment and evolve, but keep the fundamentals of that business intact. At the same time, you have to be anchored to that which made you successful in the first place.”
Being consistently great is never easy, but it’s what your goal needs to be. Don’t be afraid to use your team to make it happen.
“It’s getting everybody together and saying, ‘Look, in 30 days, let’s go out and figure out what our competition is doing and see how we can differentiate,’” Hoffmann says. “It’s not a bad starting point.”
How to reach: DHR International Inc., (312) 782-1581 or www.dhrinternational.com
Do your homework
Studying your competition is a very different thing than copying what they are doing. You’re trying to take what they do and do it better, says David Hoffmann, founder, chairman and CEO at DHR International Inc.
“The way I did it is I looked at our competition that was much bigger than us and I looked at their outlets that they utilized to get their message out,” Hoffmann says. “So we looked at the competition of the big five search firms in the world. Today, we’re one of those.
“Look at who is doing it really well, look at where they are going and take aspects that you think you can capitalize on in whatever business endeavor you’re in. Some of those will be attainable and some of them won’t.”
Hoffmann knew he couldn’t replicate the kind of advertising campaigns of companies such as Coca-Cola or Budweiser. But he found ways to sell his brand in a way fit his budget.
“There is just a whole host of ways to get one’s name and brand to the marketplace,” Hoffmann says. “You’ve just got to see what fits.”
Many business leaders say all the right things about how much they value their employees. But they often fall short in their actual investment in human capital.
Even though human capital investments are one of a company’s largest expenses, these leaders would rather devote more regular attention to the balance sheet, capital investments and risk analysis.
That is a mistake.
There are substantial benefits from a strategic focus on human capital. Higher profitability is at the top of the list.
Numerous studies consistently show higher year-over-year returns for companies that are strategically focused on human capital. These organizations also have higher levels of employee satisfaction and engagement that parallel higher levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty. Given the staggering cost of finding, hiring and keeping employees, there are substantial payoffs if you perform as an industry leader in the human resources area.
Why is it so difficult to focus on human resources? It takes time and commitment. As with all major initiatives, it starts with a clear corporate strategy with board oversight. Senior executives need to assume accountability for outcomes and put clear dashboards in place to measure progress.
For example, leaders of many best-practice companies schedule two days of executive-level meetings quarterly to diligently review their best current and high-potential leaders and individual contributors.
Here are some other things that effective companies do.
- Work to ensure high engagement by involving current and potential leaders in critical work for the organization through regular feedback and through ongoing information flows from senior executives, among other important factors.
- Ensure effective processes in recruitment and selection, on-boarding, and alignment to culture, strategy and role.
- Build an effective performance management system in place with ongoing feedback loops to encourage best performance and optimal results.
- Create continual development opportunities for current employees and ensure future roles are readily available.
- Devote 2 to 3 percent of payroll to learning and development.
The most successful companies also strongly emphasize diversity and inclusion — not just in the traditional areas of focus but also diversity of skills and abilities. In addition, they offer training to ensure that employees at all levels effectively demonstrate inclusion by effectively listening, seeking feedback, giving feedback and managing conflict and differences of opinion.
Why don’t more leaders take full ownership and accountability? Why is human capital reporting not a standard part of executive committee agendas? Why is there a stigma associated with human resources-related functions?
Here is one indication that suggests there is, unfortunately, still a stigma attached to working with HR: In 2008, M.D. Breitfelder and D.W. Dowling — both MBA graduates — explained their career choice by writing a Harvard Business Review story called “Why Did We Ever Go Into HR?”
Human resources and human capital professionals contribute to the lack of understanding of the importance of HR by not speaking in terms of clear business outcomes. In addition, talent management professionals often don’t have a seat at the senior management table. Leaders would do well to involve HR executives at the highest levels and coach appropriately to ensure that HR and talent professionals speak in ways that resonate with the C-suite.
The stakes for human capital are likely to become even higher in the future. Leaders would do well to develop human capital skills and champion talent management overall.
Jay Colker is core faculty for the master’s in counseling and organizational psychology program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. He also maintains a human capital consulting practice and may be reached at email@example.com or at (312) 213-3421.
For more than 25 years, Ernst & Young has celebrated the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women pursuing innovation and entrepreneurial excellence in their businesses, their teams and their communities.
The blood, sweat and passion they’ve poured into their businesses and the triumphs they’ve achieved stand as a testament to the role they play as visionaries, leaders and innovators. Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year Program to recognize this passion for excellence and to build an influential and innovative community of peers.
We have gathered here and in 25 other cities in the U.S. to welcome the men and women who are regional finalists into our entrepreneurial Hall of Fame and to toast their commitment to succeed. We applaud them for launching start-up companies, opening new markets and fueling job growth.
So let’s celebrate their achievements, their perseverance and their tireless pursuit of business excellence.
Ernie Cortes is the Entrepreneur Of The Year program director. He can be reached at (408) 947-5462.
2012 Finalists and Honorees
Media and Entertainment
Retail and Consumer Products
In today’s rat race of a world we call business, CEOs often overvalue themselves, believing, for example, that they have all the right answers. Wrong.
For just that reason, CEOs need leadership coaches now more than ever before. Why? Perhaps because they are so involved in their organization, they are not able to rise above it in order to serve as an unbiased, neutral and effective leader.
At the expense of “opening up the kimono too far,” I am a living, breathing testament of this fact and struggle to overcome it. For that reason, I am on a continual search for sounding boards of respected and experienced individuals who might guide my hand and challenge me to “question my answers.”
Many CEOs with whom I speak talk often about how it is lonely at the top. They, in my opinion, are not asking for pity. What they are asking for is the comfort of others who have walked a mile in their shoes, those who make big decisions daily, decisions that have significant consequences for others.
This is where leadership coaches come into the picture. Over the years, I have worked with several coaches — some good and some not so good. But I learned from each of them. Good coaches, quite candidly, are the ones who do not pull any punches and are brutally frank with you. They seek to be honest brokers of ideas, opinions and suggestions they have gathered and feed them back to you in a constructive fashion.
Good coaches also listen and learn from what CEOs and executives have said, and seek to share expertise in helpful ways, especially when it comes to challenging and questioning the answers you give them. And, best of all, they hold you accountable.
With the skills of a good leadership coach, many positive outcomes will result and improve your positioning and impact as an industry leader. Here are my top five qualities for any worthwhile executive coach:
- An acknowledgement and self-awareness that CEOs do not have all the answers for the problems their company faces.
- An ability to learn from others who have, as they saying goes, “walked a mile in my shoes.”
- A sense of comfort that the coach will hold all conversations in the strictest of confidence.
- An ability to look at things from a more neutral and unbiased perspective and be accountable to your commitments.
- A realization that a company will benefit from a CEO who is empowered to translate what they learn from the coach into an all-new leadership style and approach, which can then be used to grow the organization.
When CEOs learn these all-important fundamentals from a coach, they can model that behavior, first moving their management team to a higher level of performance, then creating a trickle-down effect to other members of your company. The net result should be a sense of increased engagement and creativity within your organization.
Don Phillips’ book, “Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times,” perhaps said it best. Borrowing from Abraham Lincoln’s own words referring to his strategies during the Civil War, Phillips noted that, “Leaders should realize that successful alliances put the (CEO) in a position of strength and power.”
Put another way, alignment with a coach will rapidly pay for itself and help you differentiate yourself from the competition.
In my judgment, no company today should operate without access to a leadership coach. Call them a coach, a trusted advisor or a strategic partner. Don’t get hung up on the title. Just get one. You will find it one of the best investments of your life.
G.A. Taylor Fernley is president and CEO of Fernley & Fernley, an association management company founded in 1886. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or for more information, visit www.fernley.com.