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Wednesday, 02 March 2011 12:01

Empower employees to boost productivity

David Hankin could pass for an entertainment executive as he sits in the courtyard of The Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel. Donning a sleek suit and squinting into the sun, he cracks jokes about which doctor he might portray on TV.

And when you hear his mantra, you’ll really think Hollywood.

“You have to take care of your talent,” he says.

Hankin does come from the entertainment industry, where he gleaned that piece of advice, but today, he serves as CEO of The Alfred E. Mann Foundation for Scientific Research. In fact, that mantra still guides him as he leads research and development of medical devices at the organization, which has produced cochlear implants for the deaf, retinal prostheses for the blind, and the pen-cap-sized device Hankin holds now — an implantable microstimulator that’s battery-powered to stimulate impaired neural and muscular functions.

Some would argue that those plots of intellectual property are a business’s most important assets. But when a moderator of a panel discussion on the topic once made that claim, Hankin was quick to refute it.

“I said, ‘With all due respect, in our business, intellectual property is not the most important asset that we have,’” he says. “‘The most important asset we have is people because that’s where it starts.’ You don’t have intellectual property if you don’t have great people.”

For Hankin, who also serves as president of The Alfred E. Mann Foundation for Biomedical Engineering, it really boils down to that mantra he borrowed from the entertainment world. It’s all about taking care of his 105 employees, who tend to be top decile graduates from prestigious technical schools with years of specialized experience. That caliber of talent presents a double-edged sword.

“The challenges, of course, are that you have to figure out how to channel that creativity and that brilliance so that it’s productive,” he says. “The rewards are spectacular, and you end up with devices like a microstimulator that holds the promise of reanimating paralyzed limbs. From a leadership point of view, it’s really channeling that brilliance and energy that (employees) have.”

Start with skill

Though the Mann Foundation is relatively small, with recent income around $24 million, it competes with giants like Boston Scientific and St. Jude’s.

To stay competitive when it comes to hiring, the foundation recruits heavily across several fields, from electrical and mechanical engineering to biosciences. Hankin keeps tabs on employment news so if a large defense contractor is shedding people because of a canceled program, for example, he reaches out to their human resources manager to connect the dots.

“Anytime a company with sufficient technical prowess is shedding people, we look at who they shed,” he says. “Just because somebody gets axed in this environment doesn’t mean they’re not a great person.”

Because about 80 percent of the positions at the Mann Foundation are technical in nature, Hankin considers technical skill the primary hiring factor.

“It’s a litmus test because, frankly, if you don’t have the right technical acumen, you’re not going to be able to hang in our group,” Hankin says. “If they don’t have the skill level and they can’t sit in meetings and contribute in our organization, then they’re not going to make it.”

Hankin often has prior working relationships with executives he brings in, partly thanks to his recruiting network. Beyond that, he assesses how candidates have proven themselves in the field.

“Some of it is based on past performance: What have they done in their career? What kinds of challenges have they undertaken?” he asks. “I’m not afraid of people who switch careers. Frequently when we see that, we see people who are able to make adjustments and also have to learn about new industries.”

Industry-hopping could also suggest a candidate is a natural learner who would fare well in ever-changing fields like health care and technology.

Use the interview to drill into candidates’ skills, even if that means turning it over to the experts. Hankin gets uncomfortable in interviews with his scientists, because they ask candidates such tough questions.

“It’s not, ‘What do you think your strengths and weaknesses are?’” he says. “They’re asking them how they would solve certain scientific and engineering problems. They want to know more about their approach than whether or not they come to the right answer.”

Give employees leeway

When you’re bringing in such technical people who have spent years specializing in their area, the key is really harvesting their abilities. If you’re like Hankin, you may feel clueless next to your people’s expertise. In that case, get out of their way.

“My management style tends to be more about hiring great people and letting them run, giving them the field,” Hankin says. “I’m not smart enough to micromanage these people, honestly. The technical breadth and diversity among the different technology areas that we have to cover … is staggering. I have to hire great people and really trust them.”

Their skills need the opportunity to shine. Give employees freedom to do what they do best.

“One, you have to have creative, challenging projects for them to work on,” Hankin says. “Two, you have to give people room to make mistakes and fail. We want people to take risks; that’s how we solve problems.”

Creating that safe environment starts with flexibility on your end. When you’re discussing the company’s approach to solving a problem, keep the table open to all ideas. If your employees are technical experts, this isn’t too hard to do because they’re the ones with the knowledge necessary to formulate answers.

“It’s not my role to talk,” says Hankin, who stays quiet during meetings. “If something comes up where there’s a partnership issue, those are things I’ll (talk) about. If there’s a debate on how to design a circuit sufficiently to perform a certain function, I’m probably not going to enter that debate.”

The good thing about this kind of environment is that even if Hankin did enter that debate, his perspective would merit consideration, too. He’s comfortable throwing out a “what if” in a meeting because an initial “Yeah, right” response may give way to, “Let’s try it.”

“We discuss different directions that we might take in addressing a problem,” he says. “We may pursue one or two or three or four avenues of addressing a particular technical problem, any of which may succeed or not. We’re willing to consider multiple paths.

“Maybe 90 percent of the conversation is about different technical approaches: ‘Well, have you tried this? Have you thought about that? I know someone who’s done this.’ This free flow of scientific ideas is something that we promote, and that’s how these kinds of problems get solved. They don’t get solved because some guy is holed up in a cube someplace running experiments.”

Rigorous testing — in many cases, required by national and international guidelines — later reveals the best solution. But to get there, Hankin has to remind people that speaking up is the only way for solutions to surface.

“From a management point of view, we tend to want to understand what the problems are so that we can help try to direct resources to hot problems,” he says. “Because we have a culture where you’re not going to get crushed if you fail, people tend to be more open about things that they’re seeking to solve. One of the things that I always tell people (is), ‘If there’s a problem that exists and I don’t know about it, there’s nothing I can do to help direct resources.’ I look at myself as the remover of roadblocks and also traffic cop of resources. If I can direct resources in the right way in the right place, we can solve almost anything.”

You generate an open discussion by focusing on the collective goal of solving problems. A new employee at The Alfred E. Mann Foundation, who came from a company where people were protective of information, was surprised by his first meeting. Afterward, he asked Hankin if people were usually that open.

“Here, people want to share information because they want to solve their problems,” Hankin told him. “They know there’s other people who have different experiences who come from different industries who have a potential contribution to solve their problem.”

Make your mission relevant

The microstimulator Hankin is pinching between his thumb and forefinger was a much bigger undertaking than its size suggests. It took 10 years to develop — two for the proprietary ceramic case alone. To get there, the foundation debuted at least half a dozen fresh innovations.

How does he keep employees motivated for projects that take that long to complete? Hankin says it’s not a huge hurdle, considering that “psychic value” is inherent with Mann’s mission of, basically, saving lives. When Hankin surveyed employees about their motivation a couple of years ago, they said they were there to help improve human health.

Your company’s mission may not be that mobilizing. But whether you’re saving lives or shipping parts, the key to motivating employees is showing them the relevance of what they do. Making your product or service real to them will keep them engaged for the life of the project — however long that may be.

“Because we take things to human trials, people get to see the effect on people,” Hankin says. “We also bring patients in who’ve experienced the benefit of a device, and we have them talk to our people. So we try to bring our people as close to the patient experience as they can get without having to go to the clinic themselves. This is the whole motivating factor— you get to see the benefit of the device you create.”

To get his employees close to the customer, Hankin will even send employees to watch the company’s devices being implanted through surgery.

The key is keeping that big picture in focus as employees tackle individual tasks. Frequent design reviews give Hankin’s team an opportunity to recap every aspect of a project’s progress and remind everyone about all the parts that must come together.

Getting big-picture buy-in goes back to giving employees challenging projects to work on. If you can pare down your teams to the point where each member carries a significant portion of a project’s weight, you automatically make each piece important. When Hankin came on board in 2007, he trimmed overlaps and “deadwood fat” to make the organization lean and each role relevant.

“Each person’s working on something that’s really meaty,” he says. “It’s not somebody who’s working on a piece of something that they can’t see any relevance to. Everybody in our place understands the relevance of exactly what they’re doing.”

A good leader educates employees about why their jobs matter, but a great leader actively matches up employees with jobs that matter to them personally.

By helping employees see all the necessary parts that make a whole, you’re inevitably unveiling other opportunities where their skills could make a difference. Have the flexibility to let them jump on different projects.

With five or six projects running at once, Hankin can reassign employees who have completed one task or just need a change.

“I try not to pigeonhole people,” he says. “If people want to try different things — subject, of course, to meeting our schedules and our budgets — we try to enable people to work on different projects. … We make adjustments from a career development focus. I may say, ‘Look, next available opportunity to do that, we’ll do that,’ but I keep my promises.”

That effort keeps employees engaged so they’ll make your company successful. By taking care of his talent, Hankin keeps his most valuable resources engaged through high-risk, high-reward projects with long, challenging life cycles.

“If somebody is working with you and they are unhappy and disgruntled, you’re not going to get their best work,” he says. “Part of the challenge is to get people to align with what their desires are.”

How to reach: The Alfred E. Mann Foundation for Scientific Research, (661) 702-6700 or www.aemf.org

Published in Los Angeles
Tuesday, 01 March 2011 14:18

Mark Cuban turns failure into success

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Mark Cuban’s parents wanted him to learn a trade so he’d have something to fall back on. So the guy — who is now worth $2.5 billion — got a job working for a carpenter laying carpet and quickly learned he was absolutely horrible at it.

He was so terrible at his next endeavor as a short-order cook that he couldn’t tell if the food was done right unless he tried it, so he always cut off tiny pieces to sample.

And then there was the time that he was a waiter in a nice restaurant and could never open the wine bottles without getting cork in the wine.

“It was just horrible,” he says. “I was like, ‘Why aren’t you scheduling me more hours?’ [They said], ‘You can’t do this worth a damn, Mark.’”

But through all of these early experiences, he learned that it’s OK to not be good at everything.

“I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how many times you failed,” Cuban says. “You only have to be right once. I tried to sell powdered milk. I was an idiot lots of times, and I learned from them all.”

He applied lessons learned in his failures as he started Broadcast.com, an audio and video portal, which he later sold to Yahoo for $5.7 billion in stock. His failures also helped him succeed when he bought and turned around the Dallas Mavericks NBA franchise and co-founded HDNet, an all high-definition television network. And these are just a few of his successful ventures that have landed him at No. 144 on the Forbes 400 Richest Americans and No. 400 on the World Billionaires lists as well as a guest venture capitalist “shark” on ABC’s “Shark Tank” reality TV show.

“I don’t care if you’re working a counter at McDonald’s or as a bartender like I did or as a doorman like I did, when it fails, whatever it may be, you’re going to learn,” he says. “You’ve got to take that positive orientation to it and develop your skills.”

Cuban has refined many skills over the years as he’s built his businesses, and he’s learned a lot. But in particular, he’s learned how to look at opportunities, how to know himself and how to be ruthlessly focused.

Look at opportunities

If someone wants to pitch Cuban an idea, he’s open to it, but he’s not going to take a meeting for it. Instead, he wants to keep the details short, sweet and to the point.

“What I tell people is, ‘Anything you’re going to tell me in a meeting or a sales pitch, put it in an e-mail, and I’ll read it, and you know, give me as much technical information or business details as you can,’ because that takes all the personality out of it,” he says. “It lets me deal with just the facts or the details, and once I have a feel for the details, then we can deal with the personalities and the people involved.”

Cuban can quickly — often within seconds — recognize if a pitch is something he’s interested in or not. He starts with whether it’s an industry he wants to be in. He knows he wants to steer clear of websites driven by advertising, he’s not interested in being part of the next cool fashion trend, and it’s safe to say that his early experiences in the restaurant industry are just one reason he doesn’t want to open a restaurant of his own. Instead, he tends to stick to technology and play to his own strengths.

He says that just looking at the industry is about 90 percent of it. Beyond that, he looks for any red flags.

“The more people try to sell you on the size of a market, that’s usually a first red flag,” Cuban says. “If someone says, ‘This is a billion-dollar market, and all we’ve got to do is get one-half of 1 percent, and we’ll be making X, Y, Z,’ that’s someone usually selling themselves.”

Another red flag is if someone also says that the company is going to be better than an established player — like someone saying the company is going to be a better Facebook than Facebook. Also, he looks at how people react when he brings up competitors. If they start saying what those folks can’t do instead of talking about what gives this opportunity a unique competitive advantage, that’s a good indicator to him, as well.

“What people fail to grasp is once you introduce something, whoever the competitors are, they’re going to introduce the exact same thing,” he says. “It’s pretty much impossible to protect ideas like that when you’re already in an industry, so just trying to be faster, better, cheaper, just one-upping somebody, that’s also a red flag. When I see someone trying to be a one-upper, I’m usually turning away.”

The last element he looks at is whether there is a product or a feature.

“You look at things like location-based services — Gowalla, Foursquare and the like — and then you look at Facebook adding places or Google adding places, and you have to ask yourself, ‘Even though Foursquare and Gowalla pretty much wrote that business, are they features of somebody else’s products like a Facebook, or can they operate as a stand-alone business?’” he says. “That’s also a decision point you have to make.”

Cuban says you have to be patient and recognize that timing is part of an opportunity, as well. That’s what he’s done with the model he has now — releasing movies simultaneously for home viewing and in theaters and sometimes even prior to theatrical release — with Landmark Theatres, HDNet and Magnolia Pictures. He had to own all of those different elements, and people had to be open to it if he was to succeed, and it’s catching on now that the market is ripe for it.

“You can’t just automatically walk in and start a business every year or always have the right idea at the right time,” he says. “But you have to recognize when you have a unique opportunity and be able to pounce on it. There’s not always going to be an idea. There’s not always something. You just have to be willing to say, ‘OK, this is the lull period, but I keep on working, and I keep on learning, and if things change, there will be a unique opportunity, and when it comes, I’ll pounce on it.’”

Know yourself

Before Cuban ever made any money, he says he had so much “piss and vinegar” in him that he’d do anything necessary to win, but as his businesses have changed over the years, he realizes that this once-prevalent personality trait isn’t one of his strong suits anymore.

“It used to be picking up the check and closing the deal was the ultimate, and now one, ‘I love you, Daddy; can we go get some ice cream?’ conquers all,” he says.

And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be if he didn’t recognize it.

“I always thought, ‘I’ll just dive in,’” he says. “It’s like working out. There’s multiple kinds of workouts. Sometimes you tell yourself you’re going to go to the gym and get a great workout, and then you realize that you remember why you need a trainer — you need someone to push you. When you have the piss and vinegar, you don’t need anyone to push you. You just dive in, and you get the best possible business workout.”

He now looks for people with that piss and vinegar in them or in their company so he can complement them. Additionally, Cuban has always been a “big-picture geek” that understood sales, marketing and technology, but when it comes to the administrative side of making all the little things work, that’s where he’s had to find people to help him. He says it’s critical to make sure you’re grounded in reality about your abilities.

“You have to be brutally honest with yourself,” he says. “You (can’t) lie to yourself. You have to know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at. You can’t all of a sudden be a home-run hitter. You can’t be a dunker if you can’t dunk, right? It’s that simple. …You better figure out what you’re good at and be great at it.”

One easy way to tell if you’re being honest with yourself is your success record.

“[It’s] just wanting to win,” he says. “It’s not an ego thing. It’s very binary. Is there money in the bank or not? Are you successful or are you not? It’s very simple. The people who lie to themselves typically end up with more problems.”

If you can recognize your strongest skills and those of the people around you, then you can win in business.

“It’s about winning,” Cuban says. “Your ego gets rewarded a whole lot more by winning in terms of your business success and the success of your company than you do by winning an argument or a battle or just trying to prove to people that you’re good at everything. When someone tries to tell me they’re good at everything, I know they’re lying.”

Have a ruthless focus

When Cuban became the Dallas Mavericks’ owner, he walked into a losing franchise that struggled to fill seats, and he didn’t say, “I’m the new owner; do what I say.” Instead, he put his desk in the middle of the sales bullpen, put a copy of the phone book and old sales leads on his desk, and he started calling people along with everyone else.

“I said, ‘Look, we’re speeding up, and either you’re on the train or off the train,’” he says. “‘If you keep up, you stay on. If you don’t, we’ll still be friends, but you know, you’re going to fall off the train, and we’re going to figure out how to move forward without you.’”

To succeed, you have to be completely focused on what it is you want to do.

“You have to go in and be very specific about what your goals are, what you’re willing to accept and what you won’t accept,” he says.

The first thing he clarified to his employees was that they were not in the basketball business — they were in the entertainment business.

“We were going to be more like a great wedding than a good high school basketball game,” Cuban says. “A great wedding, you remember Aunt Susie getting drunk and dancing with Cousin Billy, who you hated, but it was fun to watch. What makes a good wedding fun is everyone getting together and yelling and screaming and having fun.

“When you remember the first sporting event you went to, you don’t remember the score or the date. You remember who you were with and what you did with that person.”

He then had to be clear regarding what they needed to achieve. The old arena had 17,700 seats, and there were 41 home games plus playoffs, so he put up signs saying “17,700 times 41 — that’s our goal. That’s how many we have to sell.” He asked them how they were going to get there and said nothing else mattered. He promised the team and coaches that he’d do everything in his power to give them the resources they needed to get the losing franchise winning.

As a result, games became electric with entertainment, which brought people in, and he hired new coaches to help the team win.

“I made it quite clear what we were trying to accomplish,” he says. “There was no ambiguity at all.”

In these situations, he says it’s important for you as the leader to set those goals and not rely on a group of people to do that.

“You have to know exactly what your goal is, and you have to know how you’re going to get there,” he says. “Where companies fail miserably is they try to create goals by committee. You can’t have committee leadership. If you don’t know, you’re preparing yourself to fail.”

Communication also plays a key role in setting goals and staying focused on them.

“Good leadership is being able to explain how you’re going to kick your competition’s ass and being able to explain to everybody how they’re going to participate in doing that,” he says. “Otherwise, what are you doing there?”

He says you also have to adjust your communication depending on the type of people you have in your organization.

“Are you dealing with 18-year-olds, 25-year-olds, 40-year-olds?” he asks. “Are you in a very competitive business that moves quickly? You have to match the circumstances and the context and adjust accordingly. If my business is where I trust people and things are going well, then all I need is a weekly report via e-mail. That’s it. Just tell me what’s going on — bad news first — and then we’ll deal with it. If I’m in a situation where things aren’t going well, then I’m going to be up your ass. It just depends. It’s when you try to do it the same way every time, that’s when you run into problems.”

His intense focus paid off — the Mavericks have become a winning franchise and reached the playoffs now in each of the full seasons since he bought them, and fans are packing the arena to wildly cheer alongside the animated Cuban.

“Ideas are the easy part,” he says. “It’s the execution of the idea that becomes the difficult part.”

How to reach: Dallas Mavericks, (214) 747-6287 or

www.mavs.com; HDNet, (214) 672-1740 or www.hd.net

Cuban on titles:

It’s OK to allow people to raise their voice to you. I want people with strong opinions that they get passionate about. I don’t care if someone is yelling and raising their voice in my direction. It’s not a sign of disrespect. Hell, it’s a sign of passion. … If someone is passionate about something, share the passion. And if I don’t agree with you, I’ll tell you, but at least I’m going to appreciate the passion. That means you care.

A lot of CEOs say, ‘Don’t disrespect me,’ or, ‘I’m the CEO.’ I just hate that, when people hide behind a title. I’ve never been CEO of one of my companies until this year when I had to do it, and the reason I wasn’t was because, A, I didn’t care about titles and, B, I was superstitious — I’d been the president of every company that had been successful. To me, titles never matter. I try to keep all our organizations very flat. I never wanted managers reporting to managers. There was everybody, there was the level of management, and there was me. If I had to have somebody in between me and the managers, I minimized it as much as possible.

It’s not as much setting the ego aside; it’s setting formality aside. It’s ego, but if you’re a good CEO and you’re in a successful environment, there’s 1,001 ways to get ego gratification, and it should be in winning as opposed to driven by title. If anybody ever makes you feel like you’re a lowly anything, the problem is not yours, it’s theirs.

Cuban on control:

It’s not that the glass is half full or the glass is half empty, it’s who’s pouring the water that matters. And that’s the way it should be. Everyone’s, ‘Oh, you have to look at it positively.’ You have to take control of the situation.

Sometimes you can’t — then you have to figure out who’s in control. When you think about it, if someone says, ‘Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full?’ that already means you’re at a disadvantage, because you’re stuck. You’re making an adjustment about what’s already done as opposed to figuring out if I want to pull to the top, pull halfway or pull down. It’s not about taking a positive or negative attitude. It’s about taking control.

That’s part of the job. If you’re trying to kick everybody’s ass and you realize you’re getting your ass kicked, you better re-evaluate. It happens. You get your ass kicked from time to time. If you’re playing the game, you’re going to lose some games, and you have to go and figure out who’s beating you and why.

Sometimes you can’t. MySpace isn’t going to know why Facebook beat them, but they did. Yahoo doesn’t have an immediate response or an immediate solution [to Google]. If they said, ‘Mark, you go run Yahoo,’ I wouldn’t have an immediate solution for how to beat Google. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t.”

Cuban on the role of the CEO:

The show ‘Undercover Boss’ is a good learning model. You’ve got to get out there and watch. You’ve got to get out there and experience. And you’ve got to be out there. I’ve always had the attitude that there’s no job in my company that I shouldn’t be willing to do. I can’t ask someone to do a job I’m not willing to do myself. If I see paper in the parking lot, I’ll stop and I’ll pick it up. I won’t call someone to do it.

I don’t have a PR agent. I’m probably the easiest CEO in America to find and e-mail and to get ahold of. It’s more efficient and takes less time to deal with things directly via e-mail than it does for someone to go through your e-mails and go through this and not know what you’re missing and then have to have them communicate to you and you communicate back to them. The time it takes for you to answer an e-mail or hit the delete key, if it’s not worth responding to, is probably about 20 percent of the time it takes to go through one, two, three assistants. I go into Hollywood and I see four assistants sitting outside somebody’s door, and I’m like are you [expletive] kidding me? It takes more time to deal with them than it does to do it yourself. Sometimes CEOs get caught up with what they think CEOs are supposed to do. Rather than working in a way that you think CEOs are supposed to work, just do what you know is the right thing to do. Do the most expedient thing; do the most efficient thing. That sets a better precedent and a better example than doing things the way you think a CEO should do them.

Whatever you think is the standup of your culture, you have to do it yourself. If it’s selling, you have to be a salesperson. If it’s programming, you have to understand programming and engineering. If it’s design, you have to understand design. If people don’t think you know your business, how are they going to respect you and follow you?

Cuban on learning:

When I get into a business, I try to know it better than anybody else. It doesn’t matter how much I have to read or how many people I have to visit or what I have to do — I’m going to do it. There’s always someone out there trying to kick your ass. If you’re not out working, they are going to kick your ass. Regardless of what it is, I want to know more than anybody about what we’re doing. …

It’s an ongoing, nonstop process. That’s my job. My job is not to shake hands and glad hand and say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ My job is to get into a business and learn it better than anybody else and try to come up with angles and ideas that they haven’t.

You’ve got to love learning. The hardest thing, particularly once you’ve reached a level of success, is people have an inclination — myself included, and I’ve kind of learned the hard way — to say, ‘OK, I’m smart. I know this stuff.’ You’ve got to always say, ‘There probably is somebody out-working me; there’s some 18-year-old kid, somewhere, who’s trying to know this stuff better than I do.’ … Either the kid wins or you’re going to put in the same amount of work and have the same understanding or better of that 18-year-old or whoever it is. I don’t think most leaders are willing to do that. I think most leaders say, ‘I’ll just go out and hire the right people, I’ll package the right people, I’ll take some basic understanding,’ and that’s how they get outdated very quickly. The world changes very quickly. You have got to love to learn because the world always changes.

Published in Dallas
Tuesday, 01 March 2011 12:37

Promote brainstorming and collaboration

One of the biggest challenges Ed Stevens faces is how to do more with less. As president of Stevens Strategic Communications Inc., a full-service integrated marketing, corporate and crisis communications firm, he falls back on a lot of his former military experience of collaboration and teamwork to do that with his 19 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Stevens about how to drive collaborative brainstorming.

How do you foster productive brainstorming?

We like to give an amount of background to all of our participants so they’re prepared before they come into the meeting. We have some sense of what they’ll be talking about. We share research, competitive information. We sometimes have some rough ideas that maybe the client shared with us so that people can think about where we are.

Sometimes what I like to do is start the meeting by coming out with an idea that gets their juices flowing — something that could be even very controversial so they could say, ‘No, that’s the absolute wrong thing to do, and you’re supposed to do it another way.’ If I can set a bar as to what would be pleasing to me or what I thought would be appropriate for a client or to solve a problem, my hope is to walk away from a brainstorming meeting with something far better, and if that happens, it’s been a successful session.

How do you get the creative juices flowing?

Show what the competition is doing or what the problem is. We do an amount of crisis communications here, too, but if you state the problem or say, ‘This is what we’re up against,’ it’s like a war room atmosphere, and you get right into it. See what other people are saying, and you begin to think things through in terms of the message and the graphics that have to be a part of what the solution is. … You can take off from there.

Knowledge is power. That really is true. From the knowledge, comes the good questions.

I was in the military. … When I think about it, a lot goes back to my days in the military where we thought in terms of economy of force and thought in terms of strategies and tactics and how we win the war, and that’s really what we like to do here.

What did you learn from your time in the military that applies to leading today?

The army especially, everything is tied together, it’s regimented, everybody has defined roles. That’s different from (what) we have today. We have a medium-size public relations and advertising firm — we have to wear more hats than a typical military job description because everybody has specialties that you have to deliver on, and here you have the flexibility of doing a number of things. We all have to be flexible. How many jobs do each of us have before we retire and how many things/experiences do we have? Certainly in the military, over time, you have a lot of different experiences, as well.

What kinds of tips can you give to people to be more flexible and wear multiple hats?

I think that sometimes we want to do what we like to do versus what has to be done. I think that we have to force ourselves to get out of our comfort zone in order to get things accomplished, whether it’s for ourselves, our clients or our families. For me, that’s where the focus needs to be. Everybody says, ‘Get out of the box.’ Well, it’s not necessarily that, but when things have to get done, you have to be flexible to go to where things need your attention the most, and it takes a leader who really looks at the capabilities of the team and fits themselves into the team to make for a stronger result at the end. We can be far more successful if we contribute our God-given talents as best as we can but know that we can’t do it all, but if it has to get done and you’re the leader, then it’s up to you to get it done. Get in there and hop in the foxhole.

How to reach: Stevens Strategic Communications Inc., (877) 900-3366 or www.stevensstrategic.com

Published in Cleveland
Monday, 28 February 2011 19:01

Michael Feuer

It’s happened to all of us. One night you go to sleep without a thought in your head, and inexplicably, you awaken at 3 a.m. and find yourself sitting straight up in bed with an idea in your head that you think could change the world and make you a legend in your own time. You may have no clue where the idea came from, but at that moment, you are energized with the possibility of fame and fortune. In a panic, you scribble your thoughts on a bedside pad of paper in fear of losing them. You then pause for a few minutes before your somniferous state overcomes you, and you fall back into la-la land.

Fast-forward about three hours and you get up feeling a little restless, not totally recalling the epiphany you experienced earlier. Then it comes back to you as you find your notes. You begin to sort out the elements of your Holy Grail discovery and begin to apply logic to your revolutionary concept. Then it hits you. Perhaps, what you thought was an earth-changing breakthrough might just be more of a jumble of fragmented elements that no longer pass the smell test. You just experienced the inevitable second thoughts.

This reconsideration is completely normal, very necessary and a part of the discovery process. Second thoughts are critical and invariably occur with just about everything we do in business, but it all comes down to the sequence and timing. Second thoughts are good most times, except in situations where you’ve already made a commitment, made your idea public or, worse, promised to do something. They are particularly bad after the wedding vows conclude with the obligatory “I do’s” or after you decide that you can beat that train at the crossing and then change your mind as you hear the “thump, thump” of your tires rolling over the railroad ties as the freight train’s bright light shines in your eyes.

In business, second thoughts should be your standard modus operandi when you or one of your charges come up with that possible big idea. It’s important to use that time between an idea’s inception and the launch of implementation using a simple discipline that can help ensure you’re not off on a wild goose chase.

When you have your next revelation, begin the process of evaluation, knowing full well that you may have second thoughts, and either bag your little gem completely or fine-tune it further after it has been time and stress tested.

First, flesh out your original notes and prepare a basic outline of what it is you may attempt, what it will do, and how and why it could pay off. Don’t waste time on form; just drill down to substance. Secondly, sleep on it, either literally or figuratively. Think about the idea for a night or two before you drift off to dreamland. Alternatively, put your narrative in your top drawer for a day or so. After this mandatory timeout, pull out your notes, read them thoroughly, thinking of the ramifications and nuances, and then, if it all still makes sense, take your thoughts to the next step, which can include discussing the idea with a colleague, friend or significant other.

This simple respite in your race for success can give you the opportunity to bag the idea and move on, concluding your concept was nothing more than the result of a little too much indulgence of food or drink before you hit the pillow on that fateful night. However, if you make the decision to continue to proceed, the rest will come naturally as you more fully flesh out the concept during the ongoing discovery, fine-tuning and testing stages.

New ideas are almost always an iterative process, often with the finished product emerging dramatically different from the initial idea when lightning first struck. Creation is one of the most exciting, yet challenging, aspects of building a business, but without following the vetting process, it’s almost guaranteed that inertia will set in and your concept will drift into oblivion.

Second thoughts are an integral safety valve for success. Taking an idea from mind to market is all a matter of sequence and timing, and when done right, it can be satisfying and very lucrative.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in late spring 2011. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Published in Akron/Canton

If you are looking for the employees of Kroff Inc., you might find them racing go karts or setting up an ambush to blast Co-Owner and President Fred Potthoff with paintballs. You also might find them creating innovative solutions that lead to profitable new divisions within the company.

For Potthoff, the extracurricular activities are an important part of how innovation gets done at Kroff, a $40 million company that provides water treatment chemicals and solutions to industry.

“We do a lot of things as a company to get closer to the employees,” says Potthoff. “There is a lot of interaction between [senior management] and everyone else in the company.”

Besides the obvious enjoyment of shooting co-workers with exploding paint pellets or putting your boss into the wall on turn four, the outings help everyone get to know their co-workers and managers a little better. This familiarity also helps break down the barriers when it comes to presenting new ideas. If a lower level employee has what he or she thinks is an innovative idea, it’s more likely to be shared if there’s an established comfort level with the people that will be looking at it.

Even the presentation of potentially monumental ideas comes in a somewhat informal setting – the standard managers’ meeting. Because the sales reps are comfortable with their managers, the usual process is the sales reps share their ideas with their manager, who in turn, presents it at the managers’ meeting.

The results of this process are impressive: Six differentcompanies have been created at Kroff, and the idea for each one came from an entrepreneurial employee.

“It starts with hiring the right people,” says Potthoff. “You let them come up with good ideas and then sometimes you take a risk financially.”

When Potthoff is looking at finding his next entrepreneurial employee, there are two key things he focuses on: competence and motivation.

“Motivation is the most important, and has about a 70 or 80 percent chance of predicting success, but also is the most difficult to determine,” he says. “You can make sure someone has the right degree and look at who they worked for and who they were trained by, and that’s one indicator of success. But if someone has that drive, they will work to get close to the customer to come up with something innovative. It’s a behavioral thing. You have to dig into their past and look at projects they were involved in that were successful.”

Once you have entrepreneurial people, you need to do your part to make things happen.

“The first thing is to put ego aside,” says Potthoff. “One of the things that used to drive me crazy at other organizations is that there was too much top-down management. Some senior manager decided the company needed to be in market X, would fill out the forms and make the call, but no one would actually come out to the field to see if it was a good idea or if we could make it work. If you are hiring talented people, you have to listen to them.

“Secondly, you have to be willing to take action and some risks. It’s one thing to listen to great ideas, but if you don’t act, employees will say, ‘Why bother?’ You have to be willing to act on something when there looks to be an opportunity.”

With risk, comes reward – for everyone

Innovation is a balancing act of risk and reward. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. Fred Potthoff, co-owner and president of Kroff Inc. says that it’s necessary to take risks in the market to be successful.

Thanks to Kroff’s culture that’s focused on making everyone an entrepreneur, there are a lot of good ideas that come from the employees who are closest to the market.

An employee takes a bit of reputation risk whenever he or she brings an idea forward, so there needs to be a reward for successful ideas. At Kroff, if someone comes up with a great idea, the company will form a new division around that idea and the person who brought it up gets to be in charge – essentially an instant promotion to general manager.

If you have hired entrepreneurial types, they’ll work hard at the lower levels to find that next great idea for you, knowing that they too will be rewarded with more responsibility. Combine that with an incentive-driven pay plan, and you have a recipe for a company where management benefits from a constant flow of revenue-generating proposals from ultra-motivated people that know the markets the best.

How to reach: Kroff Inc., www.kroff.com or (800) 466-3066

Published in Pittsburgh
Tuesday, 22 February 2011 14:13

Style points

Ralph Scozzafava had just walked off the plane, but he already knew Furniture Brands International Inc. had a safety problem at one of its factories in Mississippi.

“The guy that picked me up at the airport had some dried blood on his pants from one of our key associates on the production line that had just cut their finger and been brought to the hospital,” Scozzafava says.

Unfortunately, safety wasn’t the only concern for Furniture Brands when Scozzafava arrived in early 2008.

“We were low on cash and we had a pretty big debt balance and really some liquidity questions and concerns,” says Scozzafava, the company’s chairman and CEO. “We also had declining margins and increasing administrative costs to the point where our operating margins were approaching zero and ended up negative very quickly. There were a lot of things happening at the same time, all taking us to a very difficult place.”

But before he could address any of those concerns, he had to get people in the company to realize that there was, in fact, a problem that needed to be addressed. The furniture retailer has 6,500 employees in the United States and 2,000 more employees abroad.

“A lot of folks just thought, ‘Hey, we’re going through a bit of a rough patch,’” Scozzafava says. “If we don’t tell people where we are, in a lot of cases, they just don’t know. So it’s informing. We have a problem here. It’s an issue. We have to change, and we have to change intelligently and quickly.”

It was time for Scozzafava to start talking and get everyone moving on the changes that needed to be made.

Start a dialogue

One of Scozzafava’s most pressing concerns, in addition to making the company safer for employees, was that he needed to generate some cash for Furniture Brands. The company was losing a lot of money.

“We had over $300 million in debt, we had $27 million in cash, and we were losing money on the operating line,” Scozzafava says. “You don’t last long with a business of our scale if you’re doing that. So the big thing for us was to generate cash.”

In this type of situation, you can’t just go to your people and say, ‘Hey, we need to generate more cash.’ You need to show them what they can do as an individual or as a group to help you solve your problem.

“If they don’t have line of sight, ‘What do I need to do to help?’ you’re not going to get the full engagement that you really want to get,” Scozzafava says.

In other words, spare the corporate lingo and Wall Street clichés when you’re speaking to your employees.

“Use words you would use with your family,” Scozzafava says. “Relate some interesting stories. Try to make things sticky if you can. The state of the union address as told with your best formal English doesn’t help. If you use every business cliché in the book, you’re not sincere. If they feel like you’re not sincere, if it feels packaged, they’re not going to listen. It’s not going to be compelling.”

Scozzafava needed to get his employees engaged in coming up with a solution for the company’s cash concerns.

“I tell our folks, ‘I’m going to tell you everything I can as fully and clearly as I can as many times as I need to so you fully understand,’” Scozzafava says. “And then I’m going to ask lots of questions so you can do the same with me. If you have that kind of dialogue, there’s really nothing up anybody’s sleeve.”

It has to be a dialogue, meaning two-way communication, and the best way to achieve that is to get out of your office.

“You’ve got to penetrate the organization,” Scozzafava says. “My direct reports will feed me info that is good, informative and interesting. But if I want to know about the supply chain, I’m going to go down on the factory floor and talk to a lot of people. If I want to know how our retail stores are doing, I’m going to go to retail and I’m going to ask a lot of questions and visit 10 stores.”

And if you want to know about a possible safety concern, you’re going to go visit one of your factories.

“I went on the factory floor and saw what we were doing and how we were operating the equipment and I knew we had a safety problem,” Scozzafava says.

Scozzafava discovered that multiple factors were leading to the cash issues. Safety problems were caused by improper use of equipment and were affecting product quality. This was affecting the margins and ultimately leading to the problem with the cash.

It’s the kind of information that you can only get when you approach your research with an open mind.

“The temptation is I want to bucket things,” Scozzafava says. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve observed a situation and the knee-jerk reaction is to say, ‘Oh, that’s just like …’ and name a situation, something you’ve gone through before. When you do that, sometimes you miss it all together. Most of the time, you get it close, but you miss the nuance and you really can’t get a good clear assessment.”

Create accountability

As you begin to generate dialogue and ideas to make your company better, you need to create accountability to make sure that the ideas are investigated and implemented if they turn out to be viable.

Safety was one of Scozzafava’s biggest worries with his business.

“What are the safety ideas?” Scozzafava says. “We’ll put them on a bulletin board. Those ideas have initials next to them. Who gave us the idea? They have a date of when we’re going to evaluate it and get it solved and when we’re going to implement it.”

An idea was raised to install sewing tables in one of the factories that could be raised or lowered to help eliminate repetitive motion injuries.

“When are we getting the tables in?” Scozzafava says. “When is it getting installed? When is it finished? It’s about the idea, evaluating the idea and putting people in place who are accountable. Put their names next to the task and then finish the job.”

When you create ideas or metrics for employees to live by, they need to be ideas that are objective in nature like the sewing tables.

“There are certain things that you can measure very well,” Scozzafava says. “Those are very data-oriented things that you should use as the core of what you measure. The things that become matters of opinion, if you make that a focal point of what you’re doing and lots of people give their points of view, you’re going to struggle. Cut-and-dried measures are always the best.”

Work with each department on what it specializes in and help the department come up with measurable goals that help the company.

“So for example, 2008, we’re here to generate cash,” Scozzafava says. “But we’re also going to work on building our brands, and that’s the work the marketing people will do. We’re also going to work on getting more efficient in our factories. That’s the work the supply chain people will do. You can go down the road. The finance team has to centralize finance and accounting and accounts receivable and accounts payable and credit. That’s the work they have to do. So there’s the singular big goal we’re all working on and then there are pieces within the company that individual groups do to make us better.”

You have to keep pushing the importance of initiatives and making sure accountability is part of all of them.

“You think you’re saying it enough, because you’re thinking about it all the time and you’re talking to your direct reports or your executive team about the same subject all the time,” Scozzafava says. “So that repetition is something you just assume is going through the organization. And it’s not. One of the things I’ve learned is you have to tell them, you have to tell them again, you have to tell them what you told them, you have to ask if they understand it, tell them again, have them repeat it, quiz them.”

So if you think you’ve delivered your message enough after all that, you might want to do it just one more time to be sure.

Show appreciation

When you ask employees to help make your company better and they step up and do just that, you need to show them that you appreciate their efforts. By doing so, you increase the odds that others will follow their lead.

“Good people want to do well,” Scozzafava says. “They want to be part of a winning team. If they see their peers somewhere else within the company performing very well and being recognized and rewarded for that performance, they typically not only want to mirror that, they want to do better. If you get the right people and treat them right and tell them what they need to do and listen to the ideas they have, it’s powerful.”

You can show your appreciation in a number of ways. There are the gift cards and cash bonuses that all employees are grateful to receive. But your ability to show appreciation and gratitude can also go a long way toward helping your business be successful.

“When you have the title, until they meet you, there is always going to be some kind of trepidation,” Scozzafava says. “People want to get it right or they want to make a good impression. If they see you as a regular person, if you get information and you do something positive with it and you’re not looking around trying to zap somebody or catch somebody, pretty soon they understand what your intention is. If it’s a positive intent, they’re going to share more and more with you.”

Scozzafava’s ability to get people to buy in to his effort to turn things around at Furniture Brands is showing some signs of success. While net sales dropped from $1.7 billion in 2008 to $1.2 billion in 2009, the steady loss of cash seems to have been stopped. And safety on the job is better than it’s ever been before.

“It all goes back to the build, win, deliver, grow strategy,” Scozzafava says. “[Employees] know that’s what has taken us from losing $400 million in 2008 to losing over $100 million in 2009 to making money through the first three quarters of [2010]. They know if we stick to that strategy, if we’re aggressive and prudent about how we change, differentiate and do things better, we’re making the problem go away.”

The key is to stay focused on helping your employees help you.

“If you expend your energy and feel spent, you’re probably not doing enough within the organization to drive the kind of morale and camaraderie and high-performance culture you want to create,” Scozzafava says.

How to reach: Furniture Brands International Inc., (314) 863-1100 or www.furniturebrands.com

The Scozzafava file

Ralph Scozzafava

Chairman and CEO

Furniture Brands International Inc.

Born: Danbury, Conn.

What was your first job?

I worked for my dad; he was in the refrigeration business. One guy, one truck. Probably from age 6 to 7, I knew all the tools in the toolbox. I could wire things, run pipes, weld, I could do a lot of stuff. I haven’t done it recently. But give me the stuff, I’m sure it would come back.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Hard work and common sense. My uncle said if you can just master those two things, you’ll be successful in anything. He was an entrepreneur who did very well and had no education and those were the two pieces.

If you could sit down with anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be and why?

I’d like to have dinner with my dad.

Scozzafava on public speaking: I’m real big on bullet points. I’ll have slides without many words on them. I may have a little scrap of paper in my hand that may have 6 or 7 thought starters on it. Each message that I’m trying to get across, I try to have an accompanying story.

I try to make it engaging. I draw people out of the audience a lot. I’ll call people by name and I’ll ask them to stand up and talk about things so that the message is what I’m going to call multi-medium. Part of it’s on the screen, part of it’s in a video, part of it’s a story from Ralph, part of it’s a story from the audience. You have a lot of different stimuli coming at you.

Published in St. Louis
Tuesday, 22 February 2011 12:34

Higher learning

If you work for Joe Schumacher, introductions are the appetizer at lunch.

When Schumacher gathers his employees together for a lunch meeting at Goddard Systems Inc., he makes sure that accountants sit with operations people, his legal staffers sit with marketers, and so on. It’s one of the most effective ways he encourages communication and prevents silos at the franchisor of The Goddard School for Early Childhood Development, where Schumacher serves as CEO.

“We want people from different departments at the same table,” he says. “One of the great pieces of feedback we’ve gotten is that everyone seems to like that. They had an opportunity to talk to other people that they normally wouldn’t have talked to.”

Schumacher oversees 115 direct employees and must set uniform standards for 368 franchised schools around the country, employing between 20 and 25 people each. Therefore, this means that promoting good communication and reinforcing the organizational direction of Goddard Systems are daily tasks for Schumacher.

He follows through on these tasks by facilitating an ongoing dialogue between levels and locations within the organization. Whether it’s corporate leadership speaking with a franchisee or different franchisees in different states speaking with each other, Schumacher wants the exchange of words and ideas to become an everyday occurrence underneath the Goddard umbrella.

“It’s really the biggest challenge for any franchise company, aligning the franchisees and the corporation as to the direction you’re heading,” Schumacher says. “The economy has certainly made everybody focus more on the core issues facing the company and the values of the company. The way to answer the challenge is to ensure that everyone has a voice in the approach that the company is taking. That includes franchisees and employees and making sure that everyone has a chance to be heard.”

Reach out to your people

From the time they sign the contract to run a Goddard School, franchisees are taught that communication is a major priority within the organization. When possible, Schumacher meets with each new franchisee personally and emphasizes the need for an open dialogue among all areas and levels of the Goddard system.

Schumacher and his staff also employ liaisons to help franchisees with their transition into the system, offering new additions a resource on how the organization does business as well as a sounding board for any issues the new franchisee might encounter.

“We do a lot to ensure that both our franchisees and our employees have methods for communication and understand that we have an overarching philosophy that encourages communication,” Schumacher says. “When a brand-new franchisee comes into our training class, I tell them that we are focused on communicating back and forth. We might not always agree on every issue, but I promise your voice will be heard.

“As part of that, we have a pre-opening process manager, and that person’s job is just to deal with people from the time they sign as franchisees. Then we have a franchisee liaison to act as an independent sounding board, someone who is not related to any department, who reports directly to me and can talk to franchisees about any issue the franchisee feels is important.”

Once new franchisees receive their initial training, they are encouraged to maintain contact with corporate management whenever they have an idea or issue to address.

“Franchisees are encouraged to call or e-mail anyone internal in the organization, up to and including me, on any issue,” Schumacher says. “We don’t want you to have to go through seven layers of management to reach us. So franchisees will regularly call me about both good things that are happening and things they might have some concerns about. Our policy is that calls and e-mails are answered within 24 hours, even if we might not have an exact response. I might not always have the answer of a more complicated problem, but I will connect with you and tell you on the matter.”

Turning a communication strategy into reality takes good execution from the upper levels of management. You need to be able to set the example from the top. But before you get to the blocking and tackling of rolling out a strategy, putting the priority in front of your people with words and messages can go a long way toward setting the ground rules of communication.

“The most important thing is making sure all of the constituencies understand that this is a priority for the company,” Schumacher says. “I regularly tell both franchisees and employees that I need to hear from you. This is my job as CEO, and this communication is the most important part of my job. Overall, whoever your constituencies are, you need to be making sure they understand that communication is important to the company, whatever they say won’t be taken personally by management, and they’ll be able to identify issues without fearing retaliation.”

From there, you need to have people in place who can help maintain your strategy’s momentum. That is the role of Schumacher’s franchisee liaisons. At your company, it might be your human resources department or corporate communications specialist. But someone in your organizational hierarchy needs to be trained on greasing the cogs of communication on a daily basis.

“Those two liaisons give people a specific point of contact,” he says. “If they don’t know who to talk to, they can go to those people and be directed to the right person.”

Make a lateral pass

Corporate management plays a vital role in communicating with your people in the field, ensuring that they stay focused on your organizational objectives and feel empowered to carry them out. But that is only a part of the communication equation.

Your dialogue needs to be lateral. Your salesperson in one part of the country needs to develop a working relationship with salespeople in other parts of the country, allowing them to share ideas and get a better grasp of what is and isn’t working among the company ranks.

At Goddard Systems, Schumacher has taken the step of formalizing peer communication among his franchisees. As part of a systemwide mentoring program, more experienced franchisees are given the opportunity to coach new franchisees on being a part of the Goddard organization.

“It’s somebody else they can call or e-mail to talk about issues,” Schumacher says. “We do the same things for our schools’ education directors, with a mentoring program in which more experienced directors get mentors, as well.”

Franchisees with high-performing Goddard locations are selected as mentors for the program. In recent years, more than 40 new franchisees have been mentored in the program. Schumacher estimates that about 20 franchisees received mentoring in 2010, due to a drop in the establishment of new franchises.

If you operate a business with multiple people in the same market, it is often advantageous if you can connect those people and allow them to find common goals. Even if you have locations or salespeople who might be competing with each other in a given market, if they are finding common areas of motivation, it will serve to strengthen your company overall.

Schumacher has encouraged Goddard franchisees in individual markets to find common ground in the marketing of the Goddard concept to the surrounding community. Some local schools have unified on creative marketing concepts.

“Our Denver market decided they wanted to sponsor the children’s play area at the Colorado Rockies baseball stadium, so they unified on that initiative,” Schumacher says. “They’d have things like ice cream socials and open houses to attract enrollment in their areas, so they tried to do that as a unified force, as well. There are 13 schools in the Denver area, so they tried to do the open house and socials on the same week.”

Schumacher wants his franchisees to take any opportunity to get together and talk shop, whether it be a formalized meeting or a less formal interaction.

“We put on an excellent business and social program, but even if they were just OK, the best part about any meeting is when you have franchisees coming together and talking with other franchisees about common issues,” he says.”

Know your role

As the person in the top spot of your company, your job is one of support and motivation when it comes to your team.

You can speak about having an open-door policy, about the standards you want for your company, how you want your employees to represent the company and the resources you’re willing to provide for them, but as you’ve been taught since grade school, actions speak far louder than words. Which means it is imperative that your actions follow your statements and employees don’t get the sense that you’ll say one thing and do another.

“A lot of your job is to set the tone,” Schumacher says. “It is important that the entire company, whether employees or franchisees, know that communication and adhering to the mission of the organization is key. That’s why living what you say is important. If I bloviate about the importance of communication but don’t tell people things or tell them to come back later, it becomes apparent that what I’m saying is just words, that I don’t take it very seriously.”

You need to realize the difference between leadership and management. You have elements of both in your role. You are a supervisor who manages others and a leader who seeks out new opportunities and charts a course to reach them. But you can’t let your supervisory role cast a shadow over your role as leader. If you try to control too much from a process standpoint, you run the risk of micromanaging, which can be detrimental to the trust factor in an organization.

If an employee has an idea and wants to run with it, accept it or decline it. If you decline it, explain why. If you accept it, give the employee resources and benchmarks, but let him or her take the creative lead.

“It’s often a criticism of upper-management types that they’ll sort of steal people’s ideas,” Schumacher says. “I try to make sure that if somebody gives me or the company an idea about something, they get recognized for it. Whether it’s in a meeting or communication or wherever, I try to make sure our managers understand it’s a better sign if a manager celebrates people and allows them to be recognized for the contributions, as opposed to the manager taking the credit.”

Recognition is one last vital part of the communication process. It stimulates ideas and encourages employees to come forward with new ideas in the future. It helps reinforce a unified, goal-focused company. And there is a difference between putting a bonus plan in place and actively recognizing someone. Both forms have their place, but neither is a catchall.

“Everybody, if not needs, then certainly wants recognition,” Schumacher says. “It’s easy in any company to feel like you’re laboring in the dark and that nobody really knows what you’re doing or how important it is to the company.

“That’s why monetary and nonmonetary recognition serves different roles. I think a simple recognition, intermittent and unexpected, often goes a lot further than money. But the two have to work together. You’re not going to have people happy about a gift card or a pat on the back if they’re not getting paid well enough or they’re not able to make bonus. That’s why it’s probably better if the money stuff is basic and expected, while the nonmonetary stuff is more unexpected and intermittent.”

How to reach: Goddard Systems Inc., (610) 265-8510 or www.goddardschool.com

The Schumacher file

Joe Schumacher

CEO

The Goddard School for Early Childhood Development

Born: Queens, New York City

Education: Psychology degree from St. Francis University, Loretto, Pa.; law degree from Widener University School of Law

First job: I was a janitor at some kind of warehouse. I don’t even remember what it was. I think I was about 14 at the time.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Transparency is the best business lesson I’ve learned. Be straight with people, and when news isn’t good, just deal with it. If you hide or avoid things, it just makes them more difficult to deal with.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

Commitment and dedication. People need to understand that you are committed to the enterprise and committed to what it takes to make it work. You also need to be sensitive to people’s thoughts and ideas.

What is your definition of success?

Setting appropriate goals and then achieving them. It’s also important to have some fun along the way. We aren’t running an amusement park, but overall, your work should be something you enjoy. And, of course, profitability is an important element of success, as well.

Published in Philadelphia

The past couple of years have been stressful for most businesses, and Marko Mrkonich can relate — in some ways.

While the past two years have been crazy for him as president and managing director of the employment and labor law firm Littler Mendelson PC, it hasn’t been because the economy has been hurting his firm. It’s been a result of staying ahead of the growth that has taken the firm from $240 million in revenue in 2006 to $370.5 million in 2009.

“Growth simply to say you’ve grown is not necessarily a good thing,” he says. “When you find yourself in a position where the best reason you can come up with to undertake a new initiative is because it lets you grow, that’s not enough. That’s missing the point. Growth is an indicator of success, and it shows that there are positive things going on.”

He says that if you are an average company with average people and you add more average business and average employees to what you already have, then it’s not going to be the success you likely envision. You have to make sure you’re making your firm better with the people you add and the new projects you take on.

“When you’re on a growth curve, every once in awhile, you need to take a deep breath and assess what you’ve done and where you’re going and try to see the pattern and the trend of the line that you’re on and if you’re going where you want to go,” Mrkonich says. “You can get caught up in the excitement of the moment and start on a path without realizing exactly where it means you’re going.”

To make sure he’s stayed on the path during the past few years, he’s focused on hiring better people, creating the right environment and making sure he prioritizes what matters.

Hire better people

As Littler has grown, one of the keys to making sure the firm stays a strong organization has been hiring people into only the top half of the firm in terms of talent.

“If you’re average to start with, and you add people no better than what you were, you’re going to remain average,” Mrkonich says.

To make sure he gets people who will only move the firm forward, he goes beyond their experience. Littler has such a niche focus, experience is a given. He goes further and looks to see if they’ll fit in.

“When you’re looking at whether someone would be a good fit, focus on the person’s long-term goals and ambitions and see whether they align with your organization and if they fit with your organization,” he says. “So often, short-term goals dominate.”

He says you have to look at what their motivations are for leaving their current position. For instance, is someone interested in moving on because something unpleasant happened in his or her current company or is the person simply looking for a better opportunity? If it’s the former, that could happen anywhere, and you don’t necessarily want your people looking for a new job each time something unpleasant happens.

“You sort of start to focus on what the person’s ambitions are — what they hope to do professionally, what they hope to do personally, what they hope to do financially,” he says. “You sort of see and explore paths within that would bring that person in.”

You also want to make sure that the main reason someone leaving another position is not simply for more money. Sometimes a person may have specific needs that require looking for a position with a higher salary. But you have to distinguish between that and just chasing the next dollar, and the only way you can do that is to make sure you’re not enticing them instead of focusing on the attributes of your company.

“Generally speaking, people want to know that economically, they can, in the long run, do better,” Mrkonich says. “However, it’s our general practice that we don’t go buy people. Ultimately, if you recruit someone because you’re willing to pay them more today than someone else is, that can change tomorrow.”

Once you get past a person’s ambitions, you also have to look at his or her personality and who he or she is as a person.

“Get to know the person at a more human level,” he says. “What are their hobbies? What are their interests? What do they like to do in their nonwork time? What do they like to do within their work time? What part of the practice do they like the most?

“Once you break down a barrier or two, then you start to go beyond the interview-speak and hear what people are really thinking and feeling.”

This also helps you learn about not only why they’re interested in coming to your company but also what barriers they face in leaving their current position. For some people, they may only make one or two major career moves in their life, and if you’re a possibility, you have to understand that about them.

“If it’s someone who moves a lot and all the time, it’s not that we won’t find someone that’s a great fit, but that’s a … warning signal that you want to make sure it really is a great fit,” Mrkonich says. “If it’s someone considering the one move they might make in their career, you say, ‘Well, they’re more likely, if they find the right place for them that solves their long-term aspirations, to be a long-term team player for you.”

When you have someone like that, you need to be respectful and careful in what you say in your attempts to recruit them.

“One rule is, I never bash the place they are, because they’ve devoted a fair amount of their professional career and their personal time making that firm and that place all it can be, and that doesn’t get you very far,” he says. “To me, I like to focus on the future and the positive things that we bring as a firm.”

Have the right environment

When a lawyer in Los Angeles came forward with the idea of opening an office in Orange County, he wasn’t shot down. He explained that while working in L.A., he saw a huge market opportunity in the neighboring county and that the firm would benefit by having a ground presence there. He got the OK, and now there are about 15 lawyers in the office. A similar situation occurred with Minneapolis, which now has about 30 lawyers there.

“It’s building a business case for the idea, making sure there’s sufficient number of others that buy in, and it’s developing a budget and plan,” Mrkonich says. “If it makes sense, we do it.”

Empowering employees to bring forward new ideas has been one key to Littler’s growth, and doing so creates an environment of teamwork and collaboration.

“They believe that if they have an idea and they can articulate a reason to pursue it, they will never be told no,” he says.

If you haven’t had that kind of environment in the past, you clearly can’t just start implementing a bunch of ideas, but you can start somewhere.

“I don’t think you can take someone else’s system and graft it onto your own,” he says. “It starts with looking at your own values system, your own culture, your own business model and see where opportunities exist for new ideas and new ways of doing things, and then trying to work and focus on that aspect of the business.”

He says you have to look at what you’re completely committed to and what you’re completely not committed to in order to make decisions.

“If you’re committed through hard cost investment to a particular business model, and someone wants to come in and say that business model is wrong, that doesn’t help you much,” Mrkonich says. “You want to focus on the areas where, from a structural standpoint and a values standpoint, you’re open to new ideas, and then build systems that are compatible with your culture and understand and reward people for taking chances and identifying opportunity.”

Another element to having the right environment that promotes growth is making sure you are fostering and encouraging collaboration and teamwork.

“You have to have a rewards system that includes your ability to work together and how well you work with others,” he says.

This can be a series of metrics that are specific to a department or set of people, or it could just be one super metric. Either way, as the leader, you have to demonstrate this.

“If you or the people at the top are always claiming credit for good things and passing blame for the bad things that happen, it’s never going to work,” Mrkonich says. “There has to be a culture of accountability at the top, a culture of sharing and a culture of teamwork at the top. … If you do it at the top level, there’s some hope that it will filter out and be seen by those trying to work themselves into positions where they’re part of the leadership team as the right way to do things.”

And lastly, you have to make sure you’re communicating in an honest and fair manner with all of your employees.

“When there’s bad news, you can’t hide it,” he says. “One of my colleagues says bad news does not taste better served cold. That’s very true. It’s being realistic and being honest, making sure communication is frequent and also personal.”

Prioritize

Mrkonich is an avid fiction reader, and while he doesn’t read a lot of business books, Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” resonated with him when Covey spoke about prioritization.

“Obviously, if something is urgent and important, you’re going to do it,” Mrkonich says. “If something is neither urgent nor important, you’re only going to do it if you need a break — like playing solitaire on your computer — and then you have that, ‘What if it’s urgent but not important versus important but not urgent?’ How you balance those two things determines the effectiveness of your organization and you as an executive.”

And those decisions can also determine how well — if at all — your organization can grow. So when the phone is ringing, he has 10 e-mails to return and an employee is about to celebrate his or her 30th anniversary with the firm, how does he prioritize what to do?

“It’s time for you sit down and write a thank-you note to the person who just reached their 30th anniversary with the firm,” he says. “Which one is more important? This is a time when each is more important, but in the end, if you don’t get around to thanking the people who have been here for 30 years for their loyalty and commitment, you’re missing the boat.”

He says you have to develop a system for determining what’s important versus what’s urgent and weighing how tasks fall into those buckets.

“Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of doing things that are urgent but not particularly important at the expense of those things that are truly important but don’t have the immediacy that other things do,” Mrkonich says.

“You sit down, and you devote the time to planning and deciding. There’s no one answer. Sometimes things are urgent for a reason — even though they’re not important, they have to be done. Other times, you have to make sure you have time to do those things that are important but may not be urgent.

“Think of it as Saturday date night with your spouse or partner. That’s important. It may not feel urgent each Saturday night, but you recognize that if you don’t do it, you’re not investing enough into your relationship. … You start running around and saying, ‘I have to have this done, and I have to finish this and finish that, and you have to look at, ‘What if I’m a day late with that? What am I giving up?’ You have to know. It’s all about prioritization.”

How to reach: Littler Mendelson PC, (888) 548-8537 or www.littler.com

The Mrkonich file

Marko Mrkonich

President and managing director

Littler Mendelson PC

Born: I was born in a town called Thief River Falls, Minn. The nickname of the high school sports teams is the Prowlers — which today sounds like a felon in waiting, but it’s a nocturnal cat that was sort of the logo. I don’t know that a school would knowingly pick that these days. I grew up in Duluth for most of my childhood.

Education: Undergraduate and law degrees, Harvard

What was your first job as a child?

My first job with a paycheck was cleaning schoolrooms and desks in the summer time for the Duluth School Board. I was 16. I learned, to a certain extent, no matter what you’re doing, showing up on time and prepared is important.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a professional athlete. I wasn’t even picky. I probably wanted to be a pro football player.

What has been the best advice you’ve received?

It’s interesting, because over the years I’ve been fortunate to have had many people share many pieces of wisdom. There are two I would say — one is from my father, which was, ‘Work hard every day, and people may not agree with you, but they’ll respect you.’ And [the other is,] ‘Worry about yourself and what you’re doing — don’t get caught up in looking at what other people are doing, because that’s a recipe for disaster.’

What’s your favorite board game?

Trivial Pursuit, because I think that it’s social and I just have a fondness for trivia.

Published in Northern California
Thursday, 17 February 2011 14:56

Support from the start

Want to get maximum buy-in from employees when you’re introducing a new project? Make your goal their idea. The more people feel invested in your plan from its inception, the more support and enthusiasm you’ll have weeks — or even years — down the line. Inviting your staff members to speak up with their thoughts and concerns at the very first meeting is crucial to getting sustained support. Here are my top strategies for building enthusiasm on day one.

1. Forge the goal together. You can often do this by presenting a challenge instead of a plan. Ask for ideas to help meet the challenge, then listen for answers that align with what you hope to accomplish. In most situations, there are not infinite possibilities, so if you ask the right questions, sooner or later people are going to respond with the answers that support your goal, at which point you can agree with them. Now it’s their idea, too.

2. Use other people’s comments to tie your plan together. Pay attention to what the others are saying. Jot down notes next to their names so you won’t forget who said what. When you want to move the discussion to the next topic or underline a point, use their comments: “That goes back to what Maggie said about product liability, and it also relates to Walt’s ideas about building the consumer feedback links. With that in mind, I’m thinking a time frame of four months.”

3. Use your listeners’ language to describe the goal. It can be playful, like adopting a term someone coined as part of the unofficial lingo of the project. Or you can repeat key points made by the others, incorporating the person’s phrasing. A great way to use your listeners’ language is to ask them to name an element of the project, whether it’s a product, a strategy, a document or even just the schedule.

4. Say, “From my perspective.” This phrase liberates your listeners by implying that everyone is entitled to an opinion. You have a perspective, and so can they. It automatically opens up the discussion.

5. Recognize their reality. No matter how gung-ho your employees are, they probably have a different perspective than top management. For important projects, take the time before you launch an idea to carefully consider how your staff may perceive it. Your challenge is to recognize their reality, align it with yours, and then create a common benefit that is your goal. For everyday situations, use a light touch. When my team is slammed with a big workload, I may say, “We’ve got to complete six rounds of documents this month — and when I say we, you do realize that I mean you, right?” They laugh, because although they’ll be doing most of that work, at least they know I’m aware of it.

6. Play devil’s advocate. In any open discussion, there will be doubters. A good way to deal with them is to play devil’s advocate or ask the doubter to do so: “That’s a fair point. Want to play devil’s advocate? We can try to get a handle on potential problems sooner rather than later.” Now the doubter has a specific role in the discussion, and you’re still all on the same side. The same is true if you play devil’s advocate yourself — you’re not disagreeing with the doubter; you’re playing a role in order to root out weaknesses in the plan.

The unity you build with your team at the beginning of a project affects how they will feel about it from that day forward. If you must change course later on, this approach pays double dividends: Everyone had a hand in the original idea, so there is far less finger-pointing when it needs to evolve.

Chris St. Hilaire is the author (with Lynette Padwa) of “27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences and Win Allies" (Prentice Hall Press). He is an award-winning message strategist who has developed communications programs for some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, legal teams and politicians. He is the founder, president and CEO of both Jury Impact and M4 Strategies consulting firms. Reach him at csthilaire@m4strategies.com.

Published in Los Angeles
Saturday, 19 February 2011 23:06

Embracing diversity

Suddenly immersed in Switzerland to head teams from 17 different countries, Kelly Grier was understandably overwhelmed. It was late 2000, after she moved her family overseas for a position with Ernst & Young LLP.

Grier was responsible for Europe, Middle East and Africa engagement teams, and she was having trouble handling the group’s broad differences. Some advice from the chief financial officer of a client turned the challenging experience around and shifted her mindset going forward. He told her she wasn’t in the “United States of Europe.”

“Every one of these countries is very unique. Every one of its people are very distinct,” Grier remembers him saying. “They have their own culture, their own mores, their own business practices, and you can’t just come in here and impose the American way. You can’t even try to come in here and have one homogenous approach to all of the different geography, because it’s vastly different from one country to the next.”

Grier is closer to home today, as the managing partner of Ernst & Young’s Chicago office, but she remains a huge proponent of global mobility — if for no other reason than she sees her clients expanding globally all the time. To be able to serve them competitively and effectively, leaders like her need that same expansive mindset, whether or not they hone it overseas.

“That criticality of being able to operate with a global mindset and function effectively in any geography around the world — having that sort of intellectual agility is critically important for us, as a firm, to serve our global client,” she says. “Even if you are solely a domestic organization, the fact is that the global environment is influencing your success, because your competitors might be overseas and pulling your business outside of the U.S. You face domestic competition where there’s a more global mindset, and they’re offering a differentiated solution because of that advantage.”

Grier’s broadened perspective translates into everyday inclusive leadership when she leverages her team’s diversity into a common vision.

“You can’t generalize people or places or business practices,” says Grier, who oversees 1,700 employees at E&Y’s second-largest office. “You really need to understand and respect that there are vast differences — and that’s the power of it. If you aren’t able to harness the power of it, it will be an incredible impediment to your success.”

Draw out diversity

When Grier met with teams from the 17 countries she oversaw, she’d get about 17 perspectives around the issue. She grew so accustomed to that constant diversity of thought that she notices when it’s missing from her team today.

“I can just sense when I’m not getting everything,” she says. “In some cases, I’m not getting everything because people in the room aren’t contributing everything that they have to contribute, and in some cases, it’s because I don’t have the right complement of people in the room. There’s no panacea for this; it’s really a learned behavior that comes from operating in a highly diverse environment where those diverse perspectives are really valued.”

You can obtain diversity on your team by intentionally building it in, but that doesn’t mean you need to place employees just to fulfill a quota of minorities.

“When we talk about diversity of perspective, it’s not necessarily their ethnicity or even their gender — it’s their experiences that inform a more diverse perspective,” Grier says. “You could align (team members) with other activities, other projects, other teams within the organization. Even transferring them from one business to another business or from one function to another function broadens one’s perspective. You could certainly ask that they take on a leadership role in community organizations. There’s almost an infinite amount of opportunities to broaden one’s perspective and create that kind of diversity of thought and experience.”

You can also highlight diversity by grouping cross-sections of employees for projects. Grier forms task forces with representatives from various generations, service lines, genders and ethnic backgrounds. The internal communications task force, for example, represented a spectrum of communication styles, which helped develop more effective messaging that would resonate across the company.

An intentionally diverse team is crucial, but it’s moot if you don’t maximize, and later leverage, the team’s diversity. In order to do that, you have to tap into every viewpoint you can and consider its weight in the discussion.

“Diversity without inclusiveness is counterproductive if anything,” Grier says. “You’ve got to have the ability to really draw out different perspectives and then synthesize a wide variety of thoughts and perspectives. You’ve got to know when you’re not getting that broad and diverse spectrum in the dialogue. Looking for the folks who may not be fully engaging or participating and drawing them out, that sends a message that everybody matters.”

One of Grier’s partners, for example, is an “intellectually sophisticated thinker” with plenty of valuable perspectives to share. He’ll fill an hourlong one-on-one — and then some — with his distinct ideas. But in a two-hour group session, he only makes a couple of comments.

“I’ll ask him in advance of the meeting, ‘This is what we’re going to talk about. You have such a valuable perspective; I want people to be able to benefit from that perspective. I really want you to talk specifically about this when we get everybody together,’” Grier says. “I needed to know that person well enough on a one-on-one basis to know that this is his style, that he does have this incredible broad perspective that’s very valuable. For me to draw that out and get that that very valuable perspective infused in our group discussions, I needed to approach it differently.”

Welcome all ideas

Part of inclusive leadership is soliciting opinions. But if you’re quick to brush off certain perspectives, see how quickly the feedback stops.

You need to give diverse perspectives a safe place to surface by creating an environment where all opinions are welcome.

“How, as a leader, you respond to that contrarian view will really dictate whether or not people feel safe in sharing a perspective that’s different from the norm,” Grier says. “You’ve got to be visibly both encouraging and then rewarding those folks to share a perspective that is different.”

The way you react to comments that directly challenge your stance can be the biggest revelation about your leadership style.

“As a leader, you’ve got to be able to face some criticism of how you’re seeing things, and not become defensive or dismissive,” Grier says. “That immediately shuts down that communication channel. You’ve got to express a little bit of humility — perhaps, ‘I didn’t know that,’ or, ‘I hadn’t thought about it that way.’ You really set the tone by how you behave — not only as a leader of the team but when your own perspective is challenged.”

Even if you end up going with the majority, your decision-making process only benefits from a richer variety of thought. If you want to expand the possibilities on the table, you’ll want to vet every perspective you can.

“If somebody says something that’s a little out of step with the normative thinking and you don’t give that point of view ample airtime in the discussion or if you’re dismissive, if you’re defensive, if you don’t really listen to what’s being said and understand it fully before you make an opinion of what place it has in the discussion, that will immediately shut down that candor that you want,” Grier says. “Make sure that everything that you say is grounded in the spirit of inclusiveness and encouraging that candor, because it’s very easy to just react quickly in a manner that sounds dismissive. At that point, the conversation’s over and everybody around takes a message from that; it’s not just the person who may have made the statement.”

You set the stage for an inclusive environment, but you won’t get far if you’re the only one with that mindset. Enforce an open attitude from your team members, too.

“Where you see a member of your leadership team cutting somebody off at the pass, you’ve got to call them out on that — obviously in a constructive manner and in a respectful manner — so the person who made the comment knows you insist on having that open and inclusive environment,” Grier says.

That’s sensitive territory; so many leaders prefer to privately pull the violator aside later. If you can do it constructively though, as Grier does, call the person out in the meeting to make a point for everyone.

“I would probably say, ‘Bob, I think that Jim was about to share a perspective that I would find very valuable,’” she says. “‘Before we move on to the next point that you were going to make, I want to make sure that he has an opportunity to complete that thought.’”

Unite perspectives

The more diverse viewpoints you draw out, the more perspectives you have to keep straight. Managing and synthesizing those is the key to leveraging diversity.

To keep track of what her employees think, Grier records it all.

“I take copious, copious notes,” she says. “It sounds so fundamental, but I will take notes of every one of these conversations. Very quickly, you see themes emerge. They’re not exact replications of one another but there are common threads through these conversations. It really does become apparent after having several of them and reflecting on, ‘What were the key themes and how do I then coalesce those messages into one message that will resonate with everybody?’”

Writing gives Grier something to reference and ensure everyone’s voice is represented. By synthesizing opinions inclusively, you’re setting yourself up for buy-in later on.

For example, Grier spent the first 90 days as managing partner of the Chicago office on a listening tour, meeting one-on-one with partners, senior managers and various staff members as well as with groups of employees. All she did was ask questions about moving the company forward — and listen. Then she melded several perspectives into the vision she conveyed to employees later.

Sure, you won’t satisfy every person’s wishes every time, but weaving every perspective through your thought process will show employees you listened.

“People are more inclined to buy in if they’ve got some skin in the game and they’ve been a part of crafting that vision,” Grier says. “Having that upfront engagement — my 90-day listening tour — people could hear the words that they had said to me in the messages that I then conveyed in a more synthesized fashion afterward. They knew that I had listened to them and they know that their perspective was part of the strategy, and they were on board in driving toward that strategy.”

Another benefit of drawing diverse opinions out during your meetings is exposing members of your team to them. Those discussions can build buy-in by enhancing understanding of the issue, potentially turning employees on to ideas they initially shoot down.

“For example, when a company launches a new internal development program, members of its team may jump to conclusions about what that program means to them,” Grier says. “Team members could make assumptions based on their previous experiences with similar development programs, which impacts their engagement. To maximize results, leaders should elicit a diversity of perspectives right away, debunk misconceptions and incorporate relevant suggestions. Those steps should greatly improve the participation of your teams and the program’s success.”

If you make those steps habitual, you’ll extend the power of diversity into the fabric of your organization. When Grier compares the business world that she witnessed overseas a decade ago with today’s environment and then projects another 10 years into the future, she realizes the importance of continually harnessing all perspectives in an ever-expanding global paradigm.

“You can’t rely on just saying the right things; you’ve really got to experience a mind shift,” Grier says. “Most companies have a stated objective of having an inclusive culture and really celebrating diversity. But first of all, it needs to be grounded in the fundamental imperative, which is that the world is different today than it was a decade ago, and it will be profoundly different a decade from now. We need an entire paradigm shift to be able to not only survive but really thrive in that changed global environment.”

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (312) 879-2000 or www.ey.com

The Grier fileKelly Grier

Chicago Managing Partner

Ernst & Young

Born: St. Cloud, Minn.

Education: B.A. in accounting from St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana

Favorite travel destination: Italy or France

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

My very first job was as a babysitter. I certainly learned the importance of being responsible and communicating well. I actually had a wide set of experiences when I was young: I worked at this Dairy Queen-type shop. I also worked at a machine shop, if you can believe that, for a period of time as I was putting myself through college. I’d say you can probably take all of those experiences together and one of the key lessons learned is just respect — respecting everybody for what they bring to the table, having a bit of humility to how you approach the people that you work with at all spectrums of the work environment. I have a great deal of empathy and support for the people who come in and empty my trash bins because that’s very much aligned with a job that I would have been doing to put myself through college.

Your workday is off to a bad start. How do you turn it around?

I truly don’t have many days that start off on a bad note. I actually just love what I do. There’s array of challenges or issues that I’ve got to deal with, but rarely does that actually cause me to perceive that as a bad start. My workday is also very dynamic. What I do from 7 to 8 and then what I do from 8 to 9 and thereafter is very different. So it would be difficult for me to get mired in any particular issue because I’m so quickly on to the next.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

It’s got to be being able to clone myself to be a multitude of places at the same time. I feel like I’m trying to do that on any given day, anyway.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be and why?

I would say Martin Luther King. He was such a dignified leader and was so committed to his values and faced such incredible adversity. He could have gone down a path of conflict and destruction and he didn’t. He was so committed to his values of what’s right and what’s wrong that he was able to really galvanize this whole sweeping nation of change in a way that was still aligned with his values. That’s difficult to do. It would be easy to become frustrated and angry and try to force change in a way that is perhaps not aligned with your core values. Somehow, in the face of adversity we can’t even imagine, he was able to do it. As a leader, that’s a quality that I greatly admire, that ability to galvanize and inspire others to do good and to carry out the mission without losing your way from a core value perspective.

Published in Chicago
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